• June 22nd, 2024
  • Saturday, 11:05:20 PM

The Immigrants’ Rights Movement Must Be Multiracial


Ingrid Cruz

Posted May 30, 2024


As a Salvadoran American, I grew up hearing common refrains about immigrants: We’re here for a better life, we came to the United States to work, and the U.S. is a melting pot.


I heard these myths at home, at family gatherings, and even in the mostly immigrant church I attended. The story of the immigrant who left everything to contribute to the U.S. was in our textbooks, songs, news reports, and even some of my favorite media. I saw this message in memoirs, poetry, and later, the nonprofit sector, organizing spaces, and even artwork about immigration.


I, in fact, created art about these immigrant talking points. For many years, I believed in this narrative. Surrounded by so many fellow first-generation immigrants, I thought it was a good thing to emphasize my contributions to the U.S. The stories of our parents’ and elders’ success, in spite of the odds stacked against them, made them all sound almost superhuman. I was proud that I’d someday have a chance to prove myself worthy of the American Dream—without questioning why I wasn’t able to have that dream in the country of my birth.


And then the narrative slowly changed.


It was common in my community to hear racial slurs about people not like us. Members of my community, including older relatives, constantly talked about how much stress they felt because of systemic or individual racism. However, that didn’t stop some of those same adults from making racist comments about people of other ethnicities. Though I was lucky to have caring teachers and classmates who talked about how these comments hurt them, I still heard racial slurs in Spanish in multiple settings.


Building a more inclusive immigrant rights movement, I’ve learned, ultimately means abandoning all white-supremacist thinking in the U.S. and our countries of origin.


When I was a kid, I didn’t recognize that these remarks and the reaction they elicited in my community weren’t just racist and inappropriate; they were hypocritical. I was undocumented until I received my green card at age 15. At around age 9, my mom and I began meeting more frequently with our lawyer, and I started noticing that people in my immigration hearings and meetings weren’t just Spanish speakers, light Brown, or Christian. And yet, immigration has been codified as a mestize Latinx issue at the expense of people of various creeds and countries trying to get our attention.


Thanks to my interactions with the U.S. immigration system, I was exposed to different stories, and thankfully, my experiences in college and beyond also helped me grow and understand that there’s no way the immigrants’ rights movement can continue to exist while mostly catering to Spanish speakers and non-Black/non-Indigenous Latinx folks.


These realizations came to me just as I began meeting friends from different countries. I attended college at the University of California, Irvine, where multiple friends and I shared meals, exchanged stories, and sometimes discussed our immigration status or that of undocumented loved ones. Nightly news stories about immigration contradicted what I learned about U.S. policies, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps, the Trail of Tears, and the Three-Fifths Compromise. Anything that melted in our proverbial pot did so through violence. Ours isn’t a multicultural or multiracial country forged in peace.


According to the Pew Research Center, Mexicans are no longer the biggest undocumented community in the U.S. Countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, India, and multiple Soviet bloc countries now have large undocumented communities. The U.S.–México border continues to receive a major influx of migrants from around the world, but today’s focus on the Darién Gap means routes have only gotten more dangerous.


While many immigrants continue to arrive from Latin América, Latinx isn’t a race. People from any ethnicity can be Latinx, and people whose ancestors migrated to the region may find it necessary to make their way to the U.S.


In order to successfully assimilate, some immigrants often side with whiteness. It can be argued that we’re conditioned to want this even before migrating, because many countries around the world also have systemic biases that uphold white characteristics as desirable. For people from Spanish-speaking Latin American countries, the lack of inclusion of non-mestizo peoples begins in our countries of origin.


The Myth of Mestizaje, known as a Mexican concept, applies to much of Latin America as well. The premise of mestizaje is that Latinx/Latin American peoples are a mixture of Spanish and Indigenous peoples, erasing the fact that mestizaje was created through violence.


“I’ve heard, you know, the whole spectrum of Latinxs say, ‘We don’t have racism. We don’t talk about race in the same way as in the U.S.’ I experience the complete opposite of that color-blindness,” Dash Harris, a Panamanian American multimedia creator, historian, and educator says. “When I’m in mostly Latino spaces, it’s a guarantee that it’s going to be racist, anti-Black, or anti-Indigenous.”


Despite the presence of Black communities, Asian migration, and Indigenous peoples, there remains a false notion that all Latin Americans are Brown and speak only Spanish. Mestizaje and its many iterations also prevent many white Latinx folks from acknowledging their privilege in the U.S. or Latin America.


“In the U.S. imagination, an immigrant is a Brown person that receives anti-immigrant vitriol. It’s also a face that can garner empathy,” Harris says.


In extreme circumstances, immigrants even join extremist organizations and take part in violent tactics. Research from Stanford University senior fellow Ran Abramitzky even shows that some immigrants give their U.S.-born children “white-sounding” names in an effort to secure a better future for said children.


Not doing the work as non-Black Latinx folks can have additional consequences when people of non-Black immigrant origins gain power. In 2022, former Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez was forced to resign after a leaked tape revealed her racist remarks against multiple communities, including Asian, Black, and Indigenous communities. The scandal shed light on the need for more anti-racist and intersectional work among mestize Latinx communities.


But all is not lost: Immigrant communities are now waking up to the need to do this work. They’ve received help from pop culture brands such as Refinery29, whose social media accounts often feature easy-to-follow guides about how to discuss racial justice in Latinx communities.


Today, multiple community organizations, including Mijente, Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity, and the International Mayan League, are working hard to include Indigenous peoples. Multiple immigrant rights organizations are also increasing legal assistance, destigmatizing the lack of legal status, and advocating for people who speak languages other than English or Spanish.


While these groups have always been here, they have gained more visibility since the 2020 iterations of the #StopAsianHate and Black Lives Matter movements. Unfortunately, in the four years since these movements gained traction, we’ve only seen greater need and fewer resources. Harris says that the Haitian Bridge Alliance, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and other nonprofits such as the UndocuBlack Network that offer vital services for Black immigrants, continue to be underfunded, though Black immigrants experience a disproportionate amount of violence compared to other ethnic groups.


Even when immigrants become naturalized citizens, the lack of language-inclusive services can make it harder for them to have access to reliable information in their native language. Asian Americans Advancing Justice is working on language justice for Asian American, Asian Islander, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters, while the Asian American Legal Defense Fund is using the legal system to help AAPI voters experiencing discrimination. There are also multiple local and regional organizations, such as the Asian American Feminist Collective, defending AAPI interests across the country through an intersectional lens.


Lack of funding and support for models based on solidarity is still a problem. Burnout is common in social justice work, but the good news is that those of us who’ve been educated on better ways to be allies can speak to our families and friends about why assimilationist rhetoric is harmful. After all, appealing to the desires of people in power didn’t help pass comprehensive immigration reform.


Building a more inclusive immigrant rights movement, I’ve learned, ultimately means abandoning all white-supremacist thinking in the U.S. and our countries of origin.


Ingrid Cruz‘s writing has appeared at outlets such as Mashable, The Los Angeles Times, Refinery29, and Latina Media Co. This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.