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Maeve Higgins: Why is the "Good Immigrant" Narrative Dangerous?

Apr 30, 2021
Originally published on June 16, 2021 11:22 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Migration

Irish comedian Maeve Higgins moved to the U.S. with a visa for artists with "extraordinary abilities." But the myth of the "good immigrant," she says, perpetuates harm and discrimination.

About Maeve Higgins

Maeve Higgins is an Irish comedian and the host of Maeve in America: Immigration podcast, featuring conversations with immigrants across the United States. She is currently based in New York City.

Higgins also wrote an autobiographic novel, Maeve in America: Essays by a Girl from Somewhere Else, and a book of essays titled We Have A Good Time, Don't We?. Her opinion pieces have also been featured on The New York Times and The Irish Times.

She studied photography at St. Aloysius College, Carrigtwohill in Ireland.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by Janet W. Lee and edited by Maria Paz Gutierrez. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at TEDRadio@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And often when we hear the word migration, we think of people escaping hardship, searching for a new life for themselves and their families. But that's not necessarily the case for everyone. Comedian Maeve Higgins moved from Ireland to the U.S. eight years ago. And in 2018, she gave a talk about her experience because she noticed that not all immigrants are treated the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MAEVE HIGGINS: I don't know if you can tell by my accent. Usually when I start talking, people are like, you're not from around here, and I'm not from around here. I'm Texan. I'm from Texas. And as we say back home, here we are, big sky country. Is that Texas? No, I'm from a place called Cobh, which is a harbor town in Ireland. It's a maritime town, and there's a history of immigration from my hometown, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HIGGINS: It's the last place that Annie Moore ever saw before she moved to America. Annie Moore was the very first immigrant through the brand new gates of Ellis Island when that opened in 1892. Cobh is also the last place where over 2 million Irish people left from when they were fleeing sort of the worst years of Irish history. They were kind of running from famine, in some cases, oppression, or lots of people just left to try and find a better life. So we learned all about these people in school growing up in history class, but I never found out what happened to them when they arrived. And I only got interested in immigrants when I became one myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HIGGINS: I moved to New York in 2014. I moved here on an O-1 visa. It's for people who've achieved a lot in their fields, and it's often given to those of us who are in sciences, sports, the arts. I'm a writer. So what I do really is I listen to and then I tell stories. And these days, immigrants, I think, are the ones with the best stories. For the past few years, I've been traveling around America and meeting with immigrants and hearing stories of lives left behind and started again someplace new. And I think probably a lot of us heard a very big immigrant story this year. It was when France won the World Cup.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING, WHISTLE)

HIGGINS: So France's World Cup winning team was actually made up largely of immigrants or the children of immigrants from places like Angola, Algeria, Cameroon, Zaire, from everywhere. And people really went bonkers over this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Speaking French).

HIGGINS: There was a CNN headline that read, France's World Cup win is a victory for immigrants everywhere. And all these tweets and all these memes went viral, kind of saying look how great immigration is. Like, you know, they won your soccer match. And, like, you should welcome them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HIGGINS: But I really worried about that. I really worried about pointing out, like, how good these immigrants were because I think by doing so, we're helping to build the deadly and the disgusting case that a lot of racists and anti-immigrant xenophobes have of some lives being worth more than others.

Every immigrant has a story of one life left behind and another one started anew. Annie Moore, the girl I was telling you about - I don't think I mentioned she was only 17. So she was an unaccompanied minor. She was undocumented. And when she reached America, she was safe. She was allowed in. In fact, the U.S. authorities gave her a gold coin to commemorate the occasion, and they reunited her with her parents, as it should be.

Annie Moore never made a fortune. She never wrote a book or invented a computer. And really, why should she? Why should immigrants have to prove themselves extraordinary to deserve a place at the table, to deserve a fighting chance? Constantly having to prove yourself worthy of basic human dignity is exhausting, and it's unfair. People should not be considered valuable just because they do something of value to us, like pick our fruit or perform our life-saving surgery or win our soccer game. People are valuable because they are people. And I think that we need to hold that close because if we forget that or if we deny it, then terrible things happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: That was comedian Maeve Higgins. She's the host of the podcast "Maeve In America: Immigration IRL," and you can find Maeve's full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.