Intersectionality and Immigration: How Race, Class, and Gender Play into Debates Surrounding DACA

By KAITLIN HUGHES


Immigration has played a controversial role in the American political landscape for decades, especially as the world globalizes and political parties in the U.S. become more divisive.  Since the Obama administration’s implementation of the executive order entitled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, immigration policy has come to the forefront of many debates.  A few years after the executive order’s enactment, Donald Trump ran for office on a rather xenophobic and nationalistic platform, and he promised to phase out DACA as soon as he got to office.  Thus, with President Trump now in office, he announced in 2017 that he would slowly eradicate DACA and move toward a stricter, more exclusionary immigration policy. To do this, Trump employs a specific definition of “nation” and racist rhetoric, aiming to fuel public support for unsubstantiated economic and social arguments that support a phase-out of DACA.  On the other hand, opposing arguments that support DACA and the Dream Act use a more inclusive lens that considers the intersection of race, class, and gender, and views the nation as a more diverse and global community.

To deem immigrants as an “other” in the U.S. and gain public buy-in, Trump’s rhetoric portrays all migrants as evil and pits them against American citizens.  In his statement on September 5th, 2017, Trump declares that the government must implement the rule of law and protect its people from this unconstitutional executive order, or DACA, in which undocumented immigrants can live and work in this country.  He deliberately uses words with negative connotations when describing immigrants to portray them as sub-human and in opposition to the American people and their values. He refers to undocumented workers as “illegals,” “criminals,” “dangerous,” and as being part of “drug cartels” and gangs such as MS-13.[i]  He simultaneously juxtaposes these descriptions with portrayals of the American population as “students,” “taxpayers,” “jobseekers,” “citizens,” and “hardworking.”[ii]  He goes as far as to say that Americans have been “victimized” by immigrants and DACA, more specifically, and that “we must remember that young Americans have dreams too,”[iii] as if Americans and immigrants exist in opposition to each other with one group maintaining an insider status while the other group exists as an alien outsider.  Andersen and Collins pose a question in “Systems of Power and Inequality” regarding the different connotations of referring to immigrants as “illegal aliens” as opposed to “undocumented workers,” and Trump’s rhetoric deliberately and clearly shows that his administration views immigrants as “un-American,” as Andersen and Collins phrase it.[iv]  This sort of rhetoric becomes dangerous, as we see in Nguyen’s “Becoming Suspects,” because it turns specific populations into suspects, and the general public subsequently starts to police each other, sometimes deliberately and sometimes subconsciously, as the image engrains itself into the public psyche.   

Moreover, Trump’s arguments to phase out DACA based on this “otherizing” rhetoric results from the toxic masculinity that exists within the United States and within Trump himself.  Kimmel explains that “We come to know what it means to be a man in our culture by setting our definitions in opposition to a set of ‘others’—racial minorities, sexual minorities, and, above all, women.”[v] Thus, to appear as powerful and an effective president, Trump tries to embody the classic interpretation of manhood by orienting himself in opposition to immigrants, creating hard-hitting policies against them, and persuading the public to feed into his power by using divisive rhetoric.  In other words, he embodies a classic example of hegemonic masculinity as he tries to become “a man in power, a man with power, and a man of power,”[vi] by positioning himself against some outside group, in this case immigrants, as so many men have done in the history of this country.  Yet, even though this pattern has repeated itself many times, much of the population still does not grasp the concept of inclusion, rather than exclusion, which Kimmel claims to be the only way to combat this toxic masculinity.[vii]  Moreover, many people, most importantly the Trump administration, continue to define the nation in terms of whiteness, masculinity, and socio-economic wealth.

Thus, as a result of this societal gender struggle and Trump’s subsequent exclusionary rhetoric, arguments arise to support stricter immigration policies based on claims that immigrants take jobs away from Americans, hurt the economy, and raise crime rates.[viii]  The Trump administration and others who position themselves against DACA and the Dream Act claim we can only protect the “nation” by preventing these things from happening, or, in other words, by excluding undocumented workers and restricting paths to citizenship.  However, countless economists and political scientists have disproven this theory that DACA recipients create lost jobs, crime, and a slower economy. Andersen and Collins argue that immigrants supply the labor that the global economy needs,[ix] and the Center for American Progress found that DACA recipients have had a positive impact on the economy as well-educated and skilled workers and students.[x]  Moreover, Trump advocates for a merit based immigration policy to bring growth to the economy and skill to the workforce, yet DACA recipients “are a perfect example of such immigrants: They are educated, working for U.S. employers, speaking perfect English, and they are young”[xi] because the selective application process requires applicants to have a specific level of education, and it also denies applicants who have a significant criminal record, thus disproving Trump’s claim that DACA allows criminals to permeate the country.[xii]  

Clearly, the baseless arguments of the Trump administration and others who support a phase-out of DACA and exclusive paths to citizenship stem from a largely white and male definition of nation; therefore, we must think of the nation through an intersectional lens in which we study how race, class, and gender interconnect to avoid deeming certain groups as “others” and to help create more inclusive and just policies.  Collins and Bilge explain that when we use an intersectional lens, we better understand inequality and its effect on the certain positionalities of individuals. It also allows us to move past grouping all immigrants as a “homogeneous, undifferentiated mass,”[xiii] as Trump does, to view undocumented workers as humans, rather than aliens, who share the same basic humanity as any other American citizen.  Moreover, intersectionality allows us to better understand that DACA recipients are not simply undocumented workers, but they are people who grew up in this country, many of them boys and girls, many of them now women and men, who have a relatively high level of education and countless other intersecting identities that play into their social location.  Additionally, when policy makers study the intersection of race, class, and gender, they can deconstruct Trump’s dominating rhetoric that dangerously reshapes the public’s view of this minority group. Without representation, or simply legal status, immigrants, as a minority, cannot stand up for themselves to counteract stereotypes; therefore, policy makers create bad social policy based on misguided research and public opinion.[xiv]  Thus, following in the guidance of Andersen and Collins who advocate for an inclusive perspective, we must not reduce Dreamers to the single identity of undocumented worker, and we must understand that they have established a life here with an education and a job, in most cases knowing no other country as their home.[xv]  

When we adopt this intersectional lens, we begin to grasp the complexity of the debate surrounding immigration that deals with real people who all share the same humanity.  We cannot simplify the debate by deeming immigrants as “others” and thus stripping them of their humanity to more easily exclude them. Moreover, intersectionality illustrates that Dreamers are “American” in every sense of the word in terms of a global, inclusive definition of our nation.  Leaders debating the constitutionality of DACA should take this viewpoint into consideration, and most importantly they must remember that their words and policies affect real people who share the same humanity as them.


[i] “Statement from President Donald J. Trump.” Whitehouse.gov, September 5, 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-president-donald-j-trump-7/

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Andersen, Margaret and Patricia Hill Collins. “Systems of Power and Inequality.” In Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, edited by Margaret L. Anderson and Patricia Hill Collins, 51-73. Michigan: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004.

[v] Kimmel, Michael S. “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity.” In The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality, edited by Tracy E. Ore, 134-51. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

[vi] Ibid., 137.

[vii] Ibid., 149.

[viii] Spagat, Elliot and Christopher Rugaber. “AP Fact Check: What the Trump administration said about DACA.” Public Broadcasting Service, September 5, 2017. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/ap-fact-check-trump-administration-said-daca

[ix] Andersen and Collins, “Systems of Power and Inequality,” 67.

[x] Wong, Tom K. “New Study of DACA Beneficiaries Show Positive Economic and Educational Outcomes.” Center for American Progress, October 18, 2016. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/news/2016/10/18/146290/new-study-of-daca-beneficiaries-shows-positive-economic-and-educational-outcomes/

[xi] Peri, Giovanni. “The Economic Cost of Repealing DACA.” Econofact, Setpember 11, 2017. http://econofact.org/the-economic-cost-of-repealing-daca

[xii] Department of Homeland Security. “Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.  Accessed February 27, 2018. https://www.uscis.gov/archive/consideration-deferred-action-childhood-arrivals-daca

[xiii] Collins, Patricia and Sirma Bilge. Intersectionality. Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2016.

[xiv] Andersen, Margaret and Patricia Hill Collins. “Why Race, Class, and Gender Still Matter.” In Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, edited by Margaret L. Anderson and Patricia Hill Collins, 2-18. Michigan: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004.

[xv] Ibid., 12.

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