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We've weaponized immigration rhetoric, from chain migration to Dreamers

We've weaponized immigration rhetoric, from chain migration to Dreamers
Bryan Peña, 18, celebrates his high school graduation in June with family on June 9, 2017. Facing the pending repeal of the shield protecting 800,000 young immigrants like himself, Peña plans to speak out about his right to stay. (Los Angeles Times)

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but that logic doesn't apply to immigration-related rhetoric. Political leaders and activists have weaponized specific words in an ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of the American public.

Take "chain migration," an academic term that has recently been overlaid with negative connotations.

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Chain migration is not the only academic concept or demographic reality manipulated to sound threatening in public discourse about immigration.


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Chain migration has, since the 1960s, referred to the process by which migrants from one city or town follow each other to a new destination, possibly in another country. Thanks to chain migration, even low-income families can create or maintain social networks and access a wealth of social capital. Early arrivals support newcomers with a place to stay, resources and information about the local labor market, schools and culture. Chain migration facilitates cultural integration.

Chain migration happens in part because we allow immigrants into the country on the basis of family ties. (The other common means into the country is employment.) Lest we romanticize family reunification, it entails a great deal of responsibility and not everyone is willing to assist family members by serving as a sponsor. It can take years, even decades for family applications to work their way through the system.

But the slow, deliberate means through which we allow families and communities to stay together doesn't sound particularly threatening to the American way of life. That's perhaps why, in the Trump era, we hear so much about chain migration.

Imagine if, in early January, President Trump had said: "Family reunification is a total disaster that threatens our security and our economy, and provides a gateway for terrorism." That wouldn't have made much sense.

He used the term chain migration for a reason. If uttered in a context already hostile to immigrants, it may evoke unwashed masses invading the country — one person after another in an unbroken chain.

Chain migration is not the only academic concept or demographic reality manipulated to sound threatening in public discourse about immigration.

For example, it is well known that the United States has an aging workforce and a relatively low fertility rate, leading to a demand for immigrant labor. In the last few decades, many of the immigrants responding to that demand have come from Latin America and Asia. Post-1965 immigration policies, moreover, have also led to higher numbers of Latin Americans and Asian Americans, who are generally younger compared with Americans of European descent.

As a result of these trends, demographers project that European Americans will become an increasingly smaller part of the population. Demagogues have latched on to that nugget of information to lament "the browning of America,"which may trigger fears of displacement and scare "white America" into wanting to close our borders.

At this point in our history, we should have learned not to fall for rhetoric that collapses processes of change into simple tropes of good and evil.


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Anti-immigration activists have also tried to vilify birthright citizenship through insulting language. The 14th Amendment provision that anyone born on American soil is automatically a citizen is part of what makes the United States exceptional: Being American is not just about blood. But some have demonized the U.S.-born children of non-citizens as "anchor babies," as if they were part of some nefarious plot to, say, "brown" America.

Of course pro-immigration activists bend language to their ends as well. Perhaps the most significant example of late is the term "Dreamer," which emerged to counter the rhetoric that immigrants in the country illegally are all criminals who bleed the safety net at the expense of honest natives. Dreamer, used to refer to those brought to this country as children, evokes a young person ready to make positive contributions to society despite his or her lack of documentation.

At this point in our history, we should have learned not to fall for rhetoric that collapses processes of change into simple tropes of good and evil. Instead of obsessing over who's worthy to become an American, whatever that means, we need to refocus the immigration debate on how best to include and integrate newcomers. Inclusivity and integration: the very values on which chain migration is based.

Leo R. Chavez is a professor of anthropology at UC Irvine.

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