Illegality: Provocation

From the Series: Illegality

Photo by Patrick Pierre.

“No human being is illegal,” reads a t-shirt slogan popular among those working for immigration reform. From a humanist or activist perspective the statement is clearly true. Our basic shared humanity should trump any politics, and laws that divide us on the basis of citizenship or race or identity are unjust. The t-shirt—like this piece I am writing—is meant as a provocation, encouraging us to question some of our assumptions. I suspect most anthropologists would agree with the sentiment it expresses.1

Uncredited image from "Raul," Collier County Neighborhood Stories Project: An Immigrant Perspective (blog):

Yet from an anthropological perspective, the statement “no human being is illegal” is also clearly false. We are all configured socially and politically, our basic human existence shaped by the laws, written and unwritten, that ground our cultural experience. And those laws are frequently unjust. We live in a world in which categorical distinctions—race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, citizenship, etc.—more so than our basic humanity, inform our ability to enjoy human and civil rights. In such a world, illegality is inevitable: The legal requires the illegal, it recognizes itself by imagining its alter. Most anthropologists, I suppose, would acknowledge that as well.

In my research, I have spent a lot of time with “illegal” people. In Bolivia, these include people who have constructed their homes without proper attention to municipal norms and building codes, on land purchased without the state’s seal of approval (Goldstein 2012). They also include ambulant street vendors, people who sell in the public spaces of Cochabamba’s busy urban market in violation of municipal laws that prohibit that kind of work. In the United States, I work with the undocumented, people who enter this country without proper authorization, or who overstay their visas in order to work and establish lives here. These various groups of people are not merely engaged in illegal activities; they are coded as illegal, their lives and selves prefigured as undesirable, threatening, and out of place by laws, popular ideologies, state and civil institutions. Many of my undocumented friends recognize this, and sometimes even refer to themselves as ilegales, despite the ugly politics surrounding that word. Whether this is a re-appropriation of the term or a capitulation to its power is debatable.

The illegal has become a particular focus of anthropological interest, perhaps because illegalities seem to be proliferating under neoliberal democracy (Comaroff and Comaroff 2006). The neoliberal state, governed by the logics of privatization, capitalist accumulation, and individual responsibility, supports an ever-expanding web of surveillance, persecution, and control. State and public discourses oppose illegality to security, and represent illegal people—immigrants and other “terrorists”—as posing existential threats to “our” way of life (Buzan, Waever, and de Wilde 1998; de Genova 2005). Modern societies harness enormous effort and resources to the project of containing these threats, and much of the work is outsourced. Privatized prisons and detention centers are a booming business, nowhere more than in the U.S., which has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Rights and privacy meanwhile become extravagances that a society under perpetual threat can ill afford. Race remains a tacit yet powerful risk indicator, maintaining an enduring conflation with the illegal.

World Prison Populations and Incarceration Rates by Jan Van der Weijst. Business Insider:

Not long ago, hoping to join anthropology and activism in protest of the U.S. illegalization system, I decided to break the law. On International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2013, seven other activists and I (from a coalition of organizations called the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, or NDLON) rose early and traveled to nearby Elizabeth, New Jersey. We chained ourselves together and laid down in the snow outside the Elizabeth Detention Center, a 300-bed facility operated by the Corrections Corporation of America on behalf of ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. By obstructing the flow of traffic into and out of the detention center, we hoped to delay the deportation of undocumented people. But more than that, we hoped that by breaking the law (i.e., obstruction of a public roadway, refusal to disperse, disorderly conduct) we would get arrested, and by doing so call attention to the injustice of immigrant detention and deportation. It was another provocation, and a successful one. We were arrested and held for a few hours at the Elizabeth city lockup. The charges were eventually reduced to “loitering,” which was a bit deflating but meant no jail time. We paid a $50 fine, plus court fees, and that was the end of that. But the action was covered locally and nationally, and I wrote an article about it that will appear in the December 2014 issue of American Anthropologist.

Protesters from NDLON on International Human rights day. Photo by Craig Eugene Phinnegan Phipps / Casa Esperanza.

To call someone illegal is to classify them not on the basis of their actions but on what we might call their soul, their fundamental essence.2 “Illegal aliens” are by definition outside the pale, unredeemable, unincorporable. Despite the sentiments expressed by the activist t-shirt, this is in fact how law, the state, and public discourse often operate, demonizing persons instead of behaviors, and feeding them to the neoliberal incarceration machine. As anthropologists and as activists, we can look for opportunities to work against that powerful current


1. The phrase “no human being is illegal” is attributed to Elie Weisel, though this seems somewhat open to question. See the discussion at

2. A very interesting discussion of this issue can be found on the website of a Montana-based immigration attorney named Shahid Haque-Hausrath:


Buzan, Barry, Ole Waever, and Jaap de Wilde. 1998. Security: A New Framework for Analysis. Boulder and London: Lynne Reiner.

Comaroff, Jean, and John L. Comaroff, eds. 2006. Law and Disorder in the Postcolony. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

De Genova, Nicholas. 2005. Working the Boundaries: Race, Space and “Illegality” in Mexican Chicago. Durham: Duke University Press.

Goldstein, Daniel M. 2012. Outlawed: Between Security and Rights in a Bolivian City. Durham: Duke University Press.