A Distorted Image of Immigrants

By Susan Bibler Coutin

My Mommy Is an Immigrant” by Geoff Livingston. #nomuslimban protest in front of the Supreme Court. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The three immigration-related executive orders that the Trump administration issued during its first two weeks in office present a distorted image of immigrants as criminals, terrorists, and dangerous. While this is not surprising, given Donald Trump’s statements as a candidate, it is worth interrogating this image to understand how the executive orders draw on but also seek to shape understandings of immigrants that circulate in the popular imagination. It is also worth considering how immigrants are impacted not only by the orders themselves–one of which has been placed under injunction–but also by the promulgation of this image.

The first two orders were issued on January 25, 2017 with the titles, “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements” and “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.” The “Border Security” order authorizes construction of the wall that Trump promised his followers, as well as increases in the number and capacity of detention facilities, detention in more cases, returning people to their countries of origin pending hearings, hiring 5,000 more Border Patrol agents, reporting on federal aid sent to Mexico, and preventing abuse of the asylum system. The “Public Safety in the Interior” order establishes incredibly broad enforcement priorities, including apprehension and deportation of those convicted of or charged with a crime, who committed crimes whether or not they were convicted, who have an old deportation order, who committed fraud or abused a program, or who “in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.” This order also beefs up U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by hiring 10,000 additional officers, reinstates federal-state law enforcement collaborations, defunds sanctuary cities and states, provides funding for victims of crimes committed by “criminal aliens,” and requires reporting on noncitizens who are incarcerated in the United States.

The third order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” was issued on January 27, 2017, and has garnered more public attention. This order bans entry of noncitizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries (since it was issued, lawful permanent residents were first allowed to apply for waivers, then were exempted from the policy see: https://www.cbp.gov/border-security/protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states), suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, requires completion of a biometric entry-exit tracking system, suspends the Visa Interview program, and requires reporting on the number of noncitizens who commit acts of terrorism, are convicted on terrorist related charges, support terrorism, undergo radicalization, or engage in gender violence in the United States. This order resulted in widespread chaos at airports as individuals who had valid entry documents were detained or turned away, while protesters gathered, chanting, “No ban, no wall! Sanctuary for all!’ and other slogans. The states of Washington and Minnesota challenged the constitutionality of this executive order, leading a federal court to stay many of its provisions on February 4, 2017, an action that was upheld by the 9th circuit court of appeals on February 9. Further litigation now seems headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Protesters are in June 2011 in support of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American studies program. Arizona state law HB 2281 effectively ended the program saying it was divisive. A case against the law, González v. Douglas, continues. By Arizona Community Press. CC BY-SA 4.0.

These executive orders use a number of rhetorical devices to stigmatize noncitizens. Noncitizens are dehumanized through repeated use of the term “alien” throughout the documents. The rare exceptions to this practice include the few statements referring to the need for humanitarian considerations for “an individual” or “unaccompanied alien children” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/25/executive-order-border-security-and-immigration-enforcement-improvements). Noncitizens are further denigrated by association with such terms as “illegal,” “terror,” “terrorists,” “criminal,” “danger,” “violation,” “unlawful,” “narcotics, “contraband,” “threat,” “fraud,” and “misrepresentation.” The orders also exaggerate both through references to quantity (“tens of thousands of removable aliens”) (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/25/presidential-executive-order-enhancing-public-safety-interior-united) and quality (“illegal immigration presents a clear and present danger”) (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/25/executive-order-border-security-and-immigration-enforcement-improvements). The orders also make assertions without evidence regarding the dangers that not only undocumented immigrants but all noncitizens potentially pose, thus engaging in fear-mongering. This distorted image of noncitizens as dangerous criminals and terrorists contrasts sharply with the reality that millions of noncitizens work, live, and study in the United States, where they have become part of communities.

Even though Trump’s immigration-related executive orders have been challenged on many fronts, there is a risk that the stigmatized image that they promote will be repeated so often that it comes to be believed – something that seemingly has already happened among those fearful of what Leo Chavez refers to as the alleged “Latino Threat” posed by immigration to the United States. For example, the reporting requirements that are established through these orders will compile statistics shaped by the assumptions behind the orders themselves. There is no requirement, for example, to report on numbers of noncitizens who prevent crimes, save lives, thwart terrorist attacks, or promote gender equality. Likewise, there is no effort to gather data on the ways that communities with high numbers of foreign born individuals thrive.

Furthermore, this continual effort to judge immigrants’ worth leaves scars within immigrants themselves. Diana, a thirty-three year-old immigrant woman that UC Irvine doctoral student Gray Abarca and I interviewed, spoke of the stigmatization that she had experienced: “I always even felt proud of like being an immigrant. It is important and we are strong, I know how valuable we are and the contributions that we make. But once I started to talk to others, my situation was that I began to realize that I was ashamed… When I looked in the mirror, I was ashamed.”

Strikingly, her image of herself had become distorted. Distorted images promulgated by powerful officials therefore not only are poor bases for policy, in addition, they potentially manipulate public thinking, creating a moral panic and harming the individuals they target.

self-photoSusan Bibler Coutin is Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine, and President Emeritus of the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology. Her research has examined social, political, and legal activism surrounding immigration issues, particularly immigration from El Salvador to the United States. Her most recent book, Exiled Home: Transnational Salvadoran Youth in the Aftermath of Violence was published by Duke University Press in 2016.

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