Migration can take radically different forms depending on the political dynamics in migrants’ hometowns and in the destinations where they end up.
“When local policing is arbitrary, immigrants grow cynical and withdrawn. By contrast, sanctuary cities can foster a sense of belonging.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Abigail Andrews. Dr. Andrews is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California-San Diego. Her book is Undocumented Politics: Place, Gender, and the Pathways of Mexican Migrants.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Abigail Andrews:Undocumented immigrants are a hot button issue in American politics, as cities, states, and parties battle over their fates. Though immigration is technically federal jurisdiction, local police and policy makers have taken enforcement into their own hands, creating a wide range of local-level “modes of control” (as I put it in the book). At the same time, migrants themselves are redefining politics. Even though undocumented people are excluded from voting or holding office, they have led some of the United States’ most important social movements in recent years, “coming out” as undocumented, marching for legalization, and putting their bodies on the line to protest deportation and family separation. They have also been critical actors in transnational advocacy, reaching across borders to shape their homelands.
My book Undocumented Politics explores how different kinds of local enforcement shape migrants’ politics. I am concerned not only with activists but also with the ways “regular immigrants” develop distinct feelings of belonging and distinct approaches to politics. To understand the implications of local-level policies, I compare the histories of two groups of migrants, one who went to North County San Diego, an area hostile toward immigrants, and the other to Los Angeles, a nexus of pro-immigrant advocacy. I find that when local policing is arbitrary (i.e., immigrants feel targeted by race and appearance), immigrants grow cynical and withdrawn. By contrast, sanctuary cities can foster a sense of belonging. At the same time, if sanctuary cities emphasize the protection of “good” immigrants (and the punishment of “bad actors”), they can make inclusion appear contingent on “good behavior.” In depicting these two regimes, the book also illustrates how local policing affects gender relationships: hostile control, I show, reinforces women’s vulnerability to abuse, while local protections can both give women a sense of empowerment and pit them against men.
“Tolerant destinations can encourage people to abandon or even disdain their homelands.”
The book does not stop at local practices in the United States, however. In unpacking the influence of different US modes of control, it also sheds light on the global dynamics of immigrant exclusion. I trace exclusion backwards, showing that predatory hometowns force migrants into the most difficult destinations. I also follow the effectsof US immigration enforcement backto Mexico, through migrants’ transnational relationships. In particular, I suggest that hostile enforcement can spark re-engagement in Mexico, as migrants look to Mexico to exercise their political voice. By contrast, tolerant destinations can encourage people to abandon or even disdain their homelands, degrading indigenous traditions on the sending side. In short, “illegality” does not stop in the United States but also weighs heavily on migrants’ transnational behavior and the fates of their pueblosback home.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
My book has several important take-aways for activists and community organizers. For one, it highlights the importance of localpolicing, service provision, and policies in shaping the fates of undocumented immigrants. Even under a hostile federal government like Trump’s, city-level advocacy matters tremendously in making migrants feel at home, giving them access to health care and education, and enabling women to report domestic abuse. It thus encourages community organizers disheartened with federal policies to focus on changing local government and social services.
“Even under a hostile federal government like Trump’s, city-level advocacy matters tremendously.”
The book also explains why different groups of undocumented people take different strategies to fight for inclusion and gender equity. In the United States, I argue, undocumented people may be most politically engaged when they feel a sense of belonging and hope. In tolerant areas, immigrants may feel safer attending marches, interacting with state agencies, or revealing their unauthorized status. By contrast, those in hostile areas often feel more threatened. While such migrants may be angry about mistreatment, most are afraid to demonstrate their anger in public. They also tend to feel more cynical about the prospects for change.
The book also has implications for NGOs and state agents on the sending side, as well as for movements against globalization. In rural Mexico, 95% of communities have sent migrants to the United States. This book underscores how migrants’ US-side experiences affect such communities, including residents’ understandings of the opportunities available to them, relationships to the Mexican state, and prospects for so-called “development.” Making change in such areas requires not only acknowledging migration but also understanding how different experiences of migration can have distinct homeland impacts.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
There are a few things I’d like people to un-learn.
One is the idea that immigration is a cohesive phenomenon, driven by economic factors. By juxtaposing two communities from the same state in Mexico, who migrated to the same area of Southern California, I show that migration can take radically different forms depending on the political dynamics in migrants’ hometowns and in the destinations where they end up.
A second thing to un-learn is the (rather defeatist) assumption that people on the ground – including both undocumented people and their allies – have little power to challenge the abusive practices of the White House and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or ICE). On the contrary, I show how city-level practices have critical implications for migrants’ wellbeing, feelings of belonging, and practices of resistance.
“US culture is not inherently equitable or liberating.”
A third “un-learning” is the idea that migrating to the United States “empowers women” (particularly when they come from patriarchal nations such as Mexico). Instead, I underscore that US culture is not inherently equitable or liberating. On the contrary, when women are undocumented, they often experience life in the US as even more oppressive than being a housewife in rural Mexico. Instead, I argue, women feel most empowered when they resist state oppression and participate in fights for inclusion. Even when women’s resistance is not “about” gender, engaging in advocacy gives women new political power as women. Often, men are their partners in these fights.
Finally, I question the subtle assumption pervading much thinking about immigration: that coming to the United States is a form of “progress” for migrants. The public often assumes that people migrate because their homes are poor and the US gives them better opportunities for work, education, and so forth. Some observers take this a step further, suggesting that migrants come to the United States to find “freedom.” By contrast, I show that migrants feel most “free” when they are granted a say in the communities where they live, which is sometimes in Mexico, sometimes in the United States, and sometimes in neither. It falls on cities on both sides of the border, therefore, to create inclusionary local regimes that emancipate the people within.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Many scholar-activists have done important work on this issue in recent years. I think of people like Cecilia Menjívar, Leisy Abrego, Roberto Gonzales, Karthik Ramakrishnan, Laura Enriquez, Tom Wong, and Tanya Golash-Boza (among many others I have surely forgotten!) who are not only doing research but also fighting for undocumented immigrants every day.
I am also very inspired by postcolonial and feminist theory. Both of these traditions question the perspectives of dominant groups and ask how social relationships look from the vantage point of the subaltern. Postcolonial theory, in particular, asks us to parochialize the United States by analyzing its history in relationship to other places and groups of people. I have tried to do this in my book by highlighting the voices of undocumented people and their “everyday” politics, but also by keeping in mind how the entire system of US “illegality” is linked to exclusionary practices and political oppression on the Mexican side. Though the US is not formally an imperial power in Mexico, much of the relationship between these two nations – and by extension the position of undocumented Mexican migrants in the United States – echoes the interactions between colonizer and colonized. To understand this relationship, I draw on scholars like Frantz Fanon, and his studies of the Algerian revolution; Gayatri Spivak, who insists on thinking critically about what Britain’s “empowerment” of Indian women entails; and Partha Chatterjee, who has demanded that political analysts look beyond formal voting to the battles of disenfranchised people in the streets.
“Much of the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico echoes the interactions between colonizer and colonized.”
A bit farther from academia, my trajectory as a socially-minded scholar started with the Zapatista Movement, in Southern Mexico. In the 1990s, the Zapatistas pushed me – like many people – to think differently about neoliberal globalization, about the ways things were, and about the ways they could be. A group of poor, largely illiterate peasants in Southern Mexico, the Zapatistas revealed how life could be run collectively, and they also made demands of people far more powerful than they were. In a similar vein, the migrants whose stories appear in my book are heroes as well. Though most of them did not get past elementary school, they show extraordinary ingenuity in inventing and defending new ways of living more equitably, even in an unjust world.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Perhaps this is a simple point, but my book starts from variation. It shows that even under oppressive regimes such as the one we are now experiencing in the United States, exclusion is not a “done deal.” Under the current US system, migrants’ experiences of policing and political exclusion can be wildly different, with important implications for whether they feel a sense of belonging, invest in the United States, and pursue gender equality. By highlighting alternatives, I help show that – as the Zapatistas would have it – another world is possible.
As mentioned above, the book also challenges the narrative of “progress” that underlie a lot of popular thinking about immigration. Many people today continue to be informed by an assumption that the US is somehow “ahead” of the places people come from – whether economically, in terms of gender relations, or in some broad sense of political emancipation. By looking closely at what people are doing on the ground, I show migrants themselves upending this notion of modernization, and finding political voice in the places that are most responsive to them, which are sometimes in the United States, but are also sometimes on the sending side, in villages that Mexico itself has long thought of as “backward.”
Instead of assuming that migrants come to the US seeking “freedom,” I emphasize that they only feel “freedom” when they are treated equitably and given chances to belong. I also underscore how people produce their own freedoms. Thus, women are not “empowered” by any particular top-down initiatives but instead find voice through their own, active efforts to build equity and justice.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book,American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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