Recent Central American migration has generated numerous protests across the U.S. Yet this backlash differs because the primary targets of white anti-immigrant sentiment are Guatemalan, Salvadorian, and Honduran children. This humanitarian crisis and the subsequent relocation of undocumented families to various border patrol stations and detention centers has led to significant increases in anti-immigrant and anti-Latina/o rallies and demonstrations. The protest signs reveal a hodgepodge of political, economic, patriotic, and emotional reactions as evidenced in the following pictures below.
Although the protestors vary in the messages they seek to convey, here I focus on four themes (1) health (2) taxes (3) illegal/legal status and (4) children. Moreover, the protest signs are often accompanied with crude attempts at humor as a way to further denigrate Latinas/os. An informal examination of the white protester’s signs and banners reveals a common connection, the racialization of Latinas/os and the reinforcement of white supremacy. All the pictures except for one were collected through various online news articles using the search terms “immigrant protest.”
(Image sources, clockwise from top left:
Times of San Diego, Syracuse.com, MagicValley Times-News, and Syracuse.com).
Health: Mainstream U.S. society has treated undocumented and documented Latina/o immigrants as foreign piranha eager to devour jobs and overrun communities. Over time immigrants have been wrongly portrayed as plights on the system draining public services, specifically the health care system.
Rising hospital costs, overcrowded emergency rooms, and increased diseases, have been some of the common historical and contemporary ailments undeservingly blamed on Latina/o immigrants. Yet, the overwhelmingly white protestors continue to attack Latinas/os by operating out of the white racial frame.
Within this worldview an anti-Latina/o health perspective emerges. For instance, the following white oppressive sign “Save our children from diseases” (image below) refers to the stereotype that Latina/o immigrant children are unhealthy, unclean, sickly, and dirty. The presence of immigrant children threatens the health status of white American children (read the future of whites), therefore, as the argument goes Central American immigrants need to be removed or eliminated in order to preserve the health status of white children.
Another sign reads, “Stop Diseases Crossing Our Border” and the message is clear. Central American children are viewed as a danger to white health and therefore should be removed before they infect white children. This health hysteria harkens back to public health campaigns steeped in xenophobia (see, Shah Contagious Divides). The fact that it continues today, speaks to the continuing power of white xenophobia and white racism.
The final health related protest sign “Thousands of American veterans die waiting for medical care, free medical care for illegals” (see below) underscores a blatant attempt to utilize health as a weapon of fear. The white protestors falsely attribute the death of American veterans to the medical expenses and increased waiting periods generated by Latinas/os. Invoking veterans is an attempt to utilize patriotism as a mechanism to solicit outrage and thus support, yet none of these claims are substantiated with actual data.
Taxes: Historically, immigrants have been falsely represented as disease carriers in order to justify exclusion and control. But, exclusion from what? Well according to protestors, from economic and social support. This uninformed and inherently racist perspective interlocks both health and taxes to delegitimize the prospect of citizenship “Our tax $ for u!!! Hell no, go home”. Despite the fact that undocumented immigrants pay more into the system than they receive. Another protestor perpetuates the myth that immigrants drain public services by reframing the issue around illegality and criminality “UR TAX $ 4 Illegals” (see image above).
The protestors’ misconceived argument regarding taxes and Latino/a immigrants goes something like this: “As an American, I believe that the immigrant children should go back to their country immediately. I do not want to spend my money nor the government’s resources on immigrant children because they are illegal.” These misinformed views and statements fail to contextualize the complexity of the situation. These particular slogans do not capture the forces that have shaped present day Central America, particularly the role of the US in perpetuating war in such places as Guatemala and the subsequent legacies of poverty and violence; and thus migration.
Legal/Illegal: The law is used to mask the dehumanization of Latina/o immigrants while also failing to consider the dire circumstances which led to the children’s precarious situation. For example, “U.S. citiens don’t get free pass y should ileagels” (see image below) and “We Immigrated Legally! Please do the same”. Despite the spelling and grammar, these arguments do not consider the historically racist immigration policies the U.S. has placed on people of color. Immigration policies have worked to exclude and control non-whites rather than incorporate them into U.S. society. Furthermore, similar to “American” the synonym “We” stands for whites. We followed the law, we are good law-abiding citizens, whereas these children are criminals “illegals” this rhetoric creates a familiar “us versus them” scenario.
Children: The protestors also use comedy as a way to belittle and degrade the immigrant children, for example, “No vacancy try the white house” and “The White House Called: Obama & Michele are waiting for you there… They love children!” “Return to sender” and “Agents: Secure Our Border Not Change Diapers”. However, underlining the sarcasm is another hateful and racist attempt to demean Central American children. The first two protest signs unrealistically suggest that the white house and by extension the Obamas can be an alternative housing option for the children. The white house acts as a symbolic site for failed immigration policy and the misplaced fear that the protestors’ own homes will be occupied by menacing foreigners, as expressed by this sign “Breaking into MY House Doesn’t Give you the Right to Stay NO Amnesty!”. The racist protestors blame Obama and the white house as the source of the perceived immigration problem. In addition, the protestor’s white privilege affords them the ability to feel mistreated, yet propose unrealistic solutions.
The protestors shamelessly deflect the problem by calling for the children to be sent to Washington, DC “Tired of the lies! Bus the kids to the White House!”. The white protestors rehash the hurtful images and experiences of desegregated school busing. Busing children of color has been a consistent theme in the struggle for racial equality and a reality all too familiar for Blacks and other People of Color. It is in this vein that the irrationality of the protestors comes to light; Obama can deal with the children first hand and then perhaps deportation efforts will be expedited. But it is hard to believe that the kids themselves are the central issue, especially when the protestors expel messages of impeachment and securing the border, as in this sign, this one and this one.
The concern over the moving of displaced immigrant children into their communities caused intense panic among many of the protestors, “What about our kids?! Keep our kids safe”.The call for self-preservation is based on an anti-immigrant ideology that demonizes Latinas/os. The white racial framing of Latina/o immigrants is particularly troubling in this case because the children are thrust into circumstances that are beyond their control.
The white anti-immigration protestors rely on the stereotypical about disease carriers, arguments loosely based on legality, and the familiar, convoluted tax angle. The protestors use banners, signs, exclamation points, puns, innuendos, sarcasm, and humor to hammer their point and enhance their hate speech. White privilege, self-preservation, and fear, fuel anti-immigrant supporters in their effort to degrade children who have desperately fled from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The protest pictures are also shrouded in nationalistic fervor; almost every picture has a US flag or clothing, likening securing the border to patriotic duty. The systemic nature of white supremacy works to exclude and deport Latinas/os while simultaneously reproducing inequalities and sustaining racial oppression; as a result, whites are able to rationalize the sentiment “Save Our Country Close Our Borders.”
Meanwhile, the families of undocumented Central Americans wait in facilities that resemble prisons, while elected officials refuse to make any progress towards the dignity of innocent children.
Perhaps the anti-immigration protestors can learn a different message.