Monday, June 23, 2008

Immigration, public discourse and xenophobic frames

By Yusuf Sarfati, Research Assistant at the Kirwan Institute

“You’ve got a wholesale invasion, the greatest invasion in human history, coming across your southern border, changing the composition and character of your country” are the words Pat Buchanan—the author of State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America—uttered on Fox News’ Hannity and Colmes last year. As exemplified in Buchanan’s speech and book, the nativists (see note below) use frames such as “illegal aliens,” “invasion of our country,” or “foreign hoards” to analyze the issue of immigration and view the immigrants in the United States.

These frames—analytical constructs—dehumanize and criminalize the (undocumented) immigrants, and portray them as enemies threatening the national unity of the United States. As shown by numerous tragic examples in the history of human kind, the first step in any hate-crime is to dehumanize a group of people and turn them into scapegoats for the social, economic, and other ills of your country. Once this is achieved, once people start to perceive a particular group as something less than human, and once these kinds of frames are injected into the public discourse, it is much easier to convince lay people to commit hate-crimes against this group.

In fact, recently Barack Obama addressed this issue and claimed that the rhetoric of the anti-Latino talk hosts is directly related to the fact that hate-crimes committed against Hispanics increased last year. Similarly, the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed to the fact that racially motivated crimes committed against Latinos, irrespective of their immigration status, increased by thirty five percent from 2003 to 2006.

The nativists are unfortunately not marginalized and find prolific venues in the mainstream cable media to perpetuate these frames and inject xenophobia to the public discourse. A recent special report by the Media Matters Action Network exposes not only the vitriolic discourse surrounding the immigration debate but also the fear and loathing—creating myths about undocumented immigrants in the mainstream cable media. By analyzing the shows of three cable commentators, namely Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck, the report finds that certain urban legends, such as the construction of a NAFTA Superhighway, the “reconquista” of the Southwest or the outspread of leprosy by undocumented immigrants, are frequently discussed in these shows. In addition, the commentators perpetuate the xenophobic frames by inviting the nativists into their programs.

Certainly, the U.S. needs to have a debate around the immigration policy and this should entail different and opposing views, as in every policy debate. Yet it is unacceptable that the vocabulary of this public debate would be hijacked by the xenophobic frames of the nativists. Words to define issues are not innocent simple tools. Words have ideological consequences and shape people’s perception of other people and the reality around us. Institutions, such as the news media, create webs of meaning by transmitting certain frames to the public. It is not the utterance of one word or a single sentence, but the dissemination of dehumanizing frames through a web of institutions that creates racial hierarchies among groups and the committing of hate-crimes against fellow human beings.

Note: Nativism can be broadly defined as an ideology that combines belief in the superiority of one’s country with a fear of outsiders and “foreign” ideas (xenophobia). Nativists believe that immigrants cannot or will not develop a primary allegiance to the United States, making newcomers a threat to national unity. For the definition see “Nativist Bedfellows The Christian Right Embraces Anti-Immigrant Politics” The Public Eye Summer 2008 V. 22, No.2 p.20

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