Analyzing Social Constructions Regarding Immigration in the U.S.

by Christ-Shamma Matalbert, resident editor & columnist

Social constructions are man-made rules that govern society: They are mutually agreed upon but unenforced assumptions that dictate what behavior is and isn’t appropriate. In the U.S., social constructions have been used to disenfranchise individuals based on their ability, or inability, to assimilate into white culture. Another example of social construction is the concept of self or self-identity. Many different sociological, psychological, and biological theories acknowledge “maximizing the difference,” a tactic that people apply to establish a clear difference between their group and others (Ingram & Schneider, 2005, p.3). Some examples of social construction are race, ethnicity, good versus evil, and deserving versus undeserving. Furthermore, I highlight two terms that can be socially constructed: immigrant and undocumented. These two terms have the ability to create a culture of ableism, racism, and other discriminatory practices that are detrimental to society. Every living person should have access to basic human needs, but the dehumanization in social constructs can disable such opportunities. 

The term immigration was socially constructed in Noah Webster’s first dictionary, where he defined it as  “travel into a country for permanent residence there.” Webster’s definition boasted a key innovation: “It made immigration about arriving somewhere new, not leaving” (Erickson, 2018). In Erickson’s interpretation, this definition of immigration is what would eventually spur hate and jealousy amongst certain groups and would later classify some immigrants as deserving and some as undeserving due to their inability to assimilate to white culture.

Through the Hamilton mixtape, “we get the job done,” several immigrant artists were highlighted as they uncover the correlation between the undocumented and undeserving. With low economic opportunities and disproportionate lack of resources for undocumented immigrants, society has to move beyond the exploitative contributions of the very same people they criminalize. This harsh treatment against undocumented immigrants has become typical because of a narrative that portrays them as lawbreakers—a mere generalization of a whole population based on a sample. American citizens have been socially constructed to fear that immigrants may jeopardize their jobs. Yet, we fail to remember this country was built on the back of African Americans and immigrants. 

Consequences of socially constructed terms are unequivocally detrimental to society, especially to those who identify as “undocumented immigrants.” René Flores, who co-authored the article “Who are the illegals,” argues that these ingrained biases have led to countless scenarios where individuals, even some who are U.S.-born, have come under scrutiny from immigration authorities (Flores and Gale, 2018). At worst, elected officials have exploited the social construction of immigrants by depicting them as either beneficial or a disadvantage to the nation when it is politically helpful for them to do so (Newton, 2005, p.141). Government policies’ cementation of this social construction has emphasized the idea of who is undeserving and who is deserving. Yet again these ideologies are solely based on the alienation of those who cannot ingest white culture. 

Society needs to eliminate exploitative behaviors that encourage migrant communities to be targeted. American citizens have been socially constructed to fear that immigrants may jeopardize their jobs, and empirical research has shown that isn’t the case. Congress, the federal government, has the power to change the narrative, starting with allowing a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers, also known as recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. 

Nevertheless, social construction can also inspire change when people can collectively resist the dominant structures. For example, in this new presidential administration, protesters are continuously demanding justice because the lives of many migrant children and others depend on it. In addition, in 2017, when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his decision to rescind DACA, protesters rallied and advocated against it. President of Marguerite Casey Foundation, Luz Vega-Marquis, made a statement addressing the traumatizing experience that many would go through while already living in fear had DACA been repealed. As a society, we are already beginning to move beyond undervaluing immigrant and undocumented lives. 

By and by, recognizing white privilege and reframing these ingrained social constructions isn’t “reverse racism,” but instead moves us closer to a culture that incorporates everyone. The inborn noteworthy racist practices in the U.S. sustain a ceaseless cycle in each field of human endeavors. As we keep advancing in battling for a fairer and more equitable world, Black Americans and immigrants don’t wish to be treated better than other people; we want and need equal treatment. The respect of fundamental human rights should not be something any individual should need to fight for in any circumstance. It should be a right given at birth, just as it is for white Americans. By pushing back against racist and xenophobic social constructions, we may come closer to a more inclusive society.

References

Casey, M. (2018, April 13). I Weep for the Children of DACA: Marguerite Casey Foundation: Luz Vega-Marquis. Retrieved from https://caseygrants.org/who-we-are/presidents-corner/iweep-for-the-children-of-daca/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwlN32BRCCARIsADZJ4siPvTjTnWMdVGUpH8qiOPoICiYC6gCXbKSXTgRW1-GXKbrRVNPSv8aAqHnEALw_wcB

Erickson, A. (2018, January 18). The 1829 dictionary entry reshaped how Americans think about immigrants. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/01/18/people-used-to-move-heres how-that-changed-and-why-they-became-immigrants-instead/ 

Gale, S. F., & Flores, R. (2018). Who are the “illegals”? René Flores on cultural stereotypes that drive perceptions of illegal status. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from https://sociology.uchicago.edu/content/who-are-illegals 

Schneider, A. L., & Ingram, H. M. (2005). Deserving and entitled: social constructions and public policy. Albany: State University of New York Press. 

We Get the Job Done, but That’s Not Why We Deserve Rights. (2017, July 11). Retrieved from https://erenarruna.com/2017/07/11/we-get-the-job-done-but-thats-not-why-we-deserve-rights/

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