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What the New York Times gets wrong about its own immigrant street-art project

The New York Times Magazine, with an assist from photographer JR, has turned a bunch of recent immigrants into street-art stars. For the magazine's "Walking New York" issue, they commissioned JR to take photos of 15 immigrants who've come to the city in the past year or so — and then pasted larger-than-life versions of the photos onto walls all over the city.

Photographer Christopher Inoa of the blog Untapped Cities trekked all over New York to find the portraits in their neighborhoods:

running immigrant street art
A street-art installation of a Vietnamese immigrant in Manhattan. (Christopher Inoa/Untapped Cities)

But the Times itself went one step further, by taking a series of pictures of the immigrants themselves with their paper-cutout counterparts. It's worth clicking through the slideshow on the Times's site to read each immigrant's opinion of New York — which might be wildly different from one to the next, depending on where people came from. Some immigrants love how friendly everyone in the city is, while others lament that everybody is always moving too fast to have a conversation. Some immigrants find the city dirty or chaotic; others marvel at how well-organized the subways and stores are.

Georgian immigrant street art
A street-art installation of a Georgian immigrant in Manhattan. (Christopher Inoa/Untapped Cities)

Unfortunately, the headline the Times used for its description of the project — "JR Brings New York's Immigrants Out of the Shadows" — totally flattens its diversity. Being in (or out of) "the shadows" has a very particular meaning when it comes to immigrants in America. It's typically a reference to living in the country as an unauthorized immigrant. More specifically, it's a reference to the choice many unauthorized immigrants make to protect themselves by hiding from the public eye: avoiding contact with the government, and trying not to attract attention by excelling in school or demanding their rights. An immigrant in the shadows might be unwilling to call the police if she gets mugged, or even to attend a parent-teacher conference at a public school. In extreme cases, like in 2011 when Alabama passed an extremely harsh law targeting unauthorized immigrants, immigrant families were afraid to leave their homes.

Coming "out of the shadows," meanwhile, means an immigrant is talking openly about being unauthorized and fighting for his rights — as the young immigrants called "DREAMers" have done for several years, and have begun encouraging their parents to do. Or the government can "bring immigrants out of the shadows" by protecting them from deportation, so that they can safely engage in public life. This is what the deferred-action programs advanced by the Obama administration, some of which are currently on hold pending a court battle, promise to do.

But the Times photos aren't about unauthorized immigrants. Not all of the subjects discuss their immigration status, but many of them do because it's an important part of their stories: one immigrant got asylum because she was persecuted as a trans woman in Honduras; another won the diversity visa lottery. And even if some of them are unauthorized, that doesn't come up in their narratives — and therefore it isn't something that's shaping their experiences.

immigrant reaching for star street art
A street-art installation of a Japanese immigrant in Brooklyn. (Christopher Inoa/Untapped Cities)

Americans generally have trouble distinguishing "immigrants" from "unauthorized immigrants" (or, for that matter, from "Latinos"). One of the problems this creates is that there's a lot of attention paid to laws dealing with unauthorized immigrants, and less attention to the struggles all immigrants face: with culture shock and dislocation, with learning English, with dealing with separation from family and loved ones, with prejudice.

The point of turning immigrants into larger-than-life street art is to force passersby to notice the sort of people they often deem invisible. But there's a difference between social invisibility and a life dominated by fear of deportation. Confusing the two phenomena just makes it all the harder to see legal immigrants for themselves.