Illegal Immigration Debate Continues To Discredit Hispanics


With Congress back in session on Monday, the House of Representatives is already dodging a vote on the Senate’s immigration bill. Representatives are justifying the delay by focusing their attention on deciding whether to attack Syria and formulating a plan to prevent a potential government shutdown. In several comments made during their recess, Republican lawmakers, including John Boehner, have made it clear that the House will not pass an immigration bill that does not reflect the “will of the American people.”

One statement in particular not only continued to fuel the immigration debate, but also added to the association that illegal immigrants are only from Hispanic descent. In “an objective analysis,” Rep. Steve King, (R-Iowa), said that for every immigrant valedictorian that qualifies under the DREAM Act, “There’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

While his remark is an extreme example of stereotyping, it is an underlying problem that persists in the immigration debate. According to the latest Pew Hispanic Center research in 2011, Hispanics make up 78% of the undocumented population in the U.S. The large percentage makes it easier to associate them with causing the “unresolvable” issue. Yet, the public rarely attributes other minorities, like Filipinos, with contributing to the problem due to preconceived notions that have persisted for years. It is also largely a result from the way the media, politicians, and advocates frame the immigration debate for the general public’s understanding. 

The way people view immigration reform can be explained through the basics of political communication. Walter Lippmann mentions in his book Public Opinion that people cannot fully understand an event, unless they have experienced it firsthand. Only a few people have experienced the events that contribute to both sides of the immigration debate. For the rest of the public, “The only feeling that [the population] can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event.” In other words, preconceived ideas about a certain event can lead someone to define an issue in a way that fits their understanding.

Historical evidence framing Hispanics as the problem with illegal immigration contributes to the preconceived notions that many people have today. The attribution began with the influx of Mexican immigrants during the 1950s. In 1965, legislators passed the U.S. Immigration and National Act in an effort to decrease Mexican immigration. The rhetoric in the Act directly associated unauthorized immigrants as “aliens,” which politicians also used to convince the American public to support the legislation.

Subsequent political communication theorists suggest that in order for people to comprehend political issues, information must be “constructed” in simpler terms. Utilizing and repeating key words, images, and symbols conjure up a mental image that people can resonate with. Politicians use these tools to their advantage, especially when they want to frame social conditions as problems.

President Ronald Reagan changed the discourse about undocumented workers and constructed it as a social issue threatening national security. At the time undocumented Mexicans were seen “as alien and low status.” Reagan fueled the narrative by suggesting that the “United States had lost control’ of its borders to an ‘invasion’ of illegal migrants.”

The powerful rhetoric conjured up images of foreigners attacking American values, which furthered anti-immigrant sentiment. Moreover, Reagan’s immigration law made it impossible for legal entry into the U.S., causing a rise in undocumented immigrants. Subsequently, it also led to a rise in stereotyping all Mexicans as “illegals.” 

Thirty years later, lawmakers are utilizing the public’s preconceived notions about illegal immigration to build support against reformation. Many attribute them for wanting to steal American’s jobs to “depleting community resources.” Furthermore, since immigration is a public and political interest, the media covers every detail heavily. In doing so, they, whether intentionally or unintentionally, repeat the statements politicians make against illegal immigrants. Repeating specific key words continues to make the association more salient in the public consciousness. Not only that, but the media usually calls on pundits of Hispanic descent to comment on the issues, further instilling into people’s mind who the debate is affecting.

In protest against using the word “illegal” due to its racial connotation, the student government at UCLA described the underlying racial stereotype best, saying:

“We are aware that certain racially derogatory language used in media, political discourse and other institutional settings has historically bolstered the foundation for racially harmful actions including racial profiling practices, punitive policies targeting socially marginalized groups, hate crimes and violence.”

Unfortunately, the historical and continual association with the Hispanic and Mexican community to illegal immigration is deeply rooted in the American understanding for the attributions to change any time soon. While immigration reform is a necessary step for the U.S., the unnecessary targeting is not.