Immigrants and refugees in the media

Too often, the media and policymakers treat immigration and refugee resettlement as completely unrelated issues when they assign them a geographic label: migrants, refugees, and aslyum seekers from all over Latin America are called ‘violent’ or otherwise associated with criminality, while those groups fleeing the Middle East are called ‘terrorists’ and otherwise associated with religious fundamentalism. Notice a common thread here? It’s the shameful and absolutely misguided narrative that immigrants and refugees are a violent, criminal Other who threaten the fabric of American society, and whether it targets immigrants or refugees, it’s being perpetuated by the same people. It’s easy to write off these types of narratives as merely part of the extreme discourse to be used more for political posturing than actual policy (after all, it is a presidential election year), but that would be an oversimplification and an understatement of the nativist movement’s organized use of the media to create an echo chamber of anti-immigrant and Islamophobia rhetoric. Once these messages gain traction, it becomes easier for the movement to gain the credibility it needs to influence policy debates. Knowing the machinations of this network allows us to see that anti-immigrant legislation, regardless of its likelihood of being enacted, does not exist in a vacuum – it’s merely one aspect of a system that continues to discriminate against communities of color.

In less than two months, the Supreme Court is slated to decide on the United States of America v. Texas, a high profile case Vox is calling the immigration case of the century and whose very existence was spurred by a group of states involved in a federal suit against the Obama administration. Details abound, but you can find a great overview of the case and how it impacts individual lives on one of our sister blogs and suggestions for further reading at the bottom of this post. Legal scholars see this Supreme Court case as an attempt to push the kind of xenophobic legislation through the courts that would not be possible through the legislature, but that’s not to say that anti-immigration proponents aren’t also writing bills to this effect. In fact, since the 2010 passage of legislation inviting racial profiling in Arizona, two dozen similar bills have been introduced, and five have been signed into law (in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah). At the national level, there are at least ten anti-immigrant bills currently before the 114th Congress, due in no small part to a prominent and well-funded anti-immigrant lobby that works hard to push local-level anti-immigrant policies into federal legislation. Many of them have a low chance of being signed into law, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about what happens once they’re dead – lawsuits! (because it’s the American way). And that's where we are now. The Supreme Court heard oral argument for United States v. Texas on April 18 (Texas initiated the case, but is backed by 22 additional states, four governors, and an attorney general) and a decision is expected sometime before the end of June. Beyond its impact on millions of young immigrants and their families, the case is historic for two other reasons: 1. It breaks legal precedent on the president’s authority to grant temporary immigration relief and 2. It has significant implications for the way federal agencies and states interact with each other.

Replace the word ‘immigrant’ from United States v. Texas with the word ‘refugee’ and you essentially end up with Tennessee's Senate Joint Resolution 467, a resolution passed on April 19 which directs Tennessee’s Attorney General to sue the federal government over what it deems an overreach of the 10th amendment that protects state rights – Tennessee feels it’s being coerced to provide funding for resettled refugees in its state. Governor Bill Haslam has been in the news since yesterday when he signed into law a controversial bill that will allow mental health professionals to opt out of providing care to LGBT individuals, but his docket also includes a resolution to sue to prevent refugees from being resettled in his state. Tennessee is not alone in its rejection of the refugee resettlement program. At least 11 other states have introduced bills attempting to block the program, and the bills have met varying degrees of success, but they all share a uniquely frightening combination of dehumanizing rhetoric and gross inaccuracies. When we take a closer look at the complex realities that immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers to the United States face, we begin to see that the issues of immigration and refugee resettlement, artificially-separated in national conversations but capitalized on by the same groups, have more in common than has been appreciated, and treating them as separate issues only serves to further divide the intersectional movement whose unity is fundamental to its ability to humanize these narratives and ultimately the policy debate.

Legislation, lawsuits, and arguments about ‘states’ rights’ that target immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers as responsible for America’s enduring problems, a lack of economic opportunity and extremist violence among them, is more than just racist and inaccurate. It allows xenophobic organizations and individuals to continue working against peace, social justice, and equality, while hiding behind a façade of self-righteous patriotism. The media has an opportunity to do better at this, to draw connections between all of our governing institutions in order to hold their spokespeople accountable, to expose xenophobic rhetoric instead of validating it, and to identify those who propagate it. We activists and individuals should educate ourselves and each other about the Syrian refugee crisis, immigrant rights, and the legislation that implicates and impacts both. And finally, we can all broaden our narratives, both those we produce and those we consume, to include migrants of all national origins and political, socio-economic circumstances to tell fuller, more dynamic stories about the everyday lives of immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees and their aspirations for a better life – we can all relate to that.

Further reading on United States v. Texas
The Atlantic
Center for Community Change