Alumni Spotlight: Interview with Leah Perry

Alumni Spotlight: Interview with Leah Perry

CS alumna Leah Perry, assistant professor of Cultural Studies at SUNY Empire State College, was with us in Spring 2017 Colloquium Series, the annual program recruitment event. She presented a talk on her recently published book "The Cultural Politics of U.S. Immigration: Gender, Race, and Media" (New York University Press, 2016). Esma H. Celebioglu interviewed with her about her book and her future projects. Please find Dr.Perry's responses below.

In "The Cultural Politics of U.S. Immıgration", you've argued that 1980s immigration discourse and its intersections with gender and race in policy and popular culture helped to form neoliberalism. Could you tell us a bit more about the research methods you've used for this research and why? 

First, I bring an insistently intersectional feminist lens to my study of American culture, drawing heavily on the important work of path breaking woman of color scholars such as bell hooks, Angela Davis, Kimberle Crenshaw, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldua. As we have seen with the recent Women’s March and critiques of “white feminism,” any claim to universality reproduces social domination. Intersectionality is also lived truth (oppression does not occur in neat “identity” boxes, nor should our study of it), and intersectional feminism as a scholar and teacher is a praxis. Not only what we focus on but also how we carry out our research and who we cite are political practices; I aimed for a literally intersectional research method.

Second, because representation matters, I continue with the Cultural Studies/American Studies consideration of popular media as complex primary sources that while polysemous tend to powerfully reproduce social domination. Benedict Anderson importantly demonstrated that print media is crucial to the formation and reproduction of nationalism or a national imagined community. Since the mid-twentieth century, various media have been major sources of entertainment, information, and socialization. While today this is even more pervasive given the Web, smartphones, e-book readers, blogs, Twitter, and so on (and the pervasiveness is arguably increasing given that our current president is a former reality TV star with a penchant for reckless tweeting), in the 1980s more “traditional” media—film, TV, and print media (magazines and newspapers)—permeated daily life, competing with and/or augmenting older social institutions such as the legal system, education system, family, and religion, and thus helping to produce, as Douglas Kellner stated, “the fabric of everyday life, dominating leisure time, shaping political views and social behavior, and providing the materials out of which people forge their very identities.”[i] I analyze popular media as a primary source alongside the materials that are typically the focus of immigration studies: the congressional record, texts of bills, presidential papers, and immigration records.

The “why” I use these research methods is social justice. My book aims to expose and challenge racism, patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia, capitalism—the violences of inequality that are endemic to American culture and history—when neoliberalism was cohering and becoming hegemonic. I use comparative and intersectional discourse analysis to unpack the language, tropes, and imagery that provided authoritative accounts of immigration given the centrality of immigration in that process.

I want to turn back to the immigration discourse you’ve examined in your book. Today, U.S. is experiencing a new immigration crisis within the era of Trump government. How do you analyze the current conjuncture, in what ways does it follow the previous discourse or how does it differentiate from the 80’s immigration politics?

In short, my book argues that America is far more racist and (hetero)sexist than it seems. I show how 1980s immigration narratives worked assiduously to conceal that. I focus on how the nexus of gender, race, and immigration structure neoliberalism; the neoliberal project was solidified and furthered in/through this nexus in policy and media, though immigration is rarely considered as a foundational part of neoliberalism. I trace the two dominant imaginings of immigration in this period (though there are earlier iterations as well), the “nation of immigrants” and “immigration emergency,” in order to show how both mask the racialized and gendered violence of neoliberalism. The former rebranded white supremacy and sexism in the wake of the civil rights and “second-wave” feminist movements, by idealizing ostensibly self-sufficient white ethnic immigrant heteropatriarchal families and it is flexible enough to incorporate some immigrants of color as “model minorities.” It is also predicated on the erasure of the dispossession of indigenous people. The latter concealed or rationalized racism by casting immigrants as threats to “Americans’” safety and economy.

A flagrantly racist, xenophobic misogynist, who has sexually assaulted multiple women and is driven by greed and corporate interest, who cares nothing for much of human life, is president of the United States, the allegedly exceptionally inclusive capitalist democracy that many would argue is more equal and progressive than ever before, and certainly more so since the 80s. Yet Trump took up the “immigration emergency” trope with horrifying success, first in his verbal attacks on undocumented Mexican immigrants as “murderers” and “rapists” while campaigning, and it underscores his Muslim ban, aggressive deportations, plan to build a wall at the Mexican border, and threats to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities. In his first address to Congress on Feb. 28, 2017, Trump again showcased the family members of citizens killed by undocumented immigrants, this time after he announced his order to the Department of Homeland Security to create a new office, VOICE (Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement), “to serve American victims.” All of his xenophobic immigration rhetoric and now policy is allegedly in the name of public safety, though the evidence to support his allegations of rampant immigrant criminality are simply not there, whereas evidence of his racism and Islamophobia is abundant.

Racist xenophobia is a consistent part of American history, and Trump’s version of it is a direct legacy of 1980s immigration discourse that shows that things have not changed as much as many would like to believe. 1980s immigration politics built on previous iterations of white supremacy, patriarchy, and xenophobia in immigration law and in the culture at large, but the neoliberal version masked that with cosmetic “diversity” and/or “colorblind” appeals to safety, and that continued from the Reagan era and into Obama’s presidency. Racialized and gendered criminalization is what legitimates the framing of certain undocumented lives as lives that do not matter, even in an allegedly more inclusive America. Latinx immigrants were disproportionality subject to poverty, police profiling and deportations even with the passing of the DREAM Act and DACA and prior to Trump’s raids (and racism did not fade away with the election of a black president; homophobia did not end with the passing of same sex marriage; rape culture persists even though we are supposedly “post-feminist,” etc.). Furthermore, the narrow view of valuable immigrant life is prevalent in liberal and even progressive discourse that takes up the “nation of immigrants” narrative to counter the “immigration emergency.” DREAM Act rhetoric asserts that immigrants deserve a path to legalization because they are law-abiding, especially hardworking members of heteronormative families, students, or have served in the military. We can see this in opposition to the Muslim Ban as with the “Immigrants Make America Great” slogan, recourse to the Statue of Liberty as the welcoming “mother of exiles,” the framing of embracing immigrants as a national value, and the focus on the separation of families as an especially urgent reason to end the ban. Although well meaning, these current “nation of immigrants” narratives restrict the field for valuable immigrant life to reproductively respectable immigrants who contribute to the economy. And yet again, this country’s history of settler colonialism and slavery is erased, as are the indigenous human beings who were here before the immigrants and the indigenous human beings who are here today. Neoliberal structures of social domination remain in place not only if/when more highly respectable “diverse” bodies are incorporated, but in no small part because they are incorporated. Trump is the product of a nation built on the dispossession of indigenous people, slavery, and heteropatriarchy. His election is not indicative of the erosion of American democracy; rather, it shows that American-style democracy, designed to protect the property of wealthy white men and literally built on the dispossession of indigenous people and through slavery, is working as it was designed to. Neoliberalism has furthered that “cause” with its immigration discourses. This is not to say that there is not value in the movement on the Left to not normalize his authoritarian and fascist actions and his overt embrace of racism. This is terrifying, and not something we should accept. But his anti-immigration stance and now action is part of a continuum, a long American history of xenophobia, racism, heterosexism, and settler colonialism.

What is the next research project you will be working on and how does it relate to your past research you’ve completed?

My current project bridges indigenous studies and settler colonial studies with immigration studies; I am reconsidering 1980s immigration discourse and neoliberalism through this lens. For example, although the violences of xenophobia and settler colonialism are interconnected and consideration of this offers promising opportunities to build solidarities and to mobilize, the “nation of immigrants” trope, the most prevalent and, thus far, most powerful retort to xenophobia—as we have recently seen in opposition to the Muslim Ban—perpetuates the erasure of indigeneity and settler colonialism, all the while maintaining the racialized and gendered exclusions that always already underpin it. Moreover, the idealized immigrant is an update of the idealized settler, and many immigrants themselves became settlers. Centering indigeneity can help us rethink the nativism underscoring not only immigration policy, but the very concepts of borders, transnationality, rights, and “American values.” My new project analyzes U.S. immigration and Native American policy and popular culture about indigenous Americans and immigrants in order to expose how settler violence works in and through immigration discourses, and to push against the frequent erasure of indigeneity in immigration studies.


[i] Douglas Kellner, Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics between the Modern and the Postmodern (New York: Routledge, 1995), 1.