OP-ED: THE DANGER OF ETHNIC CATEGORIZATION AT THE U.S.-MEXICO BORDER
by ENOK CHOE (United States)
Issue 1.2 September 2019
In November 2018, the horrific picture of a migrant mother and her daughters fleeing tear gas at the U.S.-Mexico border exploded on social media. Tensions between the social-media public and border control officials reached an unprecedented height, inflaming debates over U.S. immigration policy. Even in my small town of Palisades Park, New Jersey—thousands of miles from the border—the border patrol’s and ICE’s practices became increasingly questioned.
This occurrence became a potent segue to raise public consciousness on the urgency of Southern border issues. However, reactions from both sides have, whether subconsciously or deliberately, overlooked and perpetuated ethnic generalization of immigrants through the use of the term “Latino.” While this generalization can serve as a shorthand for the 969 migrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua that passed into Ciudad Hidalgo, a reliance on such broad terminology can be misleading, unproductive, and even perilous in falsely shaping public perception of these immigrants and potential solutions to solve migration crises. There is evidently a wide range of ethnic identities, as well as varying socioeconomic circumstances, that prompted individuals to leave their home countries.
We must question relentlessly the terms we use to categorize immigrants to present a true understanding of the circumstances. In our dialogues surrounding immigrants from other parts of the world, we immediately utilize countries of origin as a defining factor. Rarely do we, as a public, refer to Syrian or Iraqi refugees as Middle Eastern refugees, so why are we so quick to place an overly homogenized label on immigrants from Central and South America?
To fully comprehend why groups from Central and South America are labeled as “Latino,” it is essential to understand the historical context in which the label was generated. From the 1942 through 1964, there was an unprecedented proliferation in the migration of both Guatemalans and Mexicans into the United States as a result of the Bracero Program. In 1942, the program was developed to permit undocumented Mexican workers to fill labor shortages caused by the United States’ involvement in World War II. Concurrently, Guatemala was facing a refugee crisis caused by an unparalleled level of political violence and economic dysfunction. For Guatemalans seeking to flee their country, the Bracero Program presented a life-changing opportunity. But it also meant that Guatemalans had to identify as Mexican in order to enter the United States. Consequently, Bracero employers found it difficult to distinguish Guatemalan immigrants from Mexican immigrants, as individuals from both groups were dominantly indigenous fieldworkers. As a result, the employers typically labeled the former as Latinos, or even as Mexican. To reveal a Guatemalan identity would mean jail and even torture by Guatemalan government officials. Thus, this intricate dynamic created an immense challenge in making correct ethnic distinctions.
The issue of correct ethnic categorization remains today. An overreliance on generalizations in the past has made it seem superfluous to pay attention to such intricacies now. However, the irony is that the solution to the agreed-upon-problem of undocumented immigration lies in understanding these very intricacies. By evoking such a generalization, we overlook the Venezuelan immigrants who are facing an unparalleled rate of hyperinflation in comparison to their neighbors or the high murder rates that have contributed to the influx of undocumented Honduran immigrants. Such discrepancies between “Latino” countries’ immigrants make evident that to solve the larger problem of undocumented immigration, our immigration policy must consider the individual circumstances of each country.
Though broad terms help us express our opinions on social media and can be used as shorthand for important topics, it ultimately does a disservice to our overall conversations. My interactions with the Guatemalan community in my hometown caused me to reconsider my complacency in categorizing groups of people, as I recognized our inclination to maintain racial divisions that allow us to stay in our own comfort zones. We, as an American society, must recognize the reality that our past and present actions will only continue to contribute to the undocumented immigration problem. We, therefore, bear responsibility to address this issue and have a collective duty to understand and address specific migratory circumstances. Elevated social consciousness and collective willingness to put proper rhetoric into practice is the surest path towards establishing an inclusive nation. The decision of how to handle such an intricate issue caused by our past and present interventions below our Southern border must uphold our shared American values. We must acknowledge our roots and identity as a “country of immigrants”—from countless backgrounds no less, and stay true to upholding not only our ideals as Americans but also as members of the human race.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, and based in Englewood, New Jersey, Enok Choe is a student of computer science and cultural identities, as well as a racial relations advocate. One of his passions has been to problematize pan-ethnic terms such as “Latino” and “Hispanic.”