By Rhea Chandran; Image by The Washington Post
After the 2008 presidential election, many political pundits declared that the United States was officially a “post-racial” and “color-blind” society. This was, in fact, not the case. The United States continues to actively maintain structures of White supremacy within political and social spaces. Specifically, the U.S. immigration system continues to harm undocumented Latinx migrants through its historic construction and active conservation of racist policies that target this group. For many, it took the arrival of the Trump presidency to finally acknowledge the realities of the pervasive, harmful rhetoric and policy that have racialized undocumented Latinx migrants as “undeserving criminals”. It is time for an antiracist immigration system. To achieve this goal, we must first understand how the current system is actively racist.
Racism against undocumented Latinx migrants has been a part of U.S. history since the colonization of this land. Today, politicians weaponize this racism to cast Latinx migrants as unwelcome “illegal aliens”. This is done through the racialization of Latinxs as a distinct non-White group. Because racism is built upon White supremacy, labeling Latinxs as non-White has engendered racist policies within all levels of the State. Examples of Latinx racism include portraying Mexicans as “lazy marijuana smokers” or as inherently criminal because of the color of their skin, their countries of origin, and their legal status. This criminalization, often described as the Latinx threat narrative, is specifically applied to undocumented Latinx migrants because of their legal status and race. By criminalizing migration from Latin America, the U.S. immigration system has adopted a racist appraoch to controlling the undocumented Latinx immigrant populations.
Former President Trump is famous for further institutionalizing racism against undocumented Latinx migrants. In his campaign announcement speech, he declared, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…. They’re bringing drugs, They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” This stereotyping and criminalization of Mexican migrants manifested itself in President Trump’s strengthening of the law enforcement approach to immigration. Although this approach dated back to at least the Clinton presidency, President Trump’s unrelenting commitment to this tactic was based in obvious racism targeted towards undocumented Latinx migrants. This approach, which is still actively in place, includes, but is not limited to, increasing border security, integrating state and local law enforcement agencies into immigration control, and heavily funding the Enforcement and Removal Office (ERO).
Interviews with undocumented Latinx migrants demonstrate the harmful, racist nature of this approach. One undocumented migrant described how the racial profiling he experienced by police lead to his deportation. While this migrant was waiting outside his co-workers’ home, a police officer approached him and said, “”Oh, look, well, you got brown pride, that’s a Latin King. You a Latin King?””, implying that he was gang affiliated because of his race and tattoos. Then, the officer took down his information. The migrant was deported three days later outside his own home. Here, the police officer’s racist actions make clear how the law enforcement approach that currently defines the U.S. immigrant system is entrenched in racism. This is not an isolated incident by any means. Undocumented Latinx migrants frequently face deportation because racial profiling forces sudden confrontations with law enforcement.
The strengthening of the law enforcement approach and rhetorical normalizing of racism against undocumented Latinx migrants only further emboldens Americans with racist thoughts to attack Latinx migrants. Hundreds of videos have populated social media that depict mostly White individuals telling Latinx migrants to “go back to their country” or demand that they “speak English”. In interviews, undocumented Latinx migrants have described experiencing acts of racism in their own communities, and specifically, in schools. One migrant explained: “Kids would make fun of us and they’d call us wetbacks and stuff like that.” Another stated, “I was the only Mexican girl. They would usually send messages telling me to kill myself, that I wasn’t worth it.” and “… the only dark-skinned, and they would be like, “Oh, you’re the fly to the milk, in the glass of milk.”” Because this racist rhetoric has become commonplace within U.S. immigration discourse, it has allowed many to lash out in violent ways against undocumented Latinx migrants. This, in turn, has made the United States an inhospitable place for these migrants.
By acknowledging the racist bedrock of U.S. immigration policy, dialogue, and structures, we are one step closer towards creating an antiracist immigration system. We need an approach that not only decriminalizes the existence of undocumented Latinx migrants, but actively works against the racist beliefs that are entrenched in the current migration structure. In doing so, we have the opportunity to truly become the welcoming “nation of immigrants” that many claim we already are.
Some of you may be asking yourself: “Why antiracism? Why is being “not racist” not enough?” Being “not racist” isn’t enough because it is a passive act. Being antiracist is an active one; it encompasses regular, continuous actions that aim to dismantle systems of oppression. In the immigration sphere, being antiracist means fostering a culture of solidarity and accompaniment. Instead of promoting feelings like compassion and empathy, solidarity has the ability to generate antiracist action. Accompaniment combines the feelings of compassion and empathy with the action that solidarity generates. It is within this action of accompaniment that we are able to build an antiracist immigration system.
So, if these racist policies, rhetoric, and actions targeting undocumented Latinx migrants are commonplace, how can antiracist ones replace them? What can we do to remedy this dire situation? One step that must be taken to foster accompaniment from the ground up is the development of an antiracist curriculum centering undocumented Latinx migration for the U.S. public school system. As one of the most influential organizations in U.S. children’s lives, the public school system has the ability to positively shape children’s perception of those that are different from them. By integrating antiracism into classrooms, especially those with children who may not have exposure to undocumented Latinx migrants, the public school system can foster a culture of antiracism that will later directly impact communities as the children mature.
Another antiracist action that can be taken from below includes examining your own cognitive and implicit biases against undocumented Latinx migrants. By understanding and dismantling these biases, we can all take the antiracist step towards making our communities more livable for undocumented Latinx migrants. In being antiracist, we become tolerant and inclusive of those that do not share our identities. To do this, we must also reject the notion that the United States is a “post-racial” society. Because we have not escaped the way the social construction of race affects daily life, we must still acknowledge how it impacts our own thoughts, words, and actions.
Working from the bottom up is simply not enough. Politicians and other political leaders must make reform from above to construct an antiracist immigration system. One immediate antiracist policy change would be formalizing the rhetorical shift away from “patriotic assimilation”, or assimilation that compels migrants to “become American” and accept “American values” as their own. Our current immigration system actively promotes patriotic assimilation by forcing undocumented Latinx migrants to abandon parts of their culture to assimilate into U.S. society. By labeling ‘unassimilated’ undocumented Latinx migrants as “illegal aliens” and continuing to heavily police them, patriotic assimilation thrives upon the existence of a racist immigration system.
Instead, the system must move towards multicultural integration to be truly antiracist. Shifting towards integration-focused policy would allow undocumented Latinx migrants to participate in society, regardless of their race, culture, legal status, or other auxiliary features. This type of policy could include, but is not limited to, granting undocumented migrants the right to vote, legalizing the hiring of undocumented migrants by adding ‘citizenship status’ to the protected class list, and providing a path to citizenship for all undocumented migrants. Reform from above would be inherently antiracist because of its goal to include a group of migrants who have historically suffered racist abuses at the hands of the U.S. government. It’s time to make this change in the United States’ immigration system, as it takes us one step closer to becoming a holistically antiracist society.