Must immigrants sacrifice themselves to COVID-19 for basic rights?

France’s granting of citizenship to essential workers has been heralded in the US. But this only entrenches racism in societies that need to face up to their colonial debts.

Authors: Sofya Aptekar and Miriam Ticktin

Harsh systems that include detention await migrants who make it to the US or France. | Angelos Tzortzinis/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved
Harsh systems that include detention await migrants who make it to the US or France. | Angelos Tzortzinis/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

During the election campaign that led him to the White House, Joe Biden promised swift reversal of Donald Trump’s draconian anti-immigrant policies. On his first day in office, President Biden signed executive orders to halt construction of the border well, reverse the Muslim ban and safeguard DACA, a temporary programme that protects some migrants who came to the US as children.

Only a week into his term, the bold plans for reform began to falter. Biden’s 100-day deportation moratorium was barred by a judge. The plan to reunite separated migrant families is delayed. And Biden’s most ambitious proposal, amnesty for most of the 11 million undocumented, is already in doubt. Meanwhile, in the midst of a raging pandemic, Democrats are calling for more targeted relief for undocumented immigrants who act as essential workers.

A progressive vision?

The precedent for immigration relief for workers on the frontlines of COVID-19 came from the other side of the Atlantic a month earlier. In late December 2020, the French government announced that it was fast-tracking citizenship applications for immigrants working as essential workers during the pandemic, in order to reward them for their special service to French citizens. The naturalisation applications of these immigrants already on the path to citizenship would be expedited, but they would still go through the required steps, including proving their integration into French society.

France’s new citizenship exception would seem to offer a progressive vision for the new Biden administration. The spectacle of white nationalists storming the US Capitol on 6 January, with their belligerent messaging of racism, misogyny and xenophobia, redoubled the calls by liberals to undo or reverse Trump’s immigration policies. Many continued to advocate specifically for immigrant essential workers.

However, it would be wrong to follow this vision of immigration policy. To address the entrenched racism exposed and exacerbated – but not created – by the Trump administration, different tactics are required. The demands for the Biden administration should reach much further than reforms that entrench the system itself, whether a path to citizenship for the most deserving essential workers or protecting DACA, which is just a temporary programme with no path to citizenship.

France’s fast-tracked naturalisation process undoubtedly improves the lives of a few immigrants, providing them with security and benefits that they would not otherwise have. Notably, these are not undocumented immigrants but those already on the path to citizenship. Yet, it is a mistake to uncritically celebrate the French government and its pandemic-era generosity.

By recognising essential migrant workers, the French state is primarily making a statement about how it values the lives of its citizens who require care.

While a few hundred, or even, eventually, thousand immigrants may become French citizens in recognition of their “commitment to the nation”, this policy makes no change to the country’s harsh immigration system. By recognising essential migrant workers, the French state is primarily making a statement about how it values the lives of citizens who require care. US observers are pointing to France as an example of inclusive immigration policies when France, like the US, is actually waging a racist war against immigrants.

As with the exceptional humanitarian measures the French state has instituted in the past, which simultaneously justify criminalising and deporting a majority of immigrants, these policies draw attention away from the precarious conditions in which the majority of immigrants live – which include an increasing number of informal camps in the heart of Paris.

The French immigration system is increasingly draconian, under pressure from the extreme rightwing populist National Rally party, formerly known as the National Front, and the turn to the right in Europe more generally. President Macron imposed a new law in 2018 that cut the timeframe to legally apply for asylum – with the goal of deporting people more quickly – and doubled the amount of time that immigrants could be kept in detention. In 2018, France detained more migrants than any other EU country.

No pathway to legalisation

Like the US, France is home to legions of undocumented immigrants who work in exploitative conditions that now expose them to COVID-19, and who have no pathways to legalisation, before or after French government’s new policy. Furthermore, there is the long-standing fear in France that acknowledging race and racism or even the existence of different ethnic communities in its society would lead to an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ acceptance of divided communities. But this unacknowledged racism, often expressed as Islamophobia, has been called out by French immigrant rights groups and anti-racist collectives, who say the country’s colonial history is expressed in exclusionary immigration policies, among other practices.

If the US government adopted the policy of fast-tracked naturalisation for essential workers, as some are calling for, it would similarly serve to draw attention away from the difficult and often violent conditions under which so many immigrants live, covering up the fact that both American and French societies primarily value immigrant lives when they are sacrificed. The trend in the US throughout the last two decades of Democrat and Republican administrations has been increased surveillance and criminalisation of immigrants, expansion of immigrant detention and deportation, and extreme militarisation of the US-Mexico border.

Rewarding essential workers with citizenship entrenches the idea that most immigrants should not be granted legal status and that the state’s job is to keep its borders closed, protecting limited resources – this is so even as both France and the US are fully reliant on immigrant labour.

Rather than putting in place a standard policy of inclusion, the state decides which few immigrants have proved themselves most deserving of inclusion, gathering accolades for its generosity. Speeding up citizenship for immigrant essential workers in the US – similarly to members of the US military, at least in theory – would serve the same purpose. These policies are designed to build pride in the nation’s benevolence and care, even as they work behind the scenes to legitimise the mass exclusion, detention or exploitation of migrants, based on racist ideas of belonging. They make citizens feel better about the woeful ways in which their governments treat immigrants, giving them a moral pass.

Immigrants are being valued for their ability to take the fall, to get sick so ‘we’ do not.

Premising citizenship on exceptional deservingness is a common way of talking about who deserves to become a citizen. Before this pandemic, France gave citizenship to a Malian immigrant who risked his life to scale a building and save a child. But rewarding heroes has also meant implicitly consenting to criminalising everyone who is not a hero.

During the pandemic, the stories of immigrant deservingness in the US shifted from exceptional youth to essential workers – farm labourers, cleaners, medical personnel – who were amply demonstrating their utility to the nation. Some called on the US government to give these undocumented essential workers protection from deportation or even a path to citizenship. This would undoubtedly improve the lot of these immigrants, yet once again lifts up the few, while maintaining a system that criminalises most. Such calls draw attention away from the failures of the government to provide state payments that allow people to stay at home during a pandemic or make their workplaces safer.

The linkage between citizenship and productivity in a capitalist workplace, usually as an exploited worker, has uncomfortable implications. Firstly, it leaves out all those who work outside the narrow definitions of productivity, such as in unpaid care work, and those who are young, elderly, disabled, and otherwise outside the capitalist market. Secondly, immigrants are positioned as deserving of the protections of citizenship by the dint of their labour for others.

After the past year of uprisings against white supremacy in both France and the US, it is easy to connect this way of valuing immigrants to the legacies of slavery and colonialism. Indeed, immigrants are being valued for their ability to take the fall, to get sick so “we” do not. To pay this impossible debt – the debt of life, and generations of life, valued as lesser – the state is recognising these immigrants now: quid pro quo. It says: now, we owe you nothing – all histories can be forgotten. We must resist judging the worth of human life and dignity in this way.

Protecting ill-gained riches of empire

What if, in fact, France and the US truly followed the principles upon which their nations were formed – liberty, equality, fraternity; and to be the land of the free? What if they valued everyone’s life equally? Tendayi Achiume, legal scholar and UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, argues that citizenship for all immigrants from the “Third World” to the “First” would simply enact an entitlement to political equality that recognises the interconnections created by past and ongoing forms of imperialism. In other words, French or US citizenship for immigrants – all immigrants – is a form of decolonisation or even debt repayment for past and ongoing imperial projects. Militarised borders, in contrast, are attempts to protect the ill-gained riches of empire.

There should be an immediate amnesty and path to citizenship for all immigrants in the US, whether or not they are deemed essential. While Biden’s plan to provide a pathway to all 11 million undocumented immigrants is a start, why should it be delayed for eight years? More urgently, the US border must be demilitarised, through the dismantling of ICE and Border Patrol, as these groups create the need to label some people as “illegal”, enabling violence against them, and will continue to do so, regardless of a one-time pathway to citizenship. These demands tie in with the Black Lives Matter movement’s abolitionist demands to undo the carceral system, and replace it with one that treats all people with care and respect.

With a week left in his presidency, Trump visited the border wall in the Rio Grande Valley, to shore up his legacy of hate. A true break with racist policy would knock down the wall and all its supporting ramparts, including the idea of deservingness.

Article originally published on February 6, 2021 on openDemocracy.

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