Getting Started (Part 2)

While these past few weeks have been heavy on collecting data and light on actual data analysis, several aspects of this research have been extremely interesting. The process of finding historical articles which document the empirical relationship between immigration and crime has been particularly fascinating. The assertion that immigrants exhibit higher rates of delinquency than their native born counterparts has been posited in numerous articles since the beginning of the 20th century. For example, in his article, “Problems of Immigration”, Frank P. Sargent (the Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization from 1902-1908) suggests that most immigrants add a “dangerous and unwholesome element” to American society and should thus be carefully inspected upon arrival (1904). Sargent emphasizes that immigrants who “become burdens … the indigent, and the morally depraved, the physically and mentally diseased, the shiftless” should not be allowed to enter the country.

I find these articles intriguing because they depict in great detail the historical myth that immigrants cause higher levels of crime. Thus, the gripping arguments underlying the immigrant threat narrative have been merely recycled from previous centuries. Additionally it’s important to mention that there is a noticeable lack of articles related to the immigrant-crime nexus from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. Any articles I was able to find for this time period analyzed delinquency rates between white Americans and black Americans. These articles defined ‘migrants’ in terms of whether one was born within or outside of a particular city. Perhaps the “threat” narrative shifted from America’s immigrant community to its African American community. Inspired by Leo Chavez’s book, The Latino Threat, I use the term “threat narrative” to mean a threat which originates within and is actively shared by an “in-group” (the racial or ethnic group that is politically, socially and economically dominant within a society) and is used to marginalize a designated ‘other’, or the “out-group”. Thus, this fear of an outside threat not only has racial implications, but is also extremely pliable and easily adjustable.

This intersection between race, threat narratives, and immigration has become a new topic of interest to me. While studying hundreds of survey questions from public opinion polls I noticed that questions about how respondents feels toward America’s immigrant population are dissected by particular ethnic groups. This means that respondents may rank some ethnic groups as more hardworking, or more threatening than others. Public perceptions towards the ‘immigrant community’ thus become incredibly complicated when we take into consideration what ‘type’ of immigrant we are discussing. Do we feel less threatened by immigrants from country A, or those from country B? Furthermore, aren’t our [(white) Americans] perceptions of threat dependent on what “out-group” most questions and refutes our assumed hegemony (also entitled “white privilege” by George Lipsitz in his novel The Possessive Investment in Whiteness)? Isn’t this fear of questioned hegemony the root cause of state-level legislation, such as Arizona’s HB-2281, which makes it illegal to teach Mexican-American studies because it is considered “subversive” material because it questions classical perceptions of American history?

At the end of the day, I guess my question is whether the “immigrant threat narrative”, the “black American threat” and now the “Mexican threat narrative” are all one in the same. Do they alternate based on which ethnic group is more actively questioning white Americans’ hegemony at certain points in time?


  1. Hey Lauren! Your research is incredibly interesting!! It would be an illuminating experiment to apply the “threat narrative” framework that you have explained here to the American reactions to groups that have been perceived as threats during times of conflict, such as Japanese Americans during WWII or Muslim Americans following September 11, 2001.

    I wonder if, ultimately, American prejudices against these groups is also driven by fears of questioned hegemony, more than actual security concerns.

    Great work! Keep it up!