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The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation

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From volunteers ready to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border to the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who have marched in support of immigrant rights, the United States has witnessed a surge of involvement in immigration activism. In The Latino Threat, Leo R. Chavez critically investigates the media stories about and recent experiences of immigrants to show how prejudices and stereotypes have been used to malign an entire immigrant population—and to define what it means to be an American.

Pundits—and the media at large—nurture and perpetuate the notion that Latinos, particularly Mexicans, are an invading force bent on reconquering land once considered their own. Through a perceived refusal to learn English and an "out of control" birthrate, many say that Latinos are destroying the American way of life. But Chavez questions these assumptions and offers facts to counter the myth that Latinos are a threat to the security and prosperity of our nation.

His breakdown of the "Latino threat" contests this myth's basic tenets, challenging such well-known authors as Samuel Huntington, Pat Buchanan, and Peter Brimelow. Chavez concludes that citizenship is not just about legal definitions, but about participation in society. Deeply resonant in today's atmosphere of exclusion, Chavez's insights offer an alternative and optimistic view of the vitality and future of our country.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The Latino Threat represents cultural studies at its best . . . [T]he topic is timely, the synthetic approach is masterfully executed and the writing is lucid and accessible. I would recommend the book for undergraduate or postgraduate courses on the politics of immigration, ethnicity or media."—David Scott FitzGerald, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies
"Chavez accomplishes a thorough, complex, wide-ranging, sophisticated and truly interdisciplinary read of this narrative, which balances the best of race and gender scholarship."—Arturo J. Aldama, Camino Real

"This books offers the reader a deep and compelling assessment of what 21st century geopolitics has in store for a country with an immigrant past, present a and future by addressing the issue of the Latino experience in the United States the author uncovers and carefully dissects the past immigrant narrative that produced the myth of the America Dream and American ingenuity while assessing what the current state of Latino immigration means for America."—Barbara Robles, Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare

"Through a careful analysis of media spectacles and public discourse, Chavez interrogates and challenges the Latino Threat Narrative—the idea that Latinos are incapable of integration and are taking over and changing America. Chavez equally offers us a thoughtful analysis of conflicts over the meaning of citizenship in an increasingly globalized world. In an era of debate over immigration reform, this book is essential reading for scholars, policy makers, and a thoughtful public alike." —Caroline B. Brettell, Southern Methodist University

"In this tour de force volume, Leo Chavez offers a penetrating analysis of how Latinos have been socially constructed as a threat to the American nation by bigoted political actors for their own cynical purposes and draws expertly on logic, facts, and reason to expose the mythical threat for the intellectual fraud and moral travesty that it truly is."—Douglas S. Massey, Princeton University

"This is the most systematic examination available of the whys and whats behind the representation of Latinos as a threat. Chavez digs deeply into the history, politics, economics, and social psychology of this false representation frequently activated by the media. A key issue for Chavez is the connection between the "threat" and the crisis in the meaning of citizenship, at a time when cross-border mobilities multiply and rich foreign firms and professionals receive better economic protections than many poorer national firms and workers." —Saskia Sassen, Columbia University, author of Territory, Authority, Rights

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804759342
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2008
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Leo R. Chavez is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His publications include Shadowed Lives: Undocumented Immigrants in American Society (1998) and Covering Immigration: Popular Images and the Politics of the Nation (2001).
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Read an Excerpt

The Latino Threat


By Leo R. Chavez
Stanford University Press
Copyright © 2008

Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-5934-2


THE EVENTS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, heightened a public discourse on the dangers the United States faces in the contemporary world. President George W. Bush developed a general strategy for the national security of the United States while critics focused on the dangers inherent in forging an empire in the modern world. Americans seemed willing to allow the constitutional rights of foreigners and immigrants to be diminished so long as those of citizens appeared to remain intact, a dangerous bargain at best. But if there has been one constant in both pre- and post-9/11 public discourse on national security, it has been the alleged threat to the nation posed by Mexican and other Latin America immigration and the growing number of Americans of Mexican descent in the United States. The themes in this discourse have been so consistent over the last forty years that they could be said to be independent of the current fear of international terrorism. However, the events of 9/11 "raised the stakes" and added a new and urgent argument for confronting all perceived threats to national security, both old and new.

The Latino threat, though old, still has currency in the new, post-9/11 world. Consider Samuel P. Huntington's views expressed in an article in the March-April 2004 issue of Foreign Policy. Huntington compared Latinos, especially Mexicans, with earlier waves of European immigrants and found that "unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves-from Los Angeles to Miami-and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream." He also made these assertions: "Demographically, socially, and culturally, the reconquista (re-conquest) of the Southwest United States by Mexican immigrants is well underway"; "In this new era, the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially from Mexico, and the fertility rates of those immigrants compared to black and white American natives."

Huntington's statements are all the more remarkable given the historical context in which they were made. At the time, the United States was waging war in Iraq, deeply involved in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, and still searching for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda operatives worldwide. And yet amidst all these crises, Huntington singled out Latin American, particularly Mexican, immigration as America's most serious challenge. But this threat did not suddenly surface after 9/11; Huntington had raised the alarm a year before the attack on the World Trade Center. In 2000, Huntington wrote in the American Enterprise: "The invasion of over 1 million Mexican civilians is a comparable threat [as 1 million Mexican soldiers] to American societal security, and Americans should react against it with comparable vigor. Mexican immigration looms as a unique and disturbing challenge to our cultural integrity, our national identity, and potentially to our future as a country."

Rather than discarding Huntington's rhetorical excesses as bombastic hyperbole, we are better served by attempting to clarify the social and historical context of such pronouncements. How did Mexican immigration, the Mexican-origin population, and Latin American immigration in general come to be perceived as a national security threat in popular discourse? Such ideas do not develop in a vacuum. They emerge from a history of ideas, laws, narratives, myths, and knowledge production in social sciences, sciences, the media, and the arts. In other words, they exist within a "discourse," a formation or cluster of ideas, images, and practices that construct knowledge of, ways of talking about, and forms of conduct associated with a particular topic, social activity, or institutional site in society. As Stuart Hall has noted, "These discursive formations, as they are known, define what is and is not appropriate in our formulation of, and our practices in relation to, a particular subject or site of social activity; what knowledge is considered useful, relevant and 'true' in that context; and what sorts of persons or 'subjects' embody its characteristics."

Mexico, Mexican immigrants, and the U.S.-born of Mexican origin are the core foci of the Latino Threat Narrative, but the threat is often generalized to all Latin American immigrants and at times to all Latinos in the United States. In the discursive history of Mexican immigration, specific themes of threat emerge, become elaborated, and are often repeated until they attain the ring of truth. This is a story with a number of interwoven plot lines, or narrative themes: the construction of "illegal aliens" as criminals, the Quebec model, the Mexican invasion and reconquista (reconquest) of the United States, an unwillingness to learn English and integrate into U.S. society, out-of-control fertility, and threats to national security. An examination of these themes provides the necessary context for understanding the debates over citizenship and immigrants' rights in the United States that are discussed in the following chapters.


Restrictions on immigration and citizenship have always been about how we imagine who we are as a people and who we wish to include as part of the nation, whether this is explicitly recognized or not. Underscoring this observation is Mae Ngai's authoritative history, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, which concentrates on the early twentieth century but illuminates much that is being debated in the early twenty-first century. The immigration reforms of the 1920s created major restrictions in the flow of immigrants, in the process producing hierarchies of people and nationalities. Western and northern Europeans were the desired immigrants, and their movement hither was the goal of the national origins quotas. Southern and eastern Europeans, Asians, Africans, Mexicans, and other Latin Americans were less desirable, even when demand for their labor made their immigration necessary. The 1920s also witnessed a profound new importance placed on the territorial imperative of national borders, which coincided with new techniques of surveillance, the creation of the Border Patrol, and immigrant health examinations. Out of this new order of border control emerged the "illegal aliens," those who bypassed border controls and found ways to enter the country. The large-scale restrictions of the 1924 immigration law "generated illegal immigration and introduced that problem into the internal spaces of the nation." As Ngai argues, "Immigration restriction produced the illegal alien as a new legal and political subject, whose inclusion within the nation was simultaneously a social reality and a legal impossibility-a subject barred from citizenship and without rights."

Mexican immigrants quickly became associated with the term "illegal alien." According to Ngai, "As numerical restriction assumed primacy in immigration policy, its enforcement aspects-inspection procedures, deportation, the Border Patrol, criminal prosecution, and irregular categories of immigration-created many thousands of illegal Mexican immigrants." However, it was ironic that Mexicans became so closely identified with the term illegal, since they were not subject to numerical quotas and they were defined as "white," unlike Asians, and thus were not excluded as racially ineligible for citizenship. The "whiteness" of Mexicans was a legal definition that was a by-product of Mexico's signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the U.S.-Mexican War. Mexicans living in what was now U.S. territory were allowed to become U.S. citizens, a privilege reserved for "white" immigrants at the time. Despite such legal definitions, Mexicans were still considered "not-white" in the public imagination. Italian immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had a similar problem. Their racial designation was ambiguous in that they were viewed as undesirable and inferior to earlier waves of northern and western European immigrants, yet Italian "whiteness" in contrast to African, Asian, and Mexican Americans was never in doubt.

Asians and Mexicans became legally racialized ethnic groups. I use racialized here to indicate that these are not genetic-based categories of race but, rather, labels that are socially and culturally constructed based on perceived innate or biological differences and imbued with meanings about relative social worth. Asian immigrants were denied a pathway to citizenship, and Mexicans were associated with illegal alien status and subjected to Jim Crow segregation throughout the U.S. Southwest. Legally racialized because of their national origin, Mexican and Asian immigrants found themselves cast as permanently foreign and faced obstacles to their integration into the nation. For example, in 1925, David Starr Jordan, past chancellor of Stanford University and an ardent eugenicist commented that "the Mexican peon, who for the most part can never be fit for citizenship ... is giving our stock a far worse dilution than ever came from Europe." As a result, these racial formations produced "alien citizens"-"Asian Americans and Mexican Americans born in the United States with formal U.S. citizenship but who remained alien in the eyes of the nation."

Such perceptions complicated debates over legalization programs for undocumented immigrants at the time. Some believed that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to legalize their status, while others wanted them deported. Not surprisingly, therefore, legalization programs in the early twentieth century were applied unevenly, reflecting hierarchies of nationality and race. At that time, hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants, primarily from Europe, were allowed to adjust their status to that of legal immigrants and eventually citizens. Americans viewed as unjust the deportation of ordinary immigrants with homes and families in the United States. Deportation was justifiable for criminals, but not for otherwise law-abiding immigrants who had established roots in the country. This reasoning, however, did not apply to Mexicans, who also desired to adjust their status. They were subject to a different logic that began with the premise of criminality because of their illegal entry into the nation. As Ngai observed, "By contrast [to European undocumented immigrants], walking (or wading) across the border emerged as the quintessential act of illegal immigration, the outermost point in a relativist ordering of illegal immigration." The current opposition to allowing undocumented immigrants to become legal immigrants (the "pathway to citizenship") begins with the same association of illegal entry with criminality, and Mexicans are still the prototypical "illegal aliens."

Also prevalent in the early twentieth century was the belief that providing immigrants with rights, even the equal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, diminished the value of citizenship. This belief still has currency in contemporary debates over allowing undocumented immigrants access to driver's licenses and publicly funded education, medical care, and housing. To some, such rights and privileges appear as rewards for illegal entry. Rather than rewarding "illegals," public opinion often declares that they should be punished and removed from the country. Thus, for some, universal access to these rights and privileges blurs the line between citizen and noncitizen and thus cheapens citizenship.

The historical lesson is that "illegality" is socially, culturally, and politically constructed. As people move across ever porous national boundaries, their status is determined by policies in those nation-states, not by some essential quality inherent in the migrant's genetic code or personal philosophy on life. Policy makers, using Foucauldian techniques of governmentality, construct classifications to further bureaucratic control of populations, including, and perhaps most especially, migrants. Being an unauthorized migrant, an "illegal," is a status conferred by the state, and it then becomes written upon the bodies of the migrants themselves because illegality is both produced and experienced. But illegality itself is a status resulting from political decisions made by governmental representatives who could just as well have decided to allow migrants to enter under the sanction of law, as legal immigrants, legal workers, or legal guest workers. The migrants themselves are the same people, whether deemed legal or illegal by their receptive states. What marks the illegal is the receiving state's unwillingness to recognize the conditions that create a demand for labor, most notably falling fertility rates, aging populations, and values that imbue certain jobs as "immigrant jobs." As a result, a legal fiction emerges, one that recognizes that x number of migrant laborers will be attracted to most of the industrialized nations but also recognizes that politicians will respond to the fears of immigration among their constituents by allowing in far fewer legal immigrants/workers than the actual flow. The surplus could have been allowed to enter legally, but instead the "illegal" entrant is constructed. The total flow, the x number of in-migrants, continues, albeit under these constructed categories of legal and illegal migration. What follows is an examination of the condition of illegality, not so much in the actual lives of "illegal aliens" but in the representations of that condition in public discourse.


Since its formation in the 1920s, the idea that Mexican undocumented immigrants are "criminals" has continued in public discourse, but in the 1970s a new trope was added: Mexicans immigration as an invasion of the United States. Over time, the invasion theme evolved, with the elaboration of the notions of a Mexican reconquest of the U.S. Southwest and what I call the Quebec model. In the Quebec model, the Quebecois independence movement among French-speaking Canadians is held up as the example of the threat posed by Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants and their descendants, who supposedly maintain linguistic and socially separate lives from the rest of U.S. society. These themes are repeated so often that they become a taken-for-granted set of assumptions about the inability and unwillingness of Mexican immigrants and their children, extending for generations, to become part of society. Huntington's observations, above, are among the latest renditions of these assumptions, but as we will see, they build upon a long history of such assertions about the threat of Mexican immigration, Mexican Americans, and Latinos in general.

As legal immigration began to increase after 1965, public anxiety over undocumented immigration was also increasing. Although it was difficult to estimate the actual numbers of unauthorized immigrants in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, Leonard Chapman, then-commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), publicly announced that alarmingly high numbers (as many as ten to fifteen million or more) of "illegal aliens" were "flooding" into the country at the time.

The media's display of such large numbers carries meanings apart from their mathematical references. Because it is difficult to assess the accuracy of such numbers and what they mean-for example, their relative impact in a nation as large as the United States-such numbers become images. They jump off the page or the television to the reader or viewer, but these numerical images are flat, in that they lack the depth of understanding that comes with historical context, economic explanations, and social science elaboration. Consequently, numbers such as these invoke simplified responses-low/high, good/bad, affirmative/alarmist, assurance/fear-depending upon the prevailing sentiment toward immigration. An assured response to such purportedly large numbers might be that the nation's economy is doing so well that it is attracting and absorbing many eager new workers. However, in this case, at that time, the media's display of these numbers underscored beliefs that there were "too many" undocumented immigrants. Thus, even though these numbers turned out to be exaggerated, the authority of their source-the INS-meant that they entered public discourse as a symbol of alarm.


Excerpted from The Latino Threat by Leo R. Chavez Copyright © 2008 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Pt. 1 Constructing and Challenging Myths

1 The Latino Threat Narrative 21

2 Cultural Contradictions of Citizenship and Belonging 44

3 Latina Sexuality, Reproduction, and Fertility as Threats to the Nation 70

4 Latina Fertility and Reproduction Reconsidered 96

Pt. 2 Media Spectacles and the Production of Neoliberal Citizen-Subjects

5 Organ Transplants and the Privileges of Citizenship 113

6 The Minuteman Project's Spectacle of Surveillance on the Arizona-Mexico Border 132

7 The Immigrant Marches of 2006 and the Struggle for Inclusion 152

Epilogue 177

Notes 189

Bibliography 215

Index 247

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