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Fear of the Unknown

Though built by immigration, America does not always welcome immigrants

The Threat of Unfamiliarity

Rabe Yar sat next to her friend in their ninth grade art classroom. They were regular teenagers, holding a regular high school conversation.

But not in English. The girls spoke their native Burmese language, catching the attention of two American students who approached the friends. While Rabe couldn’t yet speak fluent English, she knew enough to understand what they were saying.

“You must support Osama bin Laden,” Rabe remembers them saying as they eyed the hijab that symbolized her Muslim faith. “Unless you take that off.”

Rabe didn’t entirely understand who bin Laden was at the time, because the 9/11 attacks had occurred six years before she immigrated to America. But the students relentlessly pressured her to remove the hijab. When Rabe tried to turn away, one of them suddenly clutched the headscarf and attempted to pull it off. She escaped the grip and managed to move to another part of the room, adjusting her ruffled hijab as she went.

She wanted to tell someone what had happened, but she didn’t trust her English to explain it.

To natural citizens, discrepancies in language, religion, and culture might cause insecurities that contribute to a fear of difference. People respond to immigration in a variety of ways, said Ball State University sociology professor Ione DeOllos. At one end of the continuum are those who react completely in fear or violence, usually because they do not understand the other culture. Rabe’s experience of confrontation demonstrates that problem.

At the other end are those who are respectfully curious and want to learn more about people who are different from them. It’s that clash of approach that has ripped through the heart of America’s immigration debate.

Only seven percent of Americans consider immigration to be the most serious problem facing the nation today, according to a Gallup poll. However, it ranks fourth among frequently mentioned issues. Half of Americans feel that newcomers strengthen society, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, while thirty-four percent view immigration as a threat to American culture. Opinions also vary dramatically across age groups: Only nineteen percent of young adults consider immigration a threat, compared with nearly half of those aged sixty-five and older.

Personal attitudes drive thoughts on immigration. DeOllos said that fear of other cultures is taught and learned, and though a xenophobic tendency might exist in humanity, that response is not automatic.

Immigration has been a controversial topic in the presidential election, especially in the campaign of Republican nominee Donald Trump. Throughout the race, he has made several remarks that some feel are xenophobic. At one point, he suggested a “complete shutdown” of Muslims, like Rabe, entering the country.

For Rabe, that would have had real, measurable consequences. She was born in Nabu, Burma, but soldiers forced her family to leave when she was still a baby. They moved to a refugee camp in Thailand, where she lived in a bamboo house for ten years before the refugees were offered a better future: They could move to Australia, Canada, or the United States. Her parents chose the U.S., and Rabe couldn’t have been happier.

As she climbed into the clouds during the trip to America, Rabe peered through the tiny plane window. She tried to make out the figures of the other refugees eagerly waving up from below, as she had waved at passing planes so many times before. It felt surreal to actually be inside one. She watched the land vanish below her, finally tearing her eyes away from the strange view outside to look around the plane. She noticed the fearful expressions of her parents, but she was not afraid. Her eyes passed over them and on to observe the other passengers, each face different than the one before. The variety of individuals fascinated Rabe because she had grown up rarely encountering people who were not Burmese.

The family flew from Thailand to Japan, and then to San Jose, California. They participated in extensive interviews during that time, a screening process that lasted around four months. Refugees are screened more thoroughly than anyone else entering the country, according to the White House, and less than one percent of global refugees are strong enough candidates to advance past the first step. Their files are then analyzed by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department. The entire process requires refugees to undergo nine segments of screening.

But legal admission does not guarantee social acceptance.

When Rabe wore traditional Burmese clothing to school, she sometimes received strange looks that she thought seemed to say, Where did you come from? Why are you dressing like that?

Humans have the capacity to be very curious about new things, said Ball State sociology chairperson Melinda Messineo. But vulnerability in certain areas of life can spark a defensiveness that hinders the desire to learn. Messineo said that ethnocentrism contributes to this reluctance. People consider the values and ideas of their culture to be the most important or true, so they perceive all other cultural ideas through a filter of comparison to their own.

Rabe’s parents heard about the large Burmese population in Fort Wayne, Indiana, from relatives, and decided to move there six months into their time in the U.S. Now fluent in English, Rabe helps translate for her neighbors, and also works as a Burmese interpreter for Crime Victim Care of Allen County.

Muslims comprise about one percent of the American population, according to Pew Research Center. As a Burmese Muslim, Rabe feels that the media often depict the opposite of what her religion represents. She is offended by Trump’s assertions that Muslims are terrorists, and she said that ISIS does not represent Islam – a notion some Americans believe is true. More than a third of American adults say that Islam encourages violence, according to Pew Research.

The media landscape, and social media in particular, has become an “echo chamber.” Messineo explained that this results from market segmentation, which allows consumers to personalize what they see and therefore surround themselves with affirming ideas. When the only information they receive “echos” their own sentiments and biases, it reinforces specific assumptions. People are less likely to be challenged, because they don’t know what they don’t see.

The “other” becomes even less familiar during this process, increasing risk of polarization across groups and ideas. Messineo said that many people today “listen for rebuttal” as opposed to “listening for understanding.”  

One day last summer, Rabe sat in the parking lot outside of the Crime Victim Care building, waiting for a therapist to arrive. A woman in a passing car glanced at Rabe as she drove by, and abruptly stopped her vehicle. Raising her middle finger, the woman cursed at Rabe three times and sped away.

Rabe was baffled. What did I do? she thought. I was just sitting in my car.

She believes that, because she wasn’t wearing her hijab, the only thing that could have incited the woman’s anger was the color of her skin.

Society deliberately creates categories in order to establish shared values and a national identity. But Messineo explained that people find comfort in understanding, so they place higher value on things they know.

Most of the time, those who fear immigration do not attribute this reaction to unfamiliarity. They interpret their fear as evidence that a group presents a threat. Messineo said that people usually aren’t conscious of this thought process, which makes it harder to stop.

Jack Martin, spokesperson of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), believes fear of international terrorism is justified, and serves a valid purpose if aimed at preventive measures.

For example, Syrian refugees are fleeing the terrorism in their home country. But those terrorists have potentially planted violent individuals within the group of immigrants, according to the House Committee on Homeland Security. The Committee also found that, despite security improvements to the vetting process, America lacks the information and resources necessary to confidently identify ISIS operatives within the refugee flow.

According to a late 2015 report by Migration Policy, an organization that analyzes the global movement of people, the U.S. has resettled 784,000 refugees since 9/11. Only three – less than 0.001 percent – of those refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist attacks, two of which were not going to take place in the U.S.

We hear about the terrorism, but we don’t hear about the terror. DeOllos said we don’t understand the problems, the push factors, the reasons why these people are leaving. She said we need to understand why our ancestors came here to better understand why people immigrate now.

Approximately forty-seven percent of immigrants are naturalized U.S. citizens. The rest include legal permanent residents, unauthorized immigrants, and legal residents with temporary visas. Most new immigrants are currently coming from India, China, Mexico, and Canada. Immigrants comprised thirteen percent of the American population in 2014, Migration Policy said, and a quarter of the population when American-born children of immigrants were included.

The largest group of immigrants in the U.S. is from Mexico, making up nearly a third of the foreign-born population. These immigrants have drawn recent attention from Trump’s remarks during a speech in June 2015.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said. “They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people… It’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast… I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border.”

According to a poll by Monmouth University, nearly half of American adults support the idea of that wall.

The Threat to the Job Market

Javier Martinez moved to America twenty-five years ago, leaving his family behind in Irapuato, Mexico. That was the hardest part.

A business visa allowed him to come and go, so he didn’t face the struggle that many Mexican immigrants do. After a few years of working in America, he moved back to Mexico and planned to stay.

His family used the money he had saved to build a house in Irapuato. But Javier began to realize that a Mexican income just wouldn’t provide enough for his family. The median household income in the U.S. is more than $30,000 higher than in Mexico, according to Gallup.

Javier told his wife that the only way the kids could go to college was if he continued to work in America. And they both agreed to not be separated again.

The family moved to Indiana, north of Fort Wayne, in 1999. Javier is now a supervisor in a factory that manufactures mobile homes.

He appreciates that people in the U.S. are rewarded for their hard work, and he doesn’t mind working hard. But it bothers him that some people, both native-born and foreign, take advantage of those who work and pay taxes.

If I made it here, why can’t they do that? Javier sometimes thinks.

The general attitude toward immigration fluctuates between periods of comfort and discomfort, Messineo said, depending on how economically threatened people feel. When resources and job opportunities are scarce, people perceive that immigrants are competing with them. They place blame on the other people searching for jobs rather than critiquing the job market or the economic situation in the immigrant’s country of origin.

Immigrants make up almost seventeen percent of the civilian labor force, and they might actually add jobs to the economy through entrepreneurship, according to the Partnership for a New American Economy. Immigrants founded nearly a third of all new businesses in 2011.

They contribute more to the country in taxes than they receive in benefits, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The Center for Immigration Studies also found that immigrants strengthen the overall economy, increasing the GDP by eleven percent each year.

But the same cannot be said for individual workers. They are forced to compete with immigrants who will usually accept lower wages and cause a redistribution of incomes by enlarging the labor force. Native worker wages decline by an estimated $99 to $118 billion each year because of illegal immigration.

Rachel Peric is the deputy director of Welcoming America, an organization that works to create inclusive communities where immigrants feel welcomed and understood. Some communities have changed quickly, she said, eliciting fear because of the influx of unfamiliar people and ideas. Political rhetoric ignites “dry kindling” that might already exist in those communities, opening room for fear and misconception. If even one political opportunist “lights a match,” the whole thing is set on fire.

But Javier is open-minded, and firmly believes that everyone is entitled to opinions. He said that the lawful protection of free speech is one of the great things about America.

Immigrating was easier for Javier than it is for some. Coming from Mexico meant that he had a relatively short trip, and he could travel back and forth between America and his home country.

But this isn’t the case for all immigrants.

The Threat of Diversity

For Manuela Amegan, immigrating to the U.S. from the Republic of Benin, West Africa, was a bit different. It was unexpected, and never a decision to be made. Rather, it was up to chance. Her dad was a doctor and her mom was a photographer, so they had been living a good life.

But when Manuela’s mother played the visa lottery twelve years ago, the family won access to better opportunities in America.

When Manuela began attending elementary school in Indianapolis, the teachers were welcoming and eager to help. But her classmates intimidated her, making her feel like she was “dirty” because she came from Africa. As they bullied her, she couldn’t speak English well enough to respond. She felt rejected.

Her classmates also didn’t know much about Africa, yet they judged Manuela based on the little they did know – dilapidated huts, starving children, and unsanitary conditions.

They told her that she should go back where she came from.

Jack from FAIR said he hasn’t witnessed much fear of different cultures in the U.S., which he believes results from diversity. But Rachel from Welcoming America explained there is a big difference between diversity and equality, and society doesn’t always leverage the full potential of its diversity. America has very segregated communities that linger from a history of structural racism, making it difficult to encounter people who differ from us. People might extrapolate from one experience and apply it to a whole group with which they rarely interact.

That stereotype would not develop without prior prejudice, said Richard Petts, a professor of sociology at Ball State. He pointed out that mistreatment by a white person does not typically lead to discrimination against all white people. If the bias did not exist, there would be no reason to treat an entire group differently based on one person’s actions.

Manuela is now a senior at Ball State. Many people she encounters want to learn more about her and why she came to America.

But sometimes her accent causes acquaintances to assume that she is ignorant, or even sick.

During the height of the 2014 Ebola epidemic, Manuela remembers stepping onto the Muncie city bus to go to Walmart. As she spoke on the phone in her native language, the man seated beside her looked up.

“Are you from Africa?” he asked loudly.

Manuela said she was.

“Oh, so do you have Ebola?”

Manuela didn’t respond. Not seeming to recognize the offensiveness of his question, the man went on saying that all immigrants and other foreigners should be sent back to their countries of origin.

Manuela remained silent, telling herself to ignore his comments. They appalled her, but she was not surprised.

As she exited the bus, Manuela wished the man a good day.

Africa varies more than many people perceive. It’s not all poverty. Even though some places in Africa resemble New York City, and it is composed of fifty-four different countries, some people think about Africa as one country where “The skinny kids ask for food and people sleep with lions and run with chickens,” Manuela said.

Messineo believes that people don’t often consider legal migration while forming their opinions about newcomers, and that when they do it is usually in a positive light. DeOllos doesn’t feel that many Americans even make the distinction between legal and illegal immigration. She said that people tend to assume even legal immigrants or natural-born citizens of minority races to be undocumented – something Manuela has encountered as a legal immigrant.

Last year, Manuela entered a human resources office in downtown Cincinnati and kindly greeted the woman who was supposed to interview her for an internship. The woman did not smile. Instead, her expression darkened when she saw and heard Manuela, as if she had been expecting someone different.

Soon after the interview began, the woman started asking questions regarding Manuela’s immigration status, eventually saying that she could not continue the conversation without seeing any proof of legal residency. She promised to call back the following week for another interview with the documents, but that call never came. Manuela’s calls and emails were ignored.

After living in America for most of her life, Manuela has come to love the country, its people, and the opportunities it provides. But instances like these make her feel like she doesn’t belong.

Immigrants are sometimes rejected because of language barriers or religious differences, and Americans might assume the worst of them based on the acts of a few. Newcomers might not be recognized as unique individuals, and rather as a collective threat to the economy, national security, and American culture.

Despite living in a nation that boasts a history of establishment by foreigners, some Americans promote a near cultural stagnation that fears change.

Rabe is a Muslim, but she is not the terrorist that many expect her to be. Javier is from Mexico, but he is not illegal, and worked hard for his life in America. Manuela is African, but she does not carry disease, like people sometimes assume. Each are influenced by their status as immigrants, which involves discrimination, structural racism, and a mindset that demands they work harder than others.

An existing attitude of bias is nourished by those who encourage fear toward immigrants, igniting into a blaze of hostility that affects the lives of people like Manuela, Javier, and Rabe.

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1 Comment

  • Fear of the Unknown | Katie|Grieze says: October 9, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    […] Written for Ball Bearings Magazine […]

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