“not1moredeportation_DSC_0075” by Michael Fleshman is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Criminal. Murderer. Thief. These are just some of the words that have come to describe many immigrants (especially Mexican) who have entered this country illegally. Unquestionably, there are illegal immigrants that commit crimes. We can’t pretend that it doesn’t happen, especially with cases of drug smuggling rising during October. While there are legitimate concerns about criminals entering the country, the label “criminal” has been liberally applied to all illegal immigrants, especially those from Mexico. A narrative has been crafted in the United States that illegal immigrants are all criminals, out to steal American jobs and threatening our safety and sovereignty as a nation. The crimmigration narrative is something that has persisted throughout American history, and the rhetoric and reasoning behind the treatment of Mexican immigrants is just another page in the grand narrative the United States has woven. However, by understanding the history of immigration in the United States, recognizing the rhetoric in the narrative surrounding immigration, and considering human dignity, we can turn crimmigration back into immigration.

the racist history of american immigration

The treatment of Mexican illegal immigrants is not the first time that the United States has specifically targeted a minority group they felt threatened by demonstrating a precedent of violating human rights. The signing of Executive Order 9066 by FDR led to the relocation and detention of Japanese-American citizens or immigrants in detention centers after the bombing of Pearl Harbor for “security reasons.”

Another instance where the United States has discriminated against an immigrant group is through the The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which it made so that Chinese immigrants were not allowed to come to the United States for a period of 10 years. The law also made it so that Chinese immigrants were unable to become citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act was expanded in 1902 to make any Chinese immigration permanently illegal. The law lasted until 1943, when the Magnuson Act was passed during World War 2.

The revelation that families were separated at the border led to a wave of shock and outrage among Americans, as if our country is better than this and have let all of the discriminations of past groups behind during World War 2. The reality is right now, America really isn’t better than this, and while decades worth of time have passed since of the legislation passed by the United States and Chinese and Japanese people, it’s far from ancient history. We haven’t conquered discrimination against minority groups, immigration, and a large number of things, even if the narrative surrounding immigration says otherwise..

The current narrative surrounding Mexican immigrants

The Chinese Exclusion Act and Executive order 9066 both targeted specific groups legislatively. However, even without a specific law targeting them, Mexican immigrants have been deported the most of of every immigrant group, with 9 out of 10 of the 57 millions people to be deported from the United States since the 1880s being Mexican. This is especially important to note sense the U.S. also greatly benefits from the presence of immigrants who fill jobs in growing sectors of the job market. The inflammatory language that has been used when referring to Mexican immigrants however, would make you think otherwise. There is a distinct use of of rhetoric that emphasizes an “us” versus “them” mentality, which leads to the negative perception and devaluing of Mexican immigrants. Trump is cited as one of the main culprits for using the inflammatory rhetoric surrounding Mexican immigrants, but there are other officials in high places such as Mark Morgan, the director of ICE, that also contribute to the rhetoric surrounding the border and Mexican immigrants. The most notable rhetorical strategy used in the media however is the labeling of Mexican immigrants as criminals as well as a threat to the American way of life due to a lack of willingness or ability to integrate into American society. An unwillingness to adopt American culture places a rift between Mexican immigrants and the American public because if someone does not attempt to integrate, they can quickly be seen as an outsider and are further rejected by the American people. The reduction of Mexican immigrants as rapists or drug dealers also places them in the category of criminal, a group that probably has the lowest status in American society, further leading to negative perceptions and outright fear of Mexican immigrants. If Americans take Trump and other official’s words as the sole narrative narrative surrounding immigrants, there is an increased risk that we are not only feeding right into the palm of their hand, but failing to see beyond the rhetoric and recognize the humanity of Mexican immigrants.

immigration and the loss of human dignity

When someone has been reduced to a lower status in people’s minds, the empathy that people would normally experience for their circumstances and for immigrants as human beings is gradually worn away, until the image of what illegal immigrants are has been firmly established through the media narrative. The separation of families, and the trauma inflicted upon the children and adults who come to this country may be where the problem begins, but it certainly isn’t where it ends. For those who manage to enter the United States, the delegation to menial labor and many of those aspirations they held are met with hostility and crushed, as Jimmy Santiago Baca expresses in his poem “Immigrants in Our Own Land.” The American Dream is perhaps one of the most wonderful sources of inspiration for immigrants worldwide. To have that dream crushed from the outset is humiliating, as if pre-emptively saying that Mexican immigrants are the only people who can’t possibly make something of themselves in America. It runs against everything that we are as a nation to distinguish

Another reason that human dignity can often be lost is the simple fact that people have not had the opportunity to meet and interact with illegal immigrants or other minority groups themselves.

Immigrants are often labeled aliens, not just because they are foreign to the United States, but that culturally and ethnically, they may be as foreign and mysterious to the people living in America as aliens life forms. The reality is that except for areas such as California or Texas, Florida, which account for nearly 45% of immigrants in the United States, the chances of meeting a Mexican immigrant is more uncommon. There are likely large swaths of Americans who have never had the chance to interact with Mexican immigrants, and this becomes a problem because the fear of the foreign is ever present.

One final aspect of human dignity that is often brushed off is how dehumanizing and devastating the deportation process can be. The Netflix docuseries Immigration Nation gives an insight into how ICE treats illegal immigrants going through the deportation process, and how the organization has shifted from prioritizing capturing dangerous illegal immigrants, to all illegal immigrants, regardless of whether they have committed any crimes besides being in the U.S. illegally. The treatment of these people and some of the heartbreaking footage in the series highlights the trauma, loss, and lack of dignity many illegals immigrants Mexican or otherwise experience. As a nation, America

ReWriting the narrative

With all that being said, what can we do about this? How can we separate the criminal from the immigrant? Formally, those in power are in control of the laws that govern how immigrants are treated, and the media is often helping the government portray the narrative that benefits them the most. We can’t expect traditional news media or the government to answer all of the problems surrounding illegal immigrants. We have to take it upon ourselves to make the effort to undo the harmful narrative and erase the image of the the Mexican immigrants as criminals. While the United States has a history of targeting different immigrant groups, that does not mean it has to be our future. Being aware of the rhetoric being pushed by the media and certain leaders, recognizing the human dignity of immigrants, and learning from the mistakes of our earlier history are the only ways we can truly rewrite the narrative and change crimmigration into simply immigration.

Additional Sources

Documentary on Chinese Exclusion Act by PBS

List of documentaries on Japanese Internment Camps

Link to The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation by Leo R. Chavez on Amazon

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