Politics of fear driving debate on immigration
Arizona Republic
Feb. 18, 2008


The politics of fear is playing well this election season.

Local and national politicians are having a field day challenging who is "tougher" on immigration. My research on fear suggests that mass-media reports stressing fear and danger play a big part in promoting the politics of fear, which refers to decision-makers' promotion and use of audience beliefs and assumptions about danger, risk and fear in order to achieve certain goals, as well as ideological and political agendas.

The politics of fear is nurtured by a constant barrage of news reports and popular-culture presentations about a crisis that threatens our lives and families, social well-being, and culture. The run-up to the most recent war with Iraq is a terrific example of how a very successful propaganda brew promoted fear, which became an important ingredient for local fear concoctions about immigration. This seems even stranger when it comes to the recent furor over immigration since the Southwest borders have been porous for decades, as cultures blend through marriage, religion, tourism, recreation, trade, education and politics.

Resourceful leaders use the propaganda of fear to connect one problem with another, as in numerous news reports that join the "war on terrorism" with "protecting our borders" and stopping the "invasion." At this point the process becomes a "moral panic" as emotions run high and people proclaim that a "way of life" is in jeopardy. The discourse of law trumps social justice. The momentum - and publicity of fear - continues to build and people are asked to take sides, dehumanizing terms appear in print, as racial and ethnic epithets become commonplace (e.g., "illegal"). Immigrants, who may have lived in the U.S. for 10 years or more but could not get "papers," are no longer cast as human beings, with dreams of escaping grinding poverty, but are objects crossing and dying in the desert; decades of social conventions and civility are negated with clichés by God-fearing people about "enforcing the law," and even children are tarred with the politics of fear as "jackpot babies," who should be denied citizenship even if born in the United States.

The next step taken by the politicians of fear is to make dramatic announcements that will obtain more news coverage, such as proposing (or opposing) changes or even laws. The momentum of fear rolls over public officials, who do not want to oppose the "will of the people," and many lend their support, even through legislative votes.

Immigration is a good topic to promote fear of "others" because the targeted group lacks political power and, tends to be people of color, poor, predominantly males, who may not speak English very well. Moreover, they are not easily distinguished from a growing percentage of Arizonans with documents, so attacks spill over onto others. Many Hispanics are terrorized, and avoid police and municipal offices.

As one who has studied fear and its consequences for social life, it is unsettling for me to speculate on the next target, the next "other" for state exclusion. Hopefully, we will all learn something.

The writer is a Regents' professor in the School of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University. His latest book is "Terrorism and the Politics of Fear."