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Chloe Kim and the ‘exceptional immigrant’ narrative

During immigration talks on the Senate floor on Feb. 13, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told the story of Chloe Kim's father, who came to the U.S. in 1982. (Video: C-SPAN)

Chloe Kim, the 17-year-old American snowboard phenom, became the pride of the nation when she took home the gold in the halfpipe Monday. She's young, insanely talented and relatable (she gets “hangry” like the rest of us.)

And her narrative as the daughter of a South Korean immigrant who worked minimum-wage jobs to pay for college is timely, given the national conversation about immigration.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) thought so too when he used her family's story to invoke the dreams of many immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship Tuesday on the Senate floor.

“He decided to go to school. He picked up a degree in engineering technology. ... He decided to start a family,” he said of her father, Jong Jin Kim. “A nice little family. And a little girl, who had a special skill when it came to snowboarding. That girl was Chloe Kim, and she won a gold medal last night at the Olympics.”

“It's a story of an immigrant family. A man who might not have passed some of the merit-based tests that we're hearing around here ... But who came to the United States determined to make a life and to bring a family forward.”

Durbin's argument is one used by many Democrats who want to see the country welcome more immigrants. They point to success stories that show what immigrants can do if given the chance. It's similar to the "model minority" myth, which Trump surrogates used to defend the president after his “shithole countries” comment. The stereotype often references Asian immigrants, who are painted as hard-working family units who have achieved the American Dream.

As good as the senator's intentions may have been, the approach drew criticism. Tanzina Vega, a journalist who often writes about diversity issues, suggested that Durbin's comments feed the “exceptional immigrant” narrative.

Law professor and author Khaled Beydoun, who often writes about immigration, also cautioned against this type of advocacy.

“Showcasing the stories of exceptional immigrants to justify a more humane immigration policy clashes with American values, and America's immigration history,” he told The Fix. “It also implies that immigrants — or the children of immigrants — have to be outstanding, superhuman, or more than exceptional — like Olympian Chloe Kim or Steve Jobs — to warrant inclusion.”

On Wednesday, Durbin praised young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers,” tweeting that they are “teachers, nurses and engineers” who contribute to the U.S.

Ben Marter, a spokesman for Durbin, defended the senator's comments, saying he has a track record of fighting for opportunities for immigrants of multiple achievement levels, not just exceptional athletes.

“He has told, I believe, 107 stories on the Senate floor of dreamers who are teachers and engineers and doctors and soldiers and students who are living ordinary lives here going to work, going to school, spending time with their families. That has been his focus since 2001 when he introduced the Dream Act for the first time.”

Obviously most children of immigrants will not grow up to become Olympic medalist. But using them as examples could backfire by placing undue pressure on immigrants to excel at levels that are not realistic. And it also may strengthen the cultural anxiety of many of the Americans who fear that exceptional immigrants are taking Americans' jobs.

But although there is overwhelming support for a protections for dreamers, it's understandable that some lawmakers feel they have to emphasize the value that immigrants bring to the U.S., considering rising hostility against immigrants. Despite an oft-repeated cliche that America is a nation of immigrants, a sizable number of Americans — particularly Republicans — seem less convinced that immigrants add value to the U.S.