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The Anti-Immigrant Impulse in U.S. Comedy

Evening comedy in the U.S. uses racist depictions of immigrants to gain laughs and ratings while misleading the public about the importance of immigrants to our economy and culture.

Pancho McFarland

Dennis Miller hosting the Critics’ Choice Awards joked about “the illegal alien” problem in California (and presumably throughout the United States). Angry white man comic Miller has earned popularity for his libertarian political rants. As emcee of the awards show on January 9, 2006 Miller abused his post to joke about the heavy traffic in Southern California except, he explains, for “the illegal alien lane” which was moving rapidly with hordes of “alien” Mexicans from a “foreign” land; the new Brown Peril.

Less than two weeks later Jay Leno complains in his amiable good white guy way about efforts that would make it easier for “aliens” to come to the U.S. He jokes about there being too many already. On this night we get a double dose of angry white man falling, however, as Leno’s first guest, Miller, encourages putting young Muslim men under government surveillance and imploring our government to “tighten our Borders.” He scoffs and demeans those like Howard Dean who have publicly questioned the Bush regime’s practice of monitoring our phone calls, emails and other communications. He, like Leno, complains about the high numbers of Mexican “aliens” entering “our” country. “Tijuana…looks like the Boston Marathon…only in ponchos,” Miller quips. He entertains Leno’s studio and television audience by proposing a solution to the debate around guest worker programs and a possible wall spanning the entirety of the 2,000 mile plus Mexico-U.S. border: “I say you bring them over to build the wall and at the last minute you throw them back over.”

During Leno’s January 23, 2006 opening monologue the comedian complained of the wind that had been causing problems in Southern California. Included among the problems, Leno jokes, is that “it was so windy…illegal aliens were hang gliding across the Border.” Unfortunately, Leno and Miller’s bad jokes have not been the only tv immigrant-bashing in recent weeks. Insomniacs too unfortunate to have cable might flip to the Jimmy Kimmel Show on their local ABC affiliate. On recent shows Kimmel repeatedly makes fun of a Mexican immigrant in Kimmel’s employ. Kimmel’s racism targets Mexican accents and the supposed ignorance that they signal. Kimmel’s character is dark-skinned and speaks with a heavy accent. His inability to say “Jimmy” instead of “Geemy” marks the Mexican as outsider, other. He is someone who Kimmel and his audience can make into the butt of a joke.

On evening comedy television in “America” immigrants are threats to “our” jobs and “our” security or they are ignorant indios who can’t speak proper English. On primetime and late night comedy Mexicans are pariahs and not the people who oil the U.S. economic machine. On tv Mexicans are not the people who subsidize middle-class and working-class lifestyles through the super-exploitation of their labor and the poisoning of their bodies with chemical pesticides and herbicides so that the Millers, Lenos and Kimmels of the world can eat cheap produce. The backs and arms of immigrant women ache so “legal citizens” can stay in spotless hotels and work in comfortably clean and well-kept offices. The television does not portray the cooks in thousands of restaurants paid minimum wage and below allowing us to fuel our bodies in comfort and leisure for minimal cost.

What is not said by these angry white comedians is that the Mexican boost to our economy shows up in innumerable ways. Mexican immigrant workers pay taxes on wages, property (large portions of their rent undoubtedly go to pay landlord property taxes), and consumer goods. Taxes on Mexican manual and emotional labor (think maids and nannies who clean toilets and soothe white children’s pain) build roads, playgrounds, and tourist attractions (literally and with the taxes they could never hope to recoup through public medical care facilities, ‘welfare’ or public school use). The culture and industriousness of the “Brown Horde” threaten Miller, Leno and Kimmel’s dominant alpha male status. Yet, in reality, the people they disrespectfully call aliens allow these celebrities to live extravagant lifestyles. While all U.S. citizens benefit from the Mexican immigrant presence, the rich and upper-middle classes are utterly dependent upon mexicanos and other immigrants. Those who often go on business or leisure trips gain from immigrants while rarely having to be made uncomfortable by interacting with Mexicans or otherwise understanding the importance of Mexicans and other “third world” peoples.

Since the 1980s the service industry in the U.S. has grown reaping tremendous profits from workers born in other countries. Foreign-born workers serve citizen interests as cooks, servers, and busboys in all types of restaurants. Day laborers assist homeowners trying to make repairs or improvements to their homes and yards. Homes, office buildings, and college campus buildings are built by the same immigrants who comedians call ignorant or dangerous. Without immigrant construction workers the American Dream of homeownership would be unattainable, college campuses would be full of deteriorating buildings, and many corporations would have to cut back or go out of business because building costs would be too high. Let’s not also forget that the immigrant presence provides jobs for lawyers, doctors, and agents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Thousands of ‘citizens’ rely either directly (e.g., border patrol agents) or indirectly on immigrants for their paychecks.

Yet, most of us including the blowhard buffoons of comedy television know very little of this. The question before us is why. Why are we unable to see the important contribution of Mexican and other immigrants to our culture and our economy? Can racism explain our hatred for immigrant others or is something else going on? Who benefits from immigrant bashing? Are we afraid of something? Do we fear people whose skin is darker than ours or who speak differently?

Many essays in the book, Immigrants Out! (Juan F. Perea, editor), point to the similarities of periods of increased nativism in U.S. history. Clearly, older racist rhetoric plays an important role. Well-established stereotypes contribute to seeing immigrants as Others to be disdained. However, racism seems to be a divide and conquer tactic within in a larger strategy that pits capital and greedy capitalists against workers. Convincing white and other citizen workers that their bank accounts and wallets are shrinking and their medical care costs are rising because of immigrants lets elite politicians and businesspeople off the hook. Economic policies that benefit the rich (think outsourcing, tax breaks, use of public funds to assist businesses) fly under the radar screen of blame that points the finger at the least powerful in our society. The confluence of media, politicians and “experts” amplifies the xenophobic chant of “It’s the immigrants” and drowns out any analysis that correctly states the problem as one of class warfare in which the elite use their power of media access and lawmaking to gain more and more wealth.

We have few opportunities to understand the importance of Mexican and other immigrants to our society. Rarely, do we get an opportunity to ask “what if there were no Mexicans in the United States?” As an antidote to the “comedy” in poor taste of Leno,, I suggest the powerful and thought-provoking comedy, A Day Without a Mexican. Here Director Sergio Arau asks us to think about how integral Mexicans are to the economy of California and, by extension, that of the entire U.S. What would happen if all the immigrants suddenly disappeared? Would we continue to call for keeping them out? Most would probably try to find the missing workers who they rely upon so much. And what would happen upon their return? Most would be thankful. Should we not thank Mexican and other immigrant workers before they disappear? Should we not show our gratitude to our immigrant brothers and sisters before the hateful such as Leno, Miller, Kimmel, Bill O’Reilly and others get their way and force the government to implement new deportation and border patrol programs that will lead to thousands of immigrant deaths and ruin our economy? A nuestros hermanos y hermanas mexicanas/os, mil gracias. Y que vengan aqui con dios.

Pancho McFarland lives and works on Chicago's Southside.