Early in the morning on Wednesday, 16 November 2016, I left my office at Oberlin College to catch a plane from Cleveland and join thousands of my fellow anthropologists for the AAA Annual Meeting. My one regret leaving campus that day was that I would be unable to march with hundreds of Oberlin students, staff, faculty and administrators who, like thousands of others across US colleges and universities, were publicly calling on their administrators to designate their institutions as sanctuary campuses. As part of the national #SanctuaryCampus movement organized by the immigrant advocacy organization, Movimiento Cosecha, Oberlin students marched in solidarity with thousands of others responding to a national call to action. Oberlin students, who had long organized to support undocumented students on campus, coordinated meetings with administrators, staff and faculty to draw attention to swelling fear and concern for the safety of undocumented students in the wake of Trump’s election. Throughout his campaign Trump consistently and vociferously vowed to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, rescind executive orders like DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), punish sanctuary cities by withholding federal funding, and deport millions of undocumented migrants within the first one hundred days of his administration.
Building on years of immigrant youth organizing, the #SanctuaryCampus movement exemplifies responsive, creative and national organizing that specifically pushed universities to refuse voluntary information sharing with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), provide legal and educational resources for undocumented students, and prohibit discrimination based on immigration status. As the historian Mae Ngai noted in her November 2016 essay in Dissent, “The campus sanctuary movement builds on a history of solidarity dating back to the Underground Railroad and northern refusal to comply with fugitive slave laws.” By the end of November, students from over one hundred colleges and universities had signed and circulated petitions calling on their schools to become sanctuaries, nearly one hundred college and university presidents had signed a statement calling for the continuation and expansion of DACA, and dozens of colleges and universities declared themselves sanctuary campuses and/or affirmed their commitments to supporting and protecting undocumented students.
While there have been important debates and disagreements about the strengths and limitations of the Sanctuary Campus movement in protecting undocumented students, progressives seem unanimous that we are living in a terrifying political moment in which anti-immigrant sentiment, xenophobia, racism and sexism are visible and widely circulate in political and social discourse. Unsurprisingly, it was precisely this political, cultural and social context that was the focus of most conversations in Minneapolis; and unsurprisingly being among thousands of anthropologists allowed for countless opportunities for discussion, contestation, disillusionment, and hope.
In Minneapolis, Political Scientist, Melissa Harris Perry, provided a powerful analysis of the election foregrounding issues of race, gender, and class, and a roundtable discussion that included Jonathan Rosa, Hugh Gusterson, and Micaela di Leonardo among others provided post-election analyses that highlighted the particular gifts anthropological insights can provide in uncertain times. They exhorted us to historicize Trump’s election and move away from collective lamentations about the state of our liberal democracy and to see, instead, troubling continuities about enduring inequalities based on race, class, gender, and the consequences of ongoing imperial war and militarism. Indeed, as ALLA member J. Rosa eloquently noted:
The framing of Trump as an exception to rather than an indictment of liberal democracy leads us to approach this as a moment of recuperation rather than reimagination. What alternative political and economic orders are possible, indeed necessary? What populations and communities have, out of necessity, long since been imagining and enacting these alternatives, and how might we take our cue from them?
Inspired by Rosa, I raise similar questions: What is the role for anthropologists and Latina/o anthropology in this historical moment? How can we use our tools, collective knowledge and commitments to ensure inclusion, protect undocumented migrants and all immigrants, and critique, challenge and offer liberatory alternatives to surveillance, mass incarceration, militarism, and xenophobia? What are we to do?
As ALLA’s new President, these are some of the questions I pose in this moment—what can ALLA do? What can AAA do? As an organization that has consistently bound ourselves up with a commitment to anthropological research and practice that is grounded in community engagement and to social justice, what can and should ALLA members and our organization do now?
During the 2015 AAA meetings in Denver, ALLA members Xochitl Chavez, Sergio Lemus and Hilario Lomeli helped organize a powerful and well-attended community engagement event titled, “Community Activists and Artists in Denver: Practice, Knowledge and Expressions to Confront State Violence,” that not only brought together hundreds of community and AAA members to “gather, perform, and collaboratively engage on topics of police brutality, securitization, and state violence in the City of Denver”; it was also a moment in which people shared powerful testimonios that envisioned different futures and possibilities. These kinds of events reflect the best of what ALLA does and can continue to do. If as anthropologists we want to remain relevant, we must stay attuned to the ongoing struggles and movements that offer hope in a moment of despair, and to use our resources (economic and otherwise) to support such efforts, connections and events that bring us into conversations in the communities where we live, work and hold our annual meetings.
In my new role as ALLA president, I encourage such collaborations as we think ahead to our next annual meetings in Washington DC and lead in ways that can continue to strengthen the long role ALLA members have played in fostering equality, righting wrongs and being attuned to issues ofsocial justice in our scholarly and political work. It is an honor to serve in this way, and I look forward to our collective efforts in the year to come.
Gina Pérez is Professor of Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College.
Margaret Dorsey (University of Texas Rio Grande Valley) and Aimee Villarreal (Our Lady of the Lake University) are contributing editors of ALLA’s column in AN.