The Political Drama of Immigration

By Jeff Manuel, PhD Student at the University of Minnesota. IHRC Affiliated Faculty

Election day. Today voters around the U.S. will travel to their polling places and elect the individuals who will govern them for the next several years. And today the news media will shift from endless rounds of prediction to endless rounds of analyzing election results. Given all that’s been said about immigration in the political sphere this year, from the substantive to the idiotic, it’s tough to believe that any new information will sink in. Instead, we might take a step back from the details and consider how “immigration? has been told as a political story in recent months. Telling a political story—whether in the news or in the academy—involves organizing the chaotic mess of the real world into meaningful patterns, which in turn means bringing some agents into the story line and pushing some agents outside of the narrative. Organizing “immigration? into a coherent political story has been no different and it’s worth considering who and what has been included in this story and what has been left out to make the story coherent.

Perhaps the most curious omission has been the immigrants themselves. Of all the actors involved in the political drama of immigration—including President Bush, members of Congress, fences, and Minutemen—surprisingly little has been said about the immigrants who are supposedly the main actors in this story. For example, in a curious development, the recent emergence of African American groups protesting illegal immigration finds African American community leaders meeting with white supremacists and arguing with the Southern Poverty Law Center about the nature of their campaign. Are immigrants from Latin America a “threat? to black communities? Should Mexican-Americans and African-Americans work together because of their shared minority status? Is this simply an issue where some African-American community leaders agree with the KKK? Who knows? The point is that immigration is once again framed as a political drama that both revolves around immigrants and simultaneously ignores them. Like so many other flashpoints in our current political world, immigration has largely been turned into a symbol.

The role of corporations and their demand for cheap labor has also been largely pushed outside the storyline of immigration. The recent move by anti-immigration groups in North Carolina to protest companies suspected of hiring illegal aliens ("Immigration activists target employers" The News and Observer) highlights how various groups, both on the left and the right, have tried to add an economic angle to the political story of immigration. Yet the failure of this sub-plot to make it into the national debate suggests that certain aspects of the story are simply less palatable to media corporations and their audiences than others. Additionally, the way that this story pops up when it is supposedly outside the mainstream story of immigration reminds us that maintaining the coherency of a story—and this is true for political stories as well as stories about national identity—requires constantly policing its boundaries. Because people, things, and ideas simply refuse to act in the ways we want. They rarely follow the channels we’ve laid out in our narratives. For immigration, this means that laws or no laws, people will continue to move around the globe and across national boundaries. The fence that is supposed to neatly divide the Mexican desert from the U.S. desert will require maintenance. And ideas, which have never respected borders, will continue to move around our world.


Jeff Manuel is a PhD Student in History at the University of Minnesota and a member of the IHRC Advisory Council. His research focuses on media, politics, and culture in the modern United States.
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This page contains a single entry by Sylvie Thao published on November 7, 2006 11:54 AM.

On Efficiency and Immigrant Labor was the previous entry in this blog.

International Migration: Beyond the National Headlines is the next entry in this blog.

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