“Bad Hombres” and Such: Migration, Race, and the US

Members of the South Central Farm attending the immigrant rights march for amnesty in downtown Los Angeles California on May Day, 2006. Pic: Jonathan McIntosh, wikimedia, CC-BY-2.5.

Everyone knows it: The US has a race problem. Despite legal advances historically, there remains a persistent racial dichotomy in US society: whiteness is still perceived as more legitimate, while people of color are systematically treated (de facto) as second-class citizens. Racial rhetoric related to immigration adds a layer that complicates the situation, with solutions against the discrimination proving elusive, as local responses provide only temporary relief under an administration with a decidedly discriminatory bent.

The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials apprehend annually over 100,000 people within the country. Reports on how many of those are or could likely be US citizens, who should never have fallen under ICE jurisdiction, vary from as few as ca. 800 in the span of roughly a decade to estimations of over 4,000 within one individual year, thanks in large part due to the lack of proper data collection by ICE. But what is less questionable is that many of them get caught up in ICE apprehensions because they ‘look like they could be illegal’, i.e. they look like the stereotypical notion of Latine* or Hispanic persons. This association that non-whites are automatically someone who does not have a legal claim to US citizenship or presence on US territory is now even becoming policy, with citizens of Latine and Hispanic background being denied passports for alleged lack of sufficient proof of citizenship.

A President who openly calls people of Latine and Hispanic descent ‘rapists, drug dealers, and animals’ only exacerbates these problems by legitimizing rhetoric that further entrenches racial divisions. Real policy solutions sadly seem far from possible in such an atmosphere; yet, while federally there appears to be little respect for the benefits that diversity brings, many members of the Latine and Hispanic communities have found safe havens in states and cities, like California or New York City, that have proactively passed laws protecting all their ‘citizens’ regardless of legal status, despite heavy criticism and threats of reprisals from the federal government. While these actions are seen as ethically and morally correct by many, they create legal conundrums that may be difficult to solve later on. For lasting success in changing racial disparities more is needed than changing laws; instead, to successfully decrease and hopefully eliminate them, it is necessary to change hearts not just laws.

Unequal Treaties and Unequal Treatment: Migration and Racial Discourse in the US

The treatment of Hispanics and Latine persons in the US is tied significantly to the history of the Southwest and Mexico. The US has done little to ensure racial equality between Whites and the Latine/Hispanics within its society, going as far back as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the War of 1848, a war that added today’s Southwest to the US thereby absorbing  a large amount of the then-native Mexican population into the US. As immigration increased post-WWII, racially charged rhetoric increased alongside – and so did the desire to restrict access to the US for those south of the border. Such a restriction came in 1986 with the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), a law whose main effect were sanctions on employers hiring undocumented persons, which in turn pushed the Latine/Hispanic immigrants and their descendants even further into poverty – and poverty meant reliance on social welfare programs. With this, the public image of Latine and Hispanic people became one of ‘freeloaders’, coming to the US to have ‘anchor babies’ and live off social benefits paid for by hard-working whites. Discrimination and racist language now became expressions of legitimate criticism of the ‘broken immigration’ system. That many of these persons had legitimate claims to presence in the US, either through residency or citizenship status, tended to be overlooked. These effects of IRCA were entrenched in the 1990s, when Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which not only restricted access to benefits for many legal immigrants but also essentially made more of them deportable.

Raids and Deportations: Neither Equal Rights nor Equal Protection

In the two decades since the IIRIRA, the US government has perfected the art of deportation. The two main means by which undocumented, and sometimes documented, persons are apprehended for deportation are employment raids and cooperation with local law enforcement. The main argument of the supporters of these raids and deportations is that the people who are caught and deported have broken the law – they are in the country without permission. However, this argument ignores the problem of citizen children of undocumented persons who unlike their parents DO have a right to be in the US, yet are often indirectly deported along with their parents, with the judicial remark that they can ‘always come back when they turn 18.’ (Acosta v. Gaffney, 558 F.2d 1153 [3d Cir. 1977], at 1158 – “Thus, her return [of the 22-month-old child citizen] to Colombia with her parents, if they decide to take her with them as doubtless they will, will merely postpone, but not bar, her residence in the United States if she should ultimately choose to live here.”) That these deportations disproportionately affect people in the Latine and Hispanic communities is not relevant to the law. After all, Supreme Court jurisprudence states that discrimination is present only when both discriminatory impact as well as discriminatory intent can be determined (see Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 [1976] and subsequent case law). Moreover, legally the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment applies only to the states (see Matthews v. Diaz, 426 U.S. 67 [1976]); in matters related to immigration, it appears, the federal government can discriminate almost indiscriminately.

But the problem is graver still on the side of discourse: the current President’s rhetoric is decidedly anti-immigrant and racist. Even during his candidacy, the President was unequivocal in how he sees immigrants from South of the border: as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists who are not legitimately in the US. Most recently, the President, in referring to deported persons during a meeting with local officials from California, called them “animals”, further dehumanizing them. That the Administration later ‘clarified’ that the President spoke only about those part of the infamous MS-13 gang does little to convince that the Administration is not using (at least subconscious) racism as a guiding post in its rhetoric. This conflation of actual criminals with immigrants coming from Mexico and Central American countries is not only factually incorrect, it also enforces the view immigrants South of the border are not beneficial to the US. Implicit in using such racist and dehumanizing language are three additional statements: that all these ‘brown’ people are ‘bad’, that they should have no legitimate claim to presence in the US, and that anyone who makes that claim must be lying. In this way, the racist rhetoric by the highest echelons further legitimizes systemic discrimination, stokes fears, and hence makes the search for durable solutions difficult.

Mo’ Migrants, Mo’ Problems? Sanctuary Laws and Inclusive Policies as Solutions

One of the ‘solutions’ that have been implemented by states and cities are so-called sanctuary laws. The Governor of California, which has among the largest immigrant population from the Latine and Hispanic communities, has recently signed a bill into law that prevents local Law Enforcement Officers from effecting transfers of prisoners to ICE, unless the person has been convicted of specific felonious crimes. Similarly, the City of New York has passed a resolution that bans all city employees from assisting with federal immigration enforcement. This includes police as well as probation officers. In all, there are as many as 171 sanctuary jurisdictions in the US at the moment. While these laws have been lauded as being ethically and morally on the side of the US’s historic notion as an immigrant nation, they do create a legal conundrum, as the immigrants affected are often left with uncertainty as to what they should do and what rights they have.

A more lasting solution will need to take into account the need to change the discourse that has been building up, particularly the one that dehumanizes immigrants. One potential way would be to increase the education and information about the history of discrimination against the Latine and Hispanic immigrants to the US, to make it more visible and more obvious. A recent example from the African-American community, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL, which addresses head-on the depraved enforcement of white supremacy, especially in the form of lynching, could be adapted to show the discrimination and plight of the Latine and Hispanic communities. Visualizations such as the Memorial tend to bring a confrontation with uncomfortable truths much quicker to the forefront and tend to humanize the subjects of the discrimination quicker.

Further, a great role can be played by the religious community, especially as applied through inter-faith collaborations. Places of worship form the most developed community for a great part of Americans, and messages from respected leaders of that community that humanize the ‘other’ can have impact on how people perceive anyone else who does not ‘look like’ oneself. The recognition of their role by people of faith already exists: they already write on the topic amongst themselves, and recent efforts to use religious teachings to proclaim a culture of tolerance have also manifested. The result of these efforts is still to be determined.

Finally, the media has a related role to play. Desensitization and the decrease of empathy happen often through negative information overload. Both of these matters interplay in the current 24-hour news cycle coverage of especially migrants and immigrants and the stances of political leaders regarding these people, which surprisingly, often are negative of immigrants. The reports also often give widely differing facts and figures, and focus on outrageous statements and other information that ‘scandalizes.’ This style of reporting is counter-productive as it increases the fear of the unknown, one of the key reasons behind dehumanization. Positive reporting on the affected groups that extolls these persons’ connections to ‘American’ ideals and dreams can provide for a more humane lens through which the public perceives the relevant population.

Further, scientific studies have shown that there are three great ways to humanize others: Rather than providing soundbites about what people should think in stories, the media can, by leaving people to come to their own conclusions regarding the hypocrisy of mass-stereotyping, open eyes and paths to empathy. Similarly, dehumanization also happens because one perceives to be dehumanized oneself; hence, showing persons that those who are ‘different’ see us not only as human but even admirable can go a long way in changing perceptions. Finally, the hardest but still the best means is to expose people to those who are different. Since not everyone has that opportunity, human interest stories of persons who face discrimination because of their ‘otherness’ could go a long way in assisting to again sensitize people to their humanity and to change hearts.

*The term Latine, though not yet widely accepted, has been chosen here primarily for purposes of readability but also because the author is aware that the terminology in this context has been far from settled by persons affected. Neither offense nor an authoritative imposition of this as the correct terminology is intended by the author. For a reference on the difference in terminology, see A. Gamio, Latinx – A brief handbook.

Further Reading
On the History of US Immigration and Race Issues
  • R. Johnson, ‘Immigration, Citizenship, and U.S./Mexico Relations: The Tale of Two Treaties,’ Bilingual Review / La Revista Bilingüe, Vol. 25 (1), 2000, pp. 23-38.
  • Kretsedemas & A. Aparicio (ed.), Immigrants, Welfare Reform, and the Poverty of Policy, 2004, Westport: Praeger Publishers
  • Ngai, Impossible Subjects – Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, 2014, Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press
On the Issue of Dehumanization
  • Esses, S. Medianu & A. Lawson, ‘Uncertainty, Threat, and the Role of the Media in Promoting the Dehumanization of Immigrants and Refugees,’ Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 69 (3), 2013, pp. 518-536.
  • Kteily & E. Bruneau, ‘Backlash: The Politics and Real-World Consequences of Minority Group Dehumanization,’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 43 (1), 2017, pp. 87-104.
  • I. Seu, ‘’Your stomach makes you feel that you don’t want to know anything about it’: Desensitization, defence mechanisms and rhetoric in response to human rights abuses,’ Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 2 (2), 2003, pp. 183-196.
  • Resnick, ‘The dark psychology of dehumanization, explained,’ Voc.com, Mar 7, 2017 (available at: https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/3/7/14456154/dehumanization-psychology-explained)

Alma Stankovic is an attorney at law in the states of California and New York as well as the District of Columbia. She has policy and litigation experience, having worked in various NGOs dealing with a broad spectrum of issues affecting immigrants and persons living in poverty in the United States. She holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of California Los Angeles in Political Science and a Juris Doctor from the University of Southern California. She works currently as Project Research Staff at and is a candidate for a PhD in International Law at the University of Graz, where her work focuses on transnational migration governance, human rights, and refugee law.