Anthropology in Unseen Spaces

Documenting the human costs of the US security-state.

This spring, Esperanza, a Salvadoran woman in the small California Central Valley town of Mendota, was on her way to church when the police pulled her over for having “overly tinted windows.” As is becoming more common in this rural town in conservative Fresno County—a county that depends upon the labor of immigrant farmworkers—the officers ran her information against federal immigration databases. Upon discovering that she had a deportation order from 2002 when she failed to show up in an immigration court in Texas, two states away, to resolve her case, the officers promptly gave Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) her home address. “They told me that it was no excuse [not to appear in court] if you didn’t have a ride [to get there],” Esperanza tearfully told the local Univision channel in Spanish, her face obscured. Fearful of being separated from her two US-born children, ages five and ten, Esperanza did not return home.

Meanwhile, Eloy Detention Center in southern Arizona is the kind of facility where immigrants like Esperanza might wind up. Located in a rural community between Phoenix and Tucson, the detention center, which holds up to 1,500 immigrants, is run by a private prison corporation, CCA (formerly Corrections Corporation of America, recently “rebranded” as CoreCivic of America). Detention centers have been the subject of much criticism due to their inhumane conditions—which often go undocumented—and their high rate of deaths. ICE has reported 172 deaths of migrants in federal custody since 2013, 15 of which—including four recorded suicides—have been at Eloy, according to the US ICE 2017 “List of Deaths in ICE Custody.” The brutal conditions, coupled with the fact that detention facilities are typically located in rural, out-of-the-way places like Eloy, sow isolation and despair among detainees. And, the difficulty in accessing detention centers creates challenges for family members wishing to visit loved ones in custody and attorneys who might potentially represent them.

These two vignettes are the bookends of a process of intensified immigrant policing, detention, and deportation that is occurring nationwide. Yet, this often remains out of public view. Anthropologists have an important role to play in making visible the way Trump’s immigration enforcement agenda unfolds on the ground in such unseen spaces, in denaturalizing the discourses of immigrant “criminality” that often accompany it, and in revealing contradictions in the administration’s discourses and practices. Our roundtable, “Detained on Trumped-Up Charges: Migrants and the Ascendant U.S. Security-State,” at the American Anthropological Association’s Annual Meeting on Wednesday, November 29 from 2:15–4:00 p.m., seeks to do just this.

Anthropologists have a central role to play in uncovering and understanding state power but also the social movements that challenge it.
Bringing together scholars who focus on the increasing criminalization of immigrants in the United States, our roundtable explores the effects and implications of rapidly shifting immigration policies and practices in people’s everyday lives. By uncovering experiences on the ground, government actions in out-of-the-way places, and contexts to immigration that are not immediately transparent, anthropologists can effect change—reshaping laws and policies, supporting advocacy and activist communities, and engaging with public audiences. Reflecting on the current immigration moment, panelists will critically analyze the position of immigrants in the ascendant US security state and how anthropology gives us the tools to do so.

The inauguration of President Trump ushered in a sea change in both public rhetoric and official practice around immigration, more firmly suturing together the categories of “immigrant” and “criminal.” One of the new administration’s first executive orders banned immigrants from eight predominantly Muslim nations under the pretext that such immigrants would be more likely to be “terrorists.” Meanwhile, under the banner of “border security” and “public safety in the interior,” the administration has broadened and trumped up the category of “criminal aliens” to include anyone who has crossed the border unlawfully, anyone who has worked with a false Social Security Number, and even legal permanent residents suspected of a crime. Both moves further illustrate the argument posited by Julie Dowling and Jonathan Xavier Inda (2013 that—in an attempt to project their own legitimacy and importance—nation-states portray migrants as “criminal anti-citizens” who ostensibly pose threats to the security of the homeland.

The administration’s virulent rhetoric has been complemented by both immediate and longer-term changes in enforcement practices. Massive raids in immigrant neighborhoods and workplaces, the apprehension of DACAmented students—often out of retaliation for their speaking out—and the deportations of long-term residents not previously deemed priorities for “removal” have spread anxiety and panic throughout immigrant communities.

In our roundtable, panelists will address the impact of such policies on immigrant communities, and question the logics underpinning them, asking: Through what rhetorical ploys does the administration portray its enforcement actions as justified, and in fact necessary, to protect citizens and a homeland imagined as “under siege”? How is the administration’s expansive definition of “criminal” affecting immigrants in their neighborhoods, workplaces, and homes? How does the merging of the criminal justice and immigration justice systems over the past two decades operate in the current moment to in fact produce “criminal aliens,” in turn seeming to justify the administration’s claims? Panelists will consider these questions in spaces traditionally the subject of anthropological attention—such as the US-Mexico border—as well as in unseen spaces: remote detention centers in the Southwest desert, rural small towns engaging in immigrant policing, and Mexican towns now integrating growing numbers of deportees and their family members.

We will also discuss responses by community organizations, advocates, attorneys, and immigrants themselves, actions that challenge increasing enforcement, such as organizing “Know Your Rights” sessions and creating coalitions that can form a strong counter to increased state security. In response to the isolation of immigration detention, coordinated national and local efforts seek to enter spaces of detention—to support immigrants through volunteer visitation programs, make legal representation available to immigrants who would not otherwise have it, and make visible the injustices that are taking place in these secure facilities. And, in the conservative California Central Valley, nonprofits have organized coalitions to resist the stepped-up enforcement efforts of small town police, and City Council meetings have become a vocal site of youth protests. Anthropologists have a central role to play in uncovering and understanding state power but also the social movements that challenge it. Collectively, we ask, How has law enforcement become a potent site of struggle in the conflict over immigration enforcement, and what human costs does the goal of “national security” obscure?

Deborah A. Boehm is associate professor of anthropology and women’s studies/gender, race, and identity at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality among Transnational Mexicans  and Returned: Going and Coming in an Age of Deportation.

Sarah Horton is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado, Denver, and author of They Leave Their Kidneys in the Fields: Illness, Injury, and “Illegality” among U.S. Farmworkers.

Cite as: Boehm, Deborah A. and Sarah Horton. 2017. “Anthropology in Unseen Spaces.” Anthropology News website, November 3, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.659

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