Immigration policy throughout this presidential campaign season has exposed a predictably shortsighted, but surprisingly shallow understanding of Latinx identity in the United States.
Having drawn a sharp contrast between Republican and Democratic political ideology for decades, the immigration debate within the U.S. has almost exclusively focused on the immediate—border control. Donald Trump’s nativist stance on immigration has all but engulfed any and all political dialogue on the subject. And although discussion on Hillary Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy in Central and South America (where a growing number of undocumented migrants hail from) has increased the scope of an otherwise short-sighted conversation, it has also been cast off to a political periphery.
Instead, lost among the insults, name-calling, and libel is a devolving bipartisan grasp of Latinidad within the U.S.
Upon arrival to the U.S., Latin American migrants (once Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran, Mexican, etc.) become categorized as ‘Latinos,’ a blanket ethnicity created for Latin Americans of all generations living in the United States. The idea of Latinx as an ethnicity has been questioned in the past, and debate over what ethnicity itself entails continues to this day. But when Donald Trump announced his intention to build a wall along the southern border, it was as if ethnicity and race were merged into a single entity to be plucked, shipped away, and barred from re-entry. It soon became clear he wasn’t referring to Mexicans alone as rapists and murderers: “It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America.” But his comments catered (perhaps even subconsciously) to the deep-seated notion of Latinxs not as a multi-racial and pluricultural ethnic group, but as a single homogenous race.
It remains unclear whether Trumps truly distinguishes between Latinxs and Mexicans —his tasteless Cinco de Mayo Instagram post suggests that he doesn’t— and it is a question yet to be entertained by the media, which has otherwise pounced on his every word. The Hillary Clinton campaign has, in turn, repeatedly denounced Trump’s plan to build a wall and touted its immigration platform as a progressive alternative, without challenging this underlying presumption.
As a result, Trump’s comments have narrowed the scope of a discussion in desperate need of proper attention, opening the door for other simple-minded debates across the board and across party lines. These barbarisms on behalf of the Republican candidate continue to give license to the Democratic party to sell itself as a champion for minorities (whether they are Latinx, Black, or Muslim) while simultaneously sidestepping real integration. Bill Clinton aptly summarized this in his address to the Democratic National Convention: “If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together, we want you.” Well-intentioned as it may be, Clinton’s message subtly weaves in the supposition that, as Peter Beinart notes for The Atlantic, the value of Muslims as Americans is an instrumental, rather than inherent one. Substitute in “immigrant” or “Latino” for “Muslim”, and you arrive at a similar conclusion.
This idea of instrumentality is embodied in the Clinton campaign’s attempts at catering towards Latinxs, of which most have been rebuked. In December, the #NotMyAbuela hashtag surged on Twitter in response to Hillary Clinton’s shallow efforts at engaging with Spanish-speaking voters. Ranging from tweets written in Spanish to her campaign’s Buzzfeed-style listicle, “7 things Hillary Clinton is just like your abuela,” (the original title before the title change) the feigned interest in Latino voters —still an ostensibly better alternative to Trump’s nativism— has done little to dispel generalized and exclusionary notions of Latinos as a homogenous entity.
Immigration reform is thus held out as a form of Latinx bait, the only worm on the Democratic Party’s fishing rod. But the path to truly engaging Latinx voters lies both within and beyond our borders. Over the past few decades, U.S. foreign policy in Central America has exacerbated wars and led to an exodus of child migrants, some of whom were detained in the United States, imprisoned and deported, only to join criminal gangs upon returning to their countries. Labor and environmental activists voicing their dissent —such as Berta Cáceres— are either slain, or are forced to flee similar gangs. Yet the issues of a broken prison system, environmental conservation, foreign policy, and immigration reform have never been mutually exclusive. Yet only the issue with a predominantly Latinx face is immigration, and that is what we are being sold.
Donald Trump’s slandering of undocumented immigrants have earned him bipartisan scorn, and rightly so. But while Democrats have largely denounced his nativism, their selective outrage at Trump’s xenophobia continues to pedal the idea of Latinxs as single-issue voters and a cohesive political bloc: a notion that finds its roots in similarly questionable foundations.
Miguel Salazar is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. He tweets from @miguels93.