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The (de)Construction of the “Illegal” Immigrant

Latinos respond to Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s derisive statements about Mexican immigrants have mobilized a large portion of the Latino community in the United States. Faced with the same old accusations that Mexican immigrants are criminals, drug-dealers, or rapists, businesses and public figures such as Univision, NBC, ESPN, NASCAR, Macy’s, chefs Jose Andres and Geoffrey Zakarian, Miss USA contestants, and even mayor of New York Bill de Blasio, took action to boycott the multimillionaire businessman and reality show host. Artists such as America Ferreira and Ricky Martin, among others, publicly denounced Trump’s repeated defamatory remarks, calling him racist and misinformed.

Days after the first statements made by the real estate magnate, now on the top of the shortlist for the Republican candidacy, an undocumented Mexican immigrant – who had served a sentence for having entered the country illegally – killed a woman in San Francisco, in circumstances that remain vague. A single incident such as this one, which of course is much more widely covered by the media than those studies which prove that crime and immigration are actually negatively correlated, has been used by Trump and other Republicans to defend arguments and policies that have, for decades, contributed to the construction of immigrants as “illegals,” as dangerous and violent individuals.

Although the debate about migration and crime is hardly news, the discussion sparked by Trump’s words reveals two important but opposing tendencies.

Against all expectations, Trump’s popularity rose in the polls in the wake of his controversial statements on immigration. This is further evidence of something we already know: there is a segment of the population that identifies with the negative portrayal of immigration as a threat to their security and their identity.

And yet, the anti-immigrant arguments have increasing political costs within the Latino community. The mobilization against Trump signals a growing consensus that has been gestating for some time among Latinos. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s unfortunate proposals about self-deportation of “illegal” immigrants cost him dearly in the polls when it came to Latino voters: he received 27% of the Latino vote compared to prior Republican candidates John McCain’s (31% in 2008) or George W. Bush (44% in 2004). In 2009 CNN cancelled the Lou Dobb’s program — known for its defamatory reports about immigrants – partly in response to critique coming from the Latino community, with which CNN had been trying to connect through its special series “Latino in America.” Another example is the shift in the language used by the primary news outlets in this country, namely the movement away from the phrase “illegal immigrant” or the noun “illegal/s” to refer to people born outside of the United States who reside in the country without authorization. Although Fox News insisted on the language of “illegal immigrant” during the first Republican debate, in the following debate there was a discernible shift. While Trump stopped himself short from repeating his statement about Mexican immigrants as criminals, CNN mostly used the phrase “undocumented immigrant” responding to pressures from the organizations Define American and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Although the majority of Republicans profess to be in favor of greater immigration enforcement and address the issue as part of the national security agenda, it becomes clearer each time that extreme positions like Trump’s have greater costs than benefits in the electoral terrain on a national scale. As much was demonstrated by National Republican Committee’s appeal to Donald Trump to tone down his statements against immigrants because they are damaging the party’s efforts to change their image before the Latino electorate.

Although this discourse is less and less acceptable, the fact is that anti-immigration laws in the local arena continue to be profitable in many places across the United States. This is especially so in midwestern and southeastern states where the immigrant population has grown in recent years. And although public opinion in general supports measures to regularize the status of undocumented immigrants that meet the standards of good moral standing, 26 states are opposed to measures to expand access to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows children who arrived prior to the age of 15 and immigrants with children who are residents and American citizens to obtain a temporary permit to reside and work in the country. The appeal that stands in the way of expanding this program has stalled measures that would benefit millions of immigrants, but those who vigorously oppose DACA have yet to incur any political costs.

The idea of the immigrant as “illegal” has been constructed over the course of years due to laws, policies, a prison industry that benefits from detentions, and a media discourse that makes a simplistic distinction between “good” immigrants and “bad” immigrants. Due to their accents, their level of education, their beliefs and culture, and above all, the color of their skin, through the history of the United States, Chinese, Eastern European, Irish, Italian, German and now Mexican immigrants have been considered not only inferior but also a threat to security, public health, and national identity.

Why does Trump’s baseless argument that immigrants, and specifically Latino immigrants, are associated with crime have resonance among a sector of the population? Beyond the data that clearly disprove this notion, what can be done to change these perceptions?

Hundreds of studies recognize the contributions immigrants have made to the economy through taxes, participation in the consumer economy, specialized labor, investments, and the creation of businesses. The blog Crimmigration documents dozens of reports that prove the link between crime and immigration is only a political tool, and that, in reality, immigration brings the opposite tendency: the more immigration, the less crime. A recent Immigration Policy Center report maintains that the growth of the undocumented immigrant population between 1990 and 2013 coincides with a 48% decline in violent crime. It has been proven, furthermore, that the majority of immigrants that have been deported in recent years — and are considered criminals — were not charged with serious crimes but for immigration-related offenses such as unauthorized entry or reentry, or for minor crimes like drug possession or traffic violations.

Recently, a group of Latino immigrants in Canada told me the same thing I’ve heard many times in the United States: their primary preoccupation (independent of their status) is to respect the law — from crossing the street only when it is appropriate, to using all required safety gear when riding a bike and separating garbage properly — in order to avoid giving some authority an excuse to question the validity of their immigration status. Even so, racial prejudice has given sufficient cause to detain and deport Latinos without prior offenses.

The construction of the illegal immigrant cannot be separated from racial discrimination and must be framed in the context of the massive incarceration of people of color in the United States, policies that are central to the cycle of marginalization, criminalization, and violence. A revealing piece of data demonstrates that incarceration rates are higher among second generation children of immigrants with low levels of education — and Latinos have the highest drop-out rates — than for those who were born outside of the country.

A study by Irene Bloemraad, Kim Voss, and Fabiana Silva offers little encouragement about the possible paths to change people’s negative attitudes toward immigration. According to this study, whether people are presented with arguments based on human rights, family unity, or economic contribution, their perceptions of immigrants hardly budge.

In the face of this difficulty, a fundamental step toward changing negative perceptions and dissolving the association between immigrants and crime is to stop linking people who immigrate here to the word “illegal.” Much progress has been made to change this language in the media, but influential periodicals like the New York Times and television channels of considerable reach continue to defend the use of the term “illegal immigrant.” (A recent piece by Emily Bazelon discusses this controversy.)

The responses and actions taken in opposition to Trump demonstrate that the Latino community and its allies together can exercise the political weight that has been anticipated for years, especially with the support of businesses and public figures that gradually have gotten involved in the debate and taken action. But these coalitions are still weak and there are no sustained efforts to respond in a consistent manner to the stereotypes that are replicated by the media.

For example, in 2008 Mexican activists in the United States created an anti-defamation league, modeling itself after examples such as the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). The American-Mexican Anti-Discrimination Alliance (AMADA) was a first attempt to respond to these attacks in a systematic way, imposing fines on media outlets and people who defame the community, and strategizing about how to disseminate information that counters such attacks. Like many other failed attempts by the Mexican-American community to create national alliances, AMADA quickly disappeared. This stands in stark contrast with other activist groups, such as the undocumented youth (i.e. the Dreamers) who have demonstrated that it is possible to unite a diverse community and transcend internal divisions to construct a new vocabulary in opposition to that of “illegality,” and to use the weight of their own life histories to change public discourse and policy.

More than putting immigration issues at the center of the debate, as he claims to have done, Donald Trump is shining a bright and unflattering light on the sanctioned bigotry that still sullies national discourse.This is an opportunity for the Mexican and Latino community as a whole, and not just their prominent advocates, to use the momentum to develop sustained involvement in a debate that will not end after this election cycle.

This piece was originally published in Horizontal. Translated from Spanish by Ali Shames-Dawson.

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Alexandra Délano Alonso

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