Moral Panic

I think of the children of undocumented immigrant workers. Years ago, Juanita’s tiny, two-year-old daughter, Cecilia, stumbled over to me where I sat on a kitchen chair. She looked at me from her small face with her brown-black eyes. The remains of a braid with a ribbon tied around it captured her hair on one side of her head. The rest was tangled around her head. She was very small, I thought about six months or so younger than she actually was. Her legs were bowed, her feet turned in, and I was told she had convulsions. She stumbled around the kitchen and fell when she could not step around her feet. She kept returning to me, where she played a silent game. She repeatedly placed a bit of nothing carefully in my hand, then had me hand it back to her. At one point, Cecilia carried a nude doll over to me and thoughtfully poked her fingers in the doll’s eyes. Cecilia’s face still haunts me, and I searched out resources of her and her mother.

I thought of her again when I heard about Obama’s new deportation policy last week. In it Obama announced that nearly one million young, upstanding undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children will be spared from deportation for the next two years. During the last few years, I’ve lost track of Cecilia, but I hope she falls in the favored categories.

Michael Welch, who wrote Detained: Immigration Laws and the Expanding I.N.S Jail Complex (2002), gives an interesting argument concerning our contemporary obsession with punishing undocumented immigrants. He explains that the nation has experienced a “moral panic” over such immigration. A moral panic occurs when “a group of people emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interest.” (9) This fear results in a “moral crusade” against those who are defined as the threat. He explains that such a moral crusade against immigrants occurred in the early to mid 1990’s. Writing shortly after the attack on the Twin Towers, he stated that he was very concerned that another moral panic against immigrants would occur as a result. I expect that he feels the conditions of the Great Recession has given further fuel to such a campaign.

According to Welsh and others, such moral panic involves: “. . a heightened concern over the behavior of others and how their actions affect society.” (11) It also involves a “hostility toward an identifiable group,” (13) Such attitudes are seen in the “criminalizing of immigrants,” for example, defining immigrants as “predatory villains, drug dealers, and even terrorists.” (16)

A moral panic against immigrants also sees them as pathological and a threat to public health. (18) Welsh writes about a commentator who blames them for spreading tuberculosis, measles, cholera, malaria, dengue fever, and leprosy. In addition, during a moral crusade the target group is seen as less intelligent than the dominant group. In the process, such groups as undocumented immigrants function as a scapegoat. Welsh quotes Robinson and says scapegoating is “the placing of blame for one’s troubles on an individual or group incapable of offering resistance.” Certainly, that has been the case since 9/11 and the recession. Middle Eastern immigrants regularly report that they have been racially profiled.

People experiencing moral panic perceive danger in exaggerated terms. For example, people talk with alarm about immigrant children destroying education for native-born children. Also, people during a moral panic often exaggerate the numbers involved. Since Obama changed deportation policies I have heard opponents to his actions say that “millions” of people will be made legal.

Moral panic also changes over time. There are times when it is more acute than others. Worries about immigration have ebbed and flowed throughout U.S. history. At times citizens have been warned of the anti-Asian “yellow peril,” and Japanese Americans were forced into detention camps during World War 11.
According to Welsh, moral panic about immigrants was worse during the early 1990’s, better in the later 1990’s, then worse again during subsequent years. It is also volatile. It can lie dormant, then erupt quickly or “break out,” then fade again. Welsh states that it does not “necessarily mean that there is no potential for a problem; rather, societal responses to the putative problem are fundamentally inappropriate.” (33) I certainly believe that mass detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants is inappropriate. It is not humane, it ignores the history of the United States as an immigrant nation, and does not take into account all that undocumented immigrants contribute to our nation.

With food and medical care Cecilia grew into a lovely young woman with gifts to give her country. The question for citizens is now: do we panic and cause immense suffering to people such as Cecilia and her mother or do we accept what they have to offer their adopted nation and relax and accept such contributions.

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One Response to Moral Panic

  1. The politics of fear are legion. On Moyers and Company last night, Kahil Gibran Muhammed, an eloquent historian, spoke about our American republic the contradictions of our basic founders regarding all men are created equal. He suggested that money for the ruling classes has always had a history of trumping idealism. May we open our hearts to all of humanity.

    We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.
    Thich Nhat Hanh

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