Jorge Duany: The Fear of the Other

We welcome a guest post today from Jorge Duany, author of Blurred Borders: Transnational Migration between the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States. Click here to read an excerpt from the book. In this guest post, Duany explains how xenophobia has influenced culture and policy in various regions and across history.

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Blurred Borders: Transnational Migration between the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States, by Jorge DuanyThe Ellis Island Museum, on the outskirts of New York City, commemorates the arrival of more than 12 million immigrants, mainly Italian, Russian, Hungarian, and Austrian, between 1892 and 1924. After passing through the old areas of reception, inspection, and detention of immigrants, several rooms with photographs, documents, recordings, and representative objects of the migratory history of the United States can be explored.

A section of the museum shows cartoons from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. One of them presents several fat men, dressed elegantly and with top hats, preventing the disembarkation of newly arrived foreigners. Behind the first characters lurk the shades of their immigrant ancestors, with ragged clothes and sickly figures. The image condenses a powerful critique of xenophobia, the repudiation of foreigners by the children or grandchildren of immigrants.

Between 1965 and 2010, the U.S. government legally admitted more than 33 million immigrants. The immense majority of them came from Latin America and the Caribbean (44%) and Asia (32%), as opposed to earlier migratory waves, mainly of European origin. Recently, the legal immigration of 6.4 million Mexicans (without counting several million undocumented people) has troubled U.S. public opinion.

Many old popular fears—such as that foreigners displace native workers or that they do not want to “assimilate” themselves into American culture—have intensified lately. In states bordering with Mexico, like Arizona, Texas, and California, xenophobia has become public policy, criminalizing all foreigners and anyone whose profile does not conform to the Anglo-Saxon physical type.

One of the explanations for the fear of the other is a fundamentalist discourse that privileges the differences—especially linguistic, religious, and racial ones—between those born in the host country and those born abroad. During times of economic difficulties, like the present one, that discourse usually blames immigrants as scapegoats for all the problems of the receiving society, from unemployment and poverty to delinquency and terrorism.

Multiple groups are objects of an international chain of racial and ethnic prejudice and discrimination. Haitians in the Dominican Republic, Dominicans in Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans in the United States currently suffer from social exclusions similar to those previously suffered by the Irish, Jewish, Polish, Chinese, and Japanese.

The prevalence of xenophobia in diverse places and historical periods invites us to reflect on its common causes and consequences. As the Ellis Island Museum illustrates, immigrants frequently confront serious obstacles to integrate themselves into their adoptive society.

From the difficulty to communicate in an alien language to mistreatment by government authorities and the barriers to obtain a well-paid job and decent housing, many foreigners are forced to be inserted in the lower rungs of the social scale. That mode of incorporation tends to reinforce dominant stereotypes about ethnic minorities and to justify the calls of ample local groups to restrict immigration.

Ironically, as suggested by the cartoon mentioned at the beginning of this text, the most vociferous opponents of immigration often descend from recent immigrants. That phenomenon can be verified when analyzing the social composition of the “English Only” movement, which promotes English as the official language of United States.

The fear of the other is generally bred by ignorance, lack of understanding, intolerance, and a short memory about the ethnic origins of the receiving populations. In the United States, as well as in the Caribbean region—although it might seem trivial to recall it—almost all of us come from elsewhere, except a few who can trace their genealogical trees to the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. Hence, xenophobia does not make much logical, historical, or moral sense.

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Jorge Duany is professor of anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. He is the author of Blurred Borders: Transnational Migration between the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States and The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move .