Immigration on the Public Mind: Immigration Reform in the Obama Administration

Article excerpt

THE MERE MENTION OF THE WORD "IMMIGRATION" IN PUBLIC DISCOURSE OFTEN RESULTS in technical and moral arguments about the presence of Mexican immigrants in U.S. society. Although Mexicans are not the only ones immigrating to the United States, in public discourse immigration is regarded as a "Mexican" problem. Despite a long history of Mexican immigration to the United States, and the contributions Mexican immigrants have made to the social and cultural fabric of American society, Mexican immigrants are portrayed in negative social roles and in threatening images. Fueling negative portrayals and public policy responses to Mexican immigrants is the general societal perception that Mexican immigrants threaten the distribution of valued resources. For example, news stories about undocumented Mexican immigrants seeking medical and educational services have been instrumental in prompting politicians to devise legislation that restricts their access to public-sector services (Marchevsky and Theoharis, 2008; Sanchez, 2007).

The media's portrayal of Mexican immigrants as reluctant to assimilate into U.S. society, or to learn the English language, motivated California voters to approve Propositions 187 and 227 (Aguirre, 2002). Proposition 227 dismantled bilingual education in California so as to force Mexican immigrant children to learn English, while Proposition 187 barred Mexican immigrants from access to public assistance and social services. Unsurprisingly, both propositions fueled volatile nativist sentiments in California over who is entitled to reside in the state. Interestingly, these propositions were a catalyst for attacking diversity in the state's population, resulting in the passage of an anti-affirmative action initiative, Proposition 209.

Transforming the issue of immigration into a moral crisis in U.S. has been a public preoccupation with media depictions of a swarm of Mexican immigrants who are robbing Americans of jobs and housing. The public's perception of Mexican immigrants as a threat to social behavior and civic values motivated the Hazelton, Pennsylvania, city council to pass a law that prevented Mexican immigrants from working and living within the city's limits. City ordinances and state initiatives that target Mexican immigrants represent a public policy designed to protect the quality of life enjoyed by Americans and to shield civil society from the threat of Mexican immigrants. Perhaps the most egregious example of this policy is Congress' decision to authorize the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border; in effect, the built environment is used to separate Americans and Mexicans.

The news media have undoubtedly been instrumental in constructing images that inform and shape perceptions and meanings in the public mind, and these images are often reflected in public policy responses to immigration. Moreover, the media influence the association between people's perceptions of social issues and their political evaluations of these issues (Domke, McCoy, and Torres, 1999). As a representative of the public's collective sentiments, the political state promotes public policy that reflects the public mind.

Immigration Policy

Barack Obama's election as president of the United States has revitalized the need for social change based on the common good. According to President Obama, "When I ran for president, I did so because I believed that ... it was possible for us to bring change to Washington." (1) In response to the president's call for change, advocates for immigration reform hope that he will promote a policy that is more responsive to people's needs, rather than an expression of bureaucratic efficiency in dealing with immigrants. Latino congressional leaders hope that President Obama will honor his campaign promise to put millions of undocumented immigrant workers on a "pathway to citizenship" during his first year in office (Wallsten, 2009a). However, given the rather large and complex problems the Obama administration faces--the banking crisis, escalating wars in the Middle East, global warming, and an emerging battle over health care reform--there may not be room on the president's agenda for immigration reform during his first year in office. …