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Why is Xenophobia on the Rise throughout the Americas?

What has led to to a General rise in anti-immigration and nativist sentiment in both the US and Latin America? 


A young immigrant couple on foot on the road from Venezuela to Peru

Joshua Collins 1/22/2019

From Trumps statements about Mexicans as “rapists” and “animals to the nativist and right-wing election victories of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil who has stated “Black people in Brazil don’t do anything. They’re good at procreating and nothing else.”, to the 2017 election victory and new restrictions put in place by the right-wing government in Argentina on immigration (with some even calling for a wall on the border). To the attacks by angry mobs of Brazilians and Ecuadorians on refugee camps in their respective countries- xenophobia and racism seem to be dramatically on the rise throughout the Americas.  What is causing this? And how can we reverse the trend?

As a forward it should be stated that any debate about a country's duties to refugees or decisions regarding immigration needs to be framed in a way that makes it clear that the conversation is one that every nation needs to address. Framing a restrictive policy position on immigration as “fascist” is no more useful than presenting the humane treatment of refugees and immigrants as “open-border, cultural suicide”. Obviously, this organization believes that we have a responsibility to help people fleeing violence and war (and we’ll get back to that). But in an age where “tribalism” and “political polarization” have become the buzzwords of the year, and in which Social media has become a domain of outrage, clickbait and personal attacks, it is important to keep in mind that immigration policy is a legitimate debate, and for this reason needs to be handled by the global community in a Democratic manner. 

Having said that, let’s look a bit at the roots of this phenomenon. Are the electoral victories in the last few years of more nativist and nationalist leaders such as Trump a cause or an effect of rising anti-immigrant sentiment?

Well, the answer seems to be both. Nativist leaders such as Trump and Bolsonaro have taken advantage of tendencies that already existed to consolidate power- primarily among people who perceive their economical position as perilous or who feel they are losing cultural ground in the societies in which they live. And simultaneously, in gaining victory they have obtained global megaphones to rally their supporters and trumpet their ideas, propagating these ideas further. And as these positions become a part of the political identity of their respective parties, the position is further entrenched by the partisan loyalty and political identity of their supporters.

“Prejudice against immigrants can offer an outlet for fear when both the external and external affairs of a nation are unstable.”

The irony here is that as these extreme positions on immigration become more widespread, they evoke ever more negative reactions from the followers of rival political parties, which in turn evokes a digging-in and hardening of ever more extreme anti-immigration positions. Politics is a natural trigger for xenophobia, says Sarah Deardorf, author of “Xenophobia towards Refugees and Other Forced Immigrants. "Condemnation from the outside is rarely effective for leaders who scorn the international system...or for people who have created barriers within a culture.”


And as these leaders speak, their followers become more emboldened to use hate-speech or xenophobic rhetoric publicly. It becomes more normalized. The rhetoric usually portrays immigrants as uneducated, lazy, carrying diseases or as a threat to safety of the hosting nation. We have seen this across generations, across borders and from various governments. “Prejudice against immigrants can offer an outlet for fear when both the external and internal affairs of a nation are unstable.” writes Deardorf. There is a strong correlation between people who fear instability, or whom think the world is an inherently dangerous place and likelihood to express xenophobic thought.

Returning to the circle above, as the differences in policy grow between competing parties, the same political triggers that evoke xenophobia in the anti-immigrant parties feed into the political tribalism of their opponents. Then what happens? We stop speaking the same language, and interactions become merely about takedowns, mob-attacks of opponents and virtue-signaling to those with whom we already agree.  All too commonly in Social Media, people view dissenting political opinions as not only wrong, but also “evil”. And this only decreases the likelihood of changing anyone’s mind. After all, when was the last time you thought “You know what?  When that guy called me a ‘fucking idiot’ it really made me rethink my position.”? As an example, immigration wasn’t always such a partisan issue. During Obama’s first term, Democrats had no problem with the record-amount of deportations from the “Deporter in chief”.

A lot of ink has already been spilled on this subject and I’m not going to dwell on it long, but if you’d like to check out some interesting articles on the subject you can click here. Or here.  The short version is that playing us against one-another serves the agendas of the politicians of both parties, but is actually counter-productive to alleviating the problem.

It’s for this reason I get frustrated with memes demonizing every micro-controversy and the propensity of modern journalism to use incendiary and click-baity headlines. It drives traffic sure, because it is polemic- it propogates as people share their outrage among like-minded individuals. But all it does is make the jobs of people trying to advocate for a just immigration policy less likely to succeed. Or really any reasonable policy for that matter. Because it just serves to further polarize the bases of both parties. 

So what does work?

Well the good news is that according to many recent studies, contact with immigrants is one of the surest ways to get someone with xenophobic views to change. And by that I mean sharing friendships, connections and hearing personal stories. Proximity without those human connections can actually exacerbate the problem as those groups who already feel marginalized begin to feel “invaded” or they view the migrants as a competition for resources.

But when we humanize the previously faceless hordes, they become less an “outsider” and we view them as more human, more like us. The more similarities we see in someone to ourselves, the more likely we are subconsciously to accept them. It’s no surprise that most xenophobic rhetoric uses dehumanizing terms. For hateful rhetoric to work, the targets must be dehumanized. It is the first and most basic step.  That’s why leaders like Trump make ridiculous claims such as “You look at what’s going where someone comes in who is bad and yet they will have 24 members of their family. Not one of them do you want in this country “

Jennifer Miller and Lars Rensmann write in a recent Oxford study that “Social exposure to immigrants, namely, the establishment of friendships bridging groups, is the most consistent and important predictor of attitudes toward immigrants”. Social exposure and personal stories cut through the political noise and help us establish connections on a human level.

That is our prime objective here at Muros Invisibles

After all, immigration has not always been a controversial topic. It is a necessity for virtually any country, but especially so in America.  We are economically dependent upon migration for both labor and continued growth. And for a large period of its history the United states had borders that would be considered “open” by today's standards- something neither political party advocates today.

I doubt this essay changed your opinion much on immigration. But I invite you to read the stories and see the photos of the immigrants themselves. Or at the very least consider expanding your sources of news to include dissenting views.

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