In the last month or so, trolling ads aimed at tech workers have been posted in San Francisco’s underground stations. Through stark black, red and white type, the signs inform “U.S. tech workers” that their foreign-labor-hiring employers view them as “expensive, undeserving and expendable.”
This huge “us-vs-them” ad buy, paid for by the anti-immigrant group Progressives for Immigration Reform and pitting American workers against immigrant colleagues, shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the fish rots from the head.
If our government organizations are removing reminders to their staff – and the public – that immigrants are to be respected, we shouldn’t be surprised when anti-immigrant organizations pick up on that.
Recently, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) removed “nation of immigrants” from their mission statement, and insisted that USCIS employees not refer to immigrant applicants as “customers,” lest those applicants forget that they are not American.
For those on whom citizenship is bestowed at birth, a few little words in a mission statement may seem trivial. But for those of us who have gone through the American immigration system, the removal of those words speaks loud and clear.
In 2014, I stood with hundreds of others from around the globe, watching a video of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who welcomed us as newly-naturalized citizens of the United States. Standing in the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, clutching an autopen-signed letter from then-President Barack Obama in our hands, we heard Secretary Albright speak of her own immigrant experience, and how rich this country is because of immigrants like us. When we stood to take the oath, we felt the grand tradition we were a part of.
If you think language doesn’t matter, you aren’t paying attention. In his landmark 1971 Stanford prison experiment, the psychologist Philip Zimbardo documented how organizational structures and dehumanizing language can influence seemingly normal people, people you’d never think would participate in hateful or violent activity.
Zimbardo, who watched as a simulated correctional facility with randomly assigned roles devolved in a matter of days into an abusive hellhole, writes in his 2007 book, “The Lucifer Effect” that dehumanization is one of seven social processes that create a “slippery slope of evil.” We live in dangerous times. The words spoken by leaders, engraved on the sides of buildings, spoken from pulpits, and amplified through casual daily use directly shape our culture, and our communities.
Whatever language is used at the top of the USCIS will have a magnified effect on those who need those services, just as it will be embodied and enforced by those individuals who staff the agency. If our government organizations are removing reminders to their staff – and the public – that immigrants are to be respected, we shouldn’t be surprised when anti-immigrant organizations pick up on that.
Language can dehumanize and destroy, or language can empower and build. Unfortunately, it seems the former mindset, via trolling advertising, has reached San Francisco public transit.
These divisive ads are just the latest example of dangerous language trickling down from Washington, D.C.