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The Power Behind “Illegal Immigration”

How do we collectively decide what we call a social problem? How do we decide who is at fault or to blame for the problem? In this article Nathan Palmer uses conflict theory to discuss how those with social power often use it to define social problems as the fault of the least powerful in society.

Stop what you’re doing and think of the word most commonly used in the United States to describe when people from other countries come to the U.S. without the appropriate legal paper work. What do we tend to call that? I ask my students this question during the first week each semester and the answer they always give is, “illegal immigration”. Now you may be thinking, “yeah, so what. Big deal”, but stay with me. Why do we call it “illegal immigration”[1]?

Think of the industries that undocumented immigrants work in most often. Many undocumented immigrants work in low wage manual labor in agriculture, manufacturing, and in the service industry. So here’ s my question: do you think any of the products or services you’ve purchased were cheaper because the workers who produced it weren’t paid a fair wage or given proper benefits? How much higher would your grocery bill be if we paid the workers who produced the food that fills your cart a fair living wage? Probably a lot, right? So that means that you personally are the direct beneficiary of what is commonly called “illegal immigration”. You have more money in your pocket because of the undocumented workers in the United States. Or put more simply, consumers and corporations in the U.S. benefit from exploiting undocumented immigrant labor.

Conflict theory, one of the main theoretical camps of sociology, argues that those in power, use their power to ensure that they stay in power. To this end, conflict theorists argue, those in power use it to define social problems as the fault of the least powerful in society. With this in mind let’s go back to our original question: why do we often call it “illegal immigration”.

When we call the flow of people to a country without the proper legal paperwork, “illegal immigration” we are assigning blame and defining who the problem is. The multimillion dollar corporations who profit from employing undocumented immigrants aren’t the problem. Consumers who benefit from cheaper goods aren’t the problem. The problem is in the title. It’s the “illegal immigrants” that are the problem. This is a classic example of defining a social problem as being the fault of the least socially powerful group in society.

“But wait. What else would we call it?” you may be thinking right now. Well there are lots of options. First we could call it unauthorized/undocumented immigration as many scholars, activists, and politicians do. We could also call it “non-citizen exploitation” because it’s, you know, exploiting non-citizens and all. We could call it a whole lot of things.

The point here is that there is a choice being made when we socially define any social problem. Just because we collectively settle on one term for an issue, doesn’t mean it’s the most descriptive or best term. Often it’s just a reflection of who’s in power and who’s not.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Think of another example of how we define a social issue as being the fault of the least powerful in society. Explain why it’s a good example.
  2. Conflict theorists argue that those with the power, use it to define social problems in ways that meet their needs. So in the case of immigration, who holds the power?
  3. Why do you think politicians tend to ignore how citizens, consumers, and businesses benefit from undocumented immigration when they discuss the issue?
  4. As discussed in the article, if you’ve purchased things in the United States, then you are almost certainly benefitting from undocumented labor. How does this affect your views on undocumented immigration?

  1. For the record I do not use this term because as we will discuss in the article it’s loaded. Also, many people feel that referring to either the issue as “illegal immigration” or referring to the people who are here undocumented as “illegal aliens” is offensive. Advocates of undocumented immigrants reject the idea that any person can be illegal.  ↩