Refusing “Undocumented”: Imagining Survival Beyond the Gift of Papers

Audra Simpson (2014, 22) has described how accepting the supposed gift of citizenship from the U.S. or Canadian governments is an impossible project for the Indigenous communities with which she works:

In this there is acceptance of the dispossession of your lands, of internalizing and believing the things that have been taught about you to you: that you are a savage, that your language is incoherent, that you are less than white people, not quite up to par, that you are then “different” with a different culture that is defined by others and will be accorded a protected space of legal recognition if your group evidences that “difference” in terms that are sufficient to the settlers’ legal eye.

To ask for citizenship or to so much as desire it enters certain people into a Faustian bargain with the state. Here, to seek inclusion or recognition from the state is to accept the terms and legitimacy of one’s own dispossession.

Simpson’s insights resonate with those of other scholars such as Aihwa Ong (2003), Monisha Das Gupta (2006), and Eric Tang (2015), who have theorized the refusal by some immigrants of precarious legal statuses that entail playing the game of citizenship and other inclusionary traps. To yearn for or accept the gift of citizenship is to admit something about the legitimacy of one’s own domination and to allow the state to set the rules of the game. To seek recognition in this way, in Simpson’s argument, also constrains one’s horizon of selfhood to that of the state and its agents’ vision of what one ought to be.

In this post, we want to place these critiques in conversation with Black scholar/activist Joel Sati’s (2017) argument that embracing the term undocumented as a discursive foil to the category of illegal alien also means accepting certain dispossessions and state-sanctioned limits. Sati’s argument might be recast in terms of Simpson’s compelling distinction between a politics of misrecognition and one of unrecognition. To insist on undocumented is a politics of misrecognition—one that asserts that hegemonic systems are simply seeing you the wrong way. But what would a politics of immigrant unrecognition look like, one that refutes the legitimacy of the sovereign’s power to see you and to shape your sense of what you ought to want to be? To this end, we briefly explore a set of strategies that form part of an emergent immigrant politics of unrecognition. This is a politics that asks: if inclusion is not the end goal for immigrant justice work, then what is? In turning away from recognition, notions of merit, and human legibility within liberalism’s register of rights, what do illegalized people create and yearn for instead?

Undocumented as Doctrine

Joel Sati’s work surfaces a debate that is challenging a longstanding doctrine in immigrant rights activist worlds. This doctrine insists that no human being is illegal and therefore that the preferable term for referring to immigrants whose presence is not authorized by the state is undocumented. Sati calls for a recognition of the processes and codes whereby people become illegalized. Undergirding this call is the recognition of illegality as a social fact. He writes: “Illegals are not some theoretical phantasm; there is such a thing as an illegal. In other words, in legal systems such as our own, human beings are illegal as a matter of social fact. The illegal is a social construct, and a very real one at that” (Sati 2017).

Both online and off, illegalized activists embrace terms like illegal and alien as an explicit, unapologetic challenge to the doctrine of preferring the language of undocumented. Here, we employ the word doctrine precisely to visibilize the ideology underpinning advocacy efforts that are solely invested in chasing after those gifts granted by the state. Moreover, we want to foreground the dispossession that the term undocumented obscures. The discourse of undocumentedness, privileged as it is in mainstream immigrant rights discourse, is unable to advance strategies for gaining legal protection or providing long-term security for more than a select few.

Just what is the dispossession that illegalized people accept in privileging the label undocumented? In the most basic sense, if a person is undocumented it means they lack formal immigration documents. Whether we understand documentation broadly or in a specific legal sense is not necessarily important here. What is consequential, as Sati (2017) points out, is what people mean when they employ this term: those who are undocumented lack the correct documents as determined by the state. This language also helps elucidate immigrant justice strategies that principally strive for the right documents. The possession of documents as the only measure of humanity thereby goes largely unchallenged.

We contend that activists who are reclaiming terms like illegal and alien call attention to an ongoing project of state violence (that is, illegalization), and by extension reject its processes and regimes of value. These harmful power arrangements are reproduced by nonprofits and NGOs, the other big power brokers in immigrant justice work. The activists we discuss here know this all too well, and yet they choose to advance a subversive discursive practice that refuses invisibility.

Radical Immigrant Imaginaries of Survival

If abandoning undocumented constitutes a move away from activist strategies that aspire to make migrant humanity legible via the “right” documentation, then—again—we ask, what might alternative strategies look like? How do these strategies map on to theoretical discussions of resistance and refusal? In answering these questions we want to avoid creating a hierarchy of survival strategies. Instead, we propose that many of the ways people have found to survive engage with a logic of refusal that has long been associated with outsider communities within the state.

Take the example of migrants who are, in their own words, self-deporting. Illegalized activists have taken to social media to document their departures or plans for departure from the United States. After self-deporting, one Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient even publicized a video of themselves destroying their Employment Authorization Card. Others use comedy to shed light on their dehumanization and make memes, humorous images that are proliferated on the Internet, in which they depict themselves as aliens from another planet. These activists recognize how a teleological approach to organizing, where documentation is the ultimate goal, has stifled immigrant imaginaries of survival and solidarity. Even in aspirationally liberatory spaces like advocacy-oriented nonprofits, people find it difficult to think beyond an end in papers. But illegalized activists are using new media to articulate important criticisms of this limited vision.

What Refusal Looks Like

Both Carole McGranahan (2016) and Audra Simpson (2014) urge scholars to think through the generative aspects of refusal, that is, to think of refusal not only as a turning away but also as the active production or reproduction of community. Simpson (2014, 109) describes the forging of “alternative citizenships to the state that are structured in the present space of intracommunity recognition and care, outside of the logics of colonial and imperial rule.” As we have suggested, for some people, rejecting undocumented and the attachments to inclusionary concessions that it represents has meant a turning away in the form of burning employment cards or self-deporting. For others, however, it has meant working in community with other illegalized people to find ways to survive apart from hegemonic gazes and structures. This looks like illegalized people collectively working to liberate others from incarceration, knowing that appeals to the justice system will never suffice for them. It looks like people, attuned to capitalism’s dependence on illegalizing immigrant workers so as to better exploit them, refusing to participate in capitalist consumption by creating undocumented gift economies in which migrants exchange goods and services among themselves. As an activist with whom one of us works puts it, they are “using the natural talents we have to care for and provide for each other” instead of “participating in the very systems that screw us over.”

Another example is the group of illegalized activists from the National Korean American Services and Education Consortium (NAKASEC) that embarked on a 1,700-mile bike ride along the West Coast from the Canadian to the Mexican borders. During the summer of 2018, riders rode sixty to eighty miles a day, sleeping at campsites and in church basements, eating only food that they had collectively raised the funds to purchase. Every morning would begin and every evening would end with the group restating ground rules that evolved throughout the journey: stating one’s gender pronouns; prioritizing the voices of illegalized folks, womxn, and people of color; not letting any single voice dominate the space; reminding each other that only affirmative consensual touching would be permitted; and, at each stop, naming the Native American people upon whose stolen ground they were currently standing in order to acknowledge their role as uninvited trespassers.

As the journey progressed, the riders created a world that aligned with their vision of a more just future. The sense of respect and communal care that was built over the six-week journey was so strong that NAKASEC had to set up group support calls to help participants deal with the depression they were experiencing after the community they had built dispersed. As one put it an interview: “It was hard for me to come back to my ‘real life’ after the tour, because being with all those people, I realized that the shit I experience in my everyday life isn’t the way it necessarily has to be. But we have a long way to get there.”


We place these instances of community-building next to the burning of employment cards and self-deportation to indicate the range of expressions for radical immigrant imaginaries of survival. Practicing a politics of unrecognition, one that asserts the illegitimacy of the sovereign to see you or to proclaim the parameters of your liberation, may include more than turning away from the sovereign’s gaze. Ethnographic research leads us to believe that it also means looking to the generative aspects of refusal, in which alternative citizenships, communities, and visions for the future are imagined and brought into being.


Das Gupta, Monisha. 2006. Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism, and South Asian Transnational Politics in the United States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

McGranahan, Carole. 2016. “Refusal and the Gift of Citizenship.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 3: 334–41.

Ong, Aihwa. 2003. Buddha Is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sati, Joel. 2017. “Noncitizenship and the Case for Illegalized Persons.” Berkeley Blog, January 24.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Tang, Eric. 2015. Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.