Anti-Latino immigrant rhetoric doesn’t just sway support for legal citizenship but benefits of social citizenship as well

LatinaLista — As if it wasn’t enough that anti-immigrant advocates and their rhetoric have controlled for too long the debate on immigration reform, a new study finds that immigration is only one of the issues where negative talk of legal status and race are used to portray not just undocumented immigrants, but Latinos overall, in a bad light.

FILE - In this Oct. 20, 2011 file photo, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska speaks in Anchorage, Alaska. Young, one of the most senior Republicans in the House, has apologized for using the racial slur “wetbacks” in referring to Hispanic migrant workers. Young, now in his 21st term in the House, said in an interview with Alaska's KRBD radio that when he was young, his father “used 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes” on their California farm. (Photo: Dan Joling)

FILE – In this Oct. 20, 2011 file photo, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska speaks in Anchorage, Alaska. Young, one of the most senior Republicans in the House, has apologized for using the racial slur “wetbacks” in referring to Hispanic migrant workers. Young, now in his 21st term in the House, said in an interview with Alaska’s KRBD radio that when he was young, his father “used 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes” on their California farm. (Photo: Dan Joling)

In the paper, “Race, Legality, and the Social Policy Consequences of Anti-Immigration Mobilization,” by Hana E. Brown, readers find that because of the rapid growth in the Latino population and growing anti-Latino sentiment, social workers and policymakers were prone to publicly complain that Latino immigrants would abuse the welfare system. It wasn’t long before most of the American public believed it to be true.

The paper’s author outlines how two particular narratives have historically been used to cast Latinos in a negative light and planted the implication that Latino immigrants would abuse welfare benefits:

…a legality frame and a racial frame. Because they use categories of worth, these frames specify an us and a them. The racial frame racializes worthy and unworthy beneficiaries, deriding Hispanics but validating the contributions of implicitly White American citizens. The legality frame employs no explicit racial terminology.

Rather, it relies solely on legal status categories as markers of worth, demonizing illegal immigrants but espousing the virtues of legal immigrants.

The argument, according to Brown, is that the negative rhetoric achieved a distinctive feat by altering the “politics of both legal citizenship and social citizenship.”

While Brown’s paper focuses on how the anti-immigrant rhetoric influenced welfare policy, anecdotal observations reveal that over time the anti-immigrant crowd was able to subtly convince organizations, that consider themselves above prejudice or discrimination, that the use of the word “illegal” was not a racial characteristic but an accurate description.

However, Brown notes a particular study that dispels that myth.

Scholars have largely assumed that the terms illegality and Hispanic are equally racialized (HoSang 2010; Jacobson 2008; Ngai 2005). Research also finds that racial appeals are at their most powerful when they are implicit (Mendelberg 2001).

Slowly, greater awareness of the use of derogatory terms regarding Latino immigrants is heightening. Only this morning, House Speaker John Boehner scolded his fellow Republican, Alaska Rep. Don Young for using the term “wetback” during a radio interview.

Young claimed to not know the term was offensive but just by issuing the following after he started receiving criticism:

“I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California,” Young said in a statement. “I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect.”

Illustrates that he did know it was an offensive term but felt comfortable that he would get away with using it because, as he said, it was a common term at one time.

It seems apparent that the only way to change the mistaken assumptions that exist regarding Latinos and Latino immigrants with welfare policy, immigration reform, voting ID laws, etc. is to first strip away the negative use of terms that paint Latinos, as in Brown’s words, “unworthy,” a.k.a. untruthful, and start using words that acknowledge that Latinos, of all status, are part of US society and deserve to be treated as such.

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