Flood, wave, mass, swarm, tide...The words we use to describe migration and migrants are often colorful, but often deceptive. They reveal perhaps more about how we perceive newcomers than about who “they” are. We use referents of nature to reflect on a social phenomenon--maybe out of respect for the “natural” process of migration (becoming a citizen, too, is called “naturalization” of another sort). But we also wield those metaphors to distance ourselves. The flood becomes a wild, uncontrollable force in the public imagination, beyond the control of states or communities. The swarm looks from a distance to be a menacing horde. The wave threatens to smother and flatten us, or dilute our cultures in an alien deluge.
The Day without Immigrants this week, a nationwide “wave” of protest to show what life would be like if the immigrant presence in this country’s workplaces suddenly vanished, reflected the particle and wave theories of migritude. The idea of using an immigrant strike as an organizing platform was pioneered with the national immigration reform protest movement of 2006, which also helped revive the May Day holiday for workers. The recent migrant strike was more spontaneous, organized in opposition to the terrifying executive orders that President Trump issued in late January, banning mostly Muslim refugees and travelers, and vowing to shutter the border and ramp up deportation raids. The orders have since been ensnared in both political controversy and legal challenges, but the trauma continues to reverberate.
But while the orders were designed to instill fear and to marginalize people, the Day without Immigrants aimed to turn the orders on their head, by “giving Trump what he wants” but in a way that exposed the hypocrisy and cruelty behind the notion of banning, walling off, and deporting people out of existence.
But more importantly, the action elucidated the answer to the question: are migrants many or a collection of individuals, are they the mass or the one? For a day, in their absence, they were both. They were the many who keep our economy functioning, our workplaces humming and our harvests growing. But hopefully, even more than that, they were the one; the nanny we miss, the neighbor you suddenly notice because she’s no longer smiling at the counter of your favorite lunch spot. They are your mother, voluntarily staying home for the first time in her life, though it pains her to forgo a day’s pay at her hard-earned job, because she understands her labor is more valued today in being withheld.
Sometimes it takes a presence to recognize absence. And it takes a singular to respect the whole, to realize we’re all the plural, and we’re all the stronger for it.
The recent political hailstorms have occasioned yet another metaphor for migration from an artistic horizon. The #OneGrain project, part of a 100 Days of Action against Trump, navigates the landscape of the migrant world by exploring individual stories the way we’d look at countless grains of sand creating an integral whole. The project’s manifesto declares: “A pile of sand holds a million immigrant stories. We look at them #OneGrain at a time.” The project began with the migration story of Corrie Francis Parks, a multimedia artist who felt moved by Trump’s “Muslim ban” executive order, to create a visual storytelling project that could help humanize the policy debate .
She’s started with a handful (figuratively) of “grains” strung together through a series of stunning images of sand, photographed at microscopic range. Each grain is paired with a story. The aim is to collect enough singular stories to create a powerful collective voice, demanding visibility and acceptance as a piece of the social landscape.
As Parks puts it: “Collectively, these individual images represent the complexity of each human being that is lost when people are lumped into a pile.”
"I cried all 20 hours on the flight to the US. ...I felt like a feather floating in the air and moving around without any destination. ...During those hard days, I told myself: “You are here for a reason. You came this long way to achieve your goal, you should be strong.”...Thinking about visiting home helped me to survive during those hard days.
I went to Iran this Winter (2017) and came back exactly on the inauguration day of Donald Trump’s presidency. Now I can’t go back to my country and visit my family. I promised my niece to be back very soon and will bring her favorite Disney character’s doll. I promised my mom to be back and hug her soon. I didn’t even say goodbye to my beloved city because I thought I will be there in 4 months again. My dad keeps telling me he is proud of me for my strength and success. But I won’t see his face at my graduation and show him that how much I love him and I did all of this for him to be proud of me. I can’t stop thinking that if my ticket was just for 4 days later, what would happen to my life. It feels like I am a feather again, floating somewhere between sky and earth."
I will be graduating in June and need to find a job within a year to be able to stay longer in the US and practice the skills and experiences I have learned through my MFA degree. But based on the recent Executive Order, I am not sure if I can switch my student visa to a working visa. Everything is vague and nobody knows what will happen next! I am proud of my roots and all I have learned from the rich Persian culture and the atmosphere I grew up in. I am also proud to live in America and to see the support of my American friends and professors for refugees and immigrants who now have and uncertain future."
"I am a proud child of immigrants and I fear for the safety of our country, our people, our children, my students who may not be able to benefit from this country's great opportunities because of this terrible tyrant."
Parks, who, as an experimental animator uses clay and sand as media for exploring landscape and movement, saw sand as a perfect metaphor that forces both a granular examination of the migrant experience, and a wider collective project that braids together an infinite number of little narratives into a seamless surface, ebbling and flowing with time and historical momentum.
Parks herself has a crystalline memory of long-forgotten blip in immigration history. When Congress passed the McCarran Act of 1950, a “security” law aimed at screening out communist “aliens” at the border, an abrupt cancellation of pending visas almost jeopardized her grandparents transatlantic journey from Germany to New Orleans. Under the draconian Cold War clampdown, “for the 1000s of immigrants whose visas were cancelled, my grandparents among them, one strike of the pen turned their world upside-down.” Her ancestors managed to work through the bureaucracy to enter into the US eventually, but the law remained on the books for over a decade, and as we see now, still continues to shape our immigration regime, even though the geopolitical currents have shifted and our enemies are rebranded as terrorists, not communists.
Sand has a curious quality: each particle possesses its own heft and integrity, but in the collective its viscosity takes on a life of its own. Every grain exerts a mutual gravitational force on its neighbors. Every grain texturizes the land under our feet that we hardly notice, until one day a tectonic shift arrives, and the salt of the earth shifts beneath us.
The last few weeks shifted our ground. Whether we sink or swim, rising or falling, we’re all stuck with each other.