Divided by the wall: Progressive and conservative immigration politics at the U.S.-Mexico border

Why is immigration a controversial topic in the United States? Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork spanning 2010 to 2016, I begin to answer this question by examining the motivations and life histories of Americans who are active in politically-opposed volunteer organizations in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. By focusing on activists who, because of the privileges of whiteness and U.S. citizenship, are not directly impacted by immigration policy, I consider why they nevertheless feel strongly enough to engage in this political struggle. I find that division around immigration is rooted in deep phenomena: the long-standing trend of growing economic inequality, racialized anxiety in the post-civil rights era, and ultimately, the search for personal reconciliation. Although Trump amplified these dynamics, he did not create them and they will not disappear in the wake of his presidency. I conclude by discussing how my findings may explain, in part, why immigration is such a polarizing issue and how addressing the underlying problems of social inequality may help mitigate the current contentiousness of immigration and border policy in the United States.

Emine Fidan Elcioglu is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. At the intersection of the sociology of migration and political sociology, her research examines how citizens make sense of non-citizenship and national gatekeeping. She is the author of Divided by the Wall: Progressive and Conservative Immigration Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border, published by University of California Press in 2020.