Immigration Debate: The Role of Rhetoric

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As a graduate student, Lecturer of Speech Claudia Anguiano started researching the rhetoric of the immigration debate. But for the Mexican-born Latina, an interest in the subject started long before it became her academic topic of study.

Claudia Anguiano

“The lexicology and history behind common migration terminology, including the use of the phrase ‘illegal immigrant,’ is quite significant,” says Lecturer Claudia Anguiano. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

“I’ve always been passionate about the issue,” Anguiano says, sitting in her Baker-Berry office overlooking the Green.

Anguiano teaches at the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric and studies how language shapes social movements, including the immigrant-rights movement. The Los Angeles native brings her research into the classroom, helping students understand the influence of language in everything from casual conversations to news reports.

She examines the substantive rhetoric that exists about migrants residing unlawfully in the United States as well as the various forms of public activism and advocacy campaigns.

With the Senate’s passage of a sweeping immigration reform bill last month and the House’s debate on its own version, Anguiano’s research is especially timely. The language used in the debate, in Congress and beyond, plays a vital role in shaping public perception, says Anguiano.

For example, Anguiano has recently studied the campaign “Drop the I-Word,”—a reference to the term “illegal.” The movement strives to rid the terms “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” from the public sphere. On its website, the campaign states its reasoning: “Immigrants without documents are regularly hired as cheap, exploited labor. No one else who benefits from the set up, including the employers who recruit and hire these migrants, is labeled this way.”

“The lexicology and history behind common migration terminology, including the use of the phrase ‘illegal immigrant,’ is quite significant,” says Anguiano.

While there are certainly disagreements in the immigration debate, campaigns like “Drop the I-Word,” encourage journalists and others to accurately describe a person’s legal situation in nonjudgmental language. Activists scored some victories on the rhetoric front with the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, and other media restricting how they use the word “illegal” in describing migrants.

Analyzing migration rhetoric, Anguiano says, invites us to think about the function of rhetorical practices and how the nature of language creates realities with particular ramifications.

“I am interested in the possibilities for new thought and tenor in our public dialogue,” says Anguiano, “particularly those revealing the self-defining possibilities.”

Her scholarship has also focused on the rhetoric of activist youth, including the strategies of “DREAMers”—a reference to the young people eligible for the federal DREAM Act legislation. Beyond a case study, she says, this discussion offers important implications for the study of protest discourses.

“Analyzing rhetorical arguments and strategies is meaningful to understanding how migrants’ redefining efforts are tied to political and cultural change,” says Anguiano.

In the classroom, Anguiano hopes her students will gain an understanding of the power of language.

Anguiano asks students in her “Rhetoric of Social Justice” course to examine the language of a social movement of their choosing. Some examples include the Civil Rights Movement, the LGBT Rights movement, and the environmental justice movement. As they look at the rhetorical strategies employed by participants of the movements and the language used by those who oppose the movements, students see how leaders use words to frame their arguments in the public eye.

“I learned rhetoric is not a something solely found in writing and speech, but also in my everyday actions,” says David Cordero ’16. “I have become more empowered and better prepared to stand up for what matters to me.”

“Professor Anguiano’s course allowed me to realize that people must focus on how to find the most effective medium for information distribution,” says Yaritza Gonzalez ’15. “I found this particularly interesting because it allowed me to reflect on the ways in which the organizations I am a part of have been successful or unsuccessful in raising more awareness of certain social justice issues.”

At the end of her courses, Anguiano hopes students come away with better critical thinking skills.

“I hope they find the courses to be applicable beyond the four walls of the classroom,” says Anguiano. “Language is really a powerful tool.”