Immigration Coverage Ignores Racialized History

Sam White, Opinions Editor

In the time since August, when 18-year-old Michael Brown joined the rapidly growing ranks of Black men unlawfully killed by police, several long-overdue discussion topics have graced the media’s spotlight: police brutality, institutional diversity and representation, officer accountability and, above all, the prevalence of systemic racism in 21st-century America. When a disturbingly similar shooting in nearby St. Louis took the life of Vonderrit Myers on Wednesday, many news outlets were quick off the mark in continuing these crucial conversations. Yet the mainstream media has largely failed to extend these analytical frameworks to another primetime news context where they’re no less necessary: immigration reform.

For many Americans, the term “immigration” likely conjures up images of unaccompanied, dark-skinned children flooding en masse over the United States’ southern border; these racialized scenes are the ones the media has planted in the public imagination. Accompanying these televised images, beneath crisis-professing headlines and security-oriented narration, are depictions of lighter-skinned Border Patrol agents and detention center administrators presiding over — and speaking to cameras on behalf of — visibly helpless Latinx children. Policy experts, almost all of them white, give interviews rationalizing deportation by discussing it in dehumanizing terms of accommodation shortages, disease threats, drug trafficking and crime statistics.

This is the immigration at the heart of public discourse. However, while it’s true that tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have crossed the border in the past year, this is by no means the only form of immigration occurring in the United States. Census data indicate that only around half of America’s foreign-born population migrated from Latin American countries, including South American and Caribbean nations, with the remainder coming from elsewhere in the world.

Rarely does the word “immigration” invoke images of these other immigrants. Almost never does it connote immigration paths like the one my parents (then an up-and-coming, married, white, British couple) took. The reason, conveniently omitted from political discussion, is simple: These immigrants from overseas — many educated, white or both — are deemed desirable; the mass media’s immigrant stereotype, the brown-skinned Central American youth, is not.

American immigration policy is, and always was, deeply racialized. From the nation’s earliest days, no factor determined the degree of nativism various immigrant groups would face upon arrival more accurately than their ethnicity — specifically in terms of perceived racial differences from the white Anglo-Saxon mainstream. Even darker-skinned subgroups of people who would today be considered “white” faced harsh, racialized prejudice in the decades following their arrival.

Immigration rates peaked shortly before the turn of the 20th century, and nativist sentiment rose to meet it. In the name of security, national identity and representative democracy (as determined by Anglo-Saxon men), racialized anti-immigrant prejudices soon seeped into law and policy. In the Naturalization Act of 1870, Congress first framed eligibility for naturalization in terms of whiteness, sparking decades of cultural and judicial debates over what exactly made a person “white.” Congress went further in 1882 when it passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively barred all but select few groups of Chinese immigrants from citizenship on grounds of racial inferiority.

The exclusion framework the law established was far-reaching. It almost certainly helped to set the stage for the census-derived quota system of the Johnson-Reed Act, enacted after the first World War with the unabashed purpose of stemming the flow of immigration both from other parts of Asia and from Jewish populations in southern and eastern Europe. Ardent supporters of this exclusionary system, which remained in effect until 1965, included the Ku Klux Klan.

Media coverage of events like the shootings of Vonderrit Myers and Michael Brown help to remind white America that, as ever, systemic racism still runs rampant. It would be foolish, then, to suggest that in this same timeframe race has faded from relevance in the immigration arena.

And the immigration arena — just like St. Louis County — has its own militarized law enforcement. Since World War II, the United States Border Patrol, previously a ragtag collection of localized police agencies, has grown into an expansive and heavily-funded militia. With this expansion, campaigns like Operation Gatekeeper in 1994 have left behind military-like hierarchical command chains that make accountability and oversight ever more challenging. Today, surveillance drones loom over the borderlands, completing a warlike picture that dodges media scrutiny. Those targeted, of course, are exclusively the immigrants stereotyped in the news.

President Obama vowed last week to take executive action on the crisis before the end of the year, but the prospects of comprehensive reform remain bleak as congressional Republicans determinedly block the topic from reaching the House floor. Their motives, though the pundits may disagree, are no mystery; the status quo, to these Republicans, defends America from a racialized, dehumanized other. To them, that status quo is acceptable. With midterm elections approaching, it’s time to show them we disagree.