American Ethnologist

“illegal aliens” and “opportunity”: myth-making in congressional testimony

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Abstract

Congressional hearings are scenes for actions more diverse than either a judicial or an information-gathering model would suggest. Hearings are settings in which ideologies are put to work in talk, both as practical activity and as ritual performance. In testimony in 1975 in a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee's hearings on immigration reform, speakers drew rhetorically upon particular American mythic themes to affirm an egalitarian ideology in a context of institutional and cultural uncertainty. Myths of opportunity were used to reify “illegal aliens” in order to deny difference, inequality, and history. The rhetorical displacement of myth by the use of irony opened the debate to new terms but failed to dislodge the myth-making process.

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