Believe the hype: The symbolic tendencies of immigration legislation in the United States, 1980--2005

Marie Gilot, University of Texas at El Paso


In 2006, massive protests drew well over 1 million undocumented immigrants and their supporters to the streets of major U.S. cities. The protesters were asking for a comprehensive bill to reform the failing U.S. immigration system. But a year later, there was still no comprehensive reform, only a public opinion backlash and an unfunded bill to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Were protesters adopting the wrong strategy by hyping up their cause? ^ More than 2,000 immigration bills introduced in the U.S. House and Senate from 1980 to 2005 were studied with an original scale to test three hypotheses---that immigration bills were more symbolic during years of high hype, that they were more anti-immigrant in years of high hype and that legislators from districts along the U.S.-Mexico border were generally less likely to draft symbolic, anti-immigrant bills than their non-border counterparts, regardless of hype. Symbolic, anti-immigrant bills have realworld consequences because their very introduction reinforces negative stereotypes about immigrants and their possible passage into law can hurt immigrants. The focus of this study is the relationship between hype, or mediatized public interest, and symbolic, anti-immigrant legislation, such as the fence bill. ^ In results represented visually by graphics, highly symbolic bills such as resolutions followed the highs and lows of hype and anti-immigrant bills, such as those focusing on alien criminals and terrorists, followed even closer. This was especially true after the 1990s backlash made anti-immigrant public opinion a political force to be reckoned with. Border legislators showed greater sensitivity to immigration issues by drafting proportionally more immigration bills than their non-border counterparts and less anti-immigrant bills. This study seems to suggest that hype is not conducive to the drafting of substantial and pro-immigrant immigration bills. Pressuring legislators through public and media pressure may be counterproductive for those seeking meaningful legislation. ^

Subject Area

Political Science, General

Recommended Citation

Gilot, Marie, "Believe the hype: The symbolic tendencies of immigration legislation in the United States, 1980--2005" (2007). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI1444133.