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Leo R. Chavez: Immigration rhetoric weaponised to soothe public
February 06, 2018
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A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but that logic certainly does not apply to immigration-related rhetoric. Political leaders and activists have weaponised specific words in an ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of the American public.

Take “chain migration,” an academic term in common usage on college campuses that has recently been overlaid with negative connotations.

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 romanticise 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 communities to stay together doesn’t sound 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.

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. Some, however, have demonised the US-born children of noncitizens 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.

Tribune News Service

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