Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'They Keep Coming' in a 'Wave'

One of the striking things about "The Wave," the latest and perhaps most controversial of the immigration-related ads produced by the campaign of Nevada's Republican U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle, is how similar it is in its tone to what is perhaps the granddaddy of the illegal-human-tide campaign ad genre, a television spot from former governor Pete Wilson's 1994 re-election campaign known as "They Keep Coming."

The ad starts with a video image from the early 1990s (one that was repeated for years on television as synonymous with illegal immigration) of people running north into the United States from Mexico, along the southbound lanes of the San Ysidro border crossing. Rushing the southbound lanes was a maneuver that some smugglers encouraged for a period back then, as was telling border crossers to run across Interstate 5 to avoid border security, a tactic that led many to their death on the highway.

The ominous voice-over begins: "They keep coming. Two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won't stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them."

Fast-forward sixteen years to Angle's latest ad accusing her Democratic rival, incumbent and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of being soft on illegal immigration. There's an opening shot of the border crossing at El Paso, followed by images of menacing-looking, swarthy young men.

The ominous voice-over begins: "Waves of illegal aliens streaming across our border, joining violent gangs, forcing families to live in fear, and what's Harry Reid doing about it?"

The Wilson ad never referred to a "wave" of undocumented immigrants coming across the border, though the imagery and the "they keep coming" message implied it. In his 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, when voters not only re-elected Wilson but approved Proposition 197, a ballot initiative intended to bar undocumented immigrants from social services that eventually failed to make it through the courts.

Santa Ana found a series of metaphors used in news stories at the time to describe Latino immigrants, among them “brown tide,” “human flows,” “human surge” and  “a sea of brown faces.”

He wrote in the book:

The major metaphor for the process of the movement of substantial numbers of human beings to the United States is characterized as IMMIGRATION AS DANGEROUS WATERS.

The metaphors, they keep coming.