September 22, 2014

The Child-Migrant Crisis, Stereotypes, and Immigration

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

On a recent trip to California from the Midwest, I decided to take advantage of the long flight to relax, read one of my Australian murder mystery novels, use my free drink ticket for a glass of wine, and eat a bar of dark chocolate.

During the first hour of the five-hour flight, I settled in and began reading my e-book. The woman sitting to my left decided that she wanted to talk, and asked “So what do you think about all of this?!” I muttered that I didn’t know and went back to reading.

Again the woman interrupted me and said “This, here read it. What do you think about all these illegals coming here to this country?” I sighed, muttered again, and tried to go back to reading.

But I couldn’t – instead I had an inner debate on whether I should engage with this woman, confront her, or go back to reading. All this time she continued talking:

I mean, I don’t mind if they come here legally and work and pay into the system, but they don’t and I don’t care if these are children that we’re talking about…this person here in the paper wants us to give them vouchers for private school! I work hard and I had to pay to send my kids to private school and these people get to come here illegally and just go to school for free! No they need to leave! I mean don’t you agree?!

This was more of a statement than a question. I said no and again tried to go back to reading, but she continued:

And then they take all our jobs, they’ve taken all the jobs from African-Americans and from women! They’re taking all the nursing jobs! And they just don’t pay into the system. So we have all this unemployment, because employers would rather pay someone under the table than hire Americans. And then all these Mexicans live fifteen to a household, UGH! It’s just disgusting.

The child-migrant crisis that my neighbor highlighted has received some major press in the last few months. As Aviva Chomsky notes, the number of children migrating from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras into the U.S. had been steadily rising since 2000, but is now declining. Many of these children are fleeing extreme violence and poverty, and/or are hoping to reunite with family already in the United States. According to data from UN’s Office of Drugs and Crime’s Global Study on Homicide, Central America (primarily El Salvador, Guatamala, and Honduras) has one of the highest sub-regional homicide rates in the world.

Contrary to my neighbor’s complaint, these children are staying in this country legally through mandates outlined by Congress. According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2013, Border Patrol staff are required by law “to take child migrants…into custody, screen them, and transfer them to the Office of Refugee Resettlement…the law tasks [the Department of Health and Human Services] with either finding a suitable relative to whom the child can be released, or putting the child in long-term foster care” (Lind 2014).

To her point that immigrants are taking all of the jobs, economist Giovanni Peri found that undocumented workers do not compete with skilled laborers, they instead complement them. Furthermore, he claims that workers in states with high populations of undocumented workers make more money and work more hours. But are they a drain on social services? A report by the Brookings Institute highlights that immigrants (both legal and undocumented) pay more into “the system” via taxes than they take out via social services.   

Furthermore, as sociologist Claude S. Fischer notes in his blog Made in America, historically most European immigrants to the U.S. received aid via tax dollars and many of these immigrants arrived illegally.

Given all these facts, I wondered why my neighbor on the plane had so much animosity towards children trying to escape extreme poverty and violence. As a sociologist, I wondered if she was an anomaly in her opinions, or if her views were common amongst Americans. According to a Gallup Poll on immigration, nationally adults’ views on immigration have not changed much when we compare data from June 2001 to data from June 2014.

If Americans’ views on immigration have stayed roughly the same, I wondered why my neighbor continued to believe the stereotypical tropes of immigrants from Latin America? Why hold on to this narrative? What purpose does it serve?

Recently, on the Melissa Harris-Perry show, anthropologist Jonathan Rosa talked about the fear of Latin@ immigration within the United States (the term Latin@ provides a more gender neutral and inclusive form of Latina/o).

Rosa highlighted that this fear works to create anxiety around Latin@s entering the country and crossing the border without authorization. This operates to further fan the flames of an active “war on whites” rhetoric that conservative talk show hosts and politicians espouse. At the same time as Leo Chavez notes in his book, The Latino Threat, this discourse extends the stereotype of Latin@s as economic, cultural, and political threats to the United States.

Several scholars, including Manuel Pastor, have highlighted the current use of this “border crisis” is a political tactic by Republicans to sway voters to the right during the mid-term elections. Give the power of the Latin@ vote in Obama’s 2008 election, Pastor notes that Republicans should be working towards courting the Latino vote rather than alienating a group that in the next few years will comprise “11 million votes.”

This could be a viable path, especially since the Obama administration has deported more immigrants from Latin American countries annually than our previous president’s administration did. This isn’t to say that all Latin@s believe in immigration reform or that all Latin@s have a unified voice regarding politics. Like any group, there is a diversity of opinions and beliefs. Yet, it appears that the current political climate does not account for that diversity.

How do rhetoric and stereotypes affect the way you think about politics? What about social issues (such as immigration)?

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