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  • Immigration and the 2016 Election
  • Jamie Winders (bio)

When the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election cycle began in 2015, I expected immigration to be a secondary issue, a topic that might get periodic mention but would not receive sustained attention. Recent political shifts had transformed the rhetoric around immigration, smoothing its sharp edges as debates about immigration were joined by debates about inequality, structural racism, and other themes that have occupied the public eye since the early 2010s. Demographically, the picture of immigration was also changing. Mexicans remain the largest immigrant group in the U.S., but since the Great Recession, the number of Mexicans coming to the U.S. has been in decline, with more Mexicans leaving between 2009 and 2014 than arriving (Gonzalez-Barrera 2015). In 2014, India was the top immigrant-sending country, with Mexico coming in third after China, and the arrival of unaccompanied Central American children in Summer 2014 seemed to eclipse concerns over unauthorized Mexican immigrants in public discourse. Obama’s presidential executive orders addressing both undocumented immigrants brought here as children and undocumented parents of citizen children suggested a softening national attitude toward immigration, as did the move away from the high point of deportations in 2009. At the state and local level, the flurry of anti-immigrant legislation that I and other scholars were writing about only a few years ago faded after 2012, with fewer states trying to pass laws such as Alabama’s HB 56. For all these reasons, as the 2016 presidential election got underway, immigration did not seem poised to be the hot-button issue it had been in recent years.

Thus, I was taken aback to hear Republican candidate Donald Trump announce in Summer 2015 that Mexico sent its “worst elements,” including rapists, drug-runners, and criminals (CBS News 2015) to the U.S., that “tremendous infectious disease” poured across the U.S.-Mexico border, and that a “beautiful” wall built between Mexico and the U.S. (and paid for by Mexico) was a necessary solution to the “problem” of immigration (Campbell 2015). I was not surprised to see anti-immigrant rhetoric mobilized in a political campaign or to see a political candidate make claims that were not based in empirical realities. What was surprising about Trump’s talk of building walls and demonizing Mexican immigrants was how out of step it seemed with the demographic reality of immigration to the U.S. [End Page 291] Trump had taken a page from the past in his view on immigration, hearkening back to both a different demographic moment in U.S. immigration history (the 1990s to early 2000s) and a different political era in U.S. immigration policy (the time of “Operation Wetback”). Why was Trump going backwards in time?

This collection of reflections on the 2016 U.S. presidential election coalesces around its geographies, but there are also important temporalities at work. In the context of immigration, two different moments in the wider saga of U.S. immigration dynamics are being mobilized. For Democratic candidates, the temporality of immigration is now. Halting deportations is a key issue linked to keeping immigrant families together and grounded in a sense of social justice. Supportive of Obama’s executive orders, they see immigration through a contemporary lens that locates it as a key part of the American social fabric. For Republican candidates, the temporality of immigration is the 1990s and 2000s, if not before. Trump’s early volley set the tone for other Republican candidates, who have had to prove their own toughness on immigration in relation to Trump’s—how to build a wall to keep Mexicans out (despite the fact that more Americans are heading to Mexico than Mexicans heading to the U.S.) and how to undo Obama’s executive orders. Trump’s references—Arpaio in Arizona, Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” and a border overwhelmed by “illegals” and disease—are throwbacks to public discourse concerning immigration in the mid-2000s, if not the mid-twentieth century and before. Switching between Democratic and Republican debates is not just moving between two different ideological positions on immigration. It is moving between two different time periods...


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pp. 291-296
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