Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash, by John Tirman

Robert Lee Maril on a timely study of an important issue in the run-up to another US presidential election

April 2, 2015

Perhaps nothing is as freakishly volatile for Americans as our mangled understanding of immigration policy. We have remarkably short, selective memories about migration to our shores, especially as it relates to our own family histories. All this feeds into, and exacerbates, fears of being overtaken by foreigners, in myths perpetuated from one century to the next.

Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash bravely wades into the complexities of this mosaic to offer a tessellated, theoretical understanding informed by social science research. Few studies could be more politically timely, as both Democrats and Republicans stake out balkanised positions in which compromise is a fool’s dream.

John Tirman seeks to understand why the Republican Party fears and loathes new Latino immigrants, both legal and illegal. Why are they determined to revive fears of a “brown peril”? Before he seeks answers to these questions, however, he supplies the historical and political context in which to comprehend immigrant behaviour by emphasising the power of social forces beyond individual influence.

He focuses on two domestic case studies: first, the experiences of the “Dreamers”, the children brought to the US by parents crossing the Mexican border; second, the closure of a successful Latino studies programme in schools in Tucson, Arizona. From the micro level, he shifts to macro-level analysis of drug-related violence in Mexico and decades of civil war in Guatemala. He is quick to identify the consequences of US foreign policy and the role of the Central Intelligence Agency, while considering trade and labour legislation. Again, history is revealing: the Bracero Program, a flawed but relatively humane labour management system running from 1942 to 1964, allowed hundreds of thousands of Mexican labourers into the US.

Placing these pieces of the puzzle under a theoretical rubric based on historical fact rather than online rants, Tirman never fails to factor in the raw power of racism. He reminds us, after examining the ways in which “legal” and “illegal” labels frame new immigrants’ actions, that those crossing the Mexican border sin papeles are committing only misdemeanours, the legal equivalent of shoplifting, but are criminalised, detained and adjudicated through a separate court system, then frequently deported. Meanwhile, few of those citizens who wrecked the financial stability of countless Americans by directly contributing to the 2007 recession ever saw the inside of a jail cell.

Tirman’s admirable efforts are not without fault. Had he further availed himself of the extant social science research beyond the obvious headliners, his arguments would have been stronger, and this book has a paucity of original interviews and an over-reliance on journalistic data. Put another way, three brief visits to the Mexican border near Tucson do not a national security expert make.

But where he excels is in his debunking of Republican immigration myths: the “raid mentality” colouring responses to immigrants and their families, fabrications about the Dreamers, and all the drivel emanating from the Right’s media machines. Dream Chasers documents, in short, how frequently bizarre and often vicious Republican attacks on Latino immigrants, fuelled by racist fears, place them yet again on the wrong side of history.

A quip by comedian George Carlin comes to mind. “When you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show. When you’re born in America, you get a front row seat.”

Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash

By John Tirman
MIT Press, 230pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780262028929
Published 15 May 2015

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