How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Bird dogs, feral hogs, dangerous waters, toxic waste: The metaphors we use for immigrants

Photo by sarah .../Flickr (Creative Commons)


You might say that Rep. Steve King of Iowa has a penchant for mentioning immigrants and animals together in the same speech. This week, the Republican congressman has come under fire for talking about the United States drawing the "cream of the crop" in terms of immigrants, not a bad thing in itself, but in the context of breeding bird dogs.

How King was quoted in the New York Daily News, which took it from this video:

“You want a good bird dog? You want one that’s going to be aggressive? Pick the one that’s the friskiest, the one that’s engaged the most and not the one that’s over there sleeping in the corner."

In 2008, King invoked another four-footed mammal when demonstrating to lawmakers how to build a border fence with non-lethal electricity. "We do that with livestock all the time," he said. In another fence-related speech from King some time ago, there was also a cockroach reference.

To his credit, at least King wasn't suggesting "shooting these immigrating feral hogs," as a different politico did last year. And it's not the first time, not by a long shot, that politicians and others have referred to animals and animal traits when discussing immigrants and immigration.

As it turns out, animal metaphors are among several kinds of metaphors used for immigrants and immigration, among them water and floods, crops or weeds, even hazardous waste. They are used not only in political discourse, but in the court system and in media. There are people who have studied immigration metaphors and written about them. There's even a book.

In the 2002 book “Brown Tide Rising,” UCLA Chicano studies professor Otto Santa Ana dissected media coverage pertaining to illegal immigration, immigrants and Latinos in general in the Los Angeles Times and other media during the 1994 election year. This was that year that California voters approved Proposition 197, a ballot initiative intended to bar undocumented immigrants from social services that eventually failed to make it through the courts.

In the book, Santa Ana described a series of metaphors used in news stories at the time to describe Latino immigrants. One of the predominant ones was what he described as "dangerous waters," with metaphors used that included “brown tide,” “human flows,” “human surge” and  “a sea of brown faces.” But animal metaphors were the most common.

Some were not as direct as dogs, cows or feral pigs, but related to animal behavior, hunting or similar themes, as Santa Ana described them. A few examples:

The dominant immigrant metaphor used in the Los Angeles Times was IMMIGRANTS ARE ANIMALS. Immigrants are seen as animals to be lured, pitted or baited, whether the token was intended to promote a pro-immigrant or an anti-immigrant point of view:

(5) [Governor] Wilson said he believed public benefits are a lure to immigrants and his intent was to discourage illegal immigration by denying them access to health care, education and welfare programs (22 August 1993: A–1)

(6) In a fiery speech to teachers union supporters Sunday, Democrat Kathleen Brown branded Republican Pete Wilson as a cynical career politician who will do anything to get reelected: ‘We’re not going to play into those games of pitting workers against each other’ (3 November 1994: D–1)

In (6) the verb pit evokes the brutal blood sport of placing enraged animals, such as dogs with bears or gamecocks, in a pit to destroy one another for the enjoyment of spectators. In the following tokens immigrants are seen as animals that can be attacked, and hunted:

(8) Beaten-down [INS] agents, given only enough resources to catch a third of their quarry, sense the objective in this campaign is something less than total victory (5 July 1992: A–3)

Immigrants are seen as animals to be eaten, by American industry, by the INS8 or its agents, and by the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 supporters:

(10) The truth is, employers hungering for really cheap labor hunt out the foreign workers (9 June 1992: D–3)


The list goes on. Metaphors for immigrants and immigration are also fairly common in the courts, as a fascinating analysis in this March's issue of the Fordham Law Review revealed. Examining the terminology of immigration in U.S. Supreme Court cases, the analysis found documented references to toxic waste, floods, invasions, attacks and general alienage.

One example from a 1980s Supreme Court case (quotation marks added):

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor radically altered the target domain of the poisonous tree metaphor. In contrast to criminal cases, in which pieces of evidence are viewed as tainted fruit that defile the courtroom, the metaphors of Lopez-Mendoza describe immigrants as tainted bodies that defile the nation. As Justice O’Connor wrote:

"Presumably no one would argue that the exclusionary rule should be invoked to prevent an agency from ordering corrective action at a leaking hazardous waste dump if the evidence underlying the order had been improperly obtained, or to compel police to return contraband explosives or drugs to their owner if the contraband had been unlawfully seized."


Do these metaphors, animal, vegetable or mineral, have a broader effect on the social and political discourse? Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, who wrote the law review analysis, argued yes:
A growing body of research in cognitive linguistics demonstrates that human beings view the world in metaphoric terms. In attempting to comprehend new ideas, people borrow from familiar concepts. The metaphors floating in our minds determine our linguistic choices, which in turn affect social discourse and ultimately social action.

Thus, how we think metaphorically affects how we talk about problems and the solutions we formulate in response to those problems.

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