Images of immigrant children lightning for controversy


Images can make powerful statements without using words, a method that often leads to overemotional arguments, said Debra Castillo, professor at Cornell University in Hispanic studies and comparative literature and director of the Latin American studies program, in a lecture on Thursday night.

The lecture, entitled “Don’t Tell: Children in the Borderzone,” dealt with images and portrayals of Hispanic children and how they are used to make arguments in America’s illegal immigration debate.  

“I think the main point is that people on both sides of very heated arguments use the images, very heated images, and aren’t thinking about them or about having a dialogue,” Castillo said. “Immigrants serve as a lightning rod. We aren’t thinking about things we should, like how do we resolve fair labor issues in the United States.”

Castillo cited examples from books, movies, plays and even photographs. One picture was of a Hispanic child wrapped in an American flag; another was of a child in jail, and she also cited a book where the author reacted to the death of a child who failed in crossing the border illegally.

Though the lecture largely focused on the immigration controversy gripping the nation, Castillo’s goal was to encourage dialogue, not to suggest policy changes. Castillo said she started to research the topic as a way to encourage her students to think critically.

Salvador Oropesa, interim head of the modern languages department and professor of Spanish, said Castillo was a guest editor of a department journal and it is tradition to invite the guest editor to give a lecture.

“It is necessary to have that kind of input, to inform the reality of how myths are written and how myths of children are used to undermine a myth, racial myths,” Oropesa said. “We have to move out of that cycle and move to a more critical assessment.”

Though the lecture ultimately argued for a dialogue on immigration and claimed most images are overemotional, the tone of the lecture was pro-immigration. Castillo said there were racist undertones in the immigration debate even though immigrant families are identical in makeup and values to American families. She also pointed out the damage that deportation can cause on mixed-race families living in the U.S.

Megan Coffroth, senior in biology and Spanish, said the lecture made her realize how prevalent the narrative of the child is in the immigration debate to provoke an emotional response.

“I thought it was a really interesting conversation,” Coffroth said. “What I liked is she said it’s our job to think critically about issues. Not necessarily to come to a consensus, but to think.”