How Islamophobia Spawned Racism Against Latinos

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A new paper draws connections between fear of terrorists and anti-immigrant messaging.

By Julie Morse


Anti-immigrant rally in Washington, D.C., in 2007. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On September 7, 2001, George W. Bush declared that the next 100 years would be the “Century of the Americas.” The next day, at a joint session of Congress, politicians on both sides of the political spectrum stood up and applauded when Bush said, “if [Mexicans] are willing to do jobs others in America aren’t willing to do, we ought to welcome that person to the country and we’ve ought to make that a legal part of our economy.” It was a controversial statement considering that, around that time, 41 percent of adults believed that immigration to the United States should be decreased, according to a Gallup poll.

Three days after the speech before Congress, a pair of al-Qaeda-hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center. The destruction of the Twin Towers brought with it the downfall of any potential harmonious immigration plan in the U.S. Instead, what emerged was the Patriot Act, a set of laws that purported to prevent terrorist attacks. But, according to a new working paper by University of Texas–Austinsociologists Luis A. Romero and Amina Zarrugh, all the Patriot Act really accomplished was to provoke anti-immigrant sentiment and ignite anxiety among Latino communities.

Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric existed before 9/11. According to one study from Georgetown University, since 2000, 20 percent of all Americans have had a negative perception of Muslims. Yet, since 9/11, Islamophobia has bled into the fear and hatred of Latinos. “The extension of Islamophobia examined here is the fusion between Latino ‘illegality’ and Islamophobic emphases on the threat of terrorism, which illustrate the dynamism of state racial projects,” Romero and Zarrugh write. By September 2002, those in favor of decreasing immigration had jumped to 54 percent, per Gallup.

“The issues of immigration and terrorism are brought together and being used to racialize, and generate fear surrounding, Latinos in non-traditional ways.”

For about a year and a half, Romero and Zarrugh studied speeches given by politicians and a variety of news publications. They specifically looked for mentioned combinations of keywords such as “terrorists” and “immigrants.” They discovered that, by framing Latinos within the conversation of terrorism, lawmakers were better able to create policies that would categorize them as terrorists.

The connection between Islamophobia and racism against Latinos is three-fold, Romero and Zarrugh argue. Over the last 15 years, Latinos have been subjected to discrimination at the political rhetoric level, institutional level, and in public policy. A few weeks after 9/11, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft proposed that immigration authorities should be able to detain any foreigner suspected of terrorism for an indeterminate amount of time—a plan that would have clearly impacted Latinos, who in 2001 totaled over 35 million in the U.S. And in 2014, Senator Ted Cruz and Senator John McCain made claims that ISIS is planning to enter the U.S. through the Mexico border. Yet perhaps the biggest shift occurred at the institutional level, when immigration was transferred from the jurisdiction of Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Department of Homeland Security. This transition escalated in the rate of deportation from 70,000 in 1996 to 400,000 in 2008. (It’s worth noting, however, that the percentage of those in favor of decreasing immigration actually dropped to 39 percent in 2008.)

“We operationalize the extension of Islamophobia as instances in which traditional anti-Muslim sentiments, racial framings, and actions are utilized against another group (e.g. Latinos in this study),” the researchers write. “In the case of Latinos, the issues of immigration and terrorism are brought together and being used to racialize, and generate fear surrounding, Latinos in non-traditional ways — one of the ways by which deportations can be justified.”