Post-Racial Proxy Battles over Immigration

Post-Racial Proxy Battles over Immigration


Carissa Byrne Hessick & Gabriel J. Chin



Amid economic and political turmoil, anti-immigrant legislation has flared again among a handful of fiercely determined states. To justify the intrusion into national immigration enforcement, the dissident states invoke imagery of invading hordes of “illegals”—though the unauthorized population actually fell by nearly two-thirds, decreasing by about a million people, between 2007 and 2009 as the recession reduced the lure of jobs.

Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070—recently invalidated in part by the U.S. Supreme Court in Arizona v. United States—led the charge. By preelection-year summer 2011, several states enacted laws patterned after Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill 1070, including Alabama’s even more aggressive HB 56. A host of lawsuits are pending against the new laws, which are at least partially invalid after Arizona v. United States. Other controversial proposals circulate, such as eliminating birthright citizenship or branding the birth certificates of alleged “anchor babies” implanted in the United States by foreigners.

This chapter examines how the spurt of state legislation is a proxy way to vent resurgent racialized anxieties and engage in friend-enemy politics founded on conflict with the “Other”—the foreign enemy within—in a time of economic and political turmoil. Despite the ostensibly a-racial construct of the illegal alien used to legitimize the lashing out, it is suffused with racialized perception. Current tactics parallel the overtly racialized hostility of past episodes of states enacting out anti-immigrant legislation. The oft-raised concern in such a fiercely polarized time is racial discrimination. Antidiscrimination law, however, does not offer the remedy for this concern.

Part 1 analyzes two hot-button forms of resurgent state and local anti-“alien” laws of our times—laws patterned on the Arizona template and the anti–birthright citizenship movement. It explores the dominance of racialized anxieties behind the seemingly race-neutral construct of the vilified alien. Part 2 contrasts the friend-enemy politics and legislation of our contemporary scene with the state and local legislation and furor against the Chinese during the turbulent politics of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Part 3 examines the polarization-ameliorating bases for decisions to cut back on overreaching state and local laws in order to make shared interests, rather than racial difference, salient while protecting underlying antidiscrimination values. The approach helps build bridges between dissonant worldviews to navigate the profoundly polarized politics and legislation of our times.

Title of Book

Strange Neighbors: The Role of States in Immigration Policy



Publication Date


Document Type

Book Chapter


NYU Press


New York


illegal aliens, racial discrimination


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Immigration Law | State and Local Government Law


Also available as an e-book.

Post-Racial Proxy Battles over Immigration

Catalog Record