With everything in the news lately around the Muslim ban and other potential disastrous pieces of immigration policy in the U.S., I keep thinking about what it means to queer immigration—how can we queer the narratives, whether “left” or “right,” that we hear about immigration in the mainstream press?
Queering, as a verb, is all about disrupting narratives and shifting perspectives. It’s about questioning the premises of an argument, not just arguing the “opposite.” It’s a lens that leads me to think less about gradual immigration reform and more about the very concept of states and borders in the first place. What do the stories we tell about immigration say about us and our values? How are immigration arguments used to normalize settler colonialism, slavery, heteronormative family structures, and white supremacy? These are some opening thoughts, but I expect I’ll have much more to say on this topic as the great fascist Amerikan state keeps rolling on.
We Are Not a Nation of Immigrants
As a starting point, queerness is inherently intersectional. It’s a big part of the difference between “queer” and “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual.” When I apply that to immigration, I start thinking about the specificity of immigrant stories, and how that specificity often gets glossed over in media tales of immigration. We get trapped in this narrative of the “good immigrant,” the “just like us” family with children escaping a horrific situation in a country that is unquestionably “worse” than the good ole U.S. of A. This narrative assumes that the immigrant is ready to fully renounce their country of origin, that they are in love with the idea of their new country, that they will contribute fully to our capitalist system and that they are pure as the driven snow.
The “good immigrant” is often a child or a woman (hardly differentiated), definitely without criminal background, preferably Christian and capitalist, but at least fitting into the norms of those value systems. In contrast are the “bad eggs”—those with any criminal history whatsoever, single men, sex workers, activists, anyone with an ideology outside the Amerikan way, etc. These “bad immigrants” are raced and classed, they are “stealing our jobs,” “taking advantage of welfare,” etc. We talk about the bad immigrant the way we talk about queers who refuse traditional family structures and are openly sexual, the way we talk about Black U.S. citizens who can’t escape generational poverty (and especially Black women).
In fact, this is not a “nation of immigrants.” First and foremost, it’s a nation of settler colonialism.
Weirdly, while this narrative excludes specific stories, creating a group of “good immigrants” who “deserve” our charity and a path to entry, it also paints a nation-building picture where “everyone was once an immigrant.” Even liberals in favor of more lenience in accepting those at the margins of the “good immigrant” story tend to use the “everyone was once an immigrant” argument to pull recent immigrants into the Amerikan story. Well, nope.
In fact, this is not a “nation of immigrants.” First and foremost, it’s a nation of settler colonialism. Those who did immigrate here voluntarily were not simply immigrants, they were settlers. All of us whose ancestors settled this country, whether recently or in the distant past, are participating in active genocide. The “everyone was once an immigrant” narrative erases Native people and their stories, as well as their ongoing valid claim to North American land.
This narrative also erases slavery, and the fact that many U.S. citizens’ ancestors arrived via forced migration, not immigration. It ignores the fact that the structural barriers Black folks currently face in U.S. society have their roots in this history. It also ignores present day and more recent trafficking, as well as transnational adoption—not everyone who comes to this country comes here voluntarily. Even those who do immigrate voluntarily often have a more complicated story. Refugees and other immigrants may want to stay in their homeland, but be unable to do so, or may at least have a more complex relationship to the U.S. than a simple whitewashed story suggests.
There is No Legitimate U.S. State
When thinking about immigration, and in particular about the legacy of settler colonialism, I can’t help but think about how problematic the very concept of “the state” is. Immigration rhetoric tends to focus either on protecting “our state” or on enhancing it. Conservatives speak of policing borders to keep bad elements out, and liberals talk about the benefits additional workers bring to the capitalist machine. But either way, the state is key. To queer immigration, we need to question whether there is any such thing as a legitimate U.S. state in the first place. I would argue that the answer is clearly “no.”
There is no such thing as a progressive argument for protecting this poisoned beast. Instead, we need to recognize that the state is the problem.
Even if you believe that a state could be a legitimate structure at all (and I’m not sure that I do), it’s clear that the U.S. is an illegitimate one built on broken treaties, land theft, genocide, and slave labor. There is no such thing as a progressive argument for protecting this poisoned beast. Instead, we need to recognize that the state is the problem. International law defines state sovereignty through international recognition by existing states—those in power, in other words, get to decide who stays in power. Even if many states do recognize a particular state, if the most powerful ones don’t, it’s very difficult for the state in question to get a foothold. We’ve seen the consequences of this system with Palestine and with worldwide indigenous populations’ claims for sovereignty. So when politicians argue for the sanctity of borders based on the concept of state sovereignty, I’d like to know why we should care about sovereignty in the first place.
In fact, international law does recognize this tension. Some of the key principles of international human rights—rights that are sacred and exist beyond any state authority or even in the absence of any recognition at all—include self-determination, non-discrimination, and freedom of movement. But in practice, these rights are rarely enforced when they come up against state power. Queering immigration includes fighting for these rights beyond state claims to sovereignty, and seeing border control as a threat to our innate rights as humans. State sovereignty is an inherently problematic concept, and even more so given the specific colonial context in which the U.S. rose to power.
Queer Immigration, Queer Families
One final thought I have is about the role of the family in immigration policy. I’ve talked about queering so far as a lens or worldview that’s about smashing problematic foundational concepts, but here I want to turn to a topic more readily recognized as “queer.” Because, of course, queer-identified people immigrate. And immigration rhetoric is often about families—not only are heteronormative family structures the only ones that get “good immigrant” status, but “good immigrants” are also presumed to follow certain gender and relationship norms. When conservatives talk about anchor babies and overpopulation, they’re spreading a fear of any sort of family structure beyond the white nuclear family. Extended families, communal care structures, immigrants with disabilities migrating to be in community with others who can share support, and queer immigrants are all a threat to the white heteronormative ideal. Families are expected to assimilate to the Amerikan way of life, and to adopt white gender norms. Women in hijab, folks whose gender doesn’t fit along a legible-to-white-people binary, and transnational adoptees who resist total cultural assimilation are all suspect.
I think this is fairly obviously bullshit. Migration requires support, and families don’t look the same for everyone. This is the same rhetoric used to silence U.S.-born queers, polyamorous folk, and people of color living in large extended family structures. This rhetoric looks familiar to anyone who’s been following queer politics over the last ten years, as Democrats fell in line behind the “just like you” idea of gay marriage and adoption but refused to support provisions that would benefit sex workers, trans people of color, those with disabilities who’d been rejected by families of origin, and queer homeless youth. There’s an acceptable queer just like there’s an acceptable immigrant. Hopefully, the opportunity for solidarity and organizing across lines of difference is obvious here.
I’d love to hear others’ thoughts about the ideas expressed in this post. What are some more ideas for queering immigration? How can we work in solidarity to resist states and borders, and particularly U.S.-driven genocide? How can queers, immigrants, Natives, folks with disabilities, and other communities work together in community organizing? Let’s tear this shit down one brick at a time.