Discussing the harmful disconnect between political narrative and the actual policies that affect immigrants.


Illustration by Sara Nettle.

It has become nearly impossible when discussing immigration in 2016 to avoid mentioning Donald Trump, a real-estate mogul turned reality TV star turned major party candidate whose rhetoric has struck a nerve with white working-class voters. Prior to his candidacy, immigration was relegated to a second-tier issue, often used as a hot topic to stir up emotions while serving as a political wedge issue to mobilize the electorate. A Pew Research Center poll conducted before the 2012 presidential election asked voters to rank, in their view, the most important issues; the economy, jobs, healthcare and the deficit topped the list, while immigration was last in the ranking, with only 41 percent of voters viewing it as “extremely important.” The same poll conducted this year saw immigration rise to 70 percent, becoming a top issue in the public consciousness.

It is difficult to characterize Trump’s focus on immigration as a brilliant move of political calculation — after all, race-baiting has always been an effective method to rally anxious voters. His incendiary remarks paint undocumented immigrants as an evil this country needs to remove in order to thrive. This became the ethos of an election that uncovered the invisible yet blatant legacy of racism ingrained in the United States.

The fictitious and racially exploitative nature of Trump’s rhetoric should not invalidate the significant loss of economic power white working-class voters faced during the first two decades of the 21st century. In fact, while narratives of illegal immigration have been used as a conduit to direct the group’s angst into a racially motivated right-wing political movement, the forces of globalization that produced their anxiety are the same that have created the immigration problem in the United States. The issue is that competing political narratives surrounding immigration have obscured the link between these two occurrences.

The language used in national political discourse by both major parties to talk about immigration characterizes these narratives. Democrats embrace rosy depictions of immigrants as representing the “American dream,” while Republicans project a more forceful and dangerous tone about justice and enforcement. This election has hyperbolized this binary, with Trump going full-force with “deportation task forces” and Clinton being painted as a radical, with leaked emails revealing speeches where she talked about “open borders.” While these might be interesting and provocative talking points, saturating the national conversation about immigration with these narratives has concealed the actual history and lived experience of immigrants. Most importantly, it has disguised the long legacy of the inhumane policies of U.S. immigration — a legacy that lives beyond the 2016 presidential election.

The problem of illegal immigration has largely been a reaction to these inhumane policies. The Department of Homeland Security routinely releases reports estimating figures on the unauthorized immigrant population residing in the United States. The last report, published in 2013, showed that the top four countries of origin of the undocumented population in the U.S. were Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, respectively. Migrants from these four countries make up over 70 percent of the undocumented population in the United States. This list is significant, since the U.S. has a long history of intervention in these countries. What is hidden underneath these statistics is the link between U.S. foreign, economic and military strategies and illegal immigration flows.

The United States signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a trade deal that is controversial on both sides of the political spectrum, in 1993. Trump, specifically, condemns NAFTA, since it moved a significant portion of U.S. manufacturing to Mexico. These jobs made up an important tool of economic mobility to white working-class voters. Another result of this trade agreement, suspiciously absent from Trump’s analysis, is the destruction of Mexican manufacturing. Foreign-owned U.S. companies oversaturated the market, decreasing the number of well-paying jobs provided by Mexican factories. These same U.S. companies placed their factories in the northern part of Mexico, where land was cheap and infrastructure was underdeveloped.

Trade deals like these accelerated the restructuring of global capital, which had been heading this direction for decades. This created a hotbed of economic destabilization in Mexico, where laborers were either forced to work in environmentally hazardous conditions with short-term, low-wage jobs, or migrate north to the U.S. to find more economic opportunity. But another casualty was the white-working class, which lost the manufacturing jobs that had led to its economic stability.

In the recent years, the large migration from Central America more strongly resembles a refugee crisis than actual conventional migratory patterns. These migrants are escaping the violence that persists in three particular countries — Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador — known as the Northern Triangle. The violence in these countries originates in the street gangs that have become a powerful force in Central America. Economically, these gangs depend on a network of drug cartels that meet U.S. drug demand. The war on drugs has not eliminated drug demand in the U.S., and current drug laws defer to the cartels to be the suppliers.

Most of these gangs in Latin America were created in the U.S., after refugees fled to the U.S. following the civil wars of El Salvador and Nicaragua — wars that were facilitated by the U.S. military. These refugees formed gangs as a result of the violence and police brutality of Los Angeles. The U.S. deported gang members back to Latin America, and Central American governments were not equipped to deal with the return of hundreds of dangerous nationals. Thus, a culture of violence and vulnerability was created in Central America, forcing families to flee.

The election discourse has shown us how narratives surrounding immigration can be used to create prejudiced suspicion among the U.S. electorate and precarious hope among immigrants.

Following the uptick of migrants in June 2014, Mexico began a tough deportation campaign in its southernmost region called the Programa Frontera Sur (PFS), the Southern Border Program. Placing between 300 and 600 immigration agents in Mexico’s southern border, authorities conducted raids on the common areas migrants used for shelter and movement. Capturing over 90,000 migrants, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said the strategy was to “protect the human rights of migrants.” The PFS strategy began its implementation one week after the Obama administration’s request to Congress for funding to respond to the migrant crisis.

The next month the administration directed $86 million from the U.S. Department of State funds to support the PFS, and also included $14 million in a 2016 foreign assistance budget proposal to strengthen Mexico’s southern border. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. began a policy of outsourcing deportation strategies to Mexico — a proposal Trump could only dream of.

Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa wrote that the U.S.-Mexican border is “una herida abierta,” or an open wound, “where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” ­She’s right. The election discourse has shown us how narratives surrounding immigration can be used to create prejudiced suspicion among the U.S. electorate and precarious hope among immigrants. However, until immigration policy can correspond with values of humanity, decency and compassion, the political imagination guiding policy will always be one of violence and exploitation.