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Latino Immigrant Rights, Legalization Strategies, and Citizenship in the Shadow of the National Security State: Responses to Domestic Pre-Emptive Strikes - Susanne Jonas

Susanne Jonas, Latin American & Latino Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz 3/04

NOTE: This is the abstract of a paper in progress; please do not cite, etc. – but all comments and feedback will be most welcome.

Within the context of the post-1996, post-9/11 national security regime imposed by the U.S. government on immigrants and non-citizens generally, this paper examines strategies of Latino immigrant communities and organizations for immigrant rights, legalization, and citizenship.

It is common knowledge that the sea-change in U.S. immigration law/policy began well before 9/11/01, with the trio of anti-immigrant laws of 1996: IIRIRA, Welfare Reform, and ADEPA (the anti-terrorist bill that gratuitously introduced punitive provisions against immigrants-- Legal Permanent Residents as well as undocumented – none of whom had anything to do with the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City.) Taken together, the three laws stripped immigrants, legal and undocumented alike, of virtually all of the (very limited) entitlements and due process rights that previously existed, replaced appeals procedures with arbitrariness as the norm ("court-stripping"), and imposed a harsh, punitive anti-immigrant regime. In the early 2000s, there was movement in many quarters (including not only labor and business, but also in Congress and the Supreme Court) to "fix" some excesses of the 1996 laws; meanwhile, President Bush was engaged in a dialogue with Mexican President Vicente Fox on the terms of a new guest-worker program.

In the aftermath of 9/11, however, all such moves were abruptly halted, and immigrants once again – with a vengeance -- became targets of repressive legislation and practices. Under the national security regime of today, as imposed by the Patriot Act and accompanying measures after 9/11/01, U.S. state policies and practices toward Latino migrants (as well as Arabs and South Asians) have become far more draconian – in effect, criminalizing and punishing those immigrants/non-citizens, and in many respects conflating them with "terrorists." They were subjected to preventive detention and deportation, with no recourse to legal counsel or appeal, and immigration law was used to deport many immigrants who had nothing to do with terrorism. Furthermore, unlike many other invasive provisions of the 2001 Patriot Act, the provisions affecting immigrants are not even slated for review under a 2005 "sunset clause," but were deliberately designed to remain permanent (unless specifically modified at some future time).

Within the context of these domestic pre-emptive strikes against them, Latino immigrant communities and rights organizations have been challenged to move beyond their initially defensive responses, to undertake more proactive responses. Once they recovered from the initial shock, their attempts to move beyond purely defensive struggles against exclusion by/from the dominant society have begun to emerge more clearly over time, with such coalitional strategies as the Fall 2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride and the February 2004 Latino Immigrant Summit. In addition, Latino immigrant advocacy organizations within the U.S. have begun to coordinate their efforts with migrant rights organizations abroad – in Latin America and beyond, -- toward the development and implementation of international immigrant rights regimes.

However weak their prospects appear now and for the immediate future, I argue that proactive immigrant rights strategies for legalization and citizenship will not disappear, but will remain on the agenda throughout the hemisphere. This is the case for reasons having to do with several complex and interrelated factors:
- First, increased immigrant initiatives and organizing ("agency"), and the growing role of the Latino vote in U.S. politics, which frequently (not always) prioritizes immigrant rights issues;
- Second, a number of long-range structural factors in the Americas that are breaking down borders (e.g., the permanent need for Latin American migrant labor in the U.S., the essential role of remittances in sustaining home economies, new free trade agreements); and
- Third, the growing consolidation of international immigrant rights regimes -- e.g., the United Nations International Convention for the Protection of Rights for All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which entered into effect on July 1, 2003, and several new international initiatives associated with the United Nations that focus on the human security of migrants. These international frameworks could eventually pressure the U.S. to observe new standards of rights vis-à-vis Latino and other migrants; and if such a scenario should materialize, it would in turn have a significant international impact.

A further key to the potential power of proactive rights strategies "from within" U.S. immigrant communities lies in their transnational ties throughout the region of the Americas – that is to say, their ties and coordination with counterpart communities and organizations in the countries of origin. In other words, we are seeing the gradual emergence of transnational civil society ties within the hemisphere. This imbues them with a particular dynamic and a dynamism that could make them transformative. In my own research, I take examples of these dynamics from the regional transnational political advocacy networks of the Central American communities in California (from El Salvador and Guatemala), with which I have worked for over a decade. The migrant networks from these Central American countries have a particular dynamic because they emerged in large measure out of struggles against exclusion and repression in the home countries during the 1980s, and the migrants arrived to the U.S. with strong political commitments to achieving broad political, social/economic rights. It should be emphasized that this potential will by no means be realized automatically; rather, it is the challenge for the future. (1)

At the theoretical level, this paper proposes to bring together diverse approaches to issues of immigrant legalization and citizenship. It contrasts the traditional, legal meanings of citizenship (incorporation into the dominant receiving society) with the new literatures that additionally address transformative meanings of these terms. I am also including the currently emerging conceptions of citizenship being generated by migration scholars and activists from the sending countries in the Americas – worldviews that are not permeated by considerations of "national security," as is the case in the U.S., even (occasionally and unintentionally) among some immigrant rights advocates. Virtually all of these non-traditional transformative approaches emphasize participatory democracy and the "politics of difference," and serve as important additions to the traditional (but by no means superseded) legal incorporative/inclusionary notions of citizenship.

Finally, I argue that the fate of immigrants and their transnational organizing efforts is key to the future of democracy in the U.S. Several years ago, following the passage of Proposition 187 in California and at the height of the immigrant-bashing laws of the mid-1990s in the U.S. Congress, I characterized U.S. immigration policy as being dominated by a national security regime (Jonas, 1999). Today, in the wake of 9/11/01 and the various wars abroad and domestically, against terrorism, we see this extended to an entire national security state apparatus which poses serious threats to democracy throughout U.S. society itself. No longer can we afford to ignore the consequences of pursuing punitive/repressive/criminalizing strategies against third-world immigrants and non-citizens without damaging the quality of democracy for citizens of the U.S. This can be seen most clearly in the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and accompanying measures since 9/11 -- and now, in the attempts to extend these measures through a Patriot Act II (or stealthily, through pieces of a Patriot II inserted into other legislation). In short, I argue, the challenge of reframing the issues of immigrant rights in the shadow of the national security state is one that should be of concern to all U.S. citizens, and additionally one that will remain on our 21st century public policy agenda throughout the Americas.


(1) Specifically on Central Americans (taken from my field research): While focusing on legalization/rights struggles waged by Central American activists in the U.S., I locate them as players or actors on an interactive regional stage that is undergoing a series of structural transformations. The analysis itself, like the region it studies, is in motion. New free trade arrangements or proposals (Central America Free Trade Agreement and Plan Puebla Panama) will shape the future of the region if/when they are implemented. In addition, we are looking not only at different geographical locations in the region, but also at diverse world-views and "imaginarios" – meaning, by this, that the analysis of immigrant rights/legalization struggles in the U.S. must also include: 1) the perspectives from the Central American sending countries, which go beyond the legalization agendas defined by U.S.-based players, while sharing strong opposition to the U.S. government's anti-legalization agenda; and 2) the diverse "imaginarios" from different zones of the region about the country they have left behind and/or the country to which their "familiares" have migrated. The relation between the "imaginarios" about the destination (the U.S.) and the changing realities in this country is particularly important to analyze during an era when major social sectors in the U.S. itself are becoming targets of neoliberal policies. This raises questions about the extent to which the U.S. will continue to offer the upward mobility opportunities it has traditionally offered to its own citizens and to "newcomers." By contrast, what virtually never changes is the need for immigrant labor, as is evidenced by new guest-worker proposals in 2003-04.

The multi-layered, multi-dimensional stage I am referring to (including the U.S., Mexico, and Central America) presents a complex panorama that may vary in some respects from the U.S.-Mexico bilateral/binational relationship. Multiple actors, in different geographical locations, from diverse levels or strata -- state actors, NGOs, and migrant communities themselves ("las bases") -- are negotiating new relationships, at times, outside their own strictly "national" identifications. Tracing the process as it is happening now, we see that initiatives are coming from different sectors/ locales at different moments in the process, and that the initiatives undertaken in one location can affect, even energize players in other locales. This does not change the fact that state policies initiated by the U.S. (and Mexico, toward Central Americans) also affect multiple players in diverse locations, in effect limiting their real options. We are looking at a regional transnational stage that is increasingly interconnected and interactive, and in which the contacts among the different actors are multiple, overlapping, and increasingly dense.