Reiterated stories and visuals on immigration are marginalising America’s most vulnerable communities
A migrant boy spends three months alone in quarantine upon his arrival in New York City. From a small cubicle, the isolated child looks through the window and stares at the Statue of Liberty. The picture of a child holding two dolls and staring terrified at the camera next to the title, Cleaning Toilets, Following Rules: A Migrant Child’s Days in Detention, is published in the New York Times. The first image is of a nine-year-old Vito Corleone on Ellis Island in Godfather Part II (1974) while the latter is one of several images disseminated by the media in the past few months.
Although two portrayals, one fictional and the other real, are 44 years apart, they both testify to the role of the media in shaping the popular imaginary of migration politics. Earlier this year, the emblematic cover of Time Magazine showing Trump looking down on a sobbing toddler next to the caption “Welcome to America.” was accompanied by several other news items relating to the Trump administration, ranging from officials likening shelters to “summer camps”, to Melania Trump’s jacket bearing the words, “I really don’t care. Do you?” as she met detained children.
The parallel between the representation of a young Vito Corleone alone in quarantine in Ellis Island in 1901 and the circulation of images of detained children in 2018 not only depicts the vulnerability of migrant children through the marked absence of parents, but also indicates a more endemic understanding that suffering is inherent to immigration. Such naturalisation of pain informs widely accepted representations of immigration, which endorse the neoliberal narrative of the self-made man, an important figure for the rhetoric of the current US government. It is loneliness and not fear that affects the experience of young Corleone, who despite being alone in a cubicle, sings Italian songs and looks through the window with curiosity. The contrast between the experience of confinement and the Statue of Liberty signals the hope America holds for the migrant child, whose isolation is also put in context by the spectator’s knowledge of what the future has in store for him (since Godfather Part II is a sequel).
Likewise, the opening sequence of Scarface (1983) is an aestheticised representation of the border-crossing experience with footage of the Mariel Bootlift accompanied by Tony Montana’s theme song. Before building a multi-million dollar empire, Cuban exile Tony Montana went to a refugee camp. Neither Corleone nor Montana had an easy way in, nor were “welcomed to America” in the New York Times’ terms, but they both succeeded in a survival-of-the-fittest fashion. The pain involved in immigration is made to seem like a natural process for character-building purposes.
Despite being fictional, the successful narratives of Corleone and Montana act in dialogue with celebrations of the prosperous histories of immigration, which are seen as integral to the formation of the USA. The country did not change for them, nor did it make fitting in any easier. In fact, these immigrant figures never managed to fully integrate as they continued to operate from the margins. Instead, they found a way to live the American dream through money, power and work, albeit through criminal means.
The popularity of such masculine, violent and entrepreneurial immigrant characters, appears to re-assert the figure of the self-made man. Although Corleone and Montana shared the experiences faced by immigrants in detention centres, they “made it” in their own right. The celebration of such narratives promotes precisely the myth of meritocracy epitomised by the figure of President Trump – who has been presented as a successful entrepreneur, connecting deservingness and hard work. This myth justifies the marginalisation and suffering of many who should be able to “fit” and “adapt” to succeed in the current system. After all, why should public policies change when the success of integration lies in the hands of the individual and not the state?
For this reason, immigration should not be framed on its own once it has been aggravated by a rhetoric that marginalises minorities in general, placing on them the responsibility of failure. While the balance between reward and effort promised by the American dream shapes the experience of young Corleone and Montana in the USA, this rhetoric becomes perverse when trying to guarantee and secure a better future for the immigrant children in today’s images.
Featured images: Godfather II / Time Magazine / NY Times
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