Deconstructing the “Good” Immigrant

By Gabby DeBelen, Class of 2022

This past June marked the ninth anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era program that protects around 700,000 individuals who were brought to the United States as children without citizenship or legal residency status. Nine years later, the DREAMers have been shielded from deportation, able to work legally, pay for school, and, in some states, even qualify for health insurance. However, DACA still protects only a fraction of the nearly 11 million undocumented individuals in the United States, and in many ways, its most lasting impact on immigration discourse is its reinforcement of the false dichotomy between the “good” immigrant and the “bad” immigrant.

The “good” immigrant is an innocent, a productive and dedicated worker, an individual who came to the United States through no fault of their own. Because DACA recipients have to meet rigorous eligibility requirements – be younger than 36, be educated, and have a spotless criminal record – in many ways, this framing has allowed for the popular support for DREAMers, telling a sympathetic story that fits perfectly with the hardworking ideals of the American Dream.

In contrast, the “bad” immigrant is a criminal, a national security threat, an individual who broke the law and crossed the border illegally. As President Obama stated in his 2014 remarks, that’s why the system deports “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children.” This rhetoric is a notable precursor to the language used by President Trump when he decried “criminal aliens” and emphasized the need for mass deportations.

While Congress debates over pathways to citizenship for DREAMers, as seen earlier this year when the House passed The American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Modernization Act, the good/bad immigrant dichotomy renders millions of undocumented folks as not just invisible, but completely incompatible with the rest of the nation. For example, last month, while members from both parties agreed on legalizing DREAMers, Republicans expressed doubts on providing a pathway to citizenship to other undocumented immigrants, including TPS holders. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley said he sees “justice” for DREAMers “as a legitimate thing to do,” but also insisted that legislation must include boosts to border security and immigration enforcement. This perpetuates the notion that some immigrants have “legitimate” claims to life in the U.S., while others must be kept out at all costs. Even under the Biden Administration, despite an initial attempt at a moratorium, we have seen record numbers of deportations, almost 600,000 since President Biden first took office.

The prevailing logic behind policies like DACA, that deport the most dangerous and spare the saintly, though well meaning, works to the detriment of the millions of undocumented folks in need of protection. As Professor Kathryn K. Stevenson writes, the “felons, not families” construct suggests that undocumented immigrants are prone to criminal activity, despite study after study finding that is not the case. Additionally, such narratives damage immigrant communities by equating immigrants with criminals and as outsiders, subconsciously coloring the perceptions of prosecutors and adjudicators that run the immigration system. The regulatory power of the current immigration system even forces immigrants themselves to transform the intimate spaces of their lives, always conscious of the effect that their marriages, children, and families could have on their perceived “deservingness” as they navigate the immigration process. Currently, millions of families who filed taxes with an undocumented immigrant are ineligible for COVID-19 relief funds, despite being disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The narratives exceptionalising the DREAMers marginalize the rest of the undocumented population. Many undocumented immigrants have lived with their families and worked in the United States for decades, and many of those same immigrants don’t fit the narrative mold of the “deserving” immigrant. They might not have a high school degree. They might have a minor criminal record. How do we include the individuals that don’t fit the “good” immigrant story?

Immigrants should not have to earn their basic rights – the ability to stay with their families, to work, to live in a country that recognizes their inherent human dignity. In the midst of legislative debates on infrastructure, voting rights, and COVID relief, immigration reform for undocumented folks, much less DACA recipients, seems more and more like a distant dream. However, immigration advocates can shift towards making that dream a reality by rejecting the good/bad immigrant narrative, as some DREAMers already have. By moving beyond the “good” and “bad” immigrant dichotomy, we can make a start toward a more nuanced immigration system that treats those who must confront it with compassion, not contempt.