How art can challenge election-time rhetoric about immigrants

The coming year is expected to be one of unprecedented election activity worldwide. And as politicians gear up for the polls, immigrants are being pushed into the spotlight.

In the United States, Donald Trump has vowed to expand his Muslim ban and bar Palestinian refugees from Gaza if he is re-elected.

In Germany, anti-immigration rhetoric has been on the rise ahead of regional elections later this year. Protests erupted recently after reports of a mass-deportation plan by far-right political parties. This would see the expulsion of asylum seekers, permitted residents, as well as citizens who are viewed as not integrating into society.

Foreshadowing an election in fall, a government bill in the United Kingdom enabling deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda is linked to inaccurate public perceptions of immigration dominated by illegal entry into the country.

This situation challenges artists alongside journalists and media makers to represent the complexity of immigration realities with respect and accuracy.

Immigration and electioneering

Though not scheduled until October 2025, a Canadian election in 2024 could be added to the long list of countries going to the polls this year, alongside the U.S., Mexico, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Ghana, South Africa, as well as elections in the European Union parliament.

Anxieties over immigration and housing availability are rising in public discourse. British Columbia Premier David Eby, who is expected to face the electorate for the first time as leader in 2024, has already expressed immigration concerns. “The anxiety I have is that the numbers are such that we can’t support these folks,” Eby told the CBC in a recent interview.

Immigration has become one of the hot-button issues in the U.S ahead of the November presidential election.
(AP Photo)

In 2016, I began a long-range art project called Reading the Migration Library (RML) at a similar time when election-related anti-immigration rhetoric was reaching a fever pitch in the U.S.

Trump’s campaign for the presidency pushed hard on immigration including promises to fortify the southern border with an impenetrable wall. Researching the responses of artists to human rights abuses at the time, I learned from human rights workers in San Diego, Tijuana, New Mexico, Texas, and Juarez of the direct link between border fortification and an increasing death rate of asylum seekers.

Also fresh in my mind at the time was the impact that a journalistic image had on public discourse during the Canadian 2015 election. That year the photo of two-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea deflated anti-immigration election rhetoric and resulted in Liberal campaign promises to increase the number of Syrian refugees admitted into Canada.

There was much critical reflection on the ethical challenge presented by photos that pictured refugees in states of extreme vulnerability.

Reading the Migration Library

Since then, RML worked as a form of scholarly research-creation aimed at diversifying representations of migration and immigration from the perspective of individuals and their families or communities. RML invites artists, writers and community groups to produce artworks and short texts that explore displacement, diaspora or migration from the perspective of those with lived experience.

Some describe how the asylum process is experienced by detainees (Notes on a Tour: the El Paso Processing Center). Others lament the internal and external displacement experienced by Ghanaians (On Loss: Two Poems from Ghana, Walking on Water, We are Moulting Birds), to memoirs about the impact of the British Home Children schemes (The Unspoken and I Remember).

Ghana-based poet Epifania Amoo-Adare reads from the publication On Loss: Two Poems from Ghana

In the current phase of the project, Deanne Achong and I are co-hosting artists who will address aspects of diaspora and mobility, including travel on Indigenous territories. Achong’s RML publication, Workin’ for the Yankee Dollar, uses creatively altered family photos to represent the impact of a cultural and military invasion of Trinidad by the United States in the 1940s.

These included the appropriation and exportation of Lord Invader’s (Rupert Grant) Calypso song, Rum and Coca-Cola. In the RML project artists are challenged to publicly present creative responses to often hidden impacts of migration.

Representing migrant stories

I have learned from RML participants that people with immigration experience face demands to demonstrate their legitimacy to the country repeatedly through identity checks, immigration hearings and questioning over their place of origin.

Often, they are viewed by immigration and border officials with suspicion and essentially made to prove their innocence. It is an understatement to say that they carry an unfair burden of identification. At the same time, they are expected to demonstrate immediate and enthusiastic allegiance to the adopted country and culture.

Black and white book cover with a palm tree
Workin’ For the Yankee Dollar by Deanne Achong.
(Light Factory Publications), Author provided (no reuse)

The expectation for refugees to demonstrate gratitude for asylum, and for immigrants to show positive appreciation for their new country, is particularly problematic during times like elections when anti-immigration discourse threatens their safety and trust in the new country.

For Guatemalan artist Francisco-Fernando Granados, the evidentiary burden of his family’s long refugee adjudication is one that he chooses to refuse in art. In the manifesto-like statement “Propositions on minor abstraction” that accompanies the exhibit, who claims abstraction?, Granados wonders “how experiences of displacement and other unspeakable moments can be presented in a critical manner, without being stereotyped or universalized.”

For Granados abstract art is a creative solution that challenges viewers to recognize his right, despite refugee history, to create a public image. who claims abstraction? is made up of a pair of digitally-drawn murals showing ribbons of colour in skin and landscape tones. A selection of abstract art by other queer and BIPOC artists from Simon Fraser University’s collection is also on view to expand Granados’s statement.

Elections by their nature put national and government identity under scrutiny. Politicians often unfairly displace that scrutiny by shifting onto those who are least able to defend themselves, the poor, homeless and of course, immigrants.

In Eby’s 2023 year-end interview his “huge level of anxiety for the [population] growth that we are seeing in British Columbia” referred to foreign workers in service delivery, skilled immigrants, as well as international students. The diversity of these roles reflects overlapping government responsibilities and complex cultural conditions.

Election times threaten to narrow the meaning of immigration to the detriment of public safety, human rights and democracy. In these times, artists’ reflections on migration are a vital way to publicly assert the reality and diversity of what it means to be an immigrant today.

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