Publication Date

April 2018


Megan Glick


American Studies (AMST)


English (United States)


In this thesis, I demonstrate the parallels and cause and effect relationship between the U.S. government?s response in the contemporary moment to the growing number of Salvadorian immigrants, especially the ?unaccompanied minors? and MS-13 gang members, and its response during the 1980s. I do so to demonstrate how historically the criminalization of Salvadoran immigrants was enabled by intersecting forms of racialization that occurred during the 1980s, known as the ?War on Crime? era, due to the reformation of drug-related and mandatory minimum sentencing laws, this time period witnessed the rapid expansion of the prison industrial complex. This thesis examines how the racialized War on Crime in general, and discourses surrounding the rise of African American criminal gang activity in specific, led to a ?symbolic blackening? of Salvadoran immigrants associated with MS-13. This connection has continued into the contemporary moment and informs the new wave of ?tough on crime? rhetoric used by the Trump administration. However, I want to be clear here that I do not equate the experiences of Salvadorans in the U.S. to those of black people. I also do not essentialize criminality as blackness but instead call attention to the sociocultural and juridical factors that have served to link blackness and criminality in the U.S. context. Further, by using the idea of ?symbolic blackening,? it may seem that I am falling back on binary racial understandings that exist within a black-or-white framework. However, this is not the case, as I also address the complexities of race and racial classifications for Latina/o groups. In this thesis, I have chosen to use the framework of symbolic blackening because of the criminalization of African Americans in the U.S. that has occurred alongside the criminalization of immigrants. In the time periods I examine, the mechanisms that were used to imagine black people as criminal threats to U.S. society became repurposed against Latinas/os, more broadly, due to anti Latina/o immigrant sentiments, but has different implications for Salvadorans due to the link between the population and MS-13. Thus, this repurposing has not occurred equally among all Latina/o immigrant groups, due to the politics that drive different groups to migrate to the U.S. The racialization of these groups occurs both as a result of global and local hierarchies that impact their lives in their home countries, and also as an effect of how they are perceived when they arrive in the U.S. The language and terminology used to discuss Salvadorans within the legal realm and the media is extremely important for my analysis. The discourse used to devalue this population and to construct it as immoral, criminal, and a constant threat to ?civilized? society, has long-term repercussions. It justifies and normalizes various forms of state-sanctioned violence that deny personhood and force populations into spaces of precarity and marginality. As I will show, the links between racialization, gang culture, and the denial of childhood produce the conditions that denigrate the ?unaccompanied minors,? in the contemporary moment, denying personhood through racialized illegality.



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