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13.7.3: Immigrant Rights

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    The Boundaries of Citizenship

    In this modern era of globalization the boundaries of national citizenship have been challenged by multi-national trade agreements, offshore manufacturing and growing international migration. These forces have contributed to a domestic struggle to reassert the parameters of national identity, especially among many middle-class and white working class Americans. The perceived advances of outsider reference groups during this period such as immigrants and minorities further contribute to sense of crisis in the boundaries of national citizenship (Nicholls, 2019). These developments have led some Americans to feel like "strangers in their own land" as if they have been patiently waiting in line for their American Dream only to watch other historically marginalized groups cut in line ahead of them (Hochschild, 2016). At the same time, as Walter J. Nicholls (2019) notes, "The leading advocates (of the immigrant rights movement) from the mid-2000s onward embraced a liberal variant of nationalism that depicted America as welcoming and immigrants as highly deserving subjects. Rather than call for the dismantlement of borders or for post-national citizenship, the mainstream immigrant rights movement celebrated the nation and wrapped immigrants in the American flag" (p. 2). This struggle over who belongs and who doesn't is not a new one, but has become an central issue in modern politics as workers are squeezed by the rapidly accelerating forces of globalization, and politicians, both local and national, seize on these insecurities and promote "law and order" approaches to limiting immigrant rights.

    Thinking Sociologically

    Some have advocated for post-nationalism since today's world is very globalized with goods and services crossing borders on a daily basis. According to post-nationalism, the category of the nation is no longer sufficient to describe the fundamentals of political identity or state government. The concept of postnationalism seeks to break the tie between citizenship and ethnic identity or existential difference. One example of this is the European passport (Sassen, 2002). Do you think people should be able to move across borders on the American continent with some kind of postnationalist or denationalized passport? Why or why not?

    Battleground: Suburbia

    The first battleground of the contemporary struggles for immigrant rights was suburban America in the 1990s where immigrants began to be more visible as street corner vendors and day laborers seeking work in shopping center parking lots. Larger gateway cities were no strangers to immigrants and generally are characterized by more diversity and liberal political cultures (Walker & Leitner, 2011). Suburbia, however, characterized by the legacy of redlining policies made it less receptive to integrating outsiders who were perceived as threats to the culture and civic conditions (Massey & Denton, 1998). Xenophobic responses translated into policies that restricted immigrant assimilation such as bans on soliciting work in public, street vending, renting apartments to undocumented immigrants, and the use of foreign languages in public records (Nicholls, 2018). Various actors were employed in the enforcement of these policies including police, landlords, store owners, employers, and contractors. These repressive measures created a sense of out-group solidarity and elicited resistance from targeted immigrants and their supporters who argued that undocumented immigrants had a right to free speech, assembly. and due process.

    Sign at a Walgreens against picking up No Day Laborers in their parking lot.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): No Day Laborers - Walgreens. (CC BY-NC 2.0; cobalt123 via Flickr)
    Demonstrators protesting the SB1070 Immigration Reform bill.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Natural Allies. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; SEIU International via Flickr)

    Natural Allies

    Because many other members of society were "entangled" with the lives of undocumented people, many natural allies have come to their defense. Many undocumented people live in mixed status families (as discussed earlier in Chapter 3.5) which means that even those with legal status have much to lose when their family members are targeted for deportation. Latinx immigrants with legal status or citizenship status were also targeted and discriminated against as illegal due to their racialized traits and cultural dispositions. Policies like Arizona's SB1070, the so-called "show-me-your-papers" statute, meant that law enforcement could ostensibly racially profile anyone of Latinx descent (discussed earlier in Chapter 3.4). Undocumented people have friends and neighbors, go to church, contribute to the local economy through their spending and taxation, thus dispersing the financial, psychic, and emotional costs of their repression. These social connections provide undocumented people with a reservoir of sympathy and solidarity for which to lean on for protection and support.

    Supporters of DACA demonstrating in the streets.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Dreamers. (CC BY 2.0; Molly Adams via Flickr)


    The immigrants rights movement in the United States also opens up intersectional discourse of the U.S. role abroad and questions of militarism, global capitalism, and even the impact of the "War on Drugs" on not only poor communities of color in the U.S. but in other nations. Reflecting on the work of artivist Julio Salgado, featured in Chapter 8.3, the intersection of undocumented and LGBTQIA+ statuses led to a new term, Undocuqeer. Pointing back to Chapter 1.1 and a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois highlighted that the "problem of the color line" is not just specific to the experience in the United States, rather it is an issue of global importance. As we seek to improve race relations domestically, it is vital to take a global intersectional perspective that does not make invisibile the experiences of the "third" or exploited world (Mohanty, 1984). Racial hierarchy and division was historically constructed as a tool to disempower and dominate, so any attempt to challenge such structures requires an intersectional perspective that can strengthen movements and highlight the need for solidarity and awareness among members of various oppressed and dominant groups, with the aim to improve the human condition.

    Supporters at the London Refugee Solidarity March.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): "London Refugee Solidarity March" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Manos Simonides via Flickr)


    On June 15, 2012 President Barack Obama issued an executive branch memorandum known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that allowed some individuals who were brought to the United States illegally as children to apply for a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to become eligible for a work permit in the United States. Recipients cannot have felonies or serious misdemeanors on their record and would not have a path to citizenship through this policy. This policy was a major victory for a young generation of activists dubbed Dreamers, after the failed DREAM Act (2001) which would have provided paths to citizenship through two years of military service or 2 years of college education. Though the policy did not apply to all who were brought as children as they had to be no older than 31 on the date it was signed and had to have been brought before June 2007 as a child no older than 15, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that over 1.3 million people qualified. As of March 2020, there are 643,560 DACA recipients who have been able to come out of the shadows and, at least temporarily have some sense of stability and opportunity that evaded them previously.

    DACA would not have been possible if it weren't for the brave young organizers and activists, such as Jose Antonio Vargas featured in Video 11.2.5 below, and the various advocacy organizations who created spaces for young undocumented people to share their stories and realize that they were not alone. "This kind of political socialization helped shape how they thought and felt about their own "illegality." They learned that there was nothing to be ashamed of. They also learned that sticking together as a group allowed them to make powerful claims for equal rights" (Nicholls, 2014). They took their powerful claims and newfound strength in numbers to the offices of senators and the Department of Homeland Security to stage acts of civil disobedience. For this subgroup of undocumented immigrants, the narrative was compelling: they were socialized in U.S. schools, were not familiar with any other country, they played by the rules, and therefore had the right to pursue the American dream.

    Video \(\PageIndex{4}\): Actions are illegal, never people: Jose Antonio Vargas. (Close-captioning and other YouTube settings will appear once the video starts.) (Fair Use; TEDx Talks via YouTube)

    According to a June 2020 Pew survey, 74% of Americans support granting legal status to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, but as is discussed later in Chapter 11.5, white nationalist sentiments pervade the Trump White House which is why on September 5, 2017, President Trump announced an end to DACA (Edelman, 2017). Then Attorney General Jeff Sessions criticized DACA as "unilateral executive amnesty" and claimed that it "yielded terrible humanitarian consequences" in addition to making unsubstantiated claims that it "denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens." This announcement sent the hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients into panic-mode as their futures were uncertain yet again. Luckily for them, on June 18, 2020 the Supreme Court ruled that the way DACA was rescinded was unlawful. Then, the most recent announcement from the Department of Homeland Security substantially limits the policy by only allowing those who have already received DACA previously to reapply for only one year of deferred action, placing additional financial burdens as the fee to renew is $495. Many local organizations have taken to raising funds for this renewal fee as most come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds again demonstrating the pivotal role that allies play in this struggle for immigrant rights. Most recently, on December 4th, 2020, a federal judge ordered a full restoration of DACA which means that first-time applicants will be accepted. Additional court cases challenging DACA are pending.

    Asylum Seekers

    The United States is a signatory to the United Nation's 1967 Protocol which defines a refugee as "as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” According to the American Immigration Council, from 2004-2019 upon arriving at the U.S. border an asylum seeker must undergo a credible fear and reasonable fear-screening which is a part of the expedited removal process. If the asylum officer deems that the person has a "significant possibility" of establishing eligibility for asylum, they are referred to immigration court to proceed with the defensive asylum process, otherwise the person is removed from the United States.

    Under the Trump administration this process has been substantially changed. As of April 2018 asylees arriving at the U.S.' southern border are now told to wait in Mexico until Customs and Border Protection officers determine that a given port of entry has capacity to process them. Additionally, those fleeing domestic violence no longer qualify for asylum, and as of July 2019 anyone who transited through a third country must apply for asylum there before arriving in the United States. Under this rule, almost everyone who arrives at the U.S.-Mexico border is ineligible for asylum as many are fleeing violence and poverty in Central American countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador.

    No change however has elicited more public outcry than that of family separation. As a part of President Trump's "zero-tolerance" approach a policy of separating children from the parents or guardians that they entered the U.S. with at the southern border Mexico was officially adopted in April of 2018, though later investigations showed that the practice was in place for an year prior to the announcement. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least 4,368 children were separated as of January of 2020. In response, a coalition of 250 organizations led by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Women’s Refugee Commission, MomsRising,, United We Dream, People’s Action, ACLU, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, MoveOn called "Families Belong Together" formed. Even though President Trump signed an executive order ending the policy on June 20, 2018 - on June 30th, hundreds of thousands of people in all 50 states participated in a "Families Belong Together" protest showing the interest the general public has in immigration issues.

    Families Belong Together Rally at the Border
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Families Belong Together Rally at the Border. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; mirsasha via Flickr)
    Families being held in a migrant detention facility.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Migrant detention facilities. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Thomas Cizauskas via Flickr)

    Migrant Detention Facilities

    The outrage at family separation brought to light the existence of and conditions in immigrant detention centers. Images of children on cold cement floors in warehouses caged by chain linked fences and covered in metallic space blankets circulated widely on the internet eliciting shock and disgust at the Trump administration even though many of the photos were taken during the Obama administration (Gomez, 2019). In reality, migrant detention has been on the rise for the past 3 decades leading Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to outsource the detention to private companies (Law, 2019). The conditions in these facilities have been characterized as "squalid conditions, overcrowding, cold temperatures, (and) inadequate medical care," leading to "tragic deaths." Many activists and civil rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have argued that the increase in immigrant detention is in reality an expansion of the prison-industrial complex (PIC) (Luan, 2018). The PIC is a term used by activists to characterize the mutually profitable relationships among private corporations that secure government contracts to build and maintain prison facilities, those that profit from the use of prison labor and the politicians they lobby for "tough on crime" and "zero tolerance" immigration policies. According to government data, over 70% of migrants are held in private detention facilities. In 2018, the U.S. awarded 6.8 billion dollars in federal contracts for private detention facilities run by companies like the two largest Geo Group and Core Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America). Just as in private prisons, migrants are held in some facilities where they are coerced to work for as little as a dollar a day, as has been alleged in 4 ongoing lawsuits. Rising awareness of these perceived abuses has led to nation-wide "Close the camps" protests and calls to "Abolish ICE." Other tactics include targeting the banks that finance private detention facilities. For example, the aforementioned Families Belong Together coalition collected over 1 million signature urging JP Morgan Chase to divest from Geo Group and Core Civic, and in March 2019 they announced they would be doing just that (Green, 2020). This successful campaign shows the importance of digital media in spreading awareness and in mobilizing people to bring about tangible progress towards social justice.

    Contributors and Attributions

    • Tsuhako, Joy. (Cerritos College)
    • Johnson, Shaheen. (Long Beach City College)


    • About us. (2020). Families Belong Together.
    • American Oversight. (2020). Conditions in migrant detention centers. American Oversight.
    • American Immigration Council. (2020). Asylum in the United States. American Immigration Council.
    • Edelman, A. (2017, September 5). Trump ends DACA program, no new applications accepted. NBC News.
    • Freedom for Immigrants. (2020). Detention by the numbers. Freedom for Immigrants.
    • Gomez, A. (2019, February 7). Democrats grill Trump administration officials over family separation policy on the border. USA Today.
    • Immigrant Legal Resource Center. (2020). DACA frequently asked questions. Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
    • Law, V. (2019, Jan. 29). End forced labor in immigrant detention. New York Times.
    • Law, V. (2019, May 29). Investigation: corporations are profiting from immigrant detainees’ labor. some say it’s slavery. In These Times.
    • Luan, L. (2018, May 2). Profiting from enforcement: The role of private prisons in U.S. immigration detention. The Online Journal of the Migration Policy Institute.
    • Massey, D.S. & Denton, N.A. (1993). American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Harvard University Press.
    • Nicholls, W.J. (2013). The DREAMers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate in the United States. Stanford University Press.
    • Nicholls, W.J. (2019). The Immigrant Rights Movement: The Battle over National Citizenship. Stanford University Press.
    • Pew Research Center. (2020, June 17). American broadly support legal status for immigrants brought to U.S. illegally as children. Pew Resesarch Center.
    • Sassen, S. (2002). Towards Post-National and Denationalized Citizenship. In: E. F. Isin, & B. S. Turner (Eds.), Handbook of Citizenship Studies (pp. 277-291). London: Sage.