The Border as Public Theater
by Leo Chavez
August 31, 2021
This interview with Leo Chavez, professor of anthropology at UC Irvine and author of several books, including Covering Immigration: Popular Images and the Politics of the Nation, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Can you talk about discovering political advantages to demonizing specifically Latin immigrants? What do you think about the role the border plays in American politics?
In the colonial period, America was 13 colonies pressed against the Atlantic ocean. Through a succession of wars with Native Americans, purchases from France, and a war with Mexico, the United States managed to change its borders over and over until it took over the whole continental United States. And then it created this made-up war with Hawaii to take over Hawaii and extended the borders out to the Pacific. And then to Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico after a war with Spain.
So, borders have always been an important part of American history, particularly in the expansion of our empire. And so our national borders have a lot of interest to politicians and to the public.
In my work, I try to look at the border as an idea. It is not fixed as a physical reality.
It has changed a lot over time, as I just explained. People often think about borders as concrete and fixed as both a physical and a symbolic representation of the nation-state and its people, when, in reality, the borders have changed.
Politicians, over the last 50 years, have weaponized the border. it has become very convenient for politicians to use the border as political theater to motivate their base. And it hasn't just been politicians. Over the past decades we have seen radio pundits and TV pundits who see that ranting against immigration and immigrants was a way to develop their fan base. So immigration becomes one of these very easy ways to get votes and to get an audience.
Is there a place you see this begins? Is there one campaign you look to?
The answer to your question depends on how far back you want to go.
A lot of issues around Mexican immigration really started emerging in the early 20th century, particularly with the revolution in Mexico and the refugee movement of around a million Mexicans to the United States in the early 1900s.
After 1929, there was very little immigration into the United States because of the Depression. The only immigrants coming to the states in the forties were brought from Mexico to work in agriculture. In the fifties, there was an uptick in immigration, but it is only after 1965 that we see a large increase in immigration generally and Mexican immigration in particular. And that was, due in part to the 1965 Immigration Act, which got rid of the racist, national origin quotas that were put in place in the 1920s, and basically give everybody in the world a chance to come to the United States.
In the post-1965 period, there was a change in the total number of immigrants coming to the U.S. and the demographic makeup of those immigrants. Suddenly more people were coming from Asia, the number of Latin Americans continued to grow, and more people came from Africa. Adding to U.S.-bound migration were some major geopolitical events, such as the fall of Vietnam in 1975, the Korean War, civil wars in Central America in the 1980s, and the fall of the Soviet Union. The change in immigration law in 1965 combined with these geopolitical conflicts led to major demographic changes, from fewer Europeans to more Asian and Latin American immigrants, as well as a steady increase in the total number of people coming.
In the early 1980s, there was a lot of discussion in the media about what is happening to America. What do demographic change and increased immigration mean? Is America going downhill? Should we close the border? What I found was that alarmist rhetoric about immigration begins to grow in the late 1970s and surges in the early 1980s and early 1990s, drowning out more positive or affirmative media stories. This trend has continued until today.
In terms of discourse, do you feel like the media reflect a national mood or dictate a national mood?
I think it does both. At some points, it leads public sentiment, and, at some points, it just reflects public sentiment. But typically the media smells a story and if immigration is that story, it's going to go after it. How they frame that story is what I look at.
Demographic change and immigration can be written about in any number of ways, positive or negative, or, what I call, alarmist and affirmative. That just depends on who's writing, the media’s audience, and political and economic climate. I’ve found periods of high unemployment and economic recessions are fertile ground for alarmist rhetoric about immigration in the media.
The media helped generate public interest in the story of demographic change after 1965. The media reported on projections about demographic change, and the fact that the U.S. is going to be more Latino, more Asian, and that whites are going to be a lesser part of that demography. These stories often stoked fears, sometimes intentionally, of what demographic change will mean.
For example, the media helped popularize “the browning of America” idea, which helped fuel white nationalist fears of white replacement.
The increase in Mexican immigration in the late seventies, early eighties became a huge topic in the media. U.S. News and World Report published a number of issues headlining the “Mexican Invasion.” So, did they invent that negative view of Mexican immigration? Did they lead on that? Did they follow? I think particularly in this case, they helped create this sense that there's an invasion taking place from Mexico. The story they promoted was that there was this invasion caused by demographic growth in Mexico, which was caused by the fact that Mexicans couldn’t control their fertility. These ideas of population growth built on Paul Ehrlich’s work out of Stanford, The Population Bomb.
The word invasion pops up on the cover of U.S. News and World Report repeatedly, and two and a half decades later, Trump used the word “invasion” hundreds of times in his web pages and speeches. He didn't invent that. The media helped promote the Mexican invasion trope a long time ago.
Similar to the question I just asked, how do you see the media and politicians inform each other?
Politicians are the bread and butter of the media, let's face it. Politicians use the media to express things and get their viewpoint out. To be fair, in a democracy, it is the media’s responsibility to inform us, the public, about our politicians and the government.
Does the media analyze what politicians say? Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. The idea that politicians need to be “fact-checked” is much more common today than in the past, which is a positive trend. For example, the claims of a “Mexican invasion” were not fact-checked. That was taken as fact.
How did you come to magazine covers?
My first research on immigration involved interviewing immigrants directly. Such interviews provide rich information about the lives of families and individuals. After my first book, Shadowed Lives, I became interested in learning about the place of immigrants in American society and American culture. Where am I going to get that higher-level sense of how the nation more broadly thinks about immigrants? Well, I can't interview the nation, but I can interview who represents the nation, which is the media. The media tells us what people are saying and thinking, and provides me with an entry into American popular opinion.
My problem was finding a way of selecting out key moments in American history that surfaced in the media. I thought that magazine covers crystallized key moments. Editors chose important topics of the day to feature on the magazine’s cover,
So I reasoned I’d use these moments in history when immigration seemed to surface as noteworthy topics for the cover of a magazine. And that's how I decided to find a sample of magazine covers which dealt in some way with the topic of migration to the United States. And I became interested in analyzing not just the cover’s text and magazine articles but the images on those covers. I asked what were the visual metaphors and visual lexicon the magazines used to convey ideas about immigration.
As a first-year student in college, I remember reading The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. She analyzed how women were represented in advertising images in magazines. She came to some eye-opening conclusions about the role of women in American society in the 1950s and 1960s. I was only 18 years old, but I never forgot the idea that our way of understanding the world is shaped through the way the media represents these topics.
The way I thought about gender and women, wasn't something that I invented or my family invented, it is something that I was told from the time I was born. It is the same for immigration. Most people in America will not ever meet an immigrant, and yet, they think they know everything about immigrants. Where did they get that information? How did they internalize these views? Like Friedan, I believed looking at how the media represents immigrants would give me insight into those questions.
And how has the coverage changed?
The internet made a huge difference. In my book Covering Immigration, I examined a sample of magazines. But since then, the internet has changed our world dramatically. Magazines still exist, but online media have become key to the way we find information. In my book The Latino Threat, I didn't restrict myself to magazines covers. I still used magazines and newspapers, but then I also collected all kinds of stuff from the internet, including news reports, videos, TV shows, blogs, political cartoons, all kinds of stuff people were saying and reported on the internet, My sources for information I expanded tremendously.
I used a lot of quotes directly from politicians and TV pundits. I didn't have to wait and come out in a magazine because it appears so fast online. In terms of methodology, this was more diffused, but in some ways it allowed me to see a lot more different things. You start seeing the debates that are taking place in different places, in different ways.
Do you see any sort of larger narrative changes as the news begins to change?
I think in a sense, the question really is where are people getting their information? People have become narrower in where they get their information. In the old days, everyone watched three channels, CBS, NBC, and ABC, and Walter Cronkite was like the word of God. People would listen and it was fascinating. Now, there are so many sources for information, especially on the internet. Most of my students rarely watch the news on TV. Rather, they get their news on the internet.
People are no longer seeking enlightenment, which is what hopefully the news would do, but rather people seek to enforce the beliefs that they already hold. They look for sources that reinforce their worldview. And I think that's why it has been really difficult to have informed conversations across groups of people.
The promise of the internet was democratization in the sense that everyone would have great information and exist in a sort of Socratic state. It has gone the other direction. The media has allowed us to become segregated and it's just really too bad. And, in terms of immigration, if you think immigrants are bad there are so many sources out there to reaffirm that belief. Unfortunately, there are fewer sources of information that have tried to provide a more objective look at immigration. You have to hunt that down.
The polls do show that most Americans, thank goodness, tend to think that immigration is good for the country, that undocumented immigrants should be given a path to citizenship, and that the DREAMers, in particular, should be given a path to citizenship.
Even under Trump, most Americans were still holding onto the idea that America should have a positive relationship to immigration, which I think is really a good testament to what we still hold onto as a part of our identity.
How do you feel like reporters could cover migration better?
The borders have become politicized, as public theater.
You see politicians going down there, having their picture taken with the border behind them, talking about how bad things are. Well, what about the good things?
What about the fact that with our low fertility rates, aging populations, and capitalist economic system, which depends on economic growth, we need immigrants at a certain point. Instead of seeing the border as a place for viruses and parasites and criminals, what about these people who are coming to save our economy — making sure people have food to eat, and that people's parents will be cared for. These are what immigrants are coming to do. How can you blame the very people who are coming to help salvage our lives? How can you blame the very people who help to make our lives better in many ways?
These stories often get washed away in favor of the sensational, scapegoating, blaming immigrants. It’s hypocritical to only relate negative stories and not the positive stories of how immigrants contribute to the nation. I always ask, why aren't there more stories about thanking immigrants during Thanksgiving for making this feast possible. A national “thank you” to immigrants.
Instead, we hear the border as a violent place. El Paso is one of the safest cities in the country. The whole idea that the border is this physical barrier that people run up against is a false one. For most people, the border is not a fence, it's a way of thinking about the world. It's a place where people have relatives on both sides. It is a place with a shared economy and a common future. People on this side go down to eat on the other side, people on that side come up here and work. There is so much interdependence that doesn't seem to ever get reflected in the media coverage.
I think the media needs to figure out how to develop more objective stories about the positive relationships that exist among people from different places in the world, instead of letting the narrative be hijacked by those who never seem to see the positive aspects of being a nation of immigrants.