The problem with framing pro-migrant arguments in economic terms

The investigative journalist whose work inspired the new movie Spare Parts published an op-ed in the New York Times last week urging for immigration reform. In “The Cruel Waste of America’s Tech Talent”, Joshua Davis writes that the real teen boys who won the robotics competition were undocumented immigrants whose legal status sharply restricted their daily lives and future prospects. He criticizes a new bill introduced in the House of Representatives that would roll back President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, arguing that it would lead to the deportation of “successful, talented young people.”

While it is laudable that he is taking the opportunity to insert himself into the national conversation on immigration reform, the underlying logic of the piece troubles me. He argues that the four teens he followed are deserving of immigration reprieve because they are “successful, talented young people.” The skilled technical labor of people like them contribute to the country’s “science and technology prowess” (note the subtle combat metaphor), which in turn drives economic growth. If the government denies people like them the opportunity for legalization, then it will fail to get a “return on that investment” that they made in these students’ legally-mandated public education.

This economistic thinking is discomfiting because of its implications for the majority of undocumented people in the United States today. For example, if migrants like Oscar, Cristian, Lorenzo, and Luis are desirable and deserving because of the economic value of their skills for “us,” what does that mean for migrants who didn’t have the educational opportunities that they had? Are farmhands and domestic workers unwanted and undeserving because their labor isn’t directly related to “science and technology prowess”?

Davis’ argument echoes other nationally-oriented economistic pro-migrant arguments that have been made in the postwar era. In the US, the same reasoning is used to promote expanded skilled migrant admissions and “stapling green cards” to international students’ diplomas. Canada and Australia have built their entire immigration programs along this line of thought and primarily admit migrants based on their perceived potential to contribute to the skilled end of the labor market. The prevalence of this logic in recent decades is undoubtedly linked to the increased agenda-setting power of economics as a discipline and the ideas that developed in the 1970s about technological innovation being the key to rich countries’ continued economic domination.

It is important that more (and more diverse) voices advocate for changes in immigration policy in wealthy countries like the US. More open and more humane immigration policy can make real improvements in the lives of migrants and would-be migrants. But we should all think carefully about how we frame pro-migrant arguments. What is the flip side? Who is excluded? And how might one set of pro-migrant arguments come into conflict with others?


What does migration look like?

Sign advertising mobile phones in German and Turkish in Kreuzberg, Berlin.
Sign advertising mobile phones in German and Turkish in Kreuzberg, Berlin.

Many of you may know about migrantography, my Tumblr for photographs of migrant life. The blog started with pictures that I took of multilingual signs in Los Angeles neighborhoods, some of which appeared on NPR’s Code Switch blog last year. I eventually began to expand the blog by reblogging other photos that featured migrants or migrant neighborhoods.1

I became interested in the visual culture of migration long ago. I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California, a sprawling suburban area with many immigrants from Asia and Latin America. These populations speak a number of different languages, and the very different written forms of these languages are often juxtaposed on multilingual signs. For example, in the area of the Valley where I grew up, there were many ethnic Chinese who fled to the US during the conflicts in Indochina. Signs in businesses run by these populations were in Chinese and English, of course, but also often in Vietnamese, Khmer, Thai, or Spanish.

Live poultry for sale in Rosemead, California, a San Gabriel Valley town with significant populations of mainland Chinese, Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, and Mexicans.
Live poultry for sale in Rosemead, California, a San Gabriel Valley town with significant populations of mainland Chinese, Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, and Mexicans.

As a youngster with a strong curiosity about language and migration, I liked to look at these shop signs and guess about the owners and the clientele. Where were they from? How did they identify ethnically? Did the staff speak all of these languages? It was also interesting to see these signs in juxtaposition with one another, as the visual evidence says a lot about segregation by ethnic group, country of origin, and class. As you drive eastward on Valley Boulevard, one of the major commercial thoroughfares in the area, the composition of the signs changes. Starting in Alhambra, on the border with the Latino neighborhood of East Los Angeles, the signs are mostly in English and Spanish. Chinese gains prominence quickly in Alhambra and San Gabriel. Vietnamese comes back into the mix in Rosemead, Spanish in El Monte, and then the Asian languages largely disappear as the street continues into South El Monte and La Puente.

When I got my first smartphone in 2010, I joined Instagram and started documenting signs from immigrant businesses as I came across them. I am not a trained photographer–nearly all of my photos are taken with a dusty iPhone 4S camera and altered with funky filters as I see fit. For me, taking and sharing these photos is less about creating an artistic product and more about documenting the visual manifestations of  ethnic economies.

As the subtitle to the blog indicates, migrantography is about migrant lives, and ethnic economies are just a small part of that. Many of the photos I reblog from other Tumblrs are portraits of individual migrants or candid photos of migrants going about their day. These photos illustrate a very different part of the migrant experience. Some of the best Tumblrs for these types of photographs include Everyday Aliens (about Bangladeshi migrants in New York), The People of Singapore, and Humans of New York (the likely inspiration for the former two).

I have not considered migrantography to be an academic or professional endeavor, but please let me know in the comments if you have some ideas about how to use the blog in a pedagogical setting. I’d also love to hear from you if you are already doing so. I know that a Tumblr for an Asian American Studies course already follows and reblogs from migrantography. If you have your own images to share, please send them my way using the Tumblr submission form.


1. Much of the content on Tumblr blogs is not original content, but rather content that has been “reblogged” from other Tumblr blogs. It would be unfair to say that I am the author of migrantography, given that my own photos comprise but a small percentage of the photos on the blog.

Sociological Images course guide: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

I have compiled and organized a course guide about Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders for the public sociology blog Sociological Images. The guide contains links to Sociological Images posts, organized by theme. Hopefully it will be useful for instructors teaching courses in sociology, anthropology, ethnic studies, and related fields. I will be updating it periodically as new posts on the topic get published.