star trek and immigration

Star Trek and Immigration

Disclaimer: Most people in my life have learned to ignore my inane mutterings about Star Trek. If you find my silly armchair opinions ill-informed, that’s on me–I’m just writing my mutterings down as I think them. This post does not claim to be well-researched or fully-informed, just based on casual observation of Trek-based phenomena.

I was rewatching Star Trek Beyond for the third time recently–I absolutely love the film, but I don’t rewatch it often, because I sob whenever I see Anton Yelchin’s face. Also, at the last five minutes of the film and most of the credits.

Anyway, one of the things that struck me this time around was that Jayla, at the end of the film, is offered admittance to Starfleet Academy. At this point the film has fully justified Jayla’s place on their team–I personally hope she’s brought back to fill Anton Yelchin’s seat in coming films. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Jayla isn’t a member of a Federation-affiliated species (or probably isn’t, considering she doesn’t have a Universal Translator and instead learns English from a starship.) Scotty says Captain Kirk “pulled some strings” to get her admittance, as well. So this begs the question–what is the Federation’s policy on immigration, and how does that relate to becoming a member of Starfleet?

A lot of the outright canon seems to support the idea that the bar for citizenship is pretty low for the Federation. Worf, for example, was raised from infancy by human parents; he’s got Federation citizenship and he’s a Starfleet officer. In the The Next Generation episode “First Contact,” a woman from a pre-warp species who meets Picard and co. asks to stay on the Enterprise, rather than return to a society where she won’t be able to travel the stars, and Picard brings her aboard simply at her request. Ensign Ro Laren, as well as a few other Bajoran characters on The Next Generation and Voyager, are Starfleet officers despite Bajoran independence from all foreign governments being a major plot point of Deep Space Nine. Rom, a Ferengi, also successfully joins Starfleet Academy despite the Ferengi being independent from other species. For Ro Laren and Nog, we don’t definitively learn if Starfleet enrollment comes with free citizenship in the Federation, if citizenship is not required, or some sort of half-measure in between.

There’s also Gaila, the Orion Starfleet cadet in 2009’s Star Trek film. The film mostly uses Gaila as a callback to the original iteration of James Kirk, so it took canny fans to realize that the script had written Gaila an immigrant backstory without realizing it. The Orion Syndicate, known as a neutral nation of traders, has a nasty habit of enslaving all of their women. Gaila is obviously not enslaved, so therefore, she must have escaped the Orion Syndicate. The writers are said to have agreed with this when it was brought up, and stated their belief that she escaped via some sort of underground railroad for Orions (mentioned here, but the link is broken). While Gaila’s immigrant status isn’t directly addressed by the reboot films, the idea got around in fan circles, and Gaila became a really popular character in fanfiction as a result. Her unintentional story became very compelling to fans.

Immigration also goes the other way. In the The Next Generation episode “Journey’s End,” a planet of Native Americans on the Cardassian border rebels against the consequences of their Federation citizenship. The Maquis resist both Federation and Cardassian influence across several shows, fighting the idea that being human means they’re part of a Federation monoculture. In TNG’s “Suddenly Human,” the Enterprise  comes across a human boy adopted by an alien culture; the crew has to come to terms with the idea that he is happiest within his adoptive culture, even though it seems brutal to most human sensibilities.

We don’t see  the process of immigration; we see characters who have been welcomed to the Federation, but not whether they have to fill out forms, go on lists, or swear loyalty to the Federation–all of which immigrants do in the process of becoming American citizens. The closest thing we see to a green card or even a government-issued ID is that mysterious object given to Jayla that gives her acceptance to Starfleet Academy. Starfleet keeps track of its people through their combadges or communicators, but we never get a sense that identification or proof of citizenship is given or necessary, within Starfleet or the Federation.

Citizenship means something very different in the 23rd and 24th century Federation. It seems like it’s connoted more by actions or by captains of starships than through a legal process. When we see asylum-seekers on the show, the decision to bring them into the Federation is often made by Picard or an Admiral, and that seems to settle things–and the decisions don’t seem very morally difficult. We don’t get the sense that Worf had trouble immigrating, or that Jayla’s move into Starfleet Academy was very difficult. Kirk said he had to “pull some strings,” but he could be doing that because Jayla doesn’t have any educational credentials, not because she’s a foreigner. It is relatively easy to become a member of the Federation; prove your need and desire, and you’re in.

Leaving the Federation is…less easy. Other writers have pointed out that the Federation and Starfleet have more than a little in common with America at its most expansionist. In “Suddenly Human,” “Journey’s End,” and the Maquis storylines, we see how the Federation pretty much assumes that every human being will want to be a member of the Federation. In “Suddenly Human,” this involves the crew trying to teach a teenaged boy to laugh; with the Maquis, the Federation’s presumptions escalate into drawn-out conflict, turning the Maquis into terrorists because they disagree with decisions the Cardassians and the Federation made for them. In each case the Federation automatically sees humans/Vulcans/Andorians/etc. as under their jurisdiction, and from late TNG on, the Federation finds that they cannot hold onto people simply because they originated from Federation planets.

Listen, I would fuck off to live in the Federation in a heartbeat. It’s a lot better than what we’ve got now, and I’d love to live in a society where money simply didn’t apply. The Federation’s open arms to those who need it also kinda rocks. I like the idea that Federation citizens can just decide to vacation on Vulcan without having so much as a passport. The Federation needs work, but at least they err on the side of being too protective. I wish the United States did that, rather than shutting down our borders out of a misplaced fear of the unknown. It always seems like Star Trek is a series of lessons too few people have taken in, but this one…well, it’s an appropriate one, these days.

Is there something in the Star Trek canon that you just can’t stop thinking about? Afflict your curse on me by commenting on this article or bringing it up on Twitter.

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