Refugee discourse in our state is often about what’s in it for us, and it’s disgusting.
Illustration: A red, shaggy door mat with the word “welcome” printed on it in grey capitalized text, and an asterisk at the end of the word. Source image via pxhere.
As refugees from Afghanistan head for Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy military base, it’s good to see that people across much of the political spectrum are prepared to welcome them to our state. The bad news is that a lot of us are doing that in an extremely condescending and dehumanizing manner.
Being pro-refugee resettlement is undoubtedly a good thing, and it beats the predictable ignorance and xenophobia with which, say, Gov. Scott Walker treated Syrian refugees during his tenure. That doesn’t make it any less crass to focus on how refugees can boost up our economy, fill crappy jobs, and shore up Wisconsin’s rural population loss, all while acting as if we are doing them a favor. It also doesn’t make it OK to engage in our creepy habit of assigning different degrees of worthiness to people who need help. Most of the people fleeing the resurgent Taliban regime aren’t even here yet. They don’t know yet where they will end up living, what kind of housing they will have, or what sorts of opportunities and resources they will have. Decades of American meddling got us here, and a 20-year war has ultimately failed to keep a repressive regime from taking back power.
We are talking about human beings in the thick of unimaginable trauma and suffering. The richest country in the world has deepened that suffering again and again, and undoubtedly has the power to help them if it chooses to do so. It is the height of hubris to immediately start talking about what’s in it for us. Can we put our opportunism and paternalism aside for a second?
Apparently not, and the problem is not just a right-wing problem. Gov. Tony Evers issued a press release that welcomed the refugees thusly: “Many Afghan people now fleeing their homes have bravely contributed to work in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Just as they protected us in serving our country and helped keep our troops safe, we owe it to them to protect and keep them safe.” This echoes the long-standing consensus on Wisconsin’s Hmong population—they helped out the CIA and our military in Southeast Asia, so we owe them. Whether or not refugees participated in, uh, the “work”—an astonishing way to refer to our governments’ prolonged, dysfunctional infliction of violence—we owe them because we recklessly invaded their homes, because we are a wealthy global power in a world full of need and deprivation.
Right alongside the “helping our military allies” rhetoric came the immigration-as-meritocracy rhetoric. The Progressive‘s Jud Lounsbury Tweeted: “Afghanistan’s best and brightest? And we have a labor shortage? What am I missing?” Moving rightward, Milwaukee’s Jordan Morales Tweeted: “It would be great to have them and see what their industriousness and creativity can bring to our city!” These comments play into another strain of perverse benevolence with deep roots in America: Our government won’t let people just live in their home countries, but we can blow up their homes and let them come here, where they can’t simply live but must shine through their achievement and gratitude.
Digging the deepest hole in pro-refugee discourse, Right Wisconsin editor James Wigderson initially remarked that it would “probably be a net benefit to the state” to resettle Afghani refugees in rural communities whose population has declined over the years. (If you’re a self-described “progressive” who likes and shares these sorts of tweets, I fucking see you and I’m rolling my eyes. Come on.) For context, Wigderson is the sort of conservative who positions himself as aghast and bewildered at the American right’s increasingly explicit embrace of white nationalism, authoritarianism, and coughing damply into the mouth of the person next to you. He rightly pointed out a vile anti-refugee statement from the Republican Party of Green County. Points for not being a guy with a “fuck off we’re full” bumper sticker, I suppose.
Wigderson then went on to say: “I’m actually really serious about bringing Afghan refugees to settle in Wisconsin. They’re already coming to Ft McCoy. We have a labor shortage in this state, right @WisconsinMC? Let’s process them and get them to work.” @WisconsinMC is the Twitter handle of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which is not a refugee resettlement agency but a predatory right-wing lobbying group. Wigderson also fantasized about taunting the fully deranged State Senator Steve Nass by resettling refugees in or around Nass’ hometown of Whitewater.
The tweet about getting refugees to work set off some criticism on social media. Wigderson, a decommissioned Rock-afire Explosion robot who was forced to wear a tie and work in an office, replied that his critics needed to “find a real job.” In one exchange, Wigderson answered concerns about exploitation by saying “I’m all in favor of capital exploitation of labor. It’s called, ‘get a job.'” Thank you, pocket Marx!
None of these folks are wrong to believe that welcoming refugees is the right thing to do, or to point out that immigrants make positive contributions to society, or even to welcome the participation of immigrants in our economy. But these remarks show very little concern for how our society or economy might benefit immigrants, which really needs to be our first priority. Perhaps we just take it for granted that we’re a beacon of tolerance and opportunity. Perhaps it’s easier to engage in this sort of patronizing boosterism than it is to look inward and admit that our country doesn’t really solve that many problems by launching endless wars. Easier to focus on the lazy people we just made up to get mad at than than to stop spending trillions of dollars to murder and displace people.
As for settling refugees in rural areas, it’s certainly not unheard of, but the vast majority of refugees who come to Wisconsin end up in Milwaukee, Madison, or the Green Bay/Fox Cities area. That is where they can be closest to crucial resources, including the non-profit agencies that do most of the heavy lifting on refugee resettlement once refugees actually arrive in the U.S. We also know that Wisconsin’s bigger cities and rural areas alike will greet newcomers with all sorts of issues, from racism to overextended healthcare systems to costly housing to flimsy COVID-19 protections.
Even in areas with a long history of refugee resettlement, Wisconsin has often placed refugees and their descendants in an unfair position. Take Marathon County, which has a prominent Hmong community but recently endured an absurd controversy over a harmless County Board resolution about inclusivity. In Barron County, home to a Somali community, a non-profit serving victims of domestic violence faced backlash from local governments and cops for merely expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. We know that both Madison and Milwaukee are severely segregated communities. It also sounds downright dangerous to settle refugees in a district that has been electing a virulent bigot like Steve Nass for 30 years. Let’s find ways to stick it to Nass that don’t involve using innocent people as a prop, OK?
If we want to congratulate ourselves for welcoming refugees, let’s show some follow-through by taking care to welcome them into better conditions and fixing serious, deeply rooted problems that we need to fix anyway. It is just not enough to tell people that we have space and jobs. State and local policymakers don’t have any real authority over refugee resettlement—it largely comes down to federal agencies working with the United Nations and the resettlement agencies. What we can control on a local level is making our communities healthier and more equitable.
It’s especially annoying to see left-of-center folks playing into the odious “labor shortage” narrative. People are simply tired of taking jobs that don’t pay the bills and that put them in danger during a pandemic. Service and retail workers especially are tired of having to manage unruly, entitled customers. The simple act of Obtaining A Job is not the magic solution so many Americans across the political spectrum childishly imagine it to be. Our leaders’ answer to every crisis is always some variant of “shut up and get back to work.” We keep working, we keep thinking that work is the true source of human dignity, and we still find ourselves in crisis. When you unquestioningly bang on about worker shortages, you are complicit in trying to force people back into shitty jobs. You are saying that American workers are insufficiently desperate and servile.
If you want to argue the economic angle of immigration in all its forms, you can definitely show that there are benefits to growing the pie, as it were. The biggest problem with this is that it engages the anti-immigrant set on their own favored turf of economic nativism. It is empirically wrong to scapegoat immigrants for economic problems that impact white, U.S.-born people. To simply argue the flipside, however true, gets you into some queasy territory—it’s essentially an argument that immigrants grow profits for the private companies that extract their labor, and grow the tax base for governments that enforce a racist social order. For a parallel: when liberals call out Republicans for not really caring about government deficits, they are of course correct, but this rhetoric often ends up feeding into liberals’ own support for austerity.
What we can do with this information, though, is pull back and consider it within the bigger picture. We all have a basic human responsibility to look out for one another. When we welcome each other rather than shutting each other out, support each other rather than selfishly hoard what we’ve got, we’re all better off, morally and materially. This welcoming and support need not take the form of simply putting people to work for your local aggrieved chain-restaurant franchisee. Sure, hook people up with jobs—while also considering the quality of life those jobs afford people. Make a meaningful push to ensure that jobs pay decently and offer people rewards and opportunities worthy of their efforts. Demand that we support people even when they’re not working, whether that’s through public benefit programs or grassroots mutual-aid efforts. And remember that no amount of bar-napkin economic math can erase the arrogance and cruelty of what we’ve done.
There’s more where this came from.
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