Building Walls, Excluding People, and Terrorizing Minorities

By Ernesto Castañeda, Assistant Professor, American University


On August 3, 2019, a self-declared white nationalist drove from Dallas to El Paso, Texas, with the explicit purpose of killing Mexicans whom he saw as invading the country. The mass media seems to have moved on from discussing the implications of the massacre in El Paso, but White Nationalism is nevertheless still an existential threat for Mexicans, Blacks, Muslims, and Jews. Knowing that the shooting in El Paso is unfortunately just one of the many White Nationalist terror attacks in the last year, many fear future attacks on mosques, synagogues, ethnic neighborhoods and businesses, as well as general gathering places of immigrants and other stigmatized groups.

The 21-year-old appeared in court on February 12, 2020, pleading "not guilty" to “90 counts under federal hate crime and firearms laws” despite having posted online about how he wanted Mexicans to leave the United States. What could have caused such hatred against Mexican immigrants that would push somebody to, at worst, lose his life, or, at best, be arrested and spend years in jail in order to kill some members of a group perceived as a threat?

In the book “Building Walls: Excluding Latin People in the United States,” my co-authors and I use multiple data sources, including original survey data, media and online content analysis, and methods, such as ethnographic observation and in-depth interviews, to describe how and why Latin people are portrayed as a threat. We formulate a theory around three independent but interrelated phenomena that increase the likelihood of using violence against immigrants and minority groups. The three processes are:

1)     Categorical thinking and methodological nationalism

This is the idea that nation-states belonging to a dominant ethno-racial group are the best, or only possible, way to legitimately divide up territory around the world;

2)     Threat framing

This involves anti-immigrant discourse, particularly by politicians and media commentators, that frames undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, and ethno-racial minorities as security and cultural threats, interlopers, and unfair competitors;

3)     Social, economic, and moral devaluation of groups

In this process, stigmatized groups with fewer legal rights, such as the undocumented, face challenges in their daily lives. Being seen as having lower social status while trying to make ends meet with low-wage work often leads to an internalization of the negative ideas that they are less than equal, or even less than human. It also causes feelings of guilt for breaking the law by being undocumented, lowers self-esteem and self-efficacy. At the same time, and despite these challenges, many immigrants and minorities lead harmonious lives in the cities where they live. They have friendships across social categories, are resilient, and are willing to organize politically in order to keep supporting their families. Still, they may have a harder time accumulating wealth than comparable members of the mainstream group, and they may live with a constant fear of deportation or of being victims of aggression or bigotry.



While immigrants are used as both cheap or necessary technical labor, their perceived culture and allegiances are viewed with suspicion by outsiders. Nationalist discourses both exemplify and accelerate the blaming of immigrants for deindustrialization, growing inequalities, and other economic woes created by neoliberal policies that favor the 1%. The majority group who sees themselves as victims use immigrants as scapegoats for the issues above. In some extreme instances, this can lead to direct use of violence and massacres, as in the attack at El Paso.

However, these so-called “lone wolves” are not as isolated as that term suggests. Rather, anti-immigrant political discourses, media coverage, white nationalist rhetoric online, and arguments about the 1st and 2nd amendments embolden these actors. This is shown further by the higher likelihood of racialized hate crimes against Latin people by those who support policies that put immigrants in extended detention and asylum seekers in camps, separate families, and deport family members of American citizens who had lived in the United States for many years.

Immigrants are hyper-aware of all the issues affecting people like them —delayed processing of immigration papers, family separation at the border, hate crimes, raids, deportations from around the country including from so-called sanctuary cities. Therefore, for many immigrants and people of color, the 2020 elections may feel like a matter of life and death. The outcome will impact whether they can continue with their daily lives or whether policies and political rhetoric will further stigmatize, threaten, criminalize, deport, and terrorize them and their communities.

Acknowledging racism and xenophobia should make us feel sick to the point where we feel like we want to find a cure immediately. Foreign-born citizens, their children, and many racial and religious minorities are ready to show up at the polls in unprecedented numbers in the next presidential election to put a stop to these draconian immigration policies. The choice is clear for most immigrants and minorities. The question ends up being: what are those members of the majority who do not feel directly targeted by hate crimes willing to do in the election booth and afterward to support the more vulnerable.

Policymakers should increase the monitoring of hate groups and the prosecution of hate crimes through the Department of Justice. Comprehensive immigration reform that includes an amnesty would do much to destigmatize immigrants and help increase their salaries, social mobility, and safety. These actions would not result in more crime, unemployment, or worsening of working conditions because, contrary to common understandings, immigration is not a zero-sum game. History shows us how, in the long-run, immigration is an overall win-win proposition.  




About the author

Ernesto Castañeda researches immigration, borders, Latin people, and social movements. He has written for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Hill, CityLab, Medium, and NPR. He is the author of A Place to Call Home: Immigrant Belonging and Exclusion in New York, Paris, and Barcelona (Stanford University Press 2018); Building Walls: The Exclusion of Latin People in the U.S. (Lexington Books 2019), and with Charles Tilly and Lesley Wood of Social Movements 1768–2018 (Routledge 2020). He is the editor of Immigration and Categorical Inequality: Migration to the City and the Birth of Race and Ethnicity (Routledge 2018); and co-editor with Cathy L. Schneider of Collective Violence, Contentious Politics, and Social Change: A Charles Tilly Reader (Routledge 2017). Castañeda is Assistant Professor of Sociology at American University in Washington, DC.

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