Review of AAA 2013 Panel, “Transnational Ethnographies on Activism and Resistance amongst Latino Communities”

Panel participants: Jacqueline Lyon (Florida International University), Samuel Byrd (The Graduate Centre, CUNY), De Ann Pendry (University of Tennessee), Francisca L. James Hernandez (Southwest Institute for Research on Women, University of Arizona, and Pima Community), Kenneth M. Williamson (Kennesaw State University).[1]

This session featured five presentations that looked at the struggles of Latino communities in the United States and their stories of resistance. Presenters approached the theme from various points of view, looking at issues such as independence movements (Lyon), workers’ struggles (James Hernandez), and Latino cultural events (Byrd). A recurring topic during the panel and subsequent discussion was changes in immigration law and their effects on Latino communities. This review will focus on the presentations that explored this theme and on the discussion around immigration discourse that followed. I will also comment on some issues that I believe are vital to a debate around immigration law, but which were not fully addressed by the panel.

De Ann Pendry discussed her experiences as an activist and researcher working on the politics of migration in Tennessee. She examined shifts in the state’s social and political landscapes, such as the increase in the number of Latino migrants and the passing of state-level anti-immigration legislation. Pendry looked at activists’ responses to proposed and implemented bills, including grassroots campaigns and creative acts of civil disobedience. She presented the case of the “Driving License Campaign,” which protested the refusal to grant driver licenses to undocumented immigrants and the related immigration status checks performed by traffic patrol officers when they identified drivers without a license. She also questioned the discourse around immigration at the state and national levels by examining, for instance, the implications of the earned citizenship system and the values it imposes, as it favors highly-skilled workers over other types of immigrants.

Kenneth M. Williamson presented his research on the responses of immigrants in the northern suburbs of Atlanta to changes in immigration law. Williamson began by providing an overview of the demographics in Georgia. He described demographic shifts such as the growing number of blacks and Latinos, and the decreasing percentage of the white population. In 2006, anti-immigration legislation established several document-verification schemes targeting undocumented immigrants. The legislation produced results similar to those discussed by Pendry about Tennessee. In some counties of Georgia, eighty percent of people charged with immigration offences were initially prosecuted for minor driving offences, such as driving without a license. Williamson studied the responses of immigrants to these new laws. His results showed that most immigrants felt that they had been affected, for instance, pointing to a dramatic increase in police enforcement, which they refer to as a “head hunt.” Nevertheless, Williamson also noted that most of his interviewees were well settled in Georgia and that the legislation did not weaken their commitment to staying in the United States.

Following these presentations, and those by Lyon, Byrd, and James Hernandez, a short discussion around the current state of immigration policy in the United States took place. Several questions were posed: What is the motivation behind these new state laws? Is it to create a hostile environment for immigrants with the intention of encouraging them to voluntarily leave the country? In response, Pendry suggested that in many cases laws are passed by the states to pave the way for federal laws, with the state-level cases serving as evidence of “the people’s will.”

Surprisingly absent from the discussion was any reflection on the roots of anti-immigration discourse in the United States. In a situation where the demographics of cities and states are rapidly changing, but not due solely to the inflow of immigrants, why is anti-immigration policy a widespread response? And how is immigration discussed in relation to other issues such as economic crisis and racism? In a time when anti-immigration sentiments are also growing in many countries across Europe and elsewhere, discussions around the deeper causes and effects of xenophobia in general and anti-immigration laws in particular are very much needed if we wish to better understand and eventually influence policy.

One issue that was mentioned in both Pendry’s and Williamson’s presentations, but not fully explored by the panel, was the increasing control of immigration status by public servants that are not part of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. In the United Kingdom, where I reside as a Latina immigrant, a new immigration bill has recently been introduced, proposing among other things the control of immigration status by public healthcare workers.[2] This, as it may also be argued in the case of driving, introduces the practice of immigration control into the realm of everyday activities. Hence, even though taking place within the public sphere, these immigration enforcement practices interfere directly in private aspects of life. Researchers should be focusing on the meaning and consequences of this shift toward the control of the private sphere as key in evaluating the effects of immigration law, as well as articulating appropriate responses as activists.

These five papers together presented a varied overview of the situation of Latino communities in the United States. Looking at different kinds of struggles, from independence movements to workers’ rights and campaigns against anti-immigration laws, the panelists provided a picture of the current legal landscape, but also of the experiences of immigrants themselves, and what activists are doing in order to improve conditions. The panel’s focus on immigration law was evidence of how significant and influential this issue continues to be for Latino immigrants almost four years after the Arizona Senate Bill 1070 was signed into law, generating nation-wide debate.[3]


[1] The panel was reviewed by the Association of Latina and Latino Anthropologists and chaired by Francisca L. James Hernandez.

[2] The UK’s National Health System provides universal health care and did not, until now, perform immigration status checks on healthcare users. For more on the immigration bill and the proposed immigration status, see Alan Travis “Immigration Bill Will Require Identity Checks for All, Home Secretary is Warned.”

[3] See the AAA response to the Arizona Senate Bill 1070.