María worked in a vitamin factory in central New Jersey, where she lived with her husband and two small children. María was from Mexico, having crossed the border into the United States five years earlier, and lived without legal authorization to be in the country. In the factory, María worked at a machine that sealed the vitamin tablets into their plastic containers. She wore the white lab coat assigned to all workers in the factory: an outfit that made the industrial production of vitamins seem somehow more sterile, more medical. As it turned out, the lab coat also made the work more dangerous. One day, while reaching into the machine to shift a pill bottle that had gotten caught in the works, María snagged the sleeve of her lab coat on the teeth of the packaging mechanism. Quickly the machine drew her into its mashing gears, grinding first her sleeve, then her fingers, and then her hand, before a co-worker finally hit the emergency shut-off button. Though her employers expressed concern for María’s debilitating injury, they offered nothing in the way of compensation. To pay for her health care and support her family while she was unable to work, María decided to sue her employers, in an effort to gain restitution. This decision brought her into contact with a different kind of machine—the legal security-making apparatus of the United States—which similarly had the potential to chew her up and leave her devastated, but also to provide her with some relief. In the aftermath of her work accident María became a user of the US legal system—the same system that, in theory, sought only her deportation as an undocumented “alien.”
I have been working in central New Jersey for the last three years, both as an ethnographer conducting NSF-funded research on immigrants’ rights in the United States, and as an activist around these same issues. My research focuses on the abuses that people like María suffer in workplaces in the US—including work accidents and wage theft, played against the backdrop of possible detention and deportation—to explore the kinds of vulnerabilities that immigrant workers experience through their insertion into the labor force, while being denied the rights of legal residents. I am also interested in the ways in which undocumented workers challenge the abuses they suffer, through organizing, education, and use of the legal system. In contrast to the ways in which undocumented immigrants are typically depicted in the United States—ie, either as criminals and security threats or as hapless victims of injustice—my research presents the undocumented as active agents who pursue a variety of avenues to advance their interests, demand their rights, and seek redress of grievances.
I came to the topic of immigration through my longstanding interest in the politics of local, national, and global security. What impacts, I wondered, has the so-called securitization of immigration had on the daily lives of undocumented immigrants in the state where I live, and elsewhere in the US? Particularly during the last decade, as immigration has come to be construed as a security problem, the undocumented have been configured as alien threats to the American economy, society and way of life. In consequence, state and municipal governments have passed harsh new laws to control immigrant lives and have expanded public and private prisons for immigrant detention, while the federal government has deported an unprecedented number of undocumented people.
In this context, it is perhaps too easy to see these unauthorized immigrants as victims of a harsh legal regime that severely curtails their mobility and denies their basic human rights as it increasingly targets them for detention and deportation. Immigrants, it is commonly presumed, stay in the shadows, hiding from the law in order to avoid detection and its consequences. Often this is in fact the case.
My research explores a different facet of this experience. It considers the ways in which undocumented people—in addition to being subject to and living in avoidance of the increasing penality of anti-immigrant sentiment and law—are in other ways engaged with the law. The legal system, which in some moments serves to restrict immigrants’ rights, in other moments provides them with resources to defend and expand those rights and to counter the difficulties that they experience in their daily lives. From this perspective, my research considers undocumented people less as immigrants than as workers—though denied basic civil and legal rights on the basis of residency, undocumented people in the US nevertheless enjoy a set of rights as workers that do not depend on their legal status in this country. Recognition of this fact provides not only an important analytical insight, but opens up new spaces for advocacy and activism against the abuses immigrant workers suffer, as they provide critically necessary labor in the US economy and the world capitalist system.
My work as an activist for immigrants’ rights complements this research, and contributes to the “broader impacts” (in NSF parlance) of the project. As a volunteer in a local immigrant advocacy organization, I help to provide immigrants with the knowledge and contacts they need to demand their rights as workers in this country. In collaboration with a research team consisting of Carolina Alonso Bejarano, a Rutgers graduate student, and three undocumented residents of the locality where my work is based, I am helping to prepare and offer workshops to train local people in ways to avoid workplace accidents, to defend themselves against wage theft, and to respond effectively when these situations arise. Carolina and I have also trained the members of the research team—Roberta is from Guatemala, Clemencia from Mexico, and Manuel from Brazil—in the techniques of ethnographic fieldwork. All of us work together to make observations, write fieldnotes, and conduct interviews, and to disseminate the findings of our research to the local community. We are also co-authoring a play with other members of the immigrant community, to illustrate some of the processes we are studying.
I selected the members of my research team on the basis of a number of factors, including personal experience with the issues under study. Roberta’s story provides a particularly revealing example. Roberta arrived in New Jersey three years ago, having left behind two children and an ex-husband in her village in Guatemala, to seek a better future in the United States. She soon found work at a horse farm, where these animals were boarded, groomed, and trained for wealthy clientele in the surrounding suburbs. But Roberta received little in the way of training herself, and felt uneasy around the giant equine beasts whose stalls she was supposed to clean. One day, a few months after she started work, a horse knocked Roberta to the ground and stepped on her leg and shoulder, pressing her into the ground with all the weight of its enormous body. In agony, Roberta reported the accident to her supervisor. He refused to believe that the injury was serious, and offered her a horse tranquilizer to dull the pain so she could return to work. Roberta refused, and finally a co-worker called an ambulance. At the hospital, Roberta was given some medication and released. But the pain continued, and a few days later her leg became swollen and inflamed. Back at the hospital, Roberta was told that her employer had denied any knowledge of ever having employed her, and was refusing to pay her hospital bill. She confronted him. “Do you have any idea the trouble you have caused me?” her employer asked her, without a trace of irony. “You are going to ruin my good name!” Frightened that he might try to have her killed, Roberta went into hiding. With the help of our advocacy organization, she was able to file a legal claim against the employer, who eventually paid her medical bills and provided her with a small cash settlement. Roberta now feels empowered, and frequently bubbles with outrage when encountering the experiences of other immigrant workers who have been injured and exploited by their employers. Her passion and experience-based insight are powerful resources for our project.
This is a critical time in the history of immigration and immigration law in the United States. Although the Obama administration has deported a record number of people during its time in office, the president was re-elected in 2012 with the overwhelming support of the Latino community. The election revealed the enormous power and importance of the Latino demographic in the United States, now evident to elected officials at every level and across the political spectrum. It has provided the impetus to pass long-stalled federal legislation like the DREAM Act, motivated the president to establish the program of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and suggests that comprehensive immigration reform may eventually be possible. With such changes becoming more frequent subjects of public discourse, undocumented people are more willing to “come out of the closet” (as news reports sometimes say), to demand rights and recognition in the United States. My work in New Jersey comes at a moment of political and cultural fluidity in this country, when the subjects of its study are emerging into a new era of visibility, advocacy and action in the United States.
Daniel M Goldstein is a professor in the department of anthropology at Rutgers U. He is the author of the books The Spectacular City: Violence and Performance in Urban Bolivia (2004), and Outlawed: Between Security and Rights in a Bolivian City (2012), both from Duke U Press.
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