I grew up less than one mile from the border between the United States and México. I do not think I realized the significance of my geography when I was a child growing up, but I do remember driving with my grandfather on the state highway next to the border and on occasion seeing people run across the highway after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States. I had no conception of the legality of what these people were doing, but I remember being afraid of them. In my young mind I understood something was happening and seeing U.S. Border Patrol vehicles chasing after them I assumed they must have been doing something wrong. My inference was no doubt influenced by media I consumed growing up, including films such as “The Border” and Chuck Norris’ “Lone Wolf McQuade.”
These movies, both filmed in El Paso, along with countless other examples of popular culture and many news broadcasts, influenced my perspective on border crossers. I look back with a certain level of distress that I felt the way that I did about people who were undocumented immigrants. To know that these border crossers were risking everything for the promise of something better is staggering, mainly because I am not sure I could do the same thing if the tables were turned. My academic contributions to the discourse about immigration are important to me because, while I am not an immigrant and my parents were not immigrants, I believe I have a responsibility to try and understand why many people treat immigrants, documented or undocumented, in negative ways.
Immigration and the political and public discourse over immigration policy reform inevitably foster enmity toward immigrants themselves. While policy reform generally refers to changing policies toward all immigrants attempting to enter the United States, those who come illegally and without proper documents receive the brunt of political and public dissatisfaction. Historically, the reaction to immigration into the United States has come in the form of xenophobia against immigrating peoples and discontent with the policies or lack of policies to deal with immigration. Contemporary anti-immigrant sentiment is supercharged by the impact of the economic crisis, fear of cultural change, and a theory of rhetoric that links undocumented immigration to terrorism. Immigration reform is made more complicated by the lack of political capital held by immigrants; they have advocates but have no representation as non-citizens and because of criminalization efforts, often exist in a legal void.
While much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric is consistent with themes used by nativists throughout the contemporary history of the United States, much of what is being displayed today has been accelerated because of two factors; the rapidity of immigration and mass media coverage.
Early in the history of the United States, immigration was measured in years as flows of immigrants took time to come from their respective home countries to the U.S. Immigration flow across the country now can be measured in weeks and months as economic enticements and global economic pressure require workforces move into place much more quickly. The second of those factors, mediated images of undocumented immigrants, poses a challenge to how we as a society think about immigration.
While images that have been used to demonize undocumented immigrants are abundant in political and social discourse, the problem explodes when considering images that are hypothetically sympathetic to immigrants. News reports and documentaries on the subject of undocumented immigration tend to include images of the immigrants juxtaposed with images of border law enforcement implicitly highlighting the illegality of crossing into the United States.
In the popular culture realm images associated with immigration have appeared in a variety of television shows and films. A substantial portion of immigrants to the United States come from México and elsewhere in Latin America and how media portrays them is often wrapped up with portrayals of Latina/os in general. As the demographic changes unfolding in the United States affect media producers, there are more Latina/os appearing in films and on television. While there is much to debate about these images, it is important to consider how more Latina/o-associated films are being produced.
One contemporary example, ABC’s Ugly Betty, featured a storyline focused on the father of the lead character. As the plot unfolded, the father, Ignacio, is revealed to be in the United States without proper documentation. Through a series of circumstances his immigration status is resolved and he even becomes a citizen of the United States. The character is framed sympathetically throughout the show and in particular through this experience with the immigration system. The resolution to Ignacio’s immigration status is not only unrealistic but happens with an efficiency rarely seen in the naturalization process. While the sympathetic portrayal is heartening, especially to Latina/o media scholars, the images oversimplify the immigration process and undermine the collective responsibility of citizens to work to improve these processes. The suggestion of individual responsibility and the ease with which Betty’s father moves through the system is inaccurate while being sympathetic.
As anti-immigrant sentiment builds, the general trend in the flow of undocumented immigration currently is slowing. Economic downturns faced by the United States have crept into the parts of the service, agriculture and manual labor economy where undocumented workers previously had found opportunity. Despite the reduced levels of immigration, undocumented immigrants have been receiving wide attention politically across the county. In ballot measures from Arizona to Oklahoma, state policies are being introduced to deal with undocumented immigration at a number of levels. These measures and the debates and controversy they are facilitating appear to have the characteristics of a political wedge issue; driving a wedge into the political discourse of the day, serving as a clarion call to bring voters to the polls. In the last several elections, most notably the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, the Republican Party strategically charged the political debate about a controversial issue, same-sex marriage, as a way to engage portions of their voter base and to swing voters on the bubble squarely into the Republican camp. While wedge issues often do not result in direct action because controversial measures often fail or are challenged legally after an election, their power lies in higher voter turn out and financial support for candidates, special interest groups, and political parties.
Immigration as a wedge issue going into the 2012 election offers a number of strategic benefits to the Republican Party. First, undocumented immigrants lack political capital. As non-citizens, undocumented immigrants have no way to engage the political process; they cannot vote, they have a limited number of advocates, and often these immigrants would leave the United States if given the chance. Second, while there may be those sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants in the United States, rhetorical maneuvering has positioned immigration reform as mutually exclusive with national security and economic recovery. In other words, politicians who support policy reforms that would lead to a more humane, just immigration policy are often criticized for favoring policies that will breach security or facilitate economic crisis. Finally, as sympathetic images continue to emerge in the media there is a risk that these more favorable images will minimize the ability of immigration advocates and others concerned about the plight of the undocumented to rally support against immigration as a political wedge issue.
The United States will always have to deal with immigration. Border control policies that build “impenetrable” fences and militarize the space between the United States and Mexico will always be undermined by internal and external economic pressure for the United States to remain competitive globally. Rather than push policies that extend image maintenance, the United States government should engage a broader, cultural discourse to address fears and concerns about undocumented immigration. Sympathetic images are an improvement over xenophobic and racist images, but the unintended consequences of these images often yield the same results as their negative counterparts. Recognizing the stories and experiences of immigrants, putting a human face on their experiences has the possibility of moving the conversation forward in a positive fashion. It does not mean that immigration policies will change but changing the dialogue is a healthy first step in the process.