What Nativist and Pro-Immigrant Movements Have in Common

By Hana Brown and Jennifer Jones

With the 2016 presidential elections looming, immigration has once again risen to the forefront of American politics. The nativist response to the Syrian refugee crisis and the xenophobic pandering of Donald Trump contrast sharply with calls from immigrant activists to stem the tide of deportations and enact humane immigration policies. These campaigns may have dueling political visions, but they share something in common: they’re largely about race. But exactly how does race matter for immigration-focused social movements?

One answer to this question is that racial dynamics often play an instrumental role in the rise of immigration movements. On the nativist side, public opinion polls suggest that white racial resentment and racialized fears of the “browning” of America drive allegiance to political parties and to social movements that advocate for restrictive immigration policies. On the immigrant rights side, racialized political tactics and racial marginalization can lead members of previously distinct ethno-racial groups to develop a collective minority identity. This racial consciousness can help compel noncitizens to take to the streets. The 2006 immigrant rights marches, for example, were sparked by a newly proposed Congressional bill proposed by Rep. Sensenbrenner. As Chris Zepeda-Millan shows, the broad scope of the Sensenbrenner bill included penalties for those who supported or provided aid to immigrants. As a result, it threatened and racialized the entire Latino community, not merely those of undocumented status. These provisions activated and solidified a racialized collective identity in Latinos across the nation. Immigration activists capitalized on these activated identities, using them as a political resource to draw unprecedented numbers of Latinos to march in protest of the bill. Racial dynamics, in short, were a key motivating force behind the movement.

Racial dynamics not only matter for the emergence of immigration movements, they are a crucial element of movement strategy. Immigrant activists manipulate racial language to recruit participants and frame grievances. Such efforts can help establish a baseline of shared experiences and identities among participants and build solidarity. This racial meaning work not only promotes internal cohesion, as scholars like Yen le Espiritu show, it also projects to outsiders a message of intergroup solidarity and shared purpose. In our own research, we see ample evidence of such efforts in Mississippi where immigration activists have built a broad multi-racial coalition of support by framing immigrant rights as a classic Civil Rights issues. By casting anti-immigration policies and practices as racially discriminatory, the immigrant rights movement has garnered the steadfast support of black legislators, labor activists and church leaders. Once unconcerned with immigration, these groups now argue that Mississippi immigrants are racialized minorities who are being unfairly deprived of the right to work, go to school, and live their lives free of discrimination. By framing these grievances in the language of race, rather than citizenship or human rights, immigration activists have not only built sturdy and steadfast coalitions, but they have undermined political leaders’ efforts to enact restrictive immigration policies.

If racial dynamics matter for the rise of immigration movements and for their strategies, we can also understand race as an outcome of immigration movements. Whether or not white participants join anti-immigrant campaigns with a strongly felt racial identity, being a part of anti-immigrant mobilization can certainly foster a palpable sense of white racial identity. Encounters with pro-immigrant movements can change how native-born racial minorities perceive their own racial status vis-à-vis other groups. Similarly, among foreign-born racial minorities, engaging in social movement efforts to counter nativism can shape new panethnic identities and solidarity. The very categories that the U.S. Census uses to measure race have shifted and continue to shift in response to social movements that either involve or pit themselves against non-citizens. For researchers interested in the effects of social movements, immigration movements make clear that racial categories (both cultural and legal) constitute important movement outcomes.

If we are interested in the emergence, strategy, or outcomes of immigration movements, racial dynamics are an important part of the story. But what does social movement research stand to gain from interrogating racial dynamics in these contexts? And how might social movements research on immigration benefit race scholarship?

To answer these questions, it’s worth revisiting a sociological maxim: race is a social construction. Despite our deep and proven conviction that racial categories and groups derive their meanings from society, both movement scholars and race/immigration scholars frequently take these meanings for granted. Our statistical models tend to assume that objective demographic figures reflect meaningful social realities. Our theoretical approaches often assume that racial minorities share common identities or experiences. In other words, rather than treat racial formation as a process in which movements play a central role, much of the social movements literature research relies on racial realism. There are obviously important exceptions to these trends, but hewing to racial realism serves neither social movements nor race and immigration scholarship well. If race is a social construction, we should ask how movements are both shaped by, and contribute to, the construction of racial groups and categories.

When immigration activists manipulate racial meanings to frame grievances, when they advocate for new legal racial categories, or when they prime potential participants to interpret an issue through a racial lens then activists become critical forces in the racial formation process. They reify and even reconstitute the very racial categories and hierarchies that matter so profoundly for social life. A close eye to immigration movements not only illuminates the interwoven nature of movements and race, it can help us elucidate the critical role that social movements play in structuring race relations. Such a focus will not only advance scholarship in all three fields (race, immigration, and movements), it will better equip social movement theorists to predict and understand immigrant social movements as they develop.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Immigrants and Refugees

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