Immigrants like you

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“We don’t have a problem with you. You’re one of the good immigrants.” 

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A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Leah Zallman Center for Immigrant Health Research’s (LZC) annual gathering, titled “Listening in Action.” It was such a wonderful experience to be able to connect with people who regularly do research with immigrant populations, as this is the field of research I hope to pursue in my own career. This event also marks the culmination of my time as a fellow at LZC as part of my pre-doctoral qualitative and mixed methods research fellowship at The Dartmouth Institute.

A major theme of Listening in Action was the harmful narratives we often hear about immigration and immigrants themselves. All attendees had opportunities to discuss how to address and change these harmful narratives in an interactive exercise. I facilitated the discussion about access to care, where we spoke about common negative narratives surrounding immigrants trying to get health insurance coverage or even just health care for themselves and their families. Some themes included: 

  • “Immigrants overuse and overwhelm emergency departments” 
  • “Immigrants’ language being a barrier”
  • “Immigrants overuse already limited resources . . . They will take away from others” 

We then discussed how to change these negative narratives and uplift immigrant-centered values. Attendees offered the following counter themes: 

  • “[Our healthcare systems should be held] accountable for lack of language access in care” 
  • “Immigrant communities are resourceful in getting help to those who need it”
  • “Making care more accessible for some makes it more accessible for all” 

I learned so much from others at Listening in Action about their experiences fighting against the prevalent negative narratives that hold us back from providing equitable healthcare access to immigrant communities. However, this conversation also brought back memories of the narrative I have been told my whole life: that there are “good” and “bad” immigrants. 

“We don’t have a problem with you. You’re one of the good immigrants.” 

Growing up in Texas in the 2010s, I heard this kind of thing a lot—especially if I ever identified myself as an immigrant in the midst of a conversation that was steering concerningly in an anti-immigrant direction.

 “We have a problem with the bad immigrants,” people would clarify in defense. 

“So should you,” this statement seemed to imply. So should you, because you came here the “right” way and others didn’t. So should you, because you know English and others don’t. So should you, because you’re good at school and others aren’t. So should you, because you want to contribute to our society and others want to take from it. 

“You’re the good kind of immigrant and we don’t have a problem with you.”

It should go without saying that I disagree with this sentiment. It’s also not true at all. 

Despite being labeled as the “good” kind of immigrant, I wasn’t eligible for the National Merit scholarship in high school even though I had a high enough PSAT score, significantly limiting other scholarships I could apply for. I was the “right” kind of immigrant until I turned 21, when I aged out of my H-4 visa status and would have had to self-deport if my green card application hadn’t been tied to my parents’ just in time. I was the “right” kind of immigrant until the medical school that had heartily welcomed me into their “family” realized I didn’t have a green card yet and rescinded my acceptance.

I’m hardly the first person whose life and educational goals have been sidetracked because of immigration status. Immigrants who are diligent students and accomplished professionals are regularly devalued and overlooked in the United States. A few months ago, I attended a MIRA webinar celebrating the new tuition equity bill in Massachusetts, and I heard from an undergraduate student who is finally able to attend college and engage in the kind of education she saw her peers getting years ago. When I was researching the Physician Pathway Act, which would streamline medical licensing for foreign-trained medical professionals to practice in the United States, I learned that 22% of immigrant physicians and 17.6% of immigrant nurses who received their training abroad are underemployed here. At the Listening in Action event, I listened helplessly as Pastor Keke spoke about the Haitian immigrants sleeping on the floor of Boston Logan Airport, who are authorized and anxious to start working, but have limited opportunities to do so. 

People talk about “good” and “bad” immigrants all the time, but these experiences and the anger, frustration, sadness, and humiliation they cause affect us all the same, regardless of national origin or immigration status. We are all united by our ambitions for ourselves and our dreams for our families and thus, we as immigrants should be infinitely wary of narratives that try to pit us against one another. I’m disappointed to remember that a lot of the racist and bigoted anti-immigrant rhetoric I heard came from immigrants themselves, and I hope that we can move toward a future of collaboration and mutual understanding between immigrant communities. Not all immigrants have the same opportunities, economic backgrounds, or social capital. However, I believe that the diversity of experience, skills, and professional expertise within and between our communities can help us advocate for all of us to have equitable access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities in our new communities. 

My time as a pre-doctoral fellow with the Leah Zallman Center at the Institute for Community Health is coming to an end, and I was grateful to be able to attend the Listening in Action event because it was the perfect opportunity to wrap up and celebrate the projects I’ve worked on, the papers I’ve written, and the professional connections I’ve made this year. As I begin the next phase of my professional journey—starting a new medical school and graduate school application cycle—I know I will continue to utilize the lessons about qualitative and mixed methods research, refugee and asylee health, immigrants’ access to healthcare coverage, and social services uptake in vulnerable immigrant communities that I have learned with LZC this year.

I can’t say with certainty what specific research aims I will pursue or what contributions, if any, I will make to the field of immigrant health. I can say that I have been reflecting on Vetto Casado’s speech from the Listening in Action event about the ways he saw his mother and aunts and friends organize to welcome new immigrants into their community. 

I am thinking about how deeply my own family relies on our immigrant community during times of celebration and strife alike, and the collective resilience, power, and understanding all our communities could wield if we stopped letting people tell us who the “right” and “wrong” immigrants are. I am thinking about a new definition for “good immigrants”—as the people who uplift and support their communities and challenge hateful rhetoric—and how badly I hope to be one. I am thinking about how Ram Dass said, “We are all just walking each other home.”

Abhirupa Dasgupta, MPH

Predoctoral Research Fellow