In the heated immigration debates of the contemporary U.S., the theme of race is seemingly absent. As with other aspects of public policy since the late 1960s, a “color-blind” approach in which overt considerations of race are unacceptable has attained normative status on immigration issues as well, evident in the rhetoric of groups across a wide range of the political spectrum. Thus those who argue against legalization programs for undocumented immigrants do not openly speak of race, but instead dwell on the importance of rewarding those who follow the laws of the land and punishing those who do not abide by them. And those who argue for raising the quota of employment visas do not speak of race, but cite the need for the United States to attract immigrants who will make important contributions to the economy.
In writing this book, Cara Bowman, Megan O’Leary and I were interested in looking beyond the “color-blind” veneer of contemporary immigration discourse to explore the interactions of race and immigration and how they have developed over time. In the past, the agenda of a white nation was an explicit part of U.S. immigration policies, as reflected in such laws as the 1924 National Origins Act which sought to exclude all immigrants, except those from Western Europe. In the immigration regime of today, racial inequalities remain significant, even as a race-neutral ethos may work to mask them.
Since the 1990s, the U.S. has seen the growth of a massive immigration-industrial complex around the War on Terror, immigration law enforcement and the criminalization of undocumented immigrants; these have had disproportionate impacts on racial minorities. The iconic image of the “illegal alien”, promoted by nativist forces as a representation of danger to national sovereignty and security, has been used to racially identify and stigmatize immigrant minority groups, especially those of Mexican and more broadly, of Latino origin.
One of the intriguing aspects of the public debates on immigration in the U.S. is a nationalist narrative of America as an “immigrant nation” that intersects with that of America as an “exceptional nation.” The latter imagines the United States as a unique and extraordinary country in human history and worldly affairs; it is a refuge of liberty, a moral leader that has been anointed by divine providence to assume a place of political and economic supremacy in the world. It is in fact in its special greatness, its commitment to freedom and opportunity, that America attracts immigrants from all over the world.
As symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, America beckons “the huddled masses” to its shores with its incomparable promise of freedom and opportunity -- the American Dream. America then is a place where dreams can come true, where immigrants can achieve success through hard work and determination, thereby affirming the greatness of America. As they do so they also merge into the great “melting pot” of America and become American. Indeed, the exceptionalism of America stems not only from its welcoming of immigrants, but also from its capacity to assimilate, to effectively integrate newcomers into its ranks.
In looking claims and representations of immigrants within American political debates in relation to these broad nationalist narratives, we were reminded of the ideas of the scholar Mahmood Mamdani, who writes of a “Good Muslim-Bad Muslim” frame in the media and its contributions to the popular notion of a fundamental civilizational divide between the West and Islam.
In a similar framing, immigration debates in the United States are organized by ideas of “good” and “bad” immigrants. In these oppositional images , the “good immigrant” is one who fulfills the expectations of assimilation and preserves American exceptionalism. The “bad immigrant, ” in contrast, is a threat to the exceptional social and political fabric of America and unfit to be American.
In this fluid and relational framework, immigrants are continually evaluated in relation to “other” immigrants. The good immigrant-bad immigrant framework has thus contributed to divisions among immigrants, thereby reducing the potential for immigrant solidarity movements. Nazli Kibria is Professor of Sociology at Boston University. With Cara Bowman and Megan O’Leary, she is the author of Race and Immigration