if-Lopez jan13 39_FEATURE

Boundaries in the Lives of Undocumented Immigrants

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William D Lopez
Louis F Graham
Mark Padilla
Angela Reyes

Posters such as these plead for consideration of immigrants as multifaceted human beings, not simply members of a political category. Photo courtesy William D Lopez

Posters such as these plead for consideration of immigrants as multifaceted human beings, not simply members of a political category. Photo courtesy William D Lopez

On August 15, 2012, thousands of undocumented immigrants gathered in meeting halls across the US to learn about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a discretionary determination that grants a renewable two-year reprieve from deportation and work-permit eligibility to undocumented immigrants who are, according to President Obama, “for all intents and purposes American.” The road to this policy was long and challenging, beginning with the proposition and failure of the Direct Relief to Alien Minors (DREAM) Act in 2001. This Act aimed to make a select few undocumented immigrants that arrived in the U.S. when young eligible for lawful permanent resident status, provided that they were under age 35, graduated high school, resided in the US for five years continually, and planned to attend college or join the military. President Obama vocally advocated for passage of the DREAM Act, but in 2010, it ultimately fell short. He later pushed for prosecutorial discretion, asking Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) not to deport low priority cases. Despite these efforts, more deportations have taken place under President Obama than any other president in US history. Finally, President Obama proposed DACA. Thus, at the end of a long and tenuous road, certain immigrants, arbitrarily selected for specific qualities and life trajectories, “won” the right to work in the US (albeit without mandatory health care, in-state tuition, or even the ability to get driver’s licenses). But this convoluted and hard-fought path to limited access is nothing new to undocumented immigrants.

Boundaries shape the lives of undocumented immigrants. For Latino immigrants (the focus of this essay), the literal boundary at the US–Mexico border and the physical deterrents it entails shape the immigration journey, leaving particular marks on the psyches and bodies of immigrants crossing the border. These deterrents symbolize the unjustified perception of threat from undocumented immigrants plotting to rob us of resources, jobs, and culture, while bringing drugs, violence, and disease across our borders. Political boundaries created by policy-makers and the voting public define the qualities of undocumented immigrants that make them “worthy” of citizenship, permanent resident status, and reprieve from deportation, without consideration of universal guidelines of health and human rights. And methodological and disciplinary boundaries often keep separate the vital health data that is needed to inform humane and far-sighted immigration policy.

“…[S]temming the tide of illegal immigration…”

On October 26, 2006, former President George W Bush approved the construction of 700 miles of fence between the U.S. and Mexico. In a joint statement, US Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) stated, “Today marks another step forward in making America safer and in stemming the tide of illegal immigration.” The statement continues: “House and Senate Republicans will continue to provide the President with the tools necessary to win the Global War on Terror and will stop the hemorrhaging along our nation’s borders” (emphasis ours). The imagery created by this rhetoric is obvious. The devastating “tide” of immigration stands to sweep over the United States, starting at the US–Mexico border. It stands to bring with it all sorts of third world debris, security threats and links to terrorist cells included. Biological imagery of hemorrhaging bodies is further depersonalizes the immigrant while implying that, if something is not done, someone, somewhere, is going to bleed to death. And while it is clear that the victim of this uncontrolled “hemorrhaging” is not the immigrant herself, the lack of directionality in the statement is striking. Is Mexico hemorrhaging its infected blood, or is the US, by neglecting “operational control of the border,” and allowing the Democratic Party to offer “endless delay and dangerous obstruction”, hemorrhaging its power and invincibility?

This instance does not stand alone. In 2011, Herman Cain stated that he wanted a fence that was “20 feet high. It’s going to have barbed wire…. [and be] electrified. And there’s going to be a sign on the other side saying, ‘It will kill you-Warning.’” When confronted about the insensitivity of the remarks, he replied, “It’s insensitive for [undocumented immigrants] to be killing our citizens, killing our border agents.” That the electrified-to-death bodies of undocumented immigrants can be considered a “joke” demonstrates just how far the dehumanization has come.

Border Militarization

Undocumented immigrant youth struggle to shatter the literal and symbolic boundaries their lives. Photo courtesy William D Lopez

Undocumented immigrant youth struggle to shatter the literal and symbolic boundaries their lives. Photo courtesy William D Lopez

The intense militarization of the border and the focus on the immigrant as inhuman threat continually trumps all legitimate aspects of immigrant identity and dignity. In El Paso, Texas, Joint Task Force-North provides military personnel for border operations. Their evolving role as a force dedicated to preventing “the flow of illegal drugs into the United States” during the War on Drugs and eventually expanding to address “transnational threats” during the War on Terror mirrors the evolution of the public perception of undocumented immigrants from drug runners to security threats (see webpage at jtfn.northcom.mil). On the Task Force’s Homeland Security Support subpage, one can observe the emphasis placed on militarized control of the border. However, what is most striking is the casual use of a photo demarcating the “General Support” section (first item on the list of offerings: “Basic Marksmanship”). The photo’s focal point is clear: a dark-skinned man (presumably Latino, presumably undocumented) is being apprehended by a light-skinned man with a shaved head, bullet-proof vest, camouflage pants, and a walkie-talkie in his hand. That the caption-less photo would leverage race-based associations is not particularly surprising (“he is dark-skinned, he must be undocumented”). What are shocking however, are the mangled and bloody bodies strewn all over the background of the photo. A dark-skinned man with a bleeding scalp and a blood soaked-bandage (or loose skin, it is difficult to discern) lies by a pair of mangled vehicles. In the backseat of the first car is dark-skinned boy covered in blood and staring emptily into the distance. A body hangs out of the car’s front window. In the second car, a man looks dead. A body in bloody jeans is mostly cut out of the picture. The image is rather sickening, so much so it’s hard to understand its purpose. True, it is a small photo, and one has to zoom-in in order to see the mangled bodies in the background. Thus, at best, perhaps it was a hastily posted photograph of a border agent in camouflage doing his job, and the bloody (hemorrhaging?) dark-skinned men in the background were simply overlooked. At worst, and more realistically, it is meant to serve as a warning that illegal border crossing has one of two outcomes: violent death or violent apprehension. Regardless of the intent, the relationship portrayed is clear: immigrant humanity is merely the background of militarized border zones.

Conceptual Boundaries between Dreamers and Their Parents

The presence of the DREAM Act in national media and public conversation gave rise to a new category of undocumented immigrant: the “Dreamer.” Dreamers are youth that likely would have been eligible for permanent residence had the DREAM Act passed, and the term now implies upward career and educational trajectory and assimilation into US culture. Dreamers typically arrived here when young, often brought by their parents, and sometimes have no memory of their countries of birth. They grew up under the protection of Plyler v Doe (457 US 202 [1982]), which guarantees undocumented immigrants the right to education up to twelfth grade, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 USC § 1232g; 34 CFR 99.1 et seq), which prevents school from sharing any personal information with immigration authorities. Thus, these Dreamers were relatively insulated from the threat of deportation (of themselves, notably not of their family members) throughout their lives, and played sports, participated in clubs, and held conversations with their US-born peers about music and movies.

The narrative of the Dreamer is indeed a powerful one, as it serves to deconstruct the conceptualization of the immigrant as dangerous foreigner by showing that many undocumented immigrants are more “us” than “them.” But in placing Dreamers on a pedestal, it becomes easy to slip into rhetoric of vilification of their parents who are not college bound, did not go to school in the US, may have trouble with English, and work as laborers or caretakers. Dreamers and those close to them express their deep ambivalence about using their image to push for immigration policy that benefits so few, especially in a community that is deeply, deeply interconnected. Indeed, it is common for DACA eligible youth to have younger siblings that were born in the US (and hence US citizens) while having older siblings or parents in deportation proceedings. Thus, these boundaries drawn around Dreamers that insulate them as worthy (and hence non-Dreamers as unworthy) are in fact splitting families and communities, placing different members at fundamentally different life and health trajectories.

To be clear, the success of “Dreamers” in the face of myriad obstacles is indeed praiseworthy, and a repeal of DACA is certainly not the purpose here. Rather, we advocate a critical consideration of the affects of immigrant selection policies on those left behind and insist that these policies truly be, as Obama stated, “a stopgap measure” en route to immigration reform. Just as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (Pub L 99-603; IRCA), which granted amnesty to seasonal agricultural workers, severely limited the disabled, women, the elderly, and the young that could not commit to the demands of agricultural work, so does the focus on the college-bound limit the citizenship opportunities of undocumented youth that contribute greatly to US economy and culture but are unable or unwilling to go to college (indeed, only 14.1% Latinos over age 25 in the US have a college degree, despite the support of Pell grants, in-state tuition, licenses to drive, and medical care available to citizens but unavailable to undocumented immigrants).

Immigration Policy as a Call to Action

There is a rich history of activism in anthropology. Providing “thick description” of the lived experiences of marginalized populations often requires elucidating the structural factors that lead to their isolation and disenfranchisement. Much work has been done with undocumented immigrants to explain the social suffering they undergo as part of their social role as laborers. Yet as our understanding of the undocumented immigrant changes, so must our research and collaboration. We must complement descriptions of the physical trauma of berry pickers with the psychological trauma of immigrant youth treated as threat, and prevented from attending college. We must consider the effects of deportation, detention and perilous border crossings on immigrants as individuals and members of mixed-status families and communities. We must break down methodological and disciplinary boundaries so that qualitative and quantitative data from law, psychology, public health, and social work, from academia and community based organizations, from documented and undocumented individuals, can create a coherent, data-driven, humane, and far-sighted vision to address the human element of immigration policy.

William D Lopez is a PhD student in public health at the University of Michigan. His work utilizes an anthropological lens to analyze identity, trauma, and advocacy among undocumented immigrant populations.

Louis F Graham is a research scientist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Mark Padilla is an associate professor in the department of global and sociocultural studies at Florida International University.

Angela Reyes is executive director of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation.


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