Why the "bad hombre" Trump is the least of our worries: How state policies criminalize immigrant and undocumented youth

by Sophia Rodriguez and Timothy Monreal 

While Trump’s amplified attacks on immigrants—as “bad hombres”, rapists, and criminals—is disturbing, we must not let it overshadow restrictive state level policy contexts. In this blog, we share findings from our analysis of 10 years of South Carolina legislation to shed light on how state policies criminalize immigrants broadly and target undocumented immigrant youth specifically. We further connect these state-level policies to the larger hostile political climate in the United States.

Photo Credits:   AP

Photo Credits: AP

When Trump announced his presidential campaign in a speech on June 16, 2015, he framed Mexican immigrants as an unwelcome and harmful group of people. He stated, “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems. When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.” Donald Trump characterized immigrants as takers, criminals, and threats one of the most prominent national stages—a presidential debate. The construction of the immigrant as problem motivated a nativist, conservative base and subsequently has fueled a series of anti-immigrant executive orders. Yet, a singular focus on Trump obscures how state level policy discourses have sought to create and perpetuate perspectives of immigrants as criminals or threats to society. In this piece, we connect the national debate with our current research on local policies in South Carolina.

Of course, Donald Trump is not the first policy-maker to advance racialized classifications of belonging and an immigrant-as-problem discourse. From the Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882 and the “one-drop rule” in the case of United States v. Thind, 1923 to segregationist practices against Mexican-American students such as the so-called  Lemon Grove Incident, 1931, the construction of immigrants as problems has a complex history in the U.S. These legal and social understandings of immigrants in the U.S. placed hurdles to integration at best, and criminalized immigrants in everyday social life at worst.

What are the intentions behind creating the immigrant as problem?

A problem calls for ‘rational’ solutions. In social science academic research, this is called policy problematization. This concept highlights how policy forms by framing marginalized groups as problems, and then justifies drastic ‘solutions.’ Take for example Trump’s Border Security (“the Wall”) executive announcement. Part of the announcement offers an expanded definition of who is a criminal: i.e., anyone who “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.” As Jennifer Medina writes in the New York Times, this loose definition of criminal covers people authorities believe to have broken the law. This new definition further links immigrants specifically to criminal behavior. As such, policy solutions work to restrict the actions of targeted groups with determined precision. The everyday lives of immigrants become further constrained, meaning they fear driving to work or even leaving their homes to attend school, resulting in a deep social isolation.


A glimpse at South Carolina's policy context

We analyzed South Carolina’s proposed and enacted immigration legislation from 2005-2016 to understand how policy language shapes public opinion about immigrants and restricts their access and opportunity to social advancement. To do this we used Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), which seeks to uncover the authority of texts and their influence on social practices. This blog  draws from a multi stage ethnographic study enlisting CDA conducted by the first author (2015-present) to illustrate the effects of the restrictive policies in South Carolina. Our analysis, spanning six legislative sessions, reveals how immigrants are criminalized in everyday social life and restricted from accessing public institutions and social services. The focus on enacted and proposed legislation follows Stephen Ball’s (1994: 10) argument that policy research should tend to the “process” of policy production and focus on the “action, words and deeds, what is enacted as well as what is intended.” Our work accordingly demonstrates that local policy makers in restrictive state contexts like South Carolina propose and enact legislation that both constructs immigrants as problems to be dealt with and limits immigrants’ opportunities for thriving and advancing economically, educationally, and socially.

Source:   Migration Policy Institute.   U.S. Immigration Population by State and Country: South Carolina

Source: Migration Policy Institute. U.S. Immigration Population by State and Country: South Carolina

The analysis of South Carolina policies impacting immigrant communities reveals an intentional construction of all immigrants as Othered individuals who are economic and security threats. This purposeful construction contributes to a belief that immigrants are in some way distinct or alien to ‘rightful’ citizens of the state. Proposed legislation such as S.706 and H. 3953 (11-12) characterizes “illegal aliens” as individuals who are criminals that need to be battled against. The policy documents read:

Whereas, the bill would also allow illegal aliens after arrest to be detained in a state or local prison or detention facility pending transfer to federal custody, thereby insuring that potentially dangerous criminals would remain in custody pending trial or adjudication…

It is important to note that this particular piece of legislation names “illegal aliens” as “potentially dangerous criminals,” rendering them as threatening and thus more susceptible to crime (even when this statement is factually inaccurate). Sadly, the above example is not an isolated instance. In our analysis, we located more than 25 proposed and enacted pieces of legislation that used similar language whereby immigrants are Othered, typically as economic and security threats. Senate Resolution S.1015 (13-14) typifies this threat:

"Over fifty percent of illegal aliens currently in the United States arrived here with visas and overstayed them upon expiration. These include radical Islamic Jihad students who come here under the pretext of study only to instigate acts of terror; and

Whereas, the burden placed upon our nation's governmental services, taxpayers, environment, and infrastructure is on a disastrously unsustainable path due to massive population growth directly attributable to immigration; and

Whereas, solutions to immigration policy include ending chain migration, verifying the visa entry and exit system, ending the visa lottery, ending birthright citizenship, and offering federal assistance for states to combat immigration problems."

This example identifies undocumented immigrants as “burdens,” “unsustainable,” and even “radical Islamic Jihad students,” both creating and reifying them as problems. By constructing the “immigrant problem,” policy-makers advance their solutions—solutions that politicize immigration enforcement and conflate the immigrant with the criminal and/or terrorist. These alarming and inaccurate depictions of immigrants coexist with the reality that South Carolina farmers largely recruit and depend upon immigrant labor. Amidst considerable recruitment of immigrant labor, immigrants paradoxically are accused of taking jobs and draining public resources. Taken as a whole, a picture emerges where immigrants are desired for their labor, but controlled as human beings. The construction of immigrants as problems allows for this dual reality. Immigrants continue to serve the South Carolina economy while policy solutions seek to constrain their material lives and force them to live in the shadows.

In practice, state legislative acts restrict the daily lives of migrants by limiting access to public services. For example, South Carolina is one of two states to ban entry into public higher education for undocumented students. Efforts have even been made to exclude non-citizens to all forms of public education in South Carolina H.3110 (07-08), including denying some undocumented youth in the state entry to public schools in clear violation of Plyler v Doe. Similarly, other legislative acts attempt to limit access to health care, worker’s compensation, and employment, thus formally demanding that immigrants first prove their status before receiving basic protections.

It is within this policy framing of immigrants as problems that the United States’ most egregious legislation towards immigrants has been enacted. Emulating Arizona’s infamous “Show Me Your Papers law, South Carolina rushed to pass S.20 in 2011. S.20 granted, “Law enforcement authorization to determine immigration status, reasonable suspicion, procedures, data collection on motor vehicle stops.” Although the courts dismissed the most draconian profiling portions of the South Carolina law, the solution of increased law enforcement still presents a daily threat to immigrant communities. Since this legislation passed, students have expressed to us how anxiety-provoking simple activities like driving, going to school, or answering the door remains.


Policy effects on undocumented youth

The effect of constructing immigrants as problems is felt strongly in schools. Educators have the imperative to create safe and welcoming spaces for all students regardless of immigration status, one where the cultural knowledge(s), strengths, and experiences of immigrant students are valued. Yet, all too often strengths that immigrant students bring to school (bilingualism, resilience, cultural ways of knowing) are also problematized in schools. As we argue, educators can be at the forefront of the resistance to the criminalization regime. For example, they can recognize, mitigate, and resist the impacts of repressive policies that enshrine “immigrants are problems” on their students by framing students skills as assets rather than deficits.

Photo credits:   AP/LM Otero

Photo credits: AP/LM Otero

Take for example how restrictive policy contexts impact the lives of undocumented youth. Even D.A.C.A. recipients now confront uncertain futures in the U.S. Current research efforts has focused on recently arrived undocumented and unaccompanied youth in southern states like South Carolina, where their families reshape the southern landscape. Undocumented youth are highly aware of the contradictory language of the state policies while state continues to benefit from the work of Hispanic workers. Several youth with whom we work identified ways the state restricts their livelihoods and opportunities for social mobility. For example, undocumented youth in two Title I high schools in the first author’s larger study said: 

“This state is racist.”

“The state wants Hispanics to do their work for them, but we can’t go to school without being afraid? That is ignorance.”

“They don’t want to have a solution for us being here, but they want us to do the work they don’t want to do.”

“I am, like, stuck. I have scholarships to four state schools and cannot attend any of them. Here, they are ignorant of Hispanics. I don’t have papers, but I am smart.”

These lived experiences of youth in the South Carolina speak back to the negative language and stereotyping perpetuated in proposed and enacted legislation. While derogatory perceptions of immigrants appear amplified under Trump, it is important to note how historical precedents and state policies enable structural and institutional racism and the criminalization of immigrants to persist. The current political charades under Trump should not distract us from the broader and more pressing structural discrimination being institutionalized in policies and practices in restrictive states such as South Carolina.


Sophia Rodriguez, PhD, is an assistant professor of education and sociology at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. She conducts research on (un)documented immigrant youth activism and discrimination as well as the impact of educational and social policy on minoritized youth experiences broadly. Her published and forthcoming work on immigrant youth activism and education policy can be found here.

Timothy Monreal is a doctoral student in social foundations of education at the University of South Carolina. He is also a middle school teacher in South Carolina. He is interested in Latinx education in the U.S. South broadly as well as the intersections between teacher practice and education theory. To that end you can find him on Twitter where he mixes academic musings along with everyday classroom observations.