MODEL IMMIGRANTS AND UNDESIRABLE ALIENS: The Cost of Immigration Reform in the 1990s

By Barber, Llana | American Studies, October 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

MODEL IMMIGRANTS AND UNDESIRABLE ALIENS: The Cost of Immigration Reform in the 1990s


Barber, Llana, American Studies


MODEL IMMIGRANTS AND UNDESIRABLE ALIENS: The Cost of Immigration Reform in the 1990s. By Christina Gerken. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2013.

In the mid-1990s, the 104th Congress debated and passed three laws that would have a profound impact on U.S. immigration policy: the Illegal Immigration Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). The deliberation of these three pieces of legislation involved wide-ranging congressional and media debates about U.S. immigration policy and how it ought to be reformed. In Model Immigrants and Undesirable Aliens Christina Gerken argues that these debates constitute "a complex discursive field" (69), which can be analyzed with a Foucauldian approach "to examine how exactly the 1990s immigration reform discourse produced a consensus that stricter immigration laws . . . were necessary, rational, and economically profitable" (7).

Ultimately, Gerken argues, the 1990s immigration reform discourse focused on two main discursive threads: 1.) a neoliberal logic that made economic concerns primary in determining U.S. immigration policy and 2.) a sharp contrast between "legal" and "illegal" immigrants, involving tightening restrictions for the former and broad dehumanization and criminalization of the latter.

First, these three immigration-related reforms reflected a neoliberal effort to shifteconomic responsibility for social welfare from the state to individuals and families. For example, PRWORA restricted immigrant access to benefits and made immigrant sponsors legally responsible for immigrant support. The 1990s immigration reform discourse emphasized that the privilege of immigration should be reserved for individuals and families who not only demonstrated the correct morality (heteronormative family values and respect for immigration law), but who also demonstrated rational pursue of economic opportunity (strong work ethic, pursuit of education, and maintenance of small, cohesive families). …

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