"Taking the Shackles off": Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials in the U.S.


Theresa Catalano, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (tcatalano2@unl.edu)
Andreas Musolff, University of East Anglia (a.musolff@uea.ac.uk)

The present paper utilizes (multimodal) critical discourse studies and cognitive linguistics to analyze the verbal and visual metonymies/metaphors found in online news sources that report
on unaccompanied youths from Central America and Border Patrol/immigration officials in the U.S. Findings reveal verbal and visual metonymies that dehumanize and criminalize child migrants, while Border Patrol/immigration enforcement discourse creates WAR/WILD WEST metaphors that justify the militarization of the border. The significance of the study lies in showing how underlying conceptualizations of migrants by immigration and border control agencies help us understand the social imaginary which allows the government to garner public support for unjust policies and treatment of migrants. In addition, by examining the connection of media and law enforcement rhetoric to the Trump administration, it illustrates how rightwing populists gain and maintain power through their appeal to populist ideals and the repetition of core discourses.

Die Studie untersucht mithilfe diskurs- und kognitionslinguistischer Methoden multimodale (sprachliche und fotografische) Metaphern/Metonymien im Mediendiskurs über unbegleitete minderjährige Migranten und die Arbeit der US-Einwanderungsbehörden. Wir zeigen, dass die Einwanderer durch die Kombination von Kriegs- und Wildwest-Rhetorik zu Tieren und Kriminellen degradiert werden und die Arbeit der Grenzkontroll- und Einwanderungsbehörden als ‚Einfangen’, ‚Einsammeln’ und ‚Kontrollieren‘ einer ,Herde’ im Stil von Cowboys konstruiert wird. Die Aufnahme und weitere Steigerung dieser Metaphorik in der Selbstdarstellung der Behörden und ihrer Unterstützung durch die Trump-Regierung verdeutlichen das Aufnahme und Identifikationspotential populistischer Rhetorik für den Aufbau einer ‚sozialen Imagination’,


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1. Introduction
Although an estimated 13% of the world’s migrating population are children
(UNICEF 2016), there is a growing need for research that focuses on this segment
of the population, especially those children that are unaccompanied or separated
from their families as they make their journey. Since 2014, the United States has
documented a significant increase in unaccompanied and/or separated youths1
1 The United States government defines “unaccompanied alien child” as “an individual under
the age of eighteen who has no lawful immigration status in the United States and who has no
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traveling from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Research about these
children has found that their rights are routinely violated by Customs and Border
Patrol agents in the process of apprehension and detention (Terrio 2015: 43). In a
report published in 2008 by the NGO “No More Deaths”, hundreds of accounts of
abuse by Border Patrol agents were documented, revealing “alarmingly consistent”
patterns of mistreatment (ibid.). In 2011, four different NGOs found that
the “institutional culture of the Border Patrol” was reinforced by an “absence of
effective accountability measures” and Border Patrol agents “regularly overstepped
their authority by conducting enforcement activities outside border
regions, making racially motivated arrests, employing coercive interrogation
tactics, and imprisoning migrants under inhumane conditions” (ibid.). In spring
2014, more reports were also published documenting body cavity searches, the
shackling of children, denial of food and medical services as well as verbal,
physical, and sexual abuse (Terrio 2015: 45).
Despite these well-documented accounts of abuse by border/immigration
officials against unaccompanied youth in the United States, Donald Trump was
elected as U.S. President with a central theme of his campaign being tough
immigration policies and a rhetoric that dehumanizes these children. Once
elected, he has continued to push border security and increased militarization of
the border as a top priority. In June 2018, his anti-immigration policies sparked
national and international outrage when news was released about the US
Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement (ICE)’s policy of separating migrant
children from their parents and holding some of them in Customs and Border
detention centers, some of them in metal cages (The New York Times, 16 June 2018;
The New York Times, 17–23 June 2018).
One might wonder how it is possible for so much of the American public to
support policies and practices that ignore human rights violations and that so
blatantly treat migrants so inhumanely (cf. Terrio 2015). The concept of the ‘social
imaginary’ provides an interesting standpoint from which to view this
conundrum. According to Rizvi/Lingard
parent of legal guardian to provide care and custody” (Heidbrink 2014: 34). For the purposes of
this paper, we use “children” and “youth” interchangeably, and we use “unaccompanied alien
child/ren” only when referring to direct quotes from U.S. government sources.
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
[a] social imaginary is a way of thinking shared in a society by ordinary
people. The common understandings that make everyday practices
possible, give them sense and legitimacy. It is largely implicit,
embedded in ideas and practices, carrying within it deeper normative
notions and images, constitutive of society (2010: 34).
Social imaginaries are upheld by large groups of people and often presented to
the public in stories and anecdotes which shape how people think about the role
of government (Hursh 2016: 28) and the “nature and scope of political authority”
(Rizvi/Lingard 2010: 13).
While recent scholarship has featured the role of metaphor/metonymy in the
representation of migrant populations around the world in political discourse
(e.g., Charteris-Black 2005; Musolff 2016), and media discourse in general (e.g.,
Santa Ana 2002, 2016), few studies have focused on the discourse of immigration
and border officials. We aim to fill this gap by examining metonymies/metaphors
used to represent visually and verbally unaccompanied or separated youth
in media and government discourse as well as in discourse about the Border
Patrol/immigration/law enforcement officials themselves. By analyzing the
underlying conceptualizations these agencies (which have been empowered by
the support of the Trump administration) have about migrants, and about their
own institutions and self-identities, we hope to understand better the social
imaginary they put forth which allows them to garner public support for unjust
policies and treatment of migrants.
2. Background
2.1 Unaccompanied Youths in the United States
Unaccompanied youths in the United States first gained special attention in the
media in 2014 when an estimated 77,200 children were apprehended at the U.S.
southern border— most of whom were from Central America (cf. Lind 2014). This
media focus created a moral panic which “centered on the threat of criminality
and disease they posed” (Terrio 2015: 10). Reasons for the sharp increase in
unaccompanied youth include:
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societal, household, and gang violence and recruitment; abandonment
or neglect by caregivers; human trafficking; and the social exclusion of
certain recognizable groups within the home countries, such as
homosexuals and marginalized religious groups (Chen/Gill 2015: 117).
Additionally, lack of access to jobs and basic services have fueled this social
exclusion and given increased power to gangs. Furthermore, “resource-deprived
and overburdened” police forces and judicial systems have failed to protect
children and families, often due to their involvement with organized crime
groups (Stinchcomb/Hershberg 2014: 2). Despite the fact that the United States’
involvement in Central America in the 1980s planted “the seeds for the instability
and turmoil” that started these problems (Corchado 2014), they have not taken
responsibility for creating the conditions for this crisis.
Unfortunately, as the Trump administration has moved into power, many of the
programs put in place by the Obama administration to protect unaccompanied
youth (Heidbrink 2014; Terrio 2015) have been discontinued or are in danger of
being discontinued and there has been a reduction in the number of refugees
admitted to the United States, not to mention “zero tolerance” policies that
separate children from parents when they are apprehended (Nelson 2018). For
those children already in the United States, dire conditions (including a continual
state of limbo while waiting for hearings, fears that go along with poverty, being
undocumented, and trauma from the journey) have been exacerbated by the
Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration.
2.2 Border Officials and the Discourse of Border Control
As stated earlier, Donald Trump has made border security a key priority in his
administration, most notably with the “build a wall” slogan which was regularly
chanted at rallies of his supporters. As part of this border security priority, in his
January 2017 Executive Order, Trump called for 5,000 more Border Patrol
officers, in addition to the 10,000-officer increase ordered by George Bush following
9/11. Trump’s requested increase disregards problems that the rapid hiring
policy following 9/11 caused, e.g., the employment of unqualified or unfit agents
who committed multiple crimes (Chávez 2012: 61). Furthermore, “hampered by
poor morale, hiring problems and high attrition, as well as rampant corruption”,
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
the Border Patrol has not met the goal of 20,000 officers since 2013, and even after
the executive order (at the time of this writing), the number of Border Patrol
officers has actually decreased (Tanfani 2017).
To be clear, problems with the Border Patrol and immigration and law enforcement
regarding the border did not start with Trump, and he cannot be held
responsible for the militarization of the border and its consequences. In fact,
militarization of the US-Mexico border has been in practice since the Reagan
administration (cf. Chávez 2012: 49). Since then there have been record levels of
human and financial capital invested by the state in order to militarize the US -
Mexico border (Heidbrink 2014). “Militarization describes the way that people
accept the beliefs of militarism and militarization in a way that upholds state
policy… and the use of military rhetoric and ideology, as well as tactics, strategy,
technology, equipment, and forces” (Chávez 2012: 49-50). Because the war on
drugs and national security concerns help justify an increase in military units, the
Border Patrol has become more and more like the military, particularly in terms
of its equipment, structure, and tactics (Falcón 2006). Additionally, the Border
Patrol’s work is framed “as security and anti-terrorism, as well as a concern for
greater communication and environmental responsibility”, which hides human
rights issues and the material impacts of the border on people (Chávez 2012: 49,
56, 61). Coupled with media discourse that talks mostly of violence and danger
on the border, imagery of the border often portrays it as lifeless and desolate,
which also reinforces calls for militarizing it (cf. Dorsey/Diaz-Barriga 2010).
Moreover, the discourse of national security has now become intertwined with
the War on Terror so that “militarization of regions of the US-Mexico border
seems natural and warranted in order to protect citizens from these supposed
threats” (Chávez 2012: 49). Referring to undocumented migrants as ‘terrorists’
has been found to be one of the most effective strategies for conveying that they
are a danger (cf. Gemignani/Hernandez-Albujar 2015: 2760).
Along these lines, rhetoric that highlights the threat of gangs has also been used
to justify “increased levels of surveillance and intervention” along the southern
border and “within the interior of the country” (Heidbrink 2014: 47) – this despite
the fact that many unaccompanied youths have been victims of gang violence
and hence flee their countries to escape it. Nevertheless, “immigration is
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constructed as a direct physical menace, it becomes logical to eliminate it through
the use of the strongest means and most effective practices available, such as
paramilitary gears, structures, and jargons” (Gemignani/Hernandez-Albujar
(2015: 2760). Consequently, once we link terrorism (and or gangs) to
undocumented immigrants, “we can justify military-technologies to regain
control of the border” (Chávez 2012: 58).
One effect of increased militarization has been a stark increase in migrant deaths
as a result of having to traverse “new, longer routes through less populated, more
inhospitable country” to get around “heavily-patrolled urban corridors along the
border” (Spener 2011: 121). When human rights organizations blamed these increased
deaths on new enforcement tactics, authorities attempted to protect
themselves from these accusations “by pointing to ‘alien smugglers’ as those responsible”
(ibid.). Hence, ‘coyotaje’ (the border-crossing strategy which involves
hiring traffickers) and ‘coyotes’, who provide those services, are blamed for
deaths and violence during migration.
Although there has been “massive investment in sophisticated surveillance
technology, fencing, military aircraft, and additional Border Patrol agents to
secure the border” most migrants apprehended and detained have been people
(including many children) crossing the border in the hope of finding work, often
low-wage work such as day laborers, nannies, or maids (Terrio 2015: 16).
[d]iscourses that criminalize migrants and conflate migration with
terrorism create the illusion that this moment in history is one of
exceptionalism and thus warranting state intervention at a global level.
Children are now caught in the crosshairs of the state’s wars on drugs,
gangs, and terror (Heidbrink 2014: 157).
The militarization of Border Control answers the calls from populist
politicians and groups who construct ‘illegal immigrants’ as dangerous
‘Others’ and propose a ‘solution’ to that danger which develops their
own position of power (Gemignani/Hernandez-Albuja 2015).
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
2.3 Metaphor/Metonymy in Discourses about Unaccompanied Youth and
Border Patrol/Law Enforcement
Metaphor is “understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another”
(Lakoff/Johnson 1980: 5), and a way of conceptualizing a source (e.g., POLITICS)
in terms of a target (e.g., SPORTS). Metonymy on the other hand, is the process of
using one thing to refer to another, usually a more complex thing (e.g., 9/11 to
stand for the events of that day) (Littlemore 2015: 1). Put simply, metaphor can be
represented with an A IS (LIKE) B relationship, whereas metonymy is viewed in
terms of an A IS RELATED TO B relationship. Although these definitions make
them appear very distinct, the boundaries between the two are often blurry, as
are the criteria used to distinguish between them. In fact, recent research has
shown that the interaction between the two, also known as ‘metaphtonomy’ (cf.
Goossens 2003) is found more often than when the two are separate (Pérez-
Sobrino 2016: 78), and that metonymy often motivates (or provides access to)
conceptual metaphors (Barcelona et al. 2018); in addition, it has been claimed that
no examples can be found of the reverse, i.e., metaphors that motivate or provide
access to metonymies (Hernández-Gomariz 2018: 91).
In the case of this study, we focus on multimodal metonymy and metaphor that
occur not only in text, but also in image and video. In addition, we are not as
interested in describing the technical processes that create metaphor/metonymy
or how they interact as we are in determining how they are used to hide
ideologies that underlie the texts, and to uncover point of views they conceal
(Charteris-Black 2014: 203).
Research focusing on the representation of unaccompanied youths in media
discourse has found that metaphors of water (in which the movement of
migrants is equated with the movement of dangerous water) are the most
commonly used, especially to represent large increases such as the Central
American migrants in the U.S. in 2014 (cf. Catalano 2017; Sundberg/Kaserman
2007). In addition, Antony/Thomas (2016) found that children were portrayed as
an economic burden, disease carriers, offspring of irresponsible parents and
channels for criminal infiltration. These same authors also uncovered that
discourses of global human compassion were used to justify harsher policies as
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protecting such children. Similarly, Terrio found detention of migrant children
was “justified as a humanitarian response to exceptional conditions of instability
and displacement” (2015: 11). Heidbrink/Statz (2017: 546) show how migrant
youths are framed as “dependents left behind” by abusive and neglectful parents.
They argue that “the pervasive pathologization of migrant youths’ parents
diminishes and contorts valued relationships over time, and demands broader
efforts to historicize and to contextualize youth mobility” (ibid.). The notion of
the “Latino threat” has also been common in U.S. discourse about
unaccompanied youth from Central America and is “embodied in the images of
the drug runner, the human smuggler, and the gang banger” (Terrio 2015: 9).
According to Terrio (2015: 9), stereotypes that underlie these images have been
reinforced by grassroots rallies, citizen militias, talk radio, movies and television
shows which “glorify the enforcement effort of beleaguered agents struggling to
hold back the ‘flood of illegal aliens’ who wreak havoc on communities”. When
migrant youths are discursively constructed as criminals, they can no longer
claim rights, and thus the violation of their rights by Border Patrol, ICE, and
other law enforcement is justified (Sundberg/Kaserman 2007: 740).
Santa Ana has examined media discourse in which Border Patrol agents are the
protagonists in narratives drawn from the American western genre (2016: 97). In
these narratives, the Border Patrol agent “represents the last line of defense
against the incursion of the villain of the western hero and his society”, and
defends an “allegorical nation that plays proxy for White American hegemony”
(Santa Ana 2016: 104). News audiences that consume this coverage buy into the
image of the Border Patrol officer as the hero who is carrying out “his sworn duty
and code of honor in the face of inevitable defeat” (ibid.).
Law enforcement and immigration law discourse lumps the migrant child into
the pervasive category of ‘illegal alien’, who must be apprehended, controlled,
and removed from the state. This taps into the anxiety expressed in
metaphors/metonymies about “flood” of “illegal aliens” “requiring repression
and containment” (Heidbrink 2014: 41). Hence in official policy and government
discourse of unaccompanied youth, they are seen as a “palpable threat to the
body politic” (Heidbrink 2014: 48). Migrant children are depicted as victims,
devoid of agency, as objects (e.g., property of the parents) and as outlaws
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
(Heidbrink 2014: 50, 74). Animal metaphors are also prevalent in discourse about
unaccompanied youth (not unlike those found in the work of Santa Ana 2002). In
these scenarios, children are “hunted” and “rounded up” (Catalano 2017) in what
Border Patrol agents refer to as “the game” (Terrio 2015: 134). Martin’s research
echoes these findings, positing that immigration law figures its subjects as objects
and criminals whose mobility defines their legal status (2011: 491).
3. Method
3.1 Data collection
Two types of data were collected for the purposes of this study. The first type
were online news sources while the second type were official documents (e.g.,
Trump’s executive order on immigration) and websites (e.g., Immigration and
Customs Enforcement/Customs and Border Protection) including text or video in
which unaccompanied children and policy regarding them were discussed, or in
which immigration officials represented themselves and their organizations. Data
was searched on www.google.com or www.youtube.com using the search terms
‘unaccompanied migrant children’/‘unaccompanied children’/‘unaccompanied
minors’, ‘Border Patrol’, ‘Customs and Immigration Enforcement’, ‘Executive
order’ and ‘Trump administration and immigration’. Criteria for selection of articles
included the following:
 Articles/official documents or video2 must be published between the years
 Articles/official documents or video must be between 200 and 2000 words.
 Articles/official documents or video must contain the topic of ‘unaccompanied
children/minors’ or migration policies toward them and/or
migrants in general.
2 One exception was made for a Border Petrol recruitment video that was first published in
2009 and has been but widely viewed since then. The exception was made because this video
shows the Border Patrol’s ideology and recruitment strategies before the rise of Trump, and
therefore allows us to see how Trump aligned himself with the agency’s goals and selfportrayal.
3 The period of 2016-2017 was chosen because it coincides with the election campaign and
election of Donald Trump, which is a secondary focus of this study.
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After searching, articles were uploaded into MAXQDA (1989–2017) with a total
corpus of 19,478 words (including video transcripts), 23 images, and two videos.
The data was then coded for metonymies/metaphors that represented unaccompanied
minors, Border Patrol and other immigration/law enforcement
3.2 Data analysis
Once metonymies and metaphors were coded and tabulated by MAXQDA,
Tables 1–4 were created to determine common metonymies and dominant
metaphors and percentages of metaphors/metonymies per source/type were calculated.
Video and images data were analyzed separately. To determine
metonymies and metaphors from photographs, context and captions were
consulted, and the results were added to the tables for the written texts. The same
was done for the two videos that were part of the data.
The first video was found on the Customs and Border Protection official website,
while the second video was a Border Patrol recruitment video from
www.youtube.com. The audio was transcribed, and a written transcript of each
video was uploaded to MAXQDA and included with other verbal data. In
addition, a storyboard was created in which screenshots were taken of each video
and the script that went along with the camera shot (and notes about
accompanying music) was documented in sequential order. Metonymies and
metaphors from the verbal scripts were analyzed and counted with the other
written discourse, but music and screenshots were analyzed in separate tables for
metonymies and metaphors of unaccompanied youth and Border Patrol/law
enforcement and later added to the tables from the verbal texts. After the tables
were created, adjustments to metonymy/metaphor categories were made after
checking with common terminology in relevant literature (e.g., Littlemore 2015;
Charteris-Black 2005; Musolff 2016). In the next section, Tables 1–4 are displayed,
and examples of important metonymies/metaphors are discussed and analyzed.
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
4. Findings
4.1 Metonymies and Metaphors of Unaccompanied Youths
Findings were divided into two sections depending on target domain. Below,
Tables 1 and 2 display the most common metonymies and metaphors regarding
unaccompanied youths (those constituting less than 2% of the corpus are not
displayed). Note that many of the more common metonymies motivate metaphors
listed in Table 2.
Tables 1 and 2 show that the majority of the metonymies/metaphors are stereotyping
and degrading children to being mere criminals, foreigners, water, numbers
and not whole people. Below we explore some examples from the texts that
demonstrate how these metonymies and metaphors are used in context. The first
example is taken from President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration,
released January 25, 2017.
(1) Section 1. Purpose. Border security is critically important to the
national security of the United States. Aliens who illegally enter
the United States without inspection or admission present a
significant threat to national security and public safety. Such
aliens have not been identified or inspected by Federal
immigration officers to determine their admissibility to the United
States. The recent surge of illegal immigration at the southern
border with Mexico has placed a significant strain on Federal
resources and overwhelmed agencies charged with border
security and immigration enforcement, as well as the local
communities into which many of the aliens are placed4 (Text 24).
4 Words in bolded italics indicate metonymies/metaphors of interest to the analysis. In
addition, lexical items taken from examples are indicated with italics in discussion throughout
the article.
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Type of metonymy /Example Totals Percentage
e.g., Central American refugees, unaccompanied minors
/kid/minor/s, criminal aliens
e.g., alien, unaccompanied alien children,
apprehended large numbers of aliens, criminal aliens
e.g., … children that year swamped Border Patrol stations
e.g., thousands still make it to the U.S.
e.g., Central Americans, Mexicans, Mexican Nationals
TYPE FOR PERSON (second order metonymy) 16 5%
e.g., UAC [abbreviation for: Unaccompanied Alien Children]
[children’s bodies without heads]
[clothing donations]
Total 306 100%
* Numbers were rounded to the nearest percentage.
** Words in brackets are the authors’, and describe what is pictured in the image.
Table 1: Metonymies referring to unaccompanied youth
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
Source Domain/Example Totals Percentage
a) Dominant
e.g., told not to arrest illegals, parole,
criminal aliens, detainees
e.g., criminal aliens, unaccompanied
alien child, removable aliens
b) Secondary
e.g., stem the flow of unaccompanied minors,
a flood of people
NUMBER 31 12%
e.g., why dump the thousands off
forcing thousands to leave their homes
c) Occasional
e.g., corralling them
e.g., humanitarian crisis
Total 262 100%
* Numbers were rounded to the nearest percentage.
Table 2: Metaphors for target domain IMMIGRANTS/UNACCOMPANIED YOUTH
In Example (1), a clear narrative emerges in which migrants, including unaccompanied
children, are an enemy threat to the security of the nation. Just in
this one paragraph two tokens of aliens were found while illegal was mentioned
twice. Overall, in this text of 2,337 words, the xenonym alien (FOREIGN BEING
FOR HUMAN) appears 15 times while illegal (which ascribes criminal qualities to
the out-group) has 10 tokens and leads to metaphors of spatiality in which
immigrants are seen as dissimilated outsiders – FOREIGNERS and CRIMINALS.
In addition, in the phrase local communities into which aliens are placed are
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overwhelmed, the strategy of proximisation is revealed. Proximisation is a
construal operation in which the speaker (in this case Donald Trump) locates
himself and his readers inside a “deictic centre” (Hart 2010: 85). The participants
view themselves and their values as inside this centre. Those without these
values are seen as outside it. In the phrase into which the aliens are placed, migrants
are conceptualized as an element outside the deictic centre which is moving into
local communities, and thus threatening their well-being.
In April, 2017, then US Attorney General Jeff Sessions went to Nogales, Arizona,
a southern border town that has been at the center of immigration debates to promote
the executive order described in example (1). His speech illustrates mythopoesis
(a type of legitimization through the telling of stories) (van Leeuwen/
Wodak 1999), in which migrants are positioned in the same metonymy as both
outsiders and criminals:
(2) To that end, the President and I want to do our best to arm you,
and the prosecutors who partner with you, with more tools in your
fight against criminal aliens (Text 25).
In this example, the construction criminal aliens combines the FOREIGN BEING
metonymies creating a double metaphor of UNACCOMPANIED YOUTHS ARE
FOREIGN CRIMINALS. In fact, the dominant metaphor for discourse regarding
This is a classic case in which metonymy motivates metaphor. That is, the
metonymic process in which the characteristics of criminals and the language of
crime come to stand for the youth themselves (e.g., illegal) leads to the metaphor
which the supposed characteristics of a few come to represent an entire group.
accomplished by frequent repetitive uses of illegal combined with alien or
immigrant, as well as more subtle uses such as legal terminology used to describe
the children in terms of their location and legal status such as detainees and parole.
Detainee is a term used to describe people kept in prison, while parole is used to
describe entry permission in this case, but more widely known as temporary
release of a prisoner. Hence, on account of being apprehended in the attempt to
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
make a better life for themselves by moving to the United States, these children
are placed in the CRIME frame.
(3) The number of illegal aliens apprehended in March 2017 was 30
percent lower than February apprehensions and 64 percent lower
than the same time last year. This decline also extends to
unaccompanied alien children (UAC) (Text 6).
In this example, illegal aliens are mentioned first, followed by unaccompanied alien
children, which repeats the FOREIGN BEING FOR HUMAN metaphor although it
does contain the humanizing lexical choice of children. The proximity of
unaccompanied alien children to illegal aliens allows them to be subtly associated
with each other. Labels such as these underscore the need for children to be
treated differently from adults “because of their differing competencies and
developmental factors” (Chen/Gill 2015: 128). Although UAC is not the same as
illegal alien, it is still alien, binding the entity of foreign immigrant and criminal
forever in the minds of readers and viewers. Example (4) illustrates how this term
is used along with aggregation that reduces children to numbers and statistics
and again, creates fear.
(4) The majority of unaccompanied alien children are cared for through
a network of state licensed ORR-funded care providers, most of
which are located close to areas where immigration officials
apprehend large numbers of aliens and hundreds of thousands of
migrants were fleeing to the U.S. seeking asylum (Text 8).
The following examples use hyperbole, aggregation, and lexical choices
associated with water to describe the movement of the children and again, create
fear and anxiety in the eyes of the public.
(5) The State Department program, launched in December 2014 after a
massive influx of children that year swamped Border Patrol
stations… (Text 26).
(6) The Obama administration was slow to respond to the surge in
migrants from Central America that peaked in 2014 when tens of
thousands of women and children overwhelmed the Border Patrol
stations (Text 18).
(7) The Obama administration has grappled with how to respond to an
influx of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras,
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which spiked in 2014 with the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied
children streaming over the border in South Texas (Text 21).
In example (5), the use of massive works together with metonymies influx and
swamped which lead to comparisons of children to dangerous water. This
exaggeration of events (e.g., hyperbole) contributes to the power of the overall
message which produces fear of these children. In examples (6) and (7) water
metaphors appear again (e.g., influx, surge, streaming), and numbers (e.g., tens of
thousands, thousands) are used to quantify the children and treat them as statistics.
Besides the over-lexicalization of words that criminalize and dehumanize
migrants and numbers used to create fear, this dehumanization and
criminalization was also found in image. In example (8), headless, faceless
children (PART OF BODY FOR PERSON) appear to be queuing up for
something. Most likely the heads are cut off in the photograph because the
journalists did not have permission to show their faces. However, what remains
in the photo is a dehumanized image of a line of people, which connects to
unregulated flow of unaccompanied minors featured in the text. We cannot see their
faces or hear their voices or perspectives, and hence we are not allowed to
empathize with their situation. In addition to this image of children’s legs
moving forward, the children are referred to as detainees, which connects to the
photo does not help in any way to create empathy for their cause by allowing us
to see and engage with the children in any meaningful way.
(Text 18): Young detainees walk in a line in June 2014 at a border
protection processing facility in Brownsville, Tex. The Obama
administration is expanding a relief program created late that year.5
5 Words underneath photos or screenshots are captions from the accompanying article, or
audio that accompanied the camera shot in the video.
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
In example (9) below, children are again collectivized as a group and distanced
symbolically, through a longshot in which we cannot see their faces. Instead, the
viewer sees groups of children sitting close together and looking down (except
for one, who appears to look at the guard). The officer in the photo is sporting a
gun, which is aimed at the ground, and his body and gun are pointed toward the
children and he is looking toward them as if watching intently what they are
doing. The photo is interesting from a metonymic point of view as the officer’s
uniform, gun and wired fencing could be easily placed in the genre of prison
scenarios. The overall semiotic potential of the image is that of a prison/guard
scenario, making the children disappear “behind the elements that categorize
them”, such as the cage-like enclosure and the guard with the semi-automatic
weapon. In this case, the viewer is led to forget these children’s only crime was to
come to the United States in order to escape poverty, death and/or dangerous
situations. Furthermore, by introducing the topic with words such as surge and
providing this type of images, the journalist plays on the fear of the
viewers/readers representing these children as a threat. Taken together, the
metaphors found in media discourse and Border Patrol/immigration authorities’
discourse about unaccompanied migrants support Quinsaat’s (2014) findings of
the DANGEROUS IMMIGRANT frame, which constructs them as a powerful
threat worth fearing.
(Text 16): U.S. Customs and Border Patrol's numbers indicate a new
surge of Central American minors, according to a Pew Research Center
metaphorik.de 29/2019
4.2 Metonymies/Metaphors of Border Patrol/Law enforcement
Tables 3 and 4 tabulate important metonymies/metaphors found to represent
Border Patrol or other immigration/law authorities.
Type of metonymy /Example Totals Percentage
e.g., ICE, USBP, CBP, DHS,
e.g., serve on its frontline, protecting the homeland
from terrorists,
e.g., guardians of our borders, we have your back
[BP officer with flashlight inspecting train]
[BP officers in ceremony]
[Border Patrol officer in his national reserve
uniform with colleagues]
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
[memorial for officer that died]
e.g., rounding up, corralling
[boots and part of legs, military uniform]
e.g., take the shackles off, handcuffing of ICE officers
[officer bending down smiling in front of woman with milk carton]
[swearing in ceremony]
metaphorik.de 29/2019
[Border Patrol officer in scuba diving gear appears to jump off boat]
Total 435 100%
* Numbers were rounded to the nearest percentage.
** Words in brackets are the authors’, and describe what is pictured in the image.
Table 3: Metonymies referring to law enforcement
Source Domain/Example Totals Percentage
a) Dominant
SOLDIERS (in the WAR ON TERROR) 105 47%
e.g., boots on the ground,
front lines of this fight.
e.g., we have your back,
guardians of our borders
b) Secondary
e.g., lies a vast frontier
c) Occasional
e.g., take the shackles off agents
Total 224 100%
* Numbers were rounded to the nearest percentage.
Table 4: Metaphors with target LAW ENFORCEMENT (including Border Patrol,
ICE and Police)
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
In terms of metonymies, the most commonly found were INSTITUTIONS FOR
PERSONS (e.g., USBP for United States Border Patrol). One acronym in particular
is worth discussing because of the second order meaning it conveys. This
acronym (ICE) is shown below in an example from the Immigration and Customs
Enforcement official website.
(10) ICE executes its mission through the enforcement of more than 400
federal statutes, and focuses on smart immigration enforcement,
preventing terrorism and combating the illegal movement of people
and trade (Text 2).
Not only does ICE represent the institution of Immigration and Customs
Enforcement and the people that work there, but it is an acronym possibly chosen
for its more common meaning - frozen water. Through the metonymy HEAT
FOR EMOTION, people that show little emotion are known to be COLD. Hence,
when combined with the multitude of images and texts that associate ICE with
soldiers, war, weapons, violence and terrorists, it is not a stretch to determine
that this acronym was chosen carefully in order to subtly (and repetitively)
convey the message that the officers are fear-provoking warriors, impervious to
threats. One must also remember that ICE was formerly part of what was known
as the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), and hence post 9/11, the
new name for this newly separate organization was chosen. Evidence for the
conclusion that the acronym was deliberately chosen to represent toughness
comes from the contexts in which this acronym is used (such as example (11) and
(12)) but also from a www.google.com search in which we yielded the following:
 Iceman (a fictional superhero from X-men with super human abilities)
 Iceman (nickname of an emotionless and strong air force soldier from the
Tom Cruise film “Top Gun”)
 Iceman (a Donnie Yen action movie about an imperial guard and three
friends who become buried in ice and frozen in time, but later resurface to
continue their battle)
 Vanilla Ice/Ice Cube (rappers)
Except for cases where the word is referring to the actual frozen water, ICE
appears to be used regularly in action figure/soldier contexts in which having the
qualities of ‘ice’ signifies toughness or strength. Also noteworthy is the way that
metaphorik.de 29/2019
example (10) associates ICE with preventing terrorism, even though the vast
majority of adults apprehended for immigration violations are labor migrants
(Terrio 2015: 16).
For many metaphors in the corpus, text and image complement each other. For
example, the dominant metaphor BORDER PATROL ARE SOLDIERS folds into
the larger metaphor GUARDING THE BORDER IS WAR. Examples (11) and (12)
illustrate this metaphor well in the texts. In the first example, on the Customs and
Border Protection website, an advertisement for careers in border protection
incorporates lexical items associated with war:
(11) America needs men and women with integrity to serve on its
frontline to stop terrorism, criminal activities, and promote fair
trade (Text 3).
In example (12), Jeff Sessions refers to the border as ground zero:
(12) Here, along our nation’s southwest border, is ground zero in this
fight. Here, under the Arizona sun, ranchers work the land to make
an honest living, and law-abiding citizens seek to provide for their
families. But it is also here, along this border, that transnational
gangs like MS-13 and international cartels flood our country with
drugs and leave death and violence in their wake. And it is here
that criminal aliens and the coyotes and the document-forgers seek
to overthrow our system of lawful immigration…. (Text 25).
Since the testing of nuclear bombs for the Trinity Test in the New Mexico desert
in 1945, the term ground zero has been used to refer to the point on the ground
closest to nuclear detonation. However, after the terror attacks on the World
Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the site where the buildings once stood was
frequently referred to as ground zero. Hence, by using the term ground zero,
Sessions subtly associates border events with the site of the former World Trade
Center in the wake of the 2001 “9/11” terrorist attack, but also with war in
general. In addition to associating the border with 9/11, Sessions uses almost
every metaphor in the table including IMMIGRANTS ARE WATER (e.g., flood),
IS WAR (e.g., fight, death, violence, combat, attack, ground zero). He also
provides support for Spener’s (2011) findings that coyotes are used as scapegoats
to deflect blame for migrant deaths and violence/crime against migrants when he
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
mentions them (along with document-forgers, which is an interesting and novel
metonymy in its own right). In the next example, note the similarity between the
speeches of Trump and Sessions and these quotes from ICE and Border Patrol
(13) As representatives of the nation’s frontline immigration officers
and agents responsible for enforcing our laws and protecting our
borders, we fully support and appreciate President Trump’s swift
and decisive action to keep the American people safe and allow law
enforcement to do its job (Text 11).
What is of interest in this example is not only the metaphors of BORDER
fact that the ICE agents such as the one quoted in this article repeat the language
used in official Trump administration documents, in addition to openly showing
their support for his administration and their actions. Trump received official
endorsements for his campaign from Border Patrol and ICE unions and since the
election, these agencies, along with other law enforcement such as police and
local sheriffs, have become empowered by seeing their social imaginary officially
endorsed and enacted. Example (13) illustrates how ICE officials who were used
to being disciplined for arresting people out of their jurisdiction now feel
empowered to do so.
Furthermore, Craig (2017) reports that many county sheriffs feel emboldened by
Trump and his agenda, echoing his narrative on immigration policy, adopting his
same rhetoric, and creating videos that put forth images of toughness (such as
beating down doors), which “reflects broader trends that suggest law enforcement
officials in many parts of the country are tacking even further to the right”
(Craig 2017). Trump’s recent pardon and strong support of Sheriff Joe Arpaio
underscores his strong relationship with many county sheriffs and law
enforcement in general, and sent strong messages to them about his support.
War metaphors were common and noteworthy in the texts, but in the videos and
images, they are even more present. Examples (14) and (15) from the Border
Patrol recruitment video show how the agency promotes jobs in their institution
by manipulating viewers to equate being in the Border Patrol with being in the
military. The accompanying audio for each image is listed below each screenshot.
metaphorik.de 29/2019
(14) (Text 10)
Gain skills in firearms.
(15) (Text 10)
BORTAC, the tactical unit of the Border Patrol.
In the above examples, what is noteworthy (besides the fact that they depict
typical war scenes) is the absence of the enemy. However, it is clear that the
implied enemies which they are defending the country from are migrants. In
example (16) in a featured video on the Customs and Border Patrol website, a
Border Patrol officer talks about his job in the Border Patrol along with his work
as an army reservist.
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
(16) (Text 23)
But in the end it’s pretty rewarding.
This video blends the officer’s job in the Border Patrol with war experiences both
linguistically (talking about sacrifices he makes in both activities, about when he
saw someone blown up in Iraq, about the specific aspects of both jobs) and
visually (images of him in his army reserve uniform) with his work as an army
reservist. The result is that the viewer closely associates one with the other.
Another interesting metaphor featured in the data that is closely connected to
are portrayed as protecting and defending the homeland, scanning the horizon, and
scouring the brush in order to provide border security. Such verbal descriptions are
matched by the numerous video shots of the officers physically scanning the
horizon with binoculars or inside watchtowers utilizing high tech devices to
surveille the land and gauge the presence of enemies (e.g., migrants) such as
example (17):
(17) (Text 10)
More than ever, this border must be guarded…
Another occasional metaphor that was more prevalent in video than verbal text
metaphorik.de 29/2019
COWBOY HEROES OF THE OLD WEST. This metaphor provides evidence for
Santa Ana’s (2016) claim that when Border Patrol are talked about in media
discourse, the genre of the American Western is evoked. Examples (18) and (19)
illustrate how this was accomplished in the video:
(18) (Text 10)
Border Patrol agents are the guardians of our borders.
(19) (Text 10)
Whoever takes the job must be ready to rise to the challenge.
Both images harken back to Western films in which the sheriff comes to town
ready to arrest the outlaws and save the town from lawless invaders. Screenshot
(19) is particularly effective because of the accompanying audio which declares
that whoever takes the job must be ready to rise to challenge. As the audio is played,
the camera pans upward accompanied by uplifting music, and the viewers are
left gazing upward at the officers on horses at the top of the cliff. This upward
camera angle symbolically suggests reverence and respect, but also reminds us of
any American Western in which the cowboy heroes are pictured at the top of the
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
In terms of narratives put forward about the Border Patrol, the most dominant
was that of WAR, in which Border Patrol agents are the soldiers and sentinels.
However, the secondary narrative running particularly through videos, but also
in speeches that focus on the border (such as that of Jeff Sessions) is the American
Western. Just as Supovitz/Reinkordt (2017: 22) found that different frames could
be used to persuade different groups of people to support one issue, we believe
that the AMERICAN WESTERN and WAR frames appeal to overlapping value
systems attached to the framing of unaccompanied children, which are lumped
into the same category as other migrants. In addition, the AMERICAN
WESTERN frame has been part of the narrative of the United States, particularly
border areas, for much longer, whereas the framing of migrants as terrorists has
appeared post 9/11. Hence, since the WAR frame was found to dominate the
discourse, it is possible that the AMERICAN WESTERN frame is slowly being
replaced with the WAR frame, which according to Gemignani/Hernandez-
Albujar (2015), is the most effective in creating fear against migrants.
Returning to the AMERICAN WESTERN narrative, there is no question that in
the official government discourse since the 2016 election, Donald Trump is the
‘new sheriff come to town’. Not only has Donald Trump publicly and frequently
praised law enforcement, even encouraging them to not be “too nice”
(Neuhauser 2017), he has sent messages to sheriffs and law enforcement that they
have his full support. One of these messages that rang loud and clear was his
August 2017 pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, pictured in example (20) with Trump:
(20) (Text 9)
President Trump defends Arpaio pardon.
In his speech (featured in Text 9) in which he defends his pardon of Arpaio
(convicted of criminal contempt for continuing to target immigrants in police
patrols), Trump says,
metaphorik.de 29/2019
(21) Sheriff Joe is a patriot. Sheriff Joe loves our country. Sheriff Joe
protected our borders. And Sheriff Joe was very unfairly treated by
the Obama administration… I stand by my pardon.
It is no mistake that in this speech Trump refers to the Sheriff as Sheriff Joe which
utilizes his first name (not to mention the honorific Sheriff), and thus signifies
intimacy and respect. Moreover, the photograph which pictures a smiley Trump
with his arm around Arpaio speaks a thousand words about his relationship and
physical and emotional closeness to the sheriff. More than that, Trump connects
the sheriff to patriotism, and to his central call for border protection. What is also
interesting is the way in which Trump portrays Arpaio as a victim (of the Obama
administration) who was unfairly treated, as opposed to the many migrants
Arpaio whom has racially profiled, violated human rights of, and used for
political gain. The connection to Obama is also an effective strategy of activating
moral values and opinions of Trump’s supporters.
The utterance treated unfairly, is referred to by Kovács/Szilágyi (2013: 221-3) as
“victim-victimizer reversal”, a ubiquitous and highly effective strategy of rightwing
populists in which they “turn the tables“, transforming the victims into
powerful perpetrators and the perpetrators into victims. Below we can see the
same strategy being pursued by Breitbart news (affiliated with Donald Trump
and managed by Trump’s former Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon)
and the then Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who make ICE agents appear as hardworking
victims that were treated unfairly:
(22) Crane himself worked tirelessly during the presidential
campaign to protest the handcuffing of ICE officers the Obama
administration looked the other way while massive surges of illegal
immigration flowed into the country (Text 12).
(23) White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday that the
Trump administration’s goal was to “take the shackles off” agents
(Text 11).
This role of the SHACKLING metaphor victim-victimizer reversal is particularly
significant, given the well-documented cases in which migrants and particularly
migrant children have been literally shackled and handcuffed among a slew of
other human rights violations carried out by border/immigration officials.
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
Effectively, real-life shackling agents are turned into metaphorical SHACKLINGvictims.
In addition, the metaphor of ICE AGENTS ARE PRISONERS OF WAR
draws on the emotions of viewers/readers who envision the agents with their
hands tied.
5. Conclusion
In this paper, we have shown how unaccompanied youths (along with migrants
in general) have been de-humanized visually and verbally both in media
discourse but also in official government discourse on immigration policy, thus
affecting and shaping the social imaginary about them. Metonymies such as
criminal aliens motivate compelling metaphors that equate them to criminals (and
often terrorists), water and animals. These metaphors create fear in the public,
and thus aid in garnering support for policies and practices of border/immigration
officials. Visually, migrants were shown to be de-humanized by being in
the background with no gaze toward the viewer, heads cut off, or in settings
which evoked crime.
The United States is not the only place where this type of representation of child
migrants has been found. Rather, representation of unaccompanied minors in
countries other than the U.S. has been just as problematic. For example, in 2016 in
the United Kingdom, a fierce row broke out over the arrival of youths in England
coming from the refugee camp in Calais (France), after an agreement had been
reached between the British and French governments to dismantle the camp to
prevent further illegal immigration from there into Britain. When the first group
of youths arrived, photos made by the British tabloid press (The Sun, Daily Mail,
Daily Express) picked out the older ones in the age group 14-17 and alleged that
they were not children at all but indeed adults (cf. e.g., the Daily Express’s headline,
18 October 2016: “How old are they REALLY? Concern as 'hulking' all-male
refugee children arrive from Calais”). Without delay, prominent right-wing antiimmigration
politicians joined the chorus: Nigel Farage, leader of the populist UK
Independence Party tweeted “Pictures of the ‘child’ refugees entering from Calais
prove the need to verify who is coming into our country”, and the right-wing
conservative (and later Secretary of State for “Brexit”) David Davies opined:
metaphorik.de 29/2019
“These don't look like ‘children’ to me. I hope British hospitality is not being
abused” (Daily Express and Daily Telegraph, 18 October 2016). Davies demanded
dental checks to establish the “true age” of the immigrants, which was rejected by
the British Home Office and the British Dental Association as unethical (Daily
Telegraph, 18 October 2016). The Sun (18, 20 October 2016) punned on the tooththeme
by devising the headline “Tell us the tooth”, and “The tooth will out” and
interpreted crow’s feet on the faces of some youngsters as evidence of their
adulthood, despite explanations by Home Office that their “tough” looks were
the product of extremely harsh living conditions, including separation from their
families, with whom they were to be united in Britain. No proof was found that
any of the youths were older than 17, but even a year later the right-wing magazine
The Spectator (30 September 2017) still continued to claim that the UK had no
legal means “to stop a 26-year-old ISIS fighter coming here, stating he is 17 and
claiming asylum”.
For anti-immigration discourse to succeed it seems necessary to undermine any
possible humanitarian stance that might result from immigrants’ ‘child’ status.
The existence of child immigrants as a social group would normally trigger an
empathetic and more lenient approach and attitude, especially by ‘home’
societies that take pride in their humanitarian and Christian values (which is a
default claim by conservatives both in the USA and the UK). Denying child
immigrants their ‘child’ status, because they allegedly “look too old” or dehumanizing
them as flood phenomena, UACs, animals or potential terrorists serves to
‘alleviate’ the ethical and emotional burden of having to justify their hostile
reception or outright rejection.
Returning to the present study, in contrast to the representation of migrant
children, Border Patrol, ICE, and other law enforcement officials connected to
immigration present themselves as foot soldiers in the WAR on terror in which
they have constructed migrant (children) as the enemy ‘Other’. Visual elements
in their recruiting videos were particularly efficacious in putting forth the WAR
and American Western narratives through repeated representation of Border
Patrol officers completing actions normally attributed to soldiers and cowboys.
Catalano/Musolff: Metaphor and Metonymy of Migrant Children and Border Officials
We also found that the Trump administration capitalizes largely on the WAR
narrative but also the American Western to echo law enforcement/Border Patrol
discourse. This connects to different but overlapping sets of moral values and
hence garners support from various groups that make up Trump’s voter base that
might identify separately with each of these narratives. By combining matching
visual and verbal metaphors, and sending clear messages of support for discourse
that conveys them, the Trump administration taps into the social
imaginary of their base, including many border officials, despite unrealistic and
unfulfilled policies such as the border wall and the call for a sharp increase in
Border Patrol officers. Hence, in illustrating metaphors used in media and Border
Patrol officer’s discourses and connecting them to the discourse of the Trump
administration, we were able to illuminate some of the strategies used by Trump
to gain and keep power. In addition, by focusing attention on how right-wing
populists around the world use these same strategies to appeal to populist ideas
and shape policy which supports the inhumane treatment of migrants and others,
we aim to combat them. Finally, we heed Hamann and Morgenson’s call to
“continue to not let the current political moment – with its normalization of hate
speech and acts – frighten us into silence” (2017: 401).
6. Corpus
(Text 2), https://www.ice.gov/.
(Text 3), https://www.cbp.gov/careers/frontline-careers.
(Text 6), https://www.dhs.gov/news/2017/06/21/written-testimony-cbpsenate-
(Text 8), https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/programs/ucs/about.
(Text 9), http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/28/politics/donald-trump-joe-arpaiopardon/
(Text 10), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ik_hEhA41WU.
(Text 11), http://dailycaller.com/2017/02/26/under-trump-ice-agents-actuallyfeel-
(Text 12), http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2017/01/25/presidenttrump-
metaphorik.de 29/2019
(Text 16), http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/border-apprehensions-ofunaccompanied-
(Text 18), https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/us-to-expand-refugeeprogram-
(Text 21), http://www.denverpost.com/2016/08/23/u-n-thousands-of-centralamerican-
(Text 23), https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/video-gallery/videolibrary/
(Text 24), https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/25/
(Text 25), https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-jeff-sessionsdelivers-
(Text 26), https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/us-to-expand-refugeeprogram-
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The authors would like to thank the students of TEAC 930B, a graduate class in
multimodal textual analysis for their thoughts and suggestions about the focus of
the paper.