Note: This is the piece that Jacobin would not publish. For the backstory behind Jacobin’s censorship see here.
It is by now a gripping and familiar sight, one of the first images that comes to mind when imagining the frontlines of the immigration battle.
A group of students, distinctively marked as such by their colorful graduation robes and tassels, takes over a building or stages a protest, with signs that read, “Undocumented and Unafraid.” Someone calls the police, and the youth are handcuffed and led away.
Theirs are the faces of those who agitate for passage of the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, and whose proud declaration of being out of legal status in the U.S has made them, for some, new civil rights heroes.
The DREAM Act was first introduced in August 2001, to benefit the children of immigrants who had brought them into the country without legal papers. The Act would allow, by various estimates, nearly a million of the country’s estimated 12 million illegal residents to begin to claim a path to citizenship (if that sounds nebulous and tentative, so is the promised pathway to citizenship as promised in the act, which is filled with caveats and conditions). It has been controversial from the start, though few on the left will criticize it openly.
One problem with the Act is the provision that eligible youth must either enter college or agree to a stint in the military (because immigration reform packages undergo extensive changes during the course of debates, various parts of the bill tend to appear and disappear). But there are also the blatant ways in which it separates out the good immigrants from the bad, and casts out millions more as undeserving. In calling for the DREAM Act, DREAM activists are sometimes split on how they articulate support for it, but all the leading organizations make claims on behalf of people based on their exemplary characters.
In the years since the introduction of the Act, the word “illegal” as applied to a certain class of non-citizen has mostly been phased out, at least in left/progressive/liberal circles, in favor of “undocumented,” following intense activism to replace one phrase with the other. “Illegal” connotes, well, illegality, and undocumented activists prefer a term that does not, according to them, imply illegal or criminal behavior. No one is illegal, they insist.
Undocumented activism, made popular by the actions of DREAM youth, has by now taken on an amorphous shape, a kind of Rorschach test which allows observers to make of it what they will.
To the Right, it symbolizes the immigrants and “anchor babies” it loves to detest, unless in the form of educated doctors and lawyers, preferably from Europe. To the Left, the extreme affect and symbolism of beautiful youth being dragged away in handcuffs stirs hearts and make their actions seem part of a civil rights struggle. For both sides, the figure of the Undocumented represents a new form of immigration activism. In actual fact, the recent emphasis on the undocumented has only meant the creation of a new category of immigrant activist and, paradoxically, the end of any meaningful activism around immigration.
Forgotten in all the talk about “coming out” (terminology astutely borrowed from the gay rights movement) is the fact that coming out as undocumented is still a privilege for the few, mostly the very young and/or the highly qualified with unblemished records (a simple marijuana possession or a DUI becomes, for an undocumented immigrant, grounds for permanent expulsion) and that the substitution of “undocumented” for “illegal” does nothing to erase the structures of illegality which still frame immigration and citizenship. A truly left/radical framework around immigration would instead claim the term “illegal” as a way to resist the frameworks and to foreground the notion of legality. It would expose legality as a construct, not as a dictate to which we adhere.
Also left unthought, unquestioned, and untheorized in all the undocumented actions, including those which involve groups of youth voluntarily crossing the border and then demanding the right to return, is: What is the ultimate end goal, other than to gain restitution and a path to citizenship for those who engage in specific of acts of supposed civil disobedience?
In August, the so-called DREAM 9, a group of undocumented youth, crossed the border and then demanded asylum. In September, an even larger group, the DREAM 30, did the same thing. In August, the Obama administration felt sufficiently embarrassed that it allowed all of of the nine to move forward on their bids for asylum (a process that could take years but, in the meantime, all 9 can stay in the U.S). The DREAM 30 may have stretched the patience of the administration—as this goes to print, matters look far more rocky as a few of them have been denied their claims for asylum and as the groups organizing them, National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) and DREAMactivist.org have had a major falling out with Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez.
The DREAM 9 earned much adulation and support, inciting letters demanding their return signed by several House members, activist groups, and academics (the last came from UIC, where Lulu Martinez, one of the 9, is currently a student).
The letter from UIC in particular suggests greater struggles at hand, pointing out that the DREAM 9 are engaged in a “struggle on behalf of human rights and citizenship rights for immigrants.”
I used to work as an adjunct at UIC—if asked, I would probably have signed on to the letter, reluctantly, simply because it would mean a way to bring back a student to whom an institution owes a degree of loyalty, and because it would provide a way to be publicly critical of laws that are indeed “wrong and unjust,” as the letter describes them.
But I suspect that even many of those who signed had to have asked what, exactly, is this struggle, when no one but the 9 benefited from it and, in the case of the 30, no one is advocating for more than the right of all them to similarly gain restitution? It would make sense to describe their actions in such terms if the undocumented went on a hunger strike against all deportations, period, or insisted on staying outside the country and then invoked mass amounts of support from networks demanding not simply their return but the end to all deportations or, at the least, a moratorium until a sustainable change in immigration policies was passed.
Instead, these activists are just demanding asylum for themselves rather than demanding an end to deportations. The 9 spoke about their prison conditions, in a half-hearted attempt to make their action seem like it was about more than them seeking clemency for themselves, although in the end their aim was just that. But even their claimed broader objective, a moratorium on deportations, is both too limiting and not entirely honest, ignoring the economic forces that drive bodies back and forth across borders.
Yet, astoundingly, the actions of a few on behalf of nothing other than their own interests were quickly portrayed in the media as a massive civil disobedience act. The figure of the Undocumented has accrued so much symbolic resonance that its mere presence now signals a revolutionary moment in the making, despite the lack of evidence to that effect.
How did the Undocumented achieve this status, to the point where struggles on behalf of a few are now positioned in a larger civil rights history? How did the Undocumented become an identity category that erases the real crises around immigration in favor of a seemingly unrelenting series of acts of street theatre?
Origins of A Movement
In 2006, Chicago’s immigrant community, largely undocumented and comprised mostly of low-wage workers, shocked and surprised the world by turning out in what was then the single largest immigration march, over a 100,000 in a single day. The initial energy derived from that moment has long since dissipated into talk about families and personalized narratives about individuals, with a constant drumroll of pleas to save them from deportation. To date, Obama has deported nearly two million people, far more than Bush in both his terms, and the labor conditions for immigrant workers look even less promising under new immigration reform proposals.
Most sectors of immigration organizing are preoccupied with “family reunification,” long considered a bedrock of American immigration policy, whether in relation to Latino/a and Asian families or LGBT binational couples (the last group has now subsided in silence following the demise of the Defense of Marriage Act). Ending deportations has become the rallying cause for the immigration rights movement, and every immigration issue, whether the rights of day laborers or of those detained in prisons indefinitely, has become subsumed by the cry of “no more deportations.” This has been coupled with a surge in the undocumented “coming out.”
The driving forces behind the massive numbers of people surging into the US without papers or overstaying their visas has to do mostly with migrants being squeezed out of worsening conditions that are a direct effect of NAFTA and/or the destabilization of political frameworks that increase the need for asylum and forms of escape. Cheap labour is still assumed as a given, and immigrants must constantly seek validation through an endless system of verification and surveillance mechanisms.
In this context, all other struggles for immigration rights, including the rights of day laborers, have now been recast in terms of the rights of the undocumented. But that emphasis on the undocumented as an identity has meant that the central tenets of labor organising are often left on the floor.
So, for instance, José Antonio Vargas came out spectacularly as a queer, undocumented immigrant journalist, receiving several accolades and speaking engagements along the way, most of which focused on arguing for replacing the word “illegal” with “undocumented.” But in September 2012, Vargas, who has mined his claimed history as the child of immigrant workers, crossed a picket line to make a speech to the Online News Association at the San Francisco Hyatt Regency. It’s a sign of the times, that immigration is no longer even considered a labor issue: Vargas’s identity as an out, queer, undocumented man trumps any outrage that he is in fact a scab.
Perhaps most problematically, the actions and rhetoric of the Undocumented erase and distort the history of civil disobedience acts in this country. Every now and then, an Undocumented spokesperson will dutifully, as a matter of course, in a form of lip service, reference the struggles of African Americans in this country. But those previous struggles refused to engage the prison industrial complex: they demanded nothing less than an end to the prisons and the release of all Black prisoners. What the Undocumented and DREAMers are insisting upon is a reification of the very conditions that land millions of their own and African Americans in prison in the first place.
This may seem needlessly churlish—after all, activists often have to work in hopeless conditions as best as they can, and in the case of millions of immigrants, citizenship and/or asylum is the best possible route.
The point is not that the Undocumented have served no purpose or that no one should ever seek asylum or restitution or a way to gain “legal” entry, however problematic the state might be. The point is simply that the demand to “End All Deportations” combines with the figure of the Undocumented to constitute an end point: together, these two elements have effectively made it impossible for any but the best and most pure amongst them to gain access to even the rudimentary pathways to citizenship.
The proof lies in DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the weakest form of the DREAM Act conceived by the Obama administration, meant to benefit qualifying youth in similar ways. Toothless from the start, DACA has no legislative punch and is merely a memorandum which could be easily erased by the next administration – or even by Obama himself.
There are, doubtless, elements that are useful – for many, DACA means the ability to finally obtain a Social Security Number and a driving license – both of which can make immeasurable differences to a person’s standard of living and peace of mind, even if temporarily. But DACA also means that thousands are required to come out of the shadows and submit all their identifying information to authorities, to be marked for removal at the discretion of ICE. As the group Moratorium on Deportations (MDC) puts it, “Homeland Security documents clearly state: even people who meet all the criteria may be rejected and turned over to I.C.E. There is no guarantee they will be granted any kind of relief, and the government will be able to initiate deportation proceedings against them, or their families, at any time.”
What “Undocumented” Could Really Mean
What if, as Rozalinda Borcilă, also a member of MDC, puts it, “‘Undocumented’ came to refer not to an identity, but to a set of practices, to the production of social relations that could be resistant to … capitalist relations”? What if we thought about the undocumented as those who resist and question the very structures upon which the massively flawed immigration system is built?
In her analysis of Foreign Trade Zones (FTZs), Borcilă writes about a group of about 30 immigrants, some with papers and some without, who biked through FTZ #22 in and around the Chicago area. All of them had in some form or another refused the logic of the DREAM Act and were searching for an alternative to the mainstream immigrant rights movement.
An FTZ is a geographical area within the United States that is demarcated as outside the commerce of the US. This benefits companies that are physically inside the country but which can skirt labor laws, for instance, in favor of enormous profits. FTZ #22 is also, not by coincidence, home to a large migrant population as well as detention processing centers and county jails specifically meant for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) purposes.
FTZs exemplify the reification of poli-migra—a newly-coined Spanish word for the peculiar amalgamation that comes about when local law enforcement is given powers of authority hitherto only granted to immigration officials, creating environments of fear, dread, and constant surveillance. In an FTZ, poli-migra becomes part and parcel of the paranoid state apparatus in place to protect the commercial interests of rapacious corporations for whom the bodies and migrant labor are merely to be used, abused, and deported at will. Outside and inside the supposedly “civilized” confines of “sanctuary cities” like Chicago, FTZs operate to exert the brutal logic of capitalism in its most pared-down form, as a set of inexorable and mobile forces that can, like space aliens in a particularly scary movie, reconstitute themselves according to the shifts in trade policies.
The riders made their way through a region within a region, their bodies, lack of papers, and, in many cases, ankle bracelets (some were already put on a path to deportation, or in proceedings) in full view.
In Chicago, where I live, thousands of undocumented immigrants have long since disappeared, their deportations made easier and simpler by fast-track procedures which deny them what the law would define as due process. The deportations are perfectly legal, the result of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, a response to demands by legislators and the public for a tightening of the borders. Thousands more across the country are picked up every day at various points, including Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses, interrogated for papers and quietly and quickly removed, cut off from friends and families. Most are never heard from again. Thousands more continue to try to return, despite the risks they face.
In narratives about the immigration crisis, media and activists have continued to emphasize family reunification; even the most leftist outlets will frame departures and returns in terms of filial separation, as if immigrants are homing pigeons, their desire to be with loved ones like a code implanted in their DNA. All this ignores the fact that immigrants are compelled to return, facing economic hardship in areas devastated by neoliberal economic policies.
In this context, the identity category of the Undocumented serves as a place marker for the ghostly remains of the bodies of those whose forced removal will never be mourned.
In all of this, neither the sheer and overwhelming complexity of draconian immigration laws nor the material consequences of deportation on the disappeared are effectively communicated to the general public. In fact, immigration laws are so mind-bogglingly convoluted and so quick to change that most lawyers are constantly playing catch-up in terms of learning about changes, and many will not take on the cases considered “difficult,” particularly those that might involve criminal acts.
Actions like those of the DREAM 9 or the DREAM 30 turn deportations into a form of street theatre, and the only demands they crystallize are that the state should grant particular individuals the right to return “home.” But, simultaneously, tens of thousands of youth and adults who will never fit the requirements of DACA-like legislation are quietly shipped out and away. Paradoxically, actual deportations—continued without the President or Congress interceding on anyone’s behalf—become abstract while the media-driven spectacles of DREAMers “self-deporting” are cast as the reality of immigration.
As the cyclists travelled through the zone, they were made aware of the materiality of the zoning. Every time they stopped outside a large warehouse, for instance, security guards emerged to let them know that the property was under the surveillance of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
In contrast, capital and capitalism flow unimpeded through the body of the “Undocumented and Unafraid” immigrant figure, whose only purpose is to solidify the presence of a benevolent neoliberal state through a litany of affective narratives. Even when groups of protesters gather to block buses full of deportees, it is with the understanding that they are standing for the best amongst the undocumented and to extend the problematic conditions of DACA to everyone.
In their travels, the cyclists stopped at rural and suburban enclaves and participated in teach-ins about poli-migra and the effects of Free Trade Zones. They met with groups like Warehouse Workers for Justice, and discussed the implications of “English Only” laws, and the connections between the vast cornfields whose produce would be dumped in Mexico and free trade legislation. They protested outside a courthouse in Wheaton County, a site where several of the undocumented were held for deportation.
Against the backdrop of protests that involve stopping buses or “self-deportations,” such actions are, paradoxically, considered more abstract, too theoretical. The vulnerability of the bodies which move through locations unaided by press and organizational attention is erased, rendered invisible by a media machine which loves the spectacle of “real” arrests performed for its pleasure.
All concerned, and the media reporting on them, forget, however, that theory in fact is located within the practice put forth here. In other words, the actions of stopping buses or self-deportations are not spontaneously brought about but, as any activists will tell you, the products of weeks if not months of planning and reflect a theoretical idea in practice. Which is to say, the abstract idea fully realized here is to capitalize on the sympathy of a public which can be depended upon to side with the sloganeering against “criminality” and to enact demands that depend entirely on the clemency of the state. Once the dust settles, nothing is changed: the processes which create the conditions that make immigration a forced reality for millions remain untouched and unquestioned.
While left media have painted theirs as grand statements, few have bothered to ask basic questions: Who, ultimately, benefits from actions that amount to little more than begging for clemency from a neoliberal state? How do these acts really question the categories of legal and illegal, and how do they hold the rest of us accountable for a rethinking the fundamental paradigms upon which immigration reform depend?
The Undocumented forestalls the possibility of looking beyond the needs of the individual. What matters now in immigration rights is the immediate demand: “STOP DEPORTATIONS!”, taken up by the most mainstream corners of the media, as well as a call to reunify individuals with families and communities.
Yet, surely, what really matters at this point in time is not to simply focus on the end point of immigration, deportation, but to understand what the points of entry are—how and why do bodies enter in the first place, and how and why are they accorded fewer benefits than the “zones” of trade that can not only exist but slowly and imperceptibly shift to affect the very lives upon which they hold sway? There are real consequences to focusing so much on the Undocumented and on simply ending the deportations of the “good immigrants: Vital resources are being funnelled towards street theatre, immigrants with impure records are constantly turned away by lawyers who simply cannot afford to take on their increasingly difficult cases because the force of the law bears down on them even harder, and an entire movement has had to shift the focus (however weak to begin with) from interrogating an exploitative system to making that exploitative system work more efficiently.
In the call for the Undocumented to break their shackles and live free in the light, we forget to interrogate the very construct and concept of illegality. But if we were to think of how actual bodies clash with and crash into the very material even if occasionally invisible fences and borders of trade that make life unendurable for so many, we might in fact decide upon a different rallying cry. This cry might be quite different from “Undocumented and Unafraid” and be, instead, “Illegal and Afraid,” to signal that things are not going to change simply because a few receive the benefits of mandated exposure. More critically, we might begin to think about immigration not as a process by which bodies are simply divided according to affect and privatized systems of courage or the lack thereof, but as a consequence of the atomization and brutality of capitalism itself.
(For the backstory behind this piece see: Jacobinned: The Story Behind the Story Jacobin Refused to Publish.)
Yasmin Nair is the co-founder, with Ryan Conrad, of Against Equality, and the Volunteer Policy Director of Gender JUST. She wishes to thank Rozalinda Borcilă, Richard Hoffman Reinhardt, Karma Chavez, Mariame Kaba, and Zé for many invaluable conversations and insights. Any misreadings are entirely her own.