Posted by: George | June 24, 2012

Immigration and Shores of Misunderstandings

 Last week, both Romney and Obama spoke before the annual convention of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). Most of what was said and how various audiences reacted is not very surprising. Romney, who was forced to the right on the immigration issue during the primaries, wanted to move toward the center, that is, attract more support from the Latino community without alienating his base. Obama, who promised much to the Latino community, wanted to say that he had accomplished something and explain why he was not able to accomplish more.

I am not going to launch into a detailed analysis of these speeches. If I did analyze the two speeches, I would say (in short) that, even as both Romney and Obama hit the same major points, the two speeches are remarkably different in tone and effect. Obama’s speech is much more effective. It has more personal, detailed, and grounded, and so it carries more pathos. Romney just seems to miss the mark. 

That said (or summarized), I want to use one section of Romney’s speech to frame what we might look for as immigration continues to come up in the presidential election. Here is the passage:

“We must also make legal immigration more attractive than illegal immigration, so that people are rewarded for waiting patiently in line. That’s why my administration will establish a strong employment verification system so that every business can know with confidence that the people it hires are legally eligible for employment. We can find common ground here, and we must. We owe it to ourselves as Americans to ensure that our country remains a land of opportunity—both to those who were born here and for those who share our values, respect our laws, and want to come to our shores.”

Now, let me unpack this section of Romney speech. While this might seem partisan (yes, I lean left), I hope that I can present a frame for following the presidential election through the summer and fall, as we hear speech after speech on immigration. Here is the basic theme of my frame: politicians (Obama, Romney, and many others) are going to stereotype or conflate the complex issue of immigrant. As we listen to their speeches, if we want to understand the implications of how immigration is being discussed, we need to pay attention to the following filters (and others, for sure) that will give us a more nuanced view of immigration: identity, ideology, gender, history, nationality, race, and class.

For example, Romney talks of immigrants who “want to come to our shores.” As metaphors for immigration go, this is one that is firmly placed in the late nineteenth century (this is the history filter). It evokes Ellis Island and waves of immigration (Italians, Irish, etc., this is the nationality filter), primarily from Europe (this is the race filter), many of whom brought with them a modest amount of capital (this is the class filter), to purse the American Dream (this is the ideology filter).

In debates on immigration, the metaphor “shore” is powerful. Any metaphor that is powerful will also be charged with a lot cultural baggage. While Obama used the “shores” metaphor, he also mentioned the “Rio Grande.” The “Rio Grande” evokes a different kind of immigration than “shores” and “Ellis Island.” The “Rio Grande” is more in tune with the audience at NALEO and current immigration issues, but it is also more frightening for many Americans.

So, let me sum up, with a few comments on the filters that you can shift through as you listen to speeches on immigration:

Identity: watch for how candidates will sell being an immigrant as essential to American identity. Also, watch for how they frame their own family’s history as a story of immigration. Obama did this in the last election. In Romney’s speech before NALEO, he talked about how his father was born in Mexico.

Ideology: watch how immigration is tied to the American Dream, which is presented as what Kenneth Burke calls a “god term,” an unquestioned cultural good.

Gender: Watch how politicians talk about families in relation to immigration, when it is usually men who immigrate, establish themselves, then send for their families.

History: Watch how different historical periods of immigration are evoked for different rhetorical purposes. “Shores” and “Ellis Island,” metaphors of past immigration, can clearly evoke the American Dream, but “Rio Grande” runs the risk of evoking fear of the future and the “Browning” of America, fears that justify walls and laws.

Nationality: When Romney spoke of “waiting in line” for a visa or stapling a “Green Card to your diploma,” he is referring to immigrants who are more likely come from India, China, or Saudi Arabia than Mexico.

Race: Watch for how race is generally ignored in debates on immigration, even though it seems to always be in the background. We forget that during the wave of Irish immigration or the wave of Italian immigration, these groups were referred to as races.

Class: Watch for how politicians will argue for revising immigration policy because we need to keep engineers in the country (middle class immigration) and argue for walls and laws because we are letting too many people sneak over the borders (working class immigration).

Finally, a short word on the rhetoric of all this. Usually, simple arguments tend to work better than complex ones. However, with the issue of immigration, politicians who see the complexity of this issue will probably connect better with their audience. “Rio Grande” resonates with NALEO. “Shores”—not so much.


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