On Wednesday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson attacked Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for her ingratitude. “After everything America has done for Omar and for her family,” Carlson told his viewers, “she hates this country more than ever.” He called it “ominous” that Omar should have such disdain for his country’s values. “Our country rescued Ilhan Omar from the single worst place on earth,” said Carlson. “We didn’t do it to get rich—in fact it cost us money. We did it because we are kind people. How did Ilhan Omar respond to the remarkable gift we gave her? She scolded us and called us names.”
There is so much miseducation and bad faith in that tiny word we. Carlson had nothing to do with Omar’s rescue from Somalia. He is just a privileged man who won the lottery of birth. If it were up to him, she would never have been allowed in. But even if he had been the very asylum officer who swung the door open for Omar’s family, the we implies that a place in America was his to give, that he is somehow entitled to (but she has been gifted) the freedoms and education and powerful voices they both enjoy.
I don’t watch Carlson’s show. I found out about this incident because I have a Google alert for “ungrateful refugee,” a term his followers began to throw around shortly after his comments aired. That phrase also happens to be the name of my new book and a major intellectual and philosophical preoccupation since I escaped Iran in 1988 and arrived in the U.S. via an Italian refugee camp 16 months later (at 10 years old, the same age Omar was when she arrived).
The term “ungrateful refugee” is designed specifically to remind us that immigrants will never be as American as the native-born, no matter how much time passes, how much good they do for their new country, and what citizenship they obtain. It is a calculated attempt to reinforce nativist power dynamics between the children of the rooted and the children of the displaced, to remind the latter that they will forever owe their lives to someone else. And yet, it is uttered most often by those who have never had or will ever have anything to do with anyone’s rescue—these are, in fact, the very people who wish to shut the door and throw away the key. [Continue reading…]