- Foreign Bodies:Migrants, Parasites, and the Pathological Nation
During the last three decades of the twentieth century, California underwent a major demographic transformation, changing from overwhelmingly "white" and U.S.-born to increasingly Latino and foreign-born.1 An important consequence of this metamorphosis was that, during the 1990s, the state witnessed a notable flourishing of nativism, producing a political and cultural climate that was distinctly hostile toward immigrants, especially Mexicans. Much of this hostility centered on the economic consequences of migration, such as the economic costs of these newcomers. One common nativist claim was that California had been forced to spend so much money on the welfare, education, and healthcare of undocumented immigrants that its coffers had been depleted, thus precipitating a decline in the general "health" of the state. This nativism also tended to more broadly blame immigrants for many of the socioeconomic problems of the U.S.—unemployment, crime, deteriorating schools, deficiencies in social services, and so forth. The prevalent assumption here, then, was that immigrants posed a threat to the general welfare of the nation.
One of the most curious things about this nativism was its propensity to attribute social illness—the maladies of the nation—exclusively to external factors, to foreign bodies. It is as if nativists [End Page 46] implicitly endorsed the exogenous explanations of illness put forth by nineteenth-century germ theory microbiologists, who suggested that disease originated not in the essential composition of the body, but in an external, intruding pathogen to which the body had been unwittingly exposed.2 So just as nineteenth-century scientists attributed illness to the pathogenic incursions of foreign bodies, late-twentieth-century nativists ascribed the sicknesses of the nation to the influx of foreign populations. The purpose of this paper is to explore this nativist tendency to attribute the origins of social illness to invasive foreign bodies. More specifically, it examines how nativist rhetoric implicitly figures the immigrant, the Mexican immigrant in particular, as a parasite intruding on the body of the host nation, drawing nutrients from it, while providing nothing to its survival and even threatening its well-being. We will thus see how this rhetoricoperates through the construction of asymmetrically opposed counter-concepts, that of the nation or host on one side, and the immigrant or parasite on the other: the former is seen as primary, providing sustenance to the second, while the latter appears as derived from the first, inferior to it, completely dependent on it for its being.
The political effects of this rhetoric have not been insignificant. It has legitimated numerous efforts to exclude the Mexican immigrant from the body of the nation. The logic here is simple: if one expels the pathogen, the illness will go away, the nation will be cured. I will suggest, however, that the nation would not necessarily be cured if the immigrant were eliminated. It may very well be that the immigrant is a parasite. But it is not necessarily the case that he/she is an inessential or harmful guest. And while the nation is no doubt a host, it is not unambiguously or only so. In short, I will propose that the relationship between the immigrant and the nation is more intricate that the nativist rhetoric of immigration admits. Perhaps, in the end, all we will be left with is nothing but parasites.
The nativism of the 1990s in California is very much a racialized nativism.3 Despite the fact that immigrants come from all over the world, including Europe, the populations most often stigmatized as pathological are those that are physically different from the mainstream, "white" population. More specifically, it is principally the Mexican immigrant who is construed as a foreign body that threatens the integrity of the nation. This racialized nativism can thus be seen as a form of racism. It is not a type of racism, however, [End Page 47] that resorts to crude biologisms in which different racial groups are seen to possess distinct natural endowments. Rather, it is one that emphasizes differences of cultural heritage and their incommensurability. As Etienne Balibar has noted:
It is a racism whose dominant theme...