In 2008, in a town of about 2,000 people, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained 389 workers and charged them with civil immigration violations and identity theft. The Bush administration had decided to experiment with mass workplace arrests and assembly-line judicial proceedings. The target was a kosher meatpacking plant in rural Postville, Iowa. What most observers miss when they learn about this event is the devastation of the entire Postville community captured in Luis Argueta’s documentary. Businesses supported by the patronage of immigrant workers and their families shuttered. Schools lost students and funding. Churches lost their faithful. Natives and newcomers suffered the effects of immigration rules enforced without regard to the local community. The 389 Central American and Eastern European workers at the plant lost their families, friends, and livelihoods. The town was devastated thanks to the reduction of migrants to the legal facet of their lives as members of the Postville community.
The “citizen,” the “lawful immigrant,” and the “unauthorized migrant” are legal abstractions with very real consequences both for the people to whom they apply and, as this example reflects, for those around them. Legal formalisms rely on pervasive stereotypes through which we read difference from each other’s bodies or cultural practices like language. The tragedy in Postville is one example of a real-world failure precipitated by such abstract divisions among people in a single community. But there are others. Young people who came to the United States as children or adolescents have made full lives for themselves in their adopted homeland. Yet they are often reduced to their status as “undocumented.” Their complex and multifaceted lives are erased when a label takes the place of their humanity. When public discourse and immigration policy reduce human beings to a legal abstraction, we are all harmed by a loss of important social ties and possibilities.
In many Western countries, insiders—typically European-ancestry whites—have reduced newcomers to criminals by turning adjectives into nouns and have reinforced binaries about who belongs and who does not. Unauthorized migrants have become “illegals” and citizens have become “natives.” In a recent study, sociologists Rene Flores and Ariela Schachter examine how Americans link a person’s nationality with their perceived legal status and presumed criminality. Flores and Schachter demonstrate that in making determinations about who is an “illegal immigrant,” we rely not on documents but on common stereotypes of what constitutes “illegality,” reading nationality from people’s bodies. Associating criminality with unauthorized migrants goes hand in hand with a rhetorical shift in which “illegal” and “undocumented” become nouns in everyday speech and discourse.
The shift from adjective to noun is nefarious. Categories like the ones named above reduce people’s lives to a single dimension—in this case, status within a national jurisdiction—with the consequent loss of the rich and multifaceted nature of human experience. This shift serves a political agenda because it allows state officials to exert control over a country’s population and determine what it will look like. But moves like this come at a cost. For unauthorized immigrants or those with uncertain legal status, the costs of what Cecilia Menjívar has called liminal legality are material, psychological, and social. For authorized residents, the cost is the loss of work, family, friendships, and economic relationships.
Laws are rules to make possible and simplify the life we share as communities. These very rules and the cognitive moves that we make to implement them—turning legal adjectives into nouns, relying on stereotypes read from peoples’ bodies and cultural practices—may also impoverish our communities. We hurt ourselves by tearing from our networks people with whom we have ties and on whom we rely, and we forego an opportunity to broaden and deepen human relations. Yet there are alternative ways of thinking about newcomers that are less harmful and more enriching. Important historical precedents and cultural traditions as well as contemporary practices define community as inclusive of those who share a common life and place, irrespective of formal rules. Ancient settlements gave refuge to those who needed it, people became “citizens” by virtue of their contributions to a city, and today there are cities where all residents are allowed to vote regardless of legal status. This essay is informed by the work of authors who have probed the experience of immigration and illegality in the United States and in other parts of the world. I draw on this body of work and on my own to assess where we are with respect to immigration enforcement, how we got here, and where we are headed.
Where We Are: Real Law and Street-Level Bureaucracy
In Western societies, we have trouble thinking about who is an insider unless we do so from the perspective of our immigration and nationality laws. How long a person has lived in a community or what they have contributed to it are considerations, but legally defined belonging currently trumps any other way of thinking about membership. The trend is global, but expressed very muscularly in the United States. It is also a contemporary trend that, as I show later in this essay, is at odds with other ways membership has been determined historically.
Membership laws only become consequential when they are backed by organizations to enact material consequences for breaching them. Everyday enforcement of immigration rules by state bureaucracies is a key part of a dual shift in contemporary US immigration policy. On the world stage, the current administration’s ban on the admission of migrants from Muslim countries and refugees is a throwback to pre-1965 policy, which selected prospective immigrants primarily by racial origin. David FitzGerald and I have argued elsewhere that racial exclusion in immigration and nationality law were the norm among democratic and populist regimes well into the second half of the 20th century.
Domestically, the most important shift in recent US immigration policy has been in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s street-level activity, which has had profound effects on the undocumented and their communities—including many US citizens. ICE has become a massive and well-funded bureaucracy with more agents and resources than any other law enforcement agency. Its employees have their own interests and agenda and a strong voice in national politics.
The installation of a xenophobic president and a small but bureaucratically savvy network of ideologues like Stephen Miller, Lee Francis Cissna, and Gene Hamilton has gone hand in glove with the interests of the agency. A recent exposé by Frank Foer reveals the importance of what political scientist Michael Lipsky has called “street-level bureaucracy”—how government operates on the ground—and what sociologist Kitty Calavita calls “real law”—how law actually works when implemented by those bureaucracies. At the street level, major changes in actual policy can happen and have happened without legislative oversight. The practice transforms the policy. At the time of writing, the Trump administration prepares to exclude from permanent residency applicants who have or may have received any form of public assistance. This measure is within the executive’s discretion, will vary in effect depending on street-level bureaucracy, and will change the nature of immigration policy as it has worked since 1965.
This is not a process that started with Donald Trump’s presidency. Deborah Kang shows how INS bureaucrats made immigration law at the US-Mexico border between 1917 and 1954 that shaped policy at the national level. The disastrous Postville raid occurred under Bush and reflects a failed effort to change real law, the enactment of law, through a unique street-level operation. Under President Barack Obama, deportation numbers were higher than they’ve been since Trump took office (although deportations are on the rise). Using street-level changes to transform bureaucratic policy is by no means exclusive to the United States. Ruben Andersson has shown how illegality is produced not only through laws but also through a massive public and private industry that maintains the borders of Europe. Anna Tuckett has shown how street-level bureaucrats in Italy make immigration law and transform the status of immigrants.
The Right to Have Rights
While scholars have extensive documentation of how these processes happen once people are in a destination country, the state also operates in less obvious but no less consequential ways at the border and beyond. In Land of Open Graves, Jason de León has shown how official practices that direct prospective migrants into inhospitable and dangerous terrain are a means of getting nature to do the government’s dirty work. The desert kills in service of the state. David FitzGerald’s work on refuge demonstrates how states have intentionally pursued strategies of what Aristide R. Zolberg termed remote control—the outward push of state control over borders to other jurisdictions.
Changes in real law through bureaucratic mechanisms—increasing the restrictiveness of immigration rule enforcement, limiting access to legal immigration, and exposing naturalized citizens to greater scrutiny—narrow conceptions of belonging to a single, formalistic dimension with costs to formal and de facto insiders. The Postville experiment hurt immigrant families, including their American children, as well as the children of longer-term residents who experienced a decrease in school funding. Tougher border enforcement campaigns direct migrants to dangerous stretches of desert in the American Southwest and to treacherous waters in the Mediterranean. Australian policies of remote control push would-be asylum seekers to detainment in dismal conditions and in contravention of international law.
How We Got Here: From a Common Life to Legal Ties
We live in a world of nation-states and we understand ourselves in relation to those entities. Our rights, privileges, and obligations are defined by belonging to a nation-state. We take for granted that everyone has a legal citizenship—the formal tie between a person and a state—and that this is the way things should be.
Legal citizenship is, however, the culmination of a long, messy process of state and nation making. Humans have made it what it is, which suggests we can also think of alternative ways of defining belonging. Historians like Eugen Weber have shown how states have made citizens through institutions and practices like schools, military service, and communications infrastructure. Social psychologist Michael Billig has examined how everyday experiences such as reading the weather report, which graphically portrays “the nation,” convey and naturalize the idea of belonging to it. “Nations” are communities that elites imagined as having common origins and a glorious past, an idea to which those defined as insiders eventually subscribed. These ideas became real through laws or rules about who belongs and who doesn’t, rules that define nationality or legal citizenship.
There are, however, other ways to think of belonging, and some of them predate and coexist with the modern nation-state. In ancient times, seeking refuge in a city, participating in its social and economic exchanges, and being willing to defend it were means of becoming part of the community—if only in some respects. Hebrew scriptures state, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34, NIV). In the Middle East, there is a tradition of hospitality toward the stranger, echoes of which make attitudes toward refugees today different than in the West. As anthropologist Dawn Chatty has shown, the relationship between newcomers and host communities is strong and marked by mutual acceptance. Even today the idea of ius domicilii—the right linked to residence in a place—is a basis of belonging in the West. Living in some European cities gives residents the right to vote, regardless of nationality or legal status. The ties that come from a common life—however unequal—are a long-standing way of defining membership and belonging.
The unauthorized have been part of the communities in which they live for years, often decades. To make this point, Ana Raquel Minian has traced the long-standing tradition of people moving back and forth between the United States and Mexico, extending ties to communities on both side of the border. The intervention of the US government to regulate this movement by means of the Bracero Program (1942–64) altered the circular flows that had existed until that time and created conditions for future illegality. The enforcement of rules related to the program—recall Operation Wetback—disrupted ties between communities on both sides of the border.
There is a need for compunction and reflection when making decisions about offering hospitality and determining who belongs and on what terms.
What happens when the common life of community members is disrupted? A number of scholars have centered their attention precisely on this matter. Roberto Gonzales’s study of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients chronicles the harm done to young people who are foreign-born, raised in the United States, and receive an administrative reprieve from deportation. They suffer the daily indignity of being rejected by the country they call home, limited access to higher education and jobs, and hiding their status from friends, lovers, and the larger community—all of whom also suffer from seeing someone they care for rejected. The psycho-emotional toll of a liminal legal status extends to an entire community.
The damage experienced by families of people who have been here for long periods and are deported or decide to leave on their own attests to the strength of ties to local communities. In a book that poignantly narrates the effects of immigration and citizenship rules on people’s everyday lives, Joanna Derby examines how the enforcement of legal statuses affects the intertwined lives of citizens and noncitizens in the United States. Families often consist of members with different legal statuses, from citizen to unauthorized immigrant, but they all suffer the threat of deportation in ways that affect their life chances.
The effects of overemphasizing legality at the cost of community extend transnationally. Leisy J. Abrego documents how Salvadoran families navigate a complicated legal system that forces parents and children to live in different countries for extended periods with a very real cost to their well-being. In the current drama orchestrated by the Department of Homeland Security at the border, Secretary Nielsen claimed—against the evidence presented by Abrego, Dreby, and others—that she did not know that separation of children from their parents causes trauma and stress and shifted the focus to the journey as the site of trauma. Nielsen’s strategy has also been to refer to UACs (unaccompanied alien children) rather than to children, another linguistic gambit that diminishes the humanity of these kids. In view of the United States’ sordid and perverse history of dehumanizing people to justify their exclusion and exploitation—consider the country’s history of slavery and Jim Crow caste system—there is a need for compunction and reflection when making decisions about offering hospitality and determining who belongs and on what terms.
Where Are We Headed—and at What Cost?
Rules that govern fair and equal access to scarce material and symbolic goods are important to sustaining community, but when they are solely defensive and implemented to make a political point, they can hurt the very people they were intended to protect. The undiscerning implementation of immigration law in the Postville raid—not to mention a reckless disregard for due process—wreaked economic and political havoc on this heartland community. The current US president insists on “securing the border” from the threat of immigrant invasion at a time when net migration from Mexico is at an all-time low, even if media attention may contribute to the perception that the country is being “overrun” by unaccompanied minors and their parents. Proposals for $8 billion to build a border wall come at a time of rising federal deficits. The current obsession with enforcement and repatriation is not supported by evidence of massive “flows” (language that invokes alarmist images of flooding). Contrary to popular perception, immigrants are less likely than the US-born to engage in criminal behavior (see reports by Walter Ewing and Alex Nowrasteh).
Outside the United States, governments and politicians are advocating for restrictive policies against refugees. In Europe and the United States, there is no migration or refugee crisis and there is no warrant to implement formal rules that gratuitously hurt people. In Europe, the movement of refugees is framed as a European crisis when the crisis is really in war-ravaged Syria, Afghanistan, northern Africa, and Yemen, and among their neighbors who give refuge to groups that represent a third or more of their total population (see Cecilia Menjivar and colleagues on the importance of framing migration as a crisis). Lebanon has the highest number of refugees per capita and is experiencing significant economic distress. If anything, Europe faces a crisis of migration governance, as death rates among migrants in the Mediterranean suggest.
Migration does not represent an existential threat to the strong governments and institutions of North America and Europe. Misperceptions informed by nationalism, populism, and a press more interested in quick scoops and clickbait than in investigative reporting contribute to a sense of threat. Current framings of migration not only are inaccurate but also drive bad policies that hurt established residents and newcomers, divert scarce resources from real problems, and distract from the dilemmas of a global economic system that has created massive wealth but also stark inequalities.
To learn more about immigration to the United States and about global migration, see the Pew Research Center resources on immigration, the Migration Policy Institute, and the Migration Matters minicourse.