State of the Immigrant Rights Movement

Following is the text of a keynote speech I gave at the 2014 AKIN annual meeting.

State of the Immigrant Rights Movement

Good evening. I want to thank AKIN for putting together this event and for inviting me to give this talk tonight. When the steering committee invited me to speak, it was suggested that I address the “State of the Immigrant Rights Movement.” Now, if I were a politician – say, the President of the United States – I might feel obliged to assure you that, “The state of our movement is strong.” Then, after your partisan applause, I would spend the next forty minutes explaining how good old American ingenuity and elbow grease will ultimately triumph over the myriad challenges we face today in this exceptional nation of ours, this “shining city on a hill.”

But, unhappily for all of you, I am an academic. And so instead I will say this: the state of our movement is complicated. The challenges we face are numerous and far from easy to resolve.

Now, it’s true that we are strong in many ways, and we have many, many indisputable wins, even within the last year alone. Here in Knoxville, as you well know, AKIN and the Comité Popular, with the support of many other organizations, succeeded in defeating a proposed 287(g) program. And just recently, the Tennessee legislature extended in-state tuition to the US citizen children of undocumented residents. In the Southeast, federal courts have permanently blocked many of the harshest provisions of state anti-immigrant laws. And across the nation, a broad coalition of people and organizations have mobilized to demand all kinds of pro-immigrant reforms, from changing the ways that police interact with their communities, to advocating stricter oversight in immigrant detention facilities, to pushing for comprehensive federal reform legislation.

We have other strengths beyond these successes, and perhaps our greatest strength is our commitment to community—and to people. After all, that is what we’re here for, broadly speaking: the desire to build community, to care for one another, to transition—in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. Our movement implicitly asserts that birth certificates and immigration visas are just things, and that these things are not more important than the people they represent. I count this commitment to community as a strength, and not an accomplishment, because this kind of work is never finished; no matter how much community we build here tonight, we still need to wake up tomorrow and build community all over again. On the plus side, this gives us lots of opportunities to practice.

Now despite our wins and our strengths, we’ve had many losses over the last few years, chief among them the two million people who have been deported thus far under the Obama administration, as well as the millions more who are separated from their families, friends, and communities by our immigration policies and our political and economic practices, whether as a result of deportation, insufficient visas, or practices that force people to migrate when they don’t want to. Companion to this is the ongoing threat of separation for many more families. In March of this year, the President ordered a review of deportation policies to examine whether he can act unilaterally to make deportation practices more “humane,” whatever that means. However, last month, he delayed the release of this review until the end of the summer, ostensibly to give House Republicans more time to craft their own comprehensive immigration reform proposal. We can certainly count that as another loss: after seeing the failure of Congress to enact even the abysmal legislation passed by the Senate last year, I am certain that anything passed by the House will look nothing like my hopes for comprehensive immigration reform.

So, as I said, our challenges are many, and our losses are great. But we should not confuse our challenges and our losses for our weaknesses. We are not weaker because two million more people have been deported over the last five years. We are not weaker because many of us in the movement live in fear of family separation. And we are not weaker because we have not yet succeeded in passing comprehensive immigration reform. These challenges do not make us weaker; even as we mourn our losses, they compel us to continue striving for our goals.

But I would like to spend some time tonight considering our weaknesses, because this annual meeting—a time for celebration—is also a time for reflection. I said before that our greatest strength is our commitment to community. And perhaps hidden in this strength lies our greatest weakness. We are a community of people brought together by various ethics and values that compel us to work for immigrant rights. Every person here tonight places themselves to greater or lesser extent under the banner of our movement. But what do we mean, exactly, when we say we are for immigrant rights? How many of us—alone or in our organizations—have explored the depths and nuances of that phrase? Do we share the same understanding of immigrant rights as the people sitting next to us? Have we struggled with one another to find common ground, or do we gloss over our differences of opinion? Or, do we simply assume that no differences exist?

I would venture to guess that, as a community united under the banner of immigrant rights, we have different interpretations of this phrase, of what it encompasses and what it implies. In all likelihood, whether we realize it or not, this means that we have different understandings of a variety of issues related to immigrant rights. Unexamined, these differences may threaten the strength of our community.

Jesús in Georgia

Let me try to explain by retelling a story I’ve told many times before.

A few years ago, I traveled to Atlanta with other Tennesseans—some of whom are here tonight—to march and rally with thousands of people against HB 87, Georgia’s copycat version of Arizona’s heinous anti-immigrant law. After the march, I walked back to our van to get some water for our group. Just ahead of me were two young Latino men. Their car was parked next to ours, and I could hear them shouting. Someone had broken into their car—smashed the window of the passenger door—and stolen $500 in cash that was hidden inside. I offered them some water, and Jesús, the car’s owner, asked me, “What should we do? Should we report this to the police?” I responded, “I don’t know. It’s risky.” You see, the two men were undocumented, and Georgia police officers have been quite prolific at processing immigrants for ICE.

Still, I suggested that we consult with the community organizers and lawyers on site for the march. After all, the police had given their word to the organizers that they were not interested in the immigration status of marchers. After all, Jesús had done nothing wrong. However, the community organizers and lawyers confirmed my suspicions. They told Jesús that he could report the break-in, but they cautioned him that the police might detain him and report him to immigration.

In the end, Jesús decided not to report the crime. Despite the march’s intention to build power among the undocumented, Jesús left that day much poorer than he had arrived, affected not just by the loss of $500 dollars, but by the loss of the ability to report his victimization. In the end, Jesús was made vulnerable not only by the burglary, but by immigration policies and practices that make it risky for undocumented immigrants to report their victimization to law enforcement.

I tell this story a lot, but not because it’s the most appalling example of injustice that I have heard in the course of my research and my immigrant rights work. Over the last few years, I have met many young people who worry daily that their parents will be picked up by la migra on their way to work or to the grocery store. I have heard of workers who were threatened with knives and guns and ordered to “go back to Mexico” when they sought payment for their labor. I have heard from women who were refused orders of protection from abusive partners based on their immigration status and from women who were coerced into sexual relationships by employers or police officers who threatened otherwise to reveal their status. In Alabama, I heard of a young girl who was sexually assaulted, whose undocumented parents were afraid to report the crime for fear that they, and not the abuser, would be taken into custody.

So Jesús’s story is far from the most devastating that I have heard. Still, one of the reasons why I tell his story is because this was the moment that I first seriously confronted my own unexamined beliefs about deservingness and deportation. And now, I tell this story to encourage our community to consider and reflect on our assumptions of the same.

What does it mean to be “unproblematically deportable”?

I want you to recall that, in the story, I said that Jesús’s status as anundocumented immigrant should not have made him vulnerable to police because, after all, he had “done nothing wrong.” Perhaps this sentiment resonates with you. Many of us have thought or said something similar about those we know and love, about ourselves, or about the immigrant families we read about in our email petitions. We fight for our DREAMers, our undocumented youth, because, as we say, they didn’t break the law. We assert that their undocumented mothers and fathers are workers, not criminals, and—what’s more—we often argue that undocumented immigrants are willing to do the jobs that US citizens won’t do. In so many ways, we say that undocumented people like these are deserving—and we assert that it is their deservingness that underlies their right to remain in the United States.

There is a reason why we make these arguments. For one, this method contradicts harmful assumptions about undocumented immigrants, assumptions that abound in the mainstream. We only have to turn on the TV news or talk radio to hear politicians and pundits rant about the supposed “harm” that undocumented people inflict on the United States. Many of us hear these diatribes in our workplaces, from our friends, and over family dinners. If we are undocumented—even if we are presumed to be undocumented—these insults are hurled at us directly. So, in a sense, there is a kernel of transgressiveness, a not insignificant challenge to these negative portrayals, when I say that Jesús, an undocumented immigrant, has “done nothing wrong.” In articulating that his undocumented status is not the problem, I suggest instead that the consequence of his status—in this case, his inability to report his victimization—is the real problem.

At the same time, this type of argument legitimizes the immigration enforcement regime. That is: what if Jesús had done something wrong? What if some DREAMers do break the law? What if their undocumented parents only work as hard and contribute as much as US citizens? What if they need government assistance to get by? What then? Can we say that they are any less deserving of living free from the fear of deportation? At what point should one rightly fear the involvement of police in immigration matters? What threshold of criminality must one cross in order to be “unproblematically deportable”? How hard must one work, and how well-integrated must one be in the community, before one’s deportation becomes problematic?

Let me ask my question more simply: Should deportation ever be an option? If so, under what circumstances? And why?

When we say that we, as a community, are for immigrant rights, I am absolutely certain that we mean that we are for DREAMers and undocumented mothers and fathers, for our family members and friends who are undocumented, for those who suffer and work hard to achieve the American Dream, that mythical beast. It’s easy for us who call ourselves immigrant rights advocates to agree that Jesús, who had “done nothing wrong,” should be able to go to the police for help without fear that he would be deported. But I am less confident that we, as a community, agree on what role deportation should play beyond that, or whether it should play any role at all.

Similarly, how do we, as individuals united under this banner of immigrant rights, think about immigrants as workers? Do we agree, as some say, that undocumented immigrants fill the jobs that US citizens don’t want? Or do we critique this phrase, and wonder about the racism and classism of a society that enables—no, requires—low-paid and dangerous jobs, where workers are treated without dignity?

How do we, as individuals within the immigrant rights community, think about the causes of undocumented migration? Do we attribute the causes to unscrupulous employers who hire undocumented workers for their exploitable labor? To the backlog of visa applications or the lack of diverse, efficient, and accessible pathways to legal residency and citizenship? Or do we attribute the causes to capitalism’s insatiable need for vulnerability, to the impact of neoliberalism on nations left vulnerable from histories of colonization, and to the creation of immigration policies resulting from the often violent imposition of sovereign borders?


There are so many more questions I could ask, too many for the brief time I have with you here tonight. These are hard questions, complicated questions, questions that cannot be ignored if we are to take seriously our commitment to immigrant rights and to community.

But I would say that our greatest weakness is not that we lack shared answers to these questions, but rather that we have not made explicit the assumptions that each of us has—about the scope of immigrant rights, the role of deportation, the rights of workers, the causes of undocumented migration, the legitimacy of borders, and many other issues.

Why is this our greatest weakness? Because in order to be a community of people united by anything but the vaguest notion of immigrant rights, we need to commune with one another intentionally, to struggle not just against those we perceive as our opposition, but with those we consider our allies. Our movement is not monolithic; we each bring to this work a variety of backgrounds and expectations, beliefs and values, paths and goals. And although there is great beauty in this diversity, and great power as well, we will only realize the full intensity and strength of our movement when we explicitly acknowledge these differences and struggle toward a shared understanding of immigrant rights. To know how and when to act as a movement, we need to build consensus on who and what we are fighting for. When we say we are a movement for immigrant rights, we must be explicit about which immigrants we mean, and what rights we are talking about.

As I look to the future, I have great fears for our movement. I fear not that our country will never reform its immigration policy, but that reform will actually make things worse for the vast majority of undocumented immigrants today and in the future. I fear that if our movement does not take seriously our diverse understandings of the depths and nuances of immigrant rights, then we will collapse under the weight of our own collective relief at achieving a bare minimum of concessions from our opposition.

But I also have great hopes for the future of our movement. I hope that our commitment to community, and to people, impels us to reflect openly, intentionally, and communally on the meaning of immigrant rights. I hope that this commitment carries us through our challenges and our losses, and even through our incremental gains, as we persist in confronting the policies, practices, and assumptions that threaten the rights of all people to be treated as people, rather than things.

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