Illegality, Criminality, and the Taxpayer's Burden: The Incomplete U.S. Immigration Narrative

"It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is nkali. It's a noun that loosely translates to "to be greater than another." Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power."

--Chimamanda Adichie, The Danger of A Single Story

According to the 2010 census, the United States population has an estimated 40 million foreign born individuals (Foner, 2013). Approximately, 11.5 million of this population from Mexico and other Latin American countries reside in the country without legal status (Kim et. al., 2011). As these figures continue to increase over time, immigration policy remains a constant topic of debate, at times experiencing periods of heightened attention in both the media and political sphere. We recently saw this in the summer of 2013 with Congress's deliberation of the immigration reform bill that eventually stalled in the House.

Oluwaremilekun "Remi" Ojurongbe is graduating from Wesleyan University this week. Afterwards, she will spend two years working at a law firm in New York. She plans to go to law school and eventually work in immigration law and policy.

News media plays a significant role in influencing the public's perception of the social and political issues, and the immigration debate is no exception. Previous research has demonstrated how the framing of the immigration debate can influence public beliefs on key points of an issue (Kim et al., 2011). Studies have also shown that the more salient an issue, the more the public regards it as an urgent matter. As media attention on the immigration debate increases, the public's perception of its importance is also heightened. Media content, tone, and the framing of immigration also influences public perceptions and play a role in the definition of immigration as a "social problem" (Kim et. al., 2011, p. 293). Correa and Graauw argue that the immigration debate has been narrowed down to focus on the illegality of immigration, which negatively impacts the way legislators react with policy (Jones-Correa & de Graauw, 2013). Although illegals are a minority group within the U.S immigrant population, debate and policy has often centered on them, creating the perception of their illegality as a priority issue. The consistent portrayal of undocumented immigrants as criminals and public nuisances have led to tougher immigration legislation, which often includes measures of increasing border enforcement and heightening deportation rates (Jones-Correa & de Graauw, 2013).

My study attempted to evaluate the differences in print news media portrayal of U.S. immigrants in 1996 during the passage of IIRAIRA vs. the Senate's passage of the 2013 Immigration Reform Act, two politically distinct periods in regards to immigration policy and sentiment. In 1996, under the Clinton Administration, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) enacting harsher measures for undocumented immigrants, including an expansion of deportation categories and an increase in crimes that would result in deportation (Jones-Correa & de Graauw, 2013). Seventeen years later, in the summer of 2013, the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. The act proposed a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who had been residing in the United States. It was significantly more sympathetic to undocumented immigrants and their plight. Though the bill has currently reached a standstill in the House, it can be seen as a reflection of changing attitudes on immigration in the U.S. While political views and public sentiments towards immigration are progressively becoming more favorable, the question remains whether the media portrayal of the immigration debate has changed along with it. Is the news media's coverage of the immigration debate and portrayal of immigrants reflective of a shift in public attitudes and perception? How has the narrative of U.S immigration changed between these two political periods?

Analyzing over 600 news articles in my content analysis, my study revealed that immigration narrative in the media did follow public sentiments. In 1996, where sentiments towards immigration were predominantly negative, themes of illegality, immigrant crime and negative economic impact of immigrants were emphasized. To further emphasize disapproval of U.S. immigration, negative and discriminatory language was used in media discourse. The use of negative metaphors to describe immigrants (i.e. alien, illegal) is seen as dehumanizing and perpetuates negative opinions that may already exist. It also allows readers to distance themselves from the individuals, which in turn influences policy. Negative portrayals and representation of immigrants are often used in the justification of restrictive measures, which is what we saw with anti-Asian legislation in 1850s and Mexican immigration in the 1950s (Cisneros, 2008).

In 2013, which held more favorable public attitudes towards immigration, the narrative shifted to depict immigrants and immigration in more positive terms. Rhetoric used to describe immigrants changed from "alien" and "illegal" to "migrant" and "undocumented." Media discourse began to depict immigrants as economic benefits as opposed to burdens. Immigration also began to be discussed as both a moral and humanitarian issue. So now, topics of family reunification, civil rights and "just and humane" policy were being discussed.

In both samples, I found that there were important immigration narratives that were neglected in media discourse. For instance, the media failed to address the diversity of immigrants in terms of both nationality and immigrant status. The focus on legality highlighted specifically Mexican immigrants and made illegality the face of the immigration debate. The media left out larger issues such as how immigrants become undocumented in the first place, as well as the consequences of this status for them. Articles also failed to discuss inefficiency with the legal pathway and how it places many immigrant groups at a disadvantage.

Overall, though it appears that the public is becoming more progressive in its understanding of immigration and immigrant populations, we must be careful to see how the media is conveying information and which narratives are used. Immigration is complex and should not be simplified into a handful of themes and stories that reinforce widespread misconceptions. There has been a change in narrative and looking back at history, we can assume that it will continue to shift with political and social events. Since these depictions have real implications on the lives of millions of immigrants from all over the world, they should be as multi-faceted as possible and try to represent the complexities of human migration.

--Oluwaremilekun "Remi" Ojurongbe

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