American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Immigrant Anxieties: 1990s Immigration Reform and The Neoliberal Consensus

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/Ethnic Studies

First Advisor

Robert Buffington


Immigrant Anxieties: 1990s Immigration Reform and the Neoliberal Consensus concentrates on the discursive intersections between immigration, anti-terrorism, and welfare reform that developed in the mid-1990s debates over immigration reform in the United States. Drawing on Michel Foucault's work, this project analyzes the discursive strategies that created, shaped, and upheld a race-specific image of a "desirable" immigrant. I argue that government debates, media discourse, and public perception were part of a larger regime of knowledge/power that continually produced and reinforced the neoliberal ideal of a responsible, self-sufficient subject. This underlying neoliberal logic with its reductionist insistence on cost-benefit analysis foreclosed any attempt to engage in a serious moral/ethical debate about the merits and effects of the U.S. immigration system. At the same time, my research demonstrates that despite this foreclosure of the terms of debate, the mid-1990s discourse on immigration was characterized by a productive tension between its underlying neoliberal assumptions and other often contradictory values and objectives. In addition, I interrogate how long-standing and deep-seated anxieties about immigrants' race, class, gender, and sexuality intersected with neoliberal logic in both the public discourse and the legislative process. My dissertation examines congressional debates and mainstream newspapers to illustrate how immigration discourse circulates and how these distinct discursive sites work intertextually within the larger discourse to reinforce, supplement, and even contradict each other. Chapter 3 examines the neoliberal logic behind the restructuring of the family preference category to show how Congress used an explicit pro-family rhetoric to justify measures intended to activate legal immigrants' capacity for self-sufficient citizenship. Chapter 4 interrogates the discursive construction of "illegal aliens" as "anti-citizens." Chapter 5 explores the linkages between media and legislative discourse. Chapter 6 focuses on the mainstream media's use of human interest stories, demonstrating how these stories served as an important tool to negotiate widespread anxieties about immigrants' race, class, and sexuality.