How Media Coverage and Racist Rhetoric Contributed to Arizona’s SB 1070 & Other Immigration Failures
It's no secret that the previous President of the United States held some racist sentiment toward immigrants and other people of color. For some, that eliminated him as a candidate for President. However, for others, it emboldened them to be more vocal about their own anti-immigrant beliefs. Overt and subtle rhetoric, delivered on a national and global platform, transformed the hearts and minds of many American citizens in sinister and dangerous ways. Media coverage of the humanitarian crises at our southern border helped perpetuate racist ideology and revive anti-immigrant groupthink that has been persistently reoccurring throughout American history. Trump's immigration measures that criminalized people who are forced to cross the southern border, and people that want to employ them, were fueled by enthusiastic support from some of his key political supporters. Frustration with American politics and the political climate was partly to blame for this distrusting, nationalist sentiment. A similar phenomenon has manifested in India with the election of the authoritarian, nationalist Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who is an "open advocate of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism)" (Appadurai 2017, 4). Trump appealed to his fans' desires for closed doors and closed borders by making the movement of people across borders a criminal act. He denied immigrant children and adults basic human rights and safeties, and his voting base became even more energized. So, what is it that motivates people to support the continuance of such oppressive, racist practices, and what are the alternatives for handling the welfare and care of this vulnerable population? I'll analyze the tactics and media messaging surrounding Arizona's SB 1070, why it appealed to so many voters, and what it says about how we handle human migration. There has never been a more crucial time to make this examination and enable a system of shared cultural communication and human dignity than now, as "more people live outside their country of birth today than in any other period of human history" (Esses et al. 2013, 518).
It's important to understand the history of immigration globally before attempting to deconstruct the motivators and failures of SB 1070 and other Trump-era initiatives. According to Dr. Kathryn Sorrells, immigration has been part of human history for centuries and has happened historically in three waves. The first was in European colonialism immigration, including the Trans-Atlantic and Caribbean slave trades. The post-Industrial Revolution prompted wave two, and post-WWII immigration began the third wave (Sorrells 2020, 4-7). Much of the movement during the current wave is also the result of decolonization and is largely perpetuated through massive wealth disparities worldwide. Today, migration happens on a much larger, more nuanced scale, with globalization creating increased diversity in almost every aspect of our lives. Capitalism has been a massive driving force for modern migration, as the United States and other technology leaders outsource manual labor and production jobs to "under-developed" and "developing" nations. For many millions, high-skilled jobs and employment that offers a living wage require migration. Another huge contributor to modern immigration patterns is the movement of refugees and other vulnerable populations, many of whom struggle with poverty, starvation, war, and violence in their home countries.
The current national sentiment regarding immigration is as negative now as it has often been throughout American history. This includes when the United States took on a racial rhetoric of nativism against Chinese immigrants with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1887. In the late 1800s, America excluded Italian and Irish immigrants (then considered non-white) from legal border entry. "Italian and Irish immigrants, viewed as a threat to American values and as not capable of being assimilated, were also excluded" (Sorrells 2020, 5). While the current climate is distrusting, contemptuous, and haunted by constant, imagined "physical, economic, and cultural threats" this current wave of immigration is more diverse, more fast-paced, and more globalized than any patterns we have seen previously in human history (Esses 2013, 519).
These anti-immigration sentiments are due partly to a perceived lack of resources/economic burden and in part to a national cultural identity crisis. While Americans grapple with the idea that race is a social construct (a conceptual norm in the social sciences introduced to the public more than four decades ago), we're also forced to recognize the reach of globalization as we continue to endure a global pandemic. We've recently been forced to confront the systems of racial oppression that have cost hundreds of Black American lives, and had plenty of time to watch it all unfold with meticulous agony while quarantined in our living rooms. Our individual confusions over racism, privilege, race, police bias, cultural bias, and American history have finally transformed into a national identity crisis. The current attitudes toward immigrants are increasingly suspicious, with vigilante groups forming to corral "dangerous criminals" in the Southwest, and hate crimes against Asian Americans on the rise nationally (Miller 2010, 2). A perception that there is a shortage of resources to support immigrants and that immigrants do not contribute economically is common due partly to implications and direct assertions from President Trump during his official appearance speeches. Esses et al. quote authors Hier and Greenberg, who claim these perceptions and newly aroused racist agendas in media were the results of:
collective insecurity and uncertainties about citizenship and national identity "stemming from globalization and ideological realignment associated with the rise of neoliberalism." They propose that by manufacturing a crisis around immigration and refugee policy, a problem is identified that can be decisively solved, reducing anxiety in the process (Esses et al. 2013, 521).
Because of our national identity crises and increased fluidity in global populations and networks, some Americans have taken a deeply held stance for establishing a national identity that is predominantly white, English speaking, and with generations of established citizenship. This deeply sentimental stance has even permeated branches of the federal government. It has manifested in non-compliance among ICE and Border Control organizations who refuse to acknowledge termination of Trump-era immigration law by the current President of the United States, Joe Biden. The ACLU explains,
But without additional serious reforms, there is no reason to believe that ICE will abide by the Biden interim priorities and their eventual successor priorities. Even now, ICE agents are saying publicly that they intend to undermine the new administration, ICE's spokesperson is touting the agency's "unlimited discretion to evaluate any conduct" to justify arresting individuals on "public safety" grounds, and ICE is deporting individuals who should be protected by the Biden interim priorities (2021).
The appeal of anti-immigration sentiment is that it temporarily and superficially mitigates a rising fear among Americans. More accurately, several fears. Aside from the aforementioned instability in identity, Americans are also afraid of not preserving enough resources to continue our societal security. They are afraid of the rapid spread of Covid-19 and now, concerned about the hundreds of thousands of deaths that former President Trump assured them would never happen. They're also worried about voter fraud, rigged and manipulated elections, and the role of immigration in each of those.
Most modern media are designed to generate a profit. They very effectively lure interest when they generate fear, framing immigrants as self-serving, greedy, diseased, uneducated (because they're assumed non-English speaking), and desperate enough in poverty to commit crimes of violence. These angles, as well as continued hateful rhetoric from former President Trump, perpetuate a horrifying representation of immigration which "may take advantage of this uncertainty to create a crisis mentality in which immigrants and refugees are portrayed as "enemies at the gate," (Esses et al. 2013, 519). The criminalization of immigration to America and the repeated, dangerous rhetoric surrounding it created an unacceptable standard of hate and fear. "Rhetoric traditionally has been closely concerned with linguistic techniques for gaining compliance," and Donald Trump used rhetoric to manipulate his voting base into supporting detention for immigrants (Herrick 2020,19). This, in turn, also stimulated a dying prison industrial complex that benefits the top one percent of American earners, thanks, in part, to the votes of many of the nation's lowest earners. It's as if we've reimagined the system of restriction and privilege on which the social construct of "whiteness" depends, and modernized it for the 21st century. Instead of Black Americans falling to the bottom, we've now assigned the lowest class position to every person in the world not born on American soil.
Several aspects of Arizona's SB 1070 were designed to maintain this class hierarchy. They have gone so far as to create an environment that encourages racial profiling and criminalizing endangered and vulnerable persons. While Governor Jan Brewer specifically remarked in her bill-signing speech, "My signature today represents my steadfast support for enforcing the law both against illegal immigration and against racial profiling," the bill itself makes room for racial profiling as a supplement to other types of profiling, at the unquestioned discretion of the police officer (Brewer 2010, 2). Criminalizing both first-time border crossers and those that attempt to employ them may seem like a harsh but necessary measure to "control" the border. However, because capitalism and the need to survive are such driving forces for migration, these measures will not deter the desperate. Dr. Sorrells writes, "Migration is often the only viable alternative to provide food, clothing, and shelter for families" (2020, 3).
The American economy was built on immigrant labor (and slavery), yet Americans today view immigrants as unresourceful and incapable. They fail to realize the valuable economic, intellectual, and cultural resources that immigrants bring to America. In 1994, President Bill Clinton enacted the NAFTA trade agreement, whose parameters were presented as an effort to stimulate the Mexican economy. However, due to economic and policy failures from the United States, the Mexican economy struggled worse post-NAFTA (Miller 2010, 2). Many Americans fail to recognize the active role that the U.S. has played in weakening the Mexican economy and eliminating Mexican jobs, and that:
record numbers of migrants from Central America—primarily from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. In these cases, migration is "driven by a toxic mix of violence, poverty, food insecurity, climate change, political instability and corruption (Sorrells 2020, 3).
There are other ways to approach the humanitarian crises that continue to occur at our borders. President Trump was not reelected for a second term, so the onus for damage control is on the next administration. In order to implement systemic changes that can result in better border management and richer cultural exchange, we must begin with education and by addressing the power of hateful rhetoric used by some of our world leaders. The American public needs the current President to publicly recognize the transformation Americans have experienced over the last four years and why rhetoric that encourages separation, division, and socially constructed hierarchies is debilitating to the human race's evolution and success. Critical race theory needs to be embraced, and the populations of people rejecting and struggling with it need to reevaluate whether they care more about their own self-interests or the longevity of the species and a livable world for their children. We need to stop "othering" peoples through the false retelling of American and global history and take time to sit with the lesson that this type of fear and division has caused immense suffering for most of human history. We need to educate ourselves and our children about the realities of immigration and stop portraying the forced and often painful abandonment of one's home country as a criminal act. Changing the American perception of immigrants is crucial and could benefit both the United States as a whole, and those among us who are forced to leave their homes, and sometimes families, in economic desperation.
If the United States decides that it can continue to justify operating within a system of capitalism, despite its obvious moral and ethical implications, there is still much it can do to handle immigration more effectively. The U.S. currently has an opportunity to benefit economically from the influx of human and intellectual resources at the Southern border and lead the most powerful nations in the world toward social and economic equity. United States detention centers could be used to educate and rehabilitate some of these vulnerable people and create millions of American jobs. These include offering ESL, economics, and civics classes, setting up basic health and translation services for immigrants, and employing administrative and custodial staff at each intake location. Instead of imprisoning people who are already isolated, desperate, and without resources, the United States government can help these individuals fill jobs that we are struggling to fill post-pandemic. This especially applies to jobs that Americans seem suddenly unwilling to do, like service industry roles, agricultural work, sanitation jobs, and retail roles. Americans care so deeply today about the citizenship status of the people they "other," so why shouldn't we establish clear pathways to citizenship for those that seek it, as was the founding ethos for this country? The alternative possibilities to criminalization and imprisonment of immigrants are endless and almost always more beneficial for every party involved, except for America's wealthiest 1 percent.
Former President Trump's promises for mass deportation, a border wall, and harsh criminal measures against immigration ultimately did not get him reelected. Trump's campaign team likely believed that his outrageous rhetoric on hardline immigration tactics would win the votes of racist Americans. But when his policies didn't pan out, and all that was left was racist rhetoric, many conservative politicians and businesspeople stopped supporting him, both personally and financially. When confronted with civil rights demands after the death of George Floyd in 2020, that campaign foundation of "othering" and constructing social hierarchy put a bad taste in many voters' mouths. This contributed to a failed reelection campaign, one which the former President is still trying to deny and change the reality of. The truth is, Trump did change reality for many Americans, who no longer had to conceal their privilege and false sense of entitlement. However, today the population of unabashedly privileged Trump die-hards is dwindling, as we begin to self-reflect on our individual motivations and what the hell we were thinking in 2016.
American Civil Liberties Union, “Immigrants’ Rights” accessed 14 June 2021, https://www.aclu.org/issues/immigrants-rights
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