Illegal, Alien, or Immigrant: The Politics of Immigration Reform

By Lina Newton | Go to book overview
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5
Problem Mexicans
Race, Nationalism, and Their Limits in
Contemporary Immigration Policy

As elected officials, members of Congress are conscious of the values and traditions of the public they serve, as well as of the society of which they themselves are a product. While it is no longer politically acceptable for immigration policies to single out groups for exclusion based on race or national origin, legislators continue to distinguish between the “right” and “wrong” kinds of immigrants, accomplishing these distinctions through rhetorical devices that forge distinctions between “us” and “them.” This may on its face seem unremarkable since, at its essence, immigration policy is set up to administer the relationship between foreigners and the state. However, discourse that conveys who the problem foreigners are assists in assuring the public that government has narrowed the field and identified target groups needing control and restriction. Whether the policies discussed accomplish their stated goals is immaterial: the public spectacle of immigration control suggests that government attends to sources of economic insecurity and social instability. And yet, the process must be viewed as more than theater, because the emotive appeal rests in the actual accomplishment of social divisions that distribute or deny real benefits to groups and individuals.1

The previous chapters focused on the instrumental nature of social constructions—the representation of target populations in the service of policy choice and policy justification. What follows is a deeper investigation of the language employed to distinguish immigrants for the purposes of public assurance that policies are just and fair in their allocation of benefits and burdens. While it may seem that discourse about immigrants in both policy periods employed “neutral” or descriptive terms (illegal, legal, criminal, guest-worker, etc.), it is easy to uncover the many ways in which these constructions are not neutral at all. The language of deserving and undeserving captures a host of other social divisions, and

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