Comprehensive Immigration Policy....for Whom?

Last week, I interviewed Adam, an undocumented day laborer from Mexico, who has been in the United States less than ten years and who is now sheltered after living on and off the streets for a couple of years. He recently acquired a rather comfortable community-based operated SRO (single room occupancy) hotel in San Francisco. However, his main worry is how will he be able to keep up the rent, even though by San Francisco standards it is inexpensive. He is alone, about to turn 50 years old, and attends a day labor program each and every day looking for scarce work (he last worked 9 days ago moving furniture that generated $60 for around six hours of back-breaking work). He is slowly getting more grounded – he has been clean and sober for over five years – but he is preoccupied about his future. He wonders what will become of him as he cannot return to Mexico for complicated reasons and recognizes how at this stage in life the prospect for stable work and a good life is diminishing. What type of generous, inclusive and humane immigration policy could be forged that recognizes his humanity as well as addresses his life dilemma? I wonder how this noble fellow is imagined or even taken into account with the mad political rush by Senators and Congresspeople to corner authorship of a comprehensive immigration policy. 

One week after the official beginning of President Obama’s second term, a mad congressional race is on to present variations of a comprehensive immigration policy package. It begins as political jockeying and the soulless pragmatics of wooing a significant voting bloc, aka the Latino vote. Less cynically, perhaps, it is about the actual acknowledgment that it is in no one’s interest to maintain a permanent sector of society out in the cold, discounted and living on the margins of society delegitimized, stigmatized, and demonized. However, we are not witnessing a sudden rush of enlightened humanistic fellow feeling washing over our political class, as we are witness to the opening salvo of political warfare in the form of wars of maneuvering and wars of positioning. 

The war of maneuvering involves blocs of politicians rapidly adopting political and ideological stances, policies, and discourses that aim to crystallize a war of position. That is the staking out of a position that marshals organizations and institutions, corporations and agribusiness, the government and private sector interests, the media and punditry to support a national immigration policy and programme that furthers ever more lucrative, supposedly more effective, newer processes of surveillance, regulation and control of human labor and distribution of capital. It is just a matter of time that Democrats and Republicans will tear any possibility of a humane immigration policy to shreds as they move toward a solidly neoliberal piece of legislation.

A first blush read of the grand pronouncements for comprehensive immigration policy by various blocs of politicians from both parties discloses details that warm over old arguments and framing narratives, newly cloaked as reasonable and magnanimous policies of social inclusion. The New York Times glimpse of a “bipartisan blueprint for immigration” (NYT, January 28, 2013, Julia Preston) maps out these wars of maneuvering and positioning. 

In a generous gesture to the demographic fact that we have over 10 million undocumented “para-citizens” in the United States, it appears that one pillar of a comprehensive plan would be to provide for a “path to citizenship”. This high-minded act is suppose to provide the opportunity for the undocumented to take this journey toward legitimacy. And the charitable argument for doing so will likely be made on how the undocumented actually utilize state resources less than citizens while contributing to Social Security coffers. That is, they really contribute more than they take away. And so the debate on their deservedness begins, with their worthiness subject to cost-benefit analysis and assuaging societal fears. If granted an opportunity to right their illegal status will they really add more than take away? Will they overuse our welfare, social, health, and educational systems? Given an opportunity will they really be responsible in caring for themselves and love ones, out of the shadows in ways that does not burden society and make them dependent wards of the state. This paternalistic discourse frames the undocumented as a productive people willing to contribute to the good of society if given a chance, but to make sure they do not go astray procedures must be put in place and institutionalized to insure they do not get out of step and abuse the system. 

Hence, this seemingly bighearted charitable willingness to provide amnesty (I anticipate the term amnesty will be disavowed and stricken from public discourse by politicians from both parties), will be so qualified by provisos and legalities that it will make the journey for Adam to become enfranchised as a citizen a faint hope. Indeed, we see blocs of senators and congresspeople falling over one another to get their grand designs and procedural angles out in front of the public before their peers can dominate public discourse or corner popular support.

And that is because we are already witness to the parameters, the “Do’s and Don’ts” of a bipartisan immigration policy. The frame of a policy will not only be scaffolded by symbolic acknowledgement of the effortful immigrant whose social acceptance is based on minimizing  potential abuse of our generous welfare system, but more ominously reinforced by national security, legalistic, and self-reliance measures that will repeatedly force the undocumented to prove their worthiness to remain. This is no humanistic social justice measure or reform; it is simply another front of the neoliberal project. Instead of a sincere effort for national reconciliation and integration of the marginalized amongst us, emphasis on protecting the nation, enacting greater enforcement and militarization of the borders and ports of entry will solidify a permanent homeland security garrison state complete with drones, remote cameras and sensors, enlarged border patrol. A 21st century version of the Great Wall of China. Concomitant with greater border enforcement measures, better systems of exit control, tracking systems, will perhaps be a national identity card not unlike the South African apartheid identity cards and Latin American cedullas. Everybody will be labeled, categorized and socially positioned according to their station in society. Then these para-citizens will be furthered indebted by having to pay back taxes and fines with little consideration of the exploitative conditions they have endured and labored under; all this to show their good faith in becoming future upright tax-paying citizens.

In all these considerations, I am still trying to see what Adam might derive from a new comprehensive immigration bill. Will he be eligible; counted as worthy? Will his unpaid traffic fees or fines for a one time ticket for public intoxication come back to haunt him and make him ineligible? And oh yes, in keeping with welfare reform, radical privatization and reduction of public services, would Adam, if by luck acquires some kind of permanent residency be eligible for comprehensive health care, have access to educational and retraining possibilities, be able to afford the means to better himself given that because of his second class immigration status he is denied entitlement to a whole host of social services. I want to believe a comprehensive immigration policy is possible, but if the current conditions and qualifiers already being enunciated remain, as well as accounting for the vitriolic and intolerant political rhetoric that has dominated public discourse is any indication, I can only brace myself for the worst while hoping for the best.

James Quesada is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at San Francisco State University.


This post was originally published in the Episcope section of the Cultural Anthropology website, which was retired in June 2016. All Episcope posts were reclassified under the new Dispatches section; their URLs remain unchanged.