American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Threatening Immigrants: Cultural Depictions of Undocumented Mexican Immigrants in Contemporary US America

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Jolie Sheffer (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Susana Peña (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Rebecca Kinney (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Lisa Hanasono (Committee Member)


This project analyzes how contemporary US cultural and legislative texts shape US society's impression of undocumented (im)migrants and whether they fit socially constructed definitions of what it means to "be American" or part of the US national imaginary. I argue that (im)migrant-themed cultural texts, alongside legal policies, participate in racial formation projects that use racial logic to implicitly mark (im)migrants as outsiders while actively employing ideologies rooted in gender, economics, and nationality to rationalize (im)migrants' exclusion or inclusion from the US nation-state. I examine the tactics anti- and pro-(im)migrant camps utilize in suppressing the role of race—particularly the rhetorical strategies that focus on class, nation, and gender as rationale for (im)migrants' inclusion or exclusion—in order to expose the similar strategies governing contemporary US (im)migration thought and practice. This framework challenges dichotomous thinking and instead focuses on gray areas. Through close readings of political and cultural texts focused on undocumented (im)migration (including documentaries, narrative fiction, and photography), this project homes in on the gray areas between seemingly pro- and anti-(im)migrant discourses. I contend (im)migration-themed political and popular rhetoric frequently selects a specific identity marker (e.g. gender or socio-economic status—never race) and depicts it as the single factor influencing US border monitoring and defense. In order to demonstrate this argument, I place legal texts in conversation with cultural texts. Taken together, political and cultural texts show the emergent strategies for discussing undocumented (im)migration without directly discussing race or racial inequalities, as the texts deny or have purportedly resolved racial inequalities.