Immigration’s “Malaise”

March 25, 2020   •   By Marcelo Suárez-Orozco

Today […] as never before, a sound immigration and naturalization system is essential to the preservation of our way of life, because that system is the conduit through which a stream of humanity flows into the fabric of our society. If that stream is healthy, the impact on our society is salutary; but if that stream is polluted our institutions and our way of life becomes infected.

— Congressional Record, May 13, 1952, 5089

Immigration — forced and voluntary — is at the heart of the American experience. But for our Native American brothers and sisters, we are all immigrants — newly arrived or more distantly arrived. Immigration is the foundational narrative at the birth nation, it is a dynamic shaping the here and now, and above all, it is a social force that will define our shared destiny: the fastest growing section of the child population is the U.S. born children of immigrants. Immigration as history-and-destiny is a rare feature — a soft-exceptionalism that the U.S. shares with only a handful of other nations such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina.

In the modern era immigration is closely bound to globalization — global markets, global technologies, and global demographics. Globalization has long generated feelings of vertigo — the fear that comes with a sense of losing control (control over jobs, borders, etc.).

In the great iceberg that immigration has become, below the surface lurks a dark mass of nativism waiting to sink the next ship of new arrivals.

This brings us to a general law in immigration: We love immigrants looking backwards but contemporaneously there is always pushback and, at times, panic. Taking the long view, immigration's inherent duality proves enduring: we celebrate it looking backwards but fear it in the here and now.

Well over a century ago, unprecedented numbers of poor peasants from Asia, , Eastern Europe (many of them Jews), and Ireland and the Mediterranean (most of them Catholics) came off of ships and began settling in Boston Harbor, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Red Hook, San Francisco and elsewhere in the United States.

Eventually, their arrival generated panic.

Their religions, their languages, their alleged atavistic criminality, their bodies, alas, their very essence, coalesced around the archetype of the immigrant as 'Other': incommensurable and beyond any hope of blending in or melting down no matter how much heat the metaphoric melting pot could generate.  The bedrock of the anti-immigrant nativism in the American tradition is found in the enduring association between migrants and contamination, contagion and disease — the embodiment of an uncanny Otherness: “In McCarran's anti-immigration rhetoric against east European Jews, southern Italians, Asians, and other so-called undesirables were deep-seated metaphors of disease and contagion. As floor manager of the bill during its final debate in the Senate in mid-May 1952, McCarran made an impassioned plea to save the United States from imported ruin.”

First, the social perception of the threat of the infected immigrant was typically far greater than the actual danger. Indeed, the number of “diseased” immigrants has always been infinitesimal when compared with the number of newcomers admitted to this country. Second, Americans have tended to view illness among immigrants already settled in the United States as an imported phenomenon. Third, policymakers have employed strikingly protean medical labels of exclusion. If authorities and anti-immigration advocates found that one classification failed to reject the “most objectionable,” they soon created a new one that emphasized contagion, mental disorder, chronic disability, or even a questionable physique. Although such labels never became the primary reason for debarring specific immigrant groups, their widespread use contributed to durable biological metaphors that explained, usually in catastrophic terms, the potential risks of unrestricted immigration to the nation's social health. The association of immigrants with disease persisted even as health care improved substantially with the introduction of vaccines that all but eliminated age-old scourges such as cholera, yellow fever, and smallpox; broad-spectrum antibiotics that quelled previously devastating bacterial infections; and the development of lifesaving procedures. See H. Markel’s and A.M. Stern’s “The Foreignness of Germs: The Persistent Association of Immigrants and Disease in American Society” (2002).

The contagion panic is at once literal and metaphoric — contagion as a medical construct and contagion as a theory of foreignness: panic over foreign ideas, foreign practices, and foreign folkways.

Migration and demographic change are, under the best of circumstances, destabilizing and generate disequilibrium.  Today as immigrants and refugees manage to settle in new societies, they bring new kinship systems, cultural sensibilities (including racial, linguistic, and religious), and identities to the forefront. While enriching countries of immigration, immigrant cultural and social systems at times misalign with (and even contravene) taken-for-granted cultural schemas and social practices in receiving societies. In the age of COVID-19 fear of contamination has come define how we think about the immigrants among us. Fear is easily weaponized in the service of hate. When the President of the United States called the COVID-19 pandemic “the Chinese virus” and predictably used the emergency as another excuse to build his totemic wall and shut down the U. S. border he threw kerosene into an already combustible situation.

Terror has come to grip vast sectors of our population — if you are phenotypically Asian, you are at risk. According to a respected human right monitoring agency,

The rhetoric from the nation's highest office is creating a climate of hate that is permeating the country and putting people at risk. There has been an increase in reports of bias-related attacks against Asians and Asian Americans in communities and online. 

Hate has no place in our country and certainly should not be propagated by our commander in chief. As a country, now is the time for us to unite and say enough is enough. We will not tolerate hate and bigotry.  

 Recent examples of anti-Asian hate include:

* Earlier this month, an Asian man was sprayed with an air freshener on a New York subway.

* Propagandawith a fake seal of the World Health Organization tells Los Angeles residents to avoid Asian American businesses because of a coronavirus outbreak.

* In Philadelphia, Asian Americans have been regularly facing verbal and non-verbal forms of street harassment since as early as February.

The world over, immigrants and refugees are arousing suspicion, fear of contamination, and xenophobia. Immigration is the frontier pushing against the limits of cosmopolitan tolerance. Immigration intensifies the general crisis of connection and flight from the pursuit of our inherent humanitarian obligations concerning the welfare of others. In the age of the COVID-19, reimagining the narrative of belonging, reclaiming the humanitarian call, and recalibrating the institutions of the nation-state are a sine qua non to move beyond the current malaise. In the long term, we must retrain hearts and minds, especially younger ones, for democracy in the context of demographic change and superdiversity. We need to convert a dread of the unfamiliar “Other” into solidarity, compassion, fraternity and a democratizing desire for cultural difference. We must endeavor to cultivate the humanistic ideal to find oneself “in Another” in the refugee, in the asylum seeker, and in the immigrant.


Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, the UCLA Wasserman Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, is a psychological anthropologist. He has taught at Harvard, NYU as well as in Paris (EHESS), University of Barcelona, and the Catholic University of Leuven. The Chancellor-Elect of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Dr. Suárez-Orozco has held fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton) and the Center for Advanced Studies (Stanford). In January 2018 His Holiness Pope Francis appointed Suárez-Orozco Academician, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Holy See. His most recent book, Humanitarianism and Mass Migration: Confronting the World Crisis, was published in January 2019 by the University of California Press.