Immigration in SVU

Curator's Note

“There are no conspiracies in this regard except the conspiracy of a system set in motion to operate like a time machine moving inexorably ahead. Thus we stereotype others and by our stereotypes create prisons that keep some in and others out” (Asante 2005; p. 31). Molefi Kete Asante stated media facilitates messages of dominant ideology. This is true about Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU), which has been on air for over 25 years. Far from tackling sexual crimes and crimes involving children, the show confronts various issues that intersect with these crimes. One of the issues being immigration. 

This clip is from the episode “Zero Tolerance” which aired October 4, 2018. Three of the main characters, Sergeant Tutuola (Ice T), and Detectives Rollins (Kelli Giddins) and Carisi (Peter Scanavino) are leaving the precinct after overcoming many legal obstacles to reunite an undocumented girl with her mother. They begin an exchange about immigrants and Sergeant Tutuola asks, “Who takes care of them once they get here?” He states that in the past immigrants did not receive free public services, implying that immigrants now receive these services and are depleting the system. His question illustrates immigrants as leeches of free social benefits. This is deceiving since undocumented immigrants do not receive many benefits due to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 (O’Shea & Ramón, 2018). Additionally, legal immigrants do not use any more benefits than citizens do (O’Shea & Ramón, 2018). His statement promulgates the narrative that immigrants are a drain to society, and therefore rhetorically placing them in “prisons” of this stereotype.  

Tutuola adds “My people came here 300 years ago in chains and I still can’t breathe free.” He places the myth of the American dream up against the realities of racial inequality. If Black communities are continuously threatened today, how can we expect immigrants to be treated with humanity upon arrival? We need to address the  oppressive system that places marginalized and racialized communities at a disadvantage, by first rejecting the harmful stereotypes of these communities. 

Asante, M. K., (2005). Race, rhetoric & identity: The architecton of soul. Humanity Books.

O’Shea, T. & Ramón, C. (2018). Immigrants and public benefits: What does the research say? Bipartisan Policy Center.


Jocelyn your post feels so timely in the wake of the chaos regarding immigration policy over the last three years and the discussion of policing in regards to race after the killing of George Floyd. I think it is interesting how you pick up on and explore how this conversation between the detectives can be read as illustrative of a larger feeling and misperception in American politics and culture that immigration and immigrants are a threat to the social safety net and society at large. In reading the entries this week on the theme of law and order and media I have been thinking about how so much of the public's understanding of policing and feelings about crime are tied to watching cop shows. These shows and their worldviews I believe need to be examined in greater detail for these reasons and I hope that this theme week and pieces like yours will lead to productive conversations about these questions and a myriad of others.

Jocelyn thank you for this piece! I wholeheartedly agree with Brian about the timeliness of your piece. SVU for decades has been one of those shows that repeatedly tackles timely, controversial and complex topics/issues and distills the issue down into easily digestible fictional portrayals and episodes. Your analysis underscores the convention of each detective taking a side on the issue and reciting popular discourse and reflecting language about the topic that audiences will understand. As you point out, this attempt at a “cultural forum” also allows for insidious and dangerous rhetoric that in effect also further perpetuates stereotypes about these issues, causing more harm. I would be so curious to hear your thoughts on other less recent episodes in which SVU has tackled immigration, like “Debt” (2004), “Anchor” (2009), “Witness” (2010) and even the pilot “Payback” (1999). In each episode, SVU engages current debates and reflects the context in which it airs. And I also wonder what a comparison across the various episodes might illuminate about the topic as well as the various tropes and stereotypes they individually deploy. 

Thanks for this essay, Jocelyn. I like your acknowledgement that these series often use the basic strcuture of the crime to confront other issues along the way. The Law & Order franchise was/is especially adept at this. It's one of the things that I think can make the police drama a useful tool for confronting the discursive frameworks around what constitutues crime, community, and citizenship. In this regrad, they become excellent tools for thinking through some of the most pressing issues of our time. As Brian points out above, it's never not timely. 

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