For Their Own Good: Benevolent Rhetoric and Exclusionary Language in Public Officials' Discourse on Immigrant-Related Issues

By Menjivar, Cecilia; Kil, Sang H. | Social Justice, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

For Their Own Good: Benevolent Rhetoric and Exclusionary Language in Public Officials' Discourse on Immigrant-Related Issues


Menjivar, Cecilia, Kil, Sang H., Social Justice


As EDELMAN (1984a: 25) OBSERVES, OFFICIAL CUES ARE A KEY INFLUENCE IN public opinion on social issues. Public officials' discourse on immigrant related issues can thus powerfully affect the lives of immigrants. The debate over immigration in print media such as news dailies--the issues introduced, their definition and presentation, and the policies called for--has often been inscribed in language that portrays immigrants and immigration in negative terms. Media studies have amply demonstrated the use of overtly biased language in politically charged debates. In this article, we focus on language that is not as openly negative, but is ultimately as exclusionary as the more explicitly negative discourse.

To speak to many groups, politicians must be flexible in their range of language use (Moosmuller, 1989). We argue that when liberal public officials attempt to be sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, their compassionate language can mask divisive tactics that effectively deny immigrants vital resources. This is not the case for every public official or for each instance in which they discuss immigrant related issues in a benevolent manner. It occurs when such rhetoric is used to criminalize immigrants' behaviors instead of proposing viable alternatives to improve the conditions being condemned. When the benevolent rhetoric of public officials is based on law and order, this restricts immigrants' actions and effectively substantiates the more restrictionist language (and actions) of opponents of immigration. We focus on public officials' use of subtle exclusionary language because their words often translate into actions with potentially detrimental consequences.

Our case studies demonstrate how "liberal," benevolent rhetoric in the U.S. can disguise exclusionary practices toward immigrants. The term "liberal" here refers to the political orientation that attempts to advocate measures of progressive reform. For us, benevolent rhetoric is "liberal" because such language shows sympathy for immigrant-related issues. Discourse analysis exposes benevolent language as a strategy used by public officials to make their verbal claims more compassionate or apolitical, while protecting access to resources and thus effectively excluding poor immigrants. We concentrate on issues that affect Latino immigrants (though some also affect other groups), since they have become the center of heated debates in policy circles and among the public. In California during the 1990s, for instance, controversy arose in the immigration debate over negatively framed electoral measures such as the "Save our State" initiative (Proposition 187, which sought to deny emergency healthcare and education to undocumented immigrants), an anti-affirmative action measure (Prop. 209), and an English-only initiative (Prop. 277). Each attempted to cut off immigrants and minorities from access to state resources. By the late 1990s, the exclusionary tactics of many public officials became less vitriolic regarding immigration. The following case studies examine their language with respect to the immediate needs of immigrants: work (food vendors), health (unregulated medicine), and housing. Because this practice is not confined to one geographical area, examples come from across the country. As immigrants face increasing opposition in host societies around the world, particularly in industrialized nations, lessons learned from the U.S. could apply to those contexts.

Public officials who use benevolent subterfuge on immigrant-related matters are not motivated merely by racial bias toward immigrants. Class differences and citizenship complicate the use of this language. Examining this rhetoric through the lens of ethnicity and race alone can distort the analysis, for in many of our cases, exclusionary language is used by people in traditional positions of power or in the majority, as well as by established immigrants.

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For Their Own Good: Benevolent Rhetoric and Exclusionary Language in Public Officials' Discourse on Immigrant-Related Issues
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