In the summer of 2014, media discussions of the U.S. immigration system crescendoed as the news of nearly 50,000 unaccompanied Central American minors and families journeying from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to the United States gained traction. Though this migration was not unprecedented, the number of minors grew at a rate beyond projections and media attention ballooned, especially after some U.S. air force bases were converted into overcrowded shelters and photos of young children in deplorable conditions began to surface.
Tensions rose further following President Obama’s June declaration of intent to use executive action to address what he termed a “humanitarian crisis” and the continued federal inaction on comprehensive immigration reform he deemed partially responsible.
July was a hotbed of debate. Protesters demonstrated both for and against the migrants and their future in the United States. Partisan and bipartisan congressional proposals called for the migrants’ expedited removal. The Obama administration in turn requested funds to quickly process migrants. Ultimately, affairs ended in an August standstill, as Congress began its vacation with few significant results.
Among other places, the comment sections of Internet articles overflowed with discussions of immigration policy and immigrants themselves; many commenters had opinions on who should come, who should stay, and the framework that the general public, policymakers, and advocates should use to answer these questions. As public health researchers concerned with the effects of immigration policy on health, we aim to stay informed on current immigration-related events. There is a general understanding among us, however, that the comment sections of immigration articles are dangerous spaces to tread—spaces we should avoid—as they are often filled with vitriol directed at supporters and, most directly, at immigrants.
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But language is powerful. Metaphor and rhetoric have the power to shape thoughts on policy and those it affects. And insight into the reasoning behind anti-immigrant sentiments can inform advocates on which strategies may be most effective in combating these harmful messages. Thus, we argue that it is important to critically consider how immigrants are categorized in political discourse in these spaces, as it has implications for their acceptance, health, and well-being.
Simply put, we as advocates can’t avoid comment sections.
We decided to systematically consider the comment sections of news articles posted online to investigate any particular themes or trends that might emerge, as well as reflect on the implications of this language. We selected three articles from CNN, often considered a relatively moderate media outlet, as the center of our study. We focus here on a June article published on CNN’s website, selected both for its publication early in the news cycle, as well as its representation of how most major media outlets understood and reported on this situation at the time. After one of us reviewed 500 comments from this article in July, the rest of our team later read through the comments individually and placed them in one of the categories we initially developed, revising the scope where needed. We then revisited the categories, now filled with specific comments, to consider the themes within. We found, unsurprisingly, that comments were overwhelmingly negative. But rather than brush off the comments, we argue that their tone and content have important implications for the health and well-being of immigrants and Latino/as (henceforth: Latinos).
An overall racist and xenophobic mindset was clear. In fact, conversation often shifted from Central American minors to focus on Latino and immigrant populations in general, usually conflating the groups. Latinos were characterized as unwilling and unable to assimilate into “U.S. culture,” and accused of attempting a physical and cultural takeover of the United States to create what one commenter called a “mestizo dominated hellhole.” In particular, this often took the form of attacks on Spanish-speaking immigrants or Latinos.
In contrast to commenters’ framing of past generations of “good,” hardworking, white European immigrants, commenters thought of Latino immigrants as inherently “bad”—too lazy to effect change in their own countries and over-reliant on U.S. social services (despite contradictory evidence). Moreover, commenters characterized these so-called “unskilled, uneducated” Latino immigrants as unnecessary and useless to the U.S. labor system—in line with the history of racial (and labor-related) exclusion the U.S. immigration system has enacted for years.
Not all rhetoric was so subtle. Commenters often explicitly demonstrated how little they valued the lives of immigrants generally and Latinos specifically. From describing migrants entering the United States as “garbage” that “slithers in here over [the] border” to a “flood” of children, commenters clustered Latinos, Latino immigrants, and Central American minors into one indistinguishable force of brown interlopers corroding the white, English-speaking, pulled-up-by-their-bootstraps “American dream.” In the eyes of many commenters, then, despite fleeing contexts of violence and poverty linked to free trade policies, U.S. intervention in Central America, and high levels of U.S. incarceration and deportation of Central Americans, these minors (and their families) did not and should not belong in the United States. Rather, mothers were described as “anchor machines,” hyper-fertile women “breeding like mice” and exploiting their children to gain U.S. social benefits. In turn, their children were vermin to be eradicated, for, as one commenter noted, “Baby cockroaches grow up to be full grown cockroaches.”
In this way, commenters framed migrants’ bodies and lives as criminal, inhuman (if not animal), and less worthy than the bodies and lives of the commenters and their own children, who they claimed should receive benefits before children from elsewhere, no matter their relative need.
Many commenters had intensively violent proposals for how to handle this alleged invasion. Most abhorrent were proposals for military force to “eradicate” the problem of undocumented immigrants and unaccompanied minors. Some suggested “purging” Central America of the violent gangs that have grown in power and violence through drone strikes. Others supported firing squads or drones that would “kill on sight” any of the “terrorists” (read: undocumented immigrants) attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
This frequently mentioned send-in-the-drones mentality conveyed a clear message: Whatever the method, a militarized U.S. response toward Central Americans (and Latinos) was necessary to prevent the purported violence, criminality, and threat to “American” culture that undocumented migrants, young or old, could carry across the southern U.S. border.
Reading through these comments, their anti-immigrant nature is obvious. But why do they matter?
Marginalized groups—in this case, undocumented immigrant minors—can be placed into categories that devalue and dehumanize them. Such dehumanization can justify or encourage anything from the restriction of life-saving resources to the outright killing of those no longer seen as valuable to human society. The great danger in these comments, then, is not only that they homogenize undocumented minors and undocumented immigrants, but that they dehumanize them as well. As a rhetoric of uprooting “pests” becomes more acceptable, the lives of undocumented immigrants are devalued—be it for race, ethnicity, immigration status, or socioeconomic status—and militarized “solutions” to both their migration and existence become more palatable and “logical.”
This homogenization also works by lumping together disparate communities, including U.S.-born Latinos, permanent residents, undocumented immigrants, unaccompanied minors, and Latinos across lines of descent and origin, thereby applying a catch-all racism and xenophobia to these minors. Moreover, this generalization makes it difficult to see how these minors’ unique needs must be met—as children, as refugees from nations with heavy U.S. involvement, and as individuals who sometimes speak indigenous languages instead of English or Spanish. Coupled with dehumanization, these minors are depicted as not meriting “special” help from federal or local institutions, and ultimately receive little assistance as they navigate demanding immigration and asylum systems.
This rhetoric has real-world effects. Commenters’ thoughts, ideas, and actions are spread and embodied by protests, demonstrations, and appeals to legislators. Legislators in turn will hear the most vocally opinionated—and extreme opinions make easy media fodder. Further, commenters’ radical rhetoric normalizes less radical but still damaging public opinions.
Unfortunately, these discourses also exist outside the confines of Internet comment sections. In his November 2014 speech on executive action, President Obama referred to these Central American minors as a “brief spike” in unaccompanied children journeying to the United States, completely ignoring the “humanitarian crisis” he once emphatically stated needed to be addressed. Beyond dismissing these refugees’ struggles, President Obama went on to create a dichotomy between the “felons” and “criminals” he promises to deport and the “families” and “children” he aims to provide with relief. In a nation where so many have been trained to see Latinos, immigrants, and unaccompanied minors as inherently criminal, however—and criminality and human rights as exclusive, for that matter—how can we expect any of these groups to receive the support they need, much less these apparently forgotten minors?
These comment sections offer insight into the thoughts and nativism held by members of the public. Most importantly, though, they remind us that as social media becomes increasingly central to advocacy efforts and politics, we must analyze ever more critically the emerging discourses we find within these online realms, seeking out signs of dehumanization and preparing for the restriction, violence, and denial that may both contribute to and flow from it. In this particular instance, immigrant rights advocates must continue to engage in education against stereotypical and dehumanizing conceptualizations of immigrants, Central Americans, Mexicans, and U.S.-born Latinos. Simplistic views of the various social and economic factors contributing to migration and immigration should be combated with efforts to inform the general public of the past and present ways the U.S. government has intervened in Latin America, as well as the changing nature of the context of arrival for immigrants in the United States over time. Ultimately, however, perceptions of immigrants as less than human must be torn down by a focus on their humanity and their own recounting of their experiences. Especially in a world of online media, it is therefore critical that we center the voices of unaccompanied, undocumented Central American minors in reporting, education, and conversation—in the end, it is their well-being at stake.