Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has roots in other racially loaded political campaigns.
In the second Republican presidential debate, Donald Trump made the following statement about the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S.: “So, we have a country of laws, they’re going to go out, and they’ll come back if they deserve to come back.”
Trump has appointed himself arbiter of what immigrants do and don’t deserve, and he enjoys the support of an audience that takes his words seriously. According to this presidential hopeful, unauthorized immigrants from Mexico—the “bad ones,” as he calls them—cause crime, burden the system, and give birth to “anchor babies” just to keep mooching off the government. These inflated and inaccurate claims feed into a broader national narrative that casts immigration, as a whole, in a problematic light.
And yet Trump didn’t create this idea of the freeloading, culturally and morally deficient, welfare-dependent immigrant—rather he repackaged and redeployed racial stereotypes from past anti-poor, anti-minority campaigns. At its core, Trump’s rhetoric is the same as Ronald Reagan’s 1976 campaign against “welfare queens” that’s reared its head in just about every election since. While the term itself may no longer be used as casually as it was in Reagan’s time, the traits associated with it continue to dictate policy surrounding economically disadvantaged racial minorities, immigrants among them.
"In some ways, our political discourse sort of rests on sets of assumptions that were embedded in that term, and in part produced through that term,” says Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, an assistant professor of history at Cornell University who has written about the history of the term “welfare queen” in the Journal of Urban History.
The “welfare queen” in Reagan’s day
In 1976, Reagan took an extreme non-representative case of welfare fraud in Chicago and turned it into a key talking-point in his (unsuccessful) presidential campaign, Kohler-Hausmann explains. He had a lot to gain by pandering to the conservative concern about the overburdened welfare system, so he trotted out the “welfare queen” concept to argue that public assistance programs were overburdened by undeserving people. In the process, he popularized the trope of a (usually African-American) con artist who didn’t have a job (lazy!), used her children to get money (terrible parent!), and took advantage of other people’s generosity (no morals!).
"In time, it becomes the ostensibly racially neutral way to reference stereotypes about African-American and Latina women,” Kohler-Hausmann says.
Rich, white Americans, on the other hand, were placed in direct contrast. In an excerpt from his book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, UC-Berkeley law professor Ian F. Haney-López explains:
Beyond propagating the stereotypical image of a lazy, larcenous black woman ripping off society’s generosity without remorse, Reagan also implied another stereotype, this one about whites: they were the workers, the tax payers, the persons playing by the rules and struggling to make ends meet while brazen minorities partied with their hard-earned tax dollars.
The immigrants in Trump’s day
Trump’s rhetoric today is very similar to Reagan’s then, says Cybelle Fox, a sociology professor at Berkeley and author of a book on the history of immigrants and welfare. Trump contrasts an “us” (white, legal, English-speaking, economically productive taxpayers that “make America great”) with a “them” (poor, “anchor baby”-producing criminal immigrants that corrupt the country).
While Reagan argued that “welfare queens” fudged their eligibility for public benefit programs by misrepresenting themselves as people in need, Trump is calling undocumented immigrant reliance on welfare illegitimate. But Trump misrepresents the facts: undocumented immigrants do not have access to most welfare programs despite paying $11.8 billion in taxes annually. They’ve also contributed billions to Social Security, even though they’re ineligible for benefits.
Fox says this stereotype of the welfare-dependent immigrant was popular in the 1970s, when legal immigration to the country started climbing. But it was actually born back in the 1920s and 1930s, she explains, when it was used as a justification for a mass deportation campaign targeting Mexicans and Mexican Americans that took place during the Great Depression—quite similar to the one Trump is proposing now.
“Like today, this stereotype had little merit,” says Fox. “In fact, European immigrants at the time were more likely than Mexicans to make use of public assistance. But they did not face the same threat of expulsion.”
From this problematic history, it’s clear that America’s discourse on immigration and poverty remain entwined in complicated and concerning ways. “The historical parallels to the expulsions of the Great Depression are clear, and we should all be deeply troubled by them,” Fox says.