At last week’s press conference about the split supreme court ruling on the executive actions on immigration, President Obama reminded Americans that immigration is not something to fear, that historically
whoever showed up, over time, by the second generation, third generation those kids are Americans. They do look like us because we don’t look one way, we don’t all have the same last names, but we all share a creed, we all share a commitment to the values that founded this nation.”
The President’s words were based on historical truth, but alas will do little to comfort the nativist fears driving American politics. Over the last five years I have been engaged in a study that explores how Iraqi refugee youth think about their place in an American society that holds such polarized views of immigrants, particularly those that cross the southern borders (Latinos), and those who come from Arab countries. In the case of Iraqi youth, these issues cut both ways across their socio-cultural universe. They live in primarily Latino communities. After the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, 31 governors and the leadership of the House of Representatives perceived them as an existential threat.
In order to gauge the effect of these political discourses our research team (thank you Eva George, Lisa Fernandez, Brandon Agcaoili) conducted a series of focus groups with Iraqi youth who were resettled to the IE with their families between 2008 and 2014.
The 1.5 generation of Iraqi youth is already ahead of Obama’s curve – quickly identifying what is truly American – a society that provides a socio-political space where they enjoy “freedom from judgment,” valuing America as a country of security, opportunity, and choice.
Raiya, a high school senior, claims membership in America as “a proud young Muslim woman.” She went on to say that, “Whatever you are, wherever you have come from, you are welcome. They won’t treat you different.”
Two disquieting questions arise.
My hope is that “we do not,” as President Obama said, “wall ourselves off,” within America. Rather, we create an alternate reality to the madness of the political discourse of exclusion.
In our homes, schools, places of worship, and communities we create the socio-political spaces of expression, where newcomers like Raiya – with her unique religious and cultural identity – have a voice and know they belong.