The Immigration Rhetoric in the United States and its Impacts

June 15, 2016

Nativism in the United States has risen and declined throughout the history of the United States dating back to before 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. These nationalist sentiments immensely affect the admittance and treatment of immigrants.1 The power of nationalistic movements’ increases from the rhetoric used that can create fear of foreigners and cultivate pride in one’s home country. While specific laws and the frequency of hate crimes are the most tangible way to track this sentiment, the dialogue can show the more intangible widespread nationalism.

The rhetoric used in the illegal immigration discussion has harmful effects on all immigrants, but is especially targeted toward Hispanic immigrants in today’s time and upcoming election. “Illegal alien” is a term that immediately creates an image in one’s mind, whether it be of a blue alien coming to planet earth or a person who looks and speaks differently entering one’s country. Regardless of the image that forms, it is consistently negative, and there is a desire to prevent the “illegal alien” from entering in one’s home country.2 But this term is not statutorily valid because a person cannot be illegal, but rather only their actions. Using the term illegal has distorted the discussion and facts of illegal immigration because it allows conversations to happen that dehumanize the subject of the conversation. It is insignificant which side of the immigration debate one stands because undocumented immigrants are humans as well.3

Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation started a Drop the I-Word Campaign to specifically address the media’s impact on the rhetoric used to discuss immigration. In 2010, the campaign was started to counteract the anti-immigrant sentiment and hate crimes that were rapidly rising against communities of color.4 Between 2011 and 2012, hate crimes against Hispanics more than tripled, showing the potential link between sustained anti-Hispanic rhetoric and the treatment of Hispanics at large.5 While Drop the I-Word has had great success with many new outlets ceasing to use the word in publications, it is still frequently used in mainstream media sources. In order to have a constructive discussion about immigration, the rhetoric to define a human being must change.3 We may be able to look to the rhetoric of other countries’ media to guide our restructuring. For example, Korean media uses the term “overstayer” while Punjabi outlets use “living in hiding” to describe undocumented immigrants in their respective countries.3

The rhetoric used often skews and distort the image presented about specific immigrant populations, but it can also cover the facts about immigration. In the United States each immigrant group is perceived differently, which impacts the rhetoric used and the discussion at large about each group. In the past few years, Asians have overtaken Hispanics in terms of legal and illegal immigration, but because they are seen as a model minority, Asian immigration does not consume media time. The overgeneralization that Asians are academically and economically successful makes them seem to be “good” immigrants, while Hispanic immigrants are viewed as economically draining, too plentiful, and lacking assimilation skills. But the changing rhetoric about the Asian immigrant population has the possibility to impact perceptions of both Asians and Latinos in the United States in the future.6



1)  Misra, Tanvi. "The Year in Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric." City Lab, 29 Dec. 2015. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.

2)  Flores, Lisa. "Constructing Rhetorical Borders: Peons, Illegal Aliens, and Competing Narratives of Immigration." Critical Studies in Media Communication 20.4 (2003): 362-287. 1 Feb. 2003. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.

3)  Rubio, Angelica. "Undocumented, Not Illegal: Beyond the Rhetoric of Immigration Coverage." NACLA, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.

4)  "Drop the I-Word. Don't Call People "Illegals."" Colorlines. Race Forward, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.

5)  Wilson, Meagan Meuchel. "Hate Crime Victimization, 2004–2012 - Statistical Tables." (2014): 6. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Feb. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.

6)  Garcia-Navarro, Lourdes. "America's Immigration Rhetoric Out Of Touch With The Numbers." National Public Radio, 21 Oct. 2015. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.

About Author(s)

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Emma Freedman
Emma Freedman is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh working as an intern for Panoramas. She is majoring in Urban Studies along with a certificate in Latin American Studies and Global Studies. She studied abroad twice in Buenos Aires, Argentina which heavily shaped her interest in the region. She plans to continue working for the nonprofit, Moche Inc. in Trujillo, Peru after graduation.