Making New Sense of Pro-Migrant Tensions

The pro-migrant bloc is split between those with mainstream institutional support and those without it. Their opposing visions of justice start here.
September 25, 2014

In March 2014 President Obama ordered a review of his administration’s immigration enforcement tactics in order to explore the possibility of more “humane” practices of deportation. This political pivot came after a stinging critique by the leader of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), Janet Murguía, who dubbed the president the “deporter-in-chief” at a Washington, D.C. awards dinner. Murguía uttered publicly what activists and migrants themselves had been both quietly and actively grumbling throughout an administration that has overseen a record-setting number of deportations—two million persons and counting.

Just two months later, however, Obama reversed course and delayed the final report of his review and any potential unilateral action to halt or slow deportations, in an attempt to pressure Republicans to pass comprehensive immigration reform, or CIR, which has been stalled in the House of Representatives for over a year. The maneuver, viewed by some as a shrewd political strategy and others as a capitulation to anti-migrant forces, exposed a critical rift in the pro-migrant advocacy and activist flank of the immigration debate. Several pro-migrant advocates and peer institutions of NCLR—including the United States Conference on Catholic Bishops, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the National Immigration Forum—endorsed the delay, but grassroots activists charged that they were being “SEIUsed,” accusing mainstream organizations of selling out detainees and deportees.

The roots and contours of these tensions run deep yet are often obscured by the polarized battle over immigration policy, with bureaucratic and media analysis often limited to pro-migrant or anti-migrant camps, as if these factions are wholly unified. Moving us away from this black-and-white discussion, Alfonso Gonzales’s Reform Without Justice: Latino Migrant Politics and the Homeland Security State asks a more challenging and complex set of questions about the state of immigration politics—in particular migration control—and the “constellation of actors” involved in the struggle.

Gonzales, a political scientist and frequent contributor to the NACLA Report, developed a framework to analyze both pro- and anti-migrant factions, including their strengths and weaknesses, internal tensions, and their efforts to set the terms of debate. In particular, he addresses the development of an “anti-migrant hegemony” that controls the policy dialogue, often including pro-migrant advocates, leading them to reproduce the discourse and proposals of what he terms the “anti-migrant bloc.” The framework is productive, and can be applied to struggles over migration beyond the period of the book, which is bound to the twenty-first century.

As with any typology that includes broad groups of actors, readers will find limiting some aspects of the anti-migrant bloc and its counter, the “Latino social bloc,” as some nuances are erased, and some distinctions among categories of actors appear too simple. For example, while Gonzales is attuned to the popular conflation of Latinas/os as a foreign, criminal, nonwhite population, his efforts to unpack their complexity sometimes suggest that their political behaviors are a function of their racial backgrounds—in this case, black, indigenous, and “Euro-descendant.”

As well, whereas Gonzales maps the critical differences in the rhetoric and long-term goals among the various actors struggling over migrants’ rights—naming some of the structural factors that are consistently ignored such as white supremacy, neoliberal capitalism, or the asymmetrical relationship between the United States and Latin America—readers aren’t presented with a clear sense of how to move beyond these powerful forces toward a “sustainable and transformative social justice.” These limitations are a reflection of the complexity and enormous challenges in the struggle for migrants’ rights. What’s important is that Reform Without Justice demonstrates consistently that the only way to understand the more profound divisions in Latina/o migrant politics is to analyze the intricacies simultaneously with the multiple institutions and levels of governance as well as the “sites of ideological production in civil society” that constitute the “homeland security state.”

Because Gonzales is interested in complex political formations, or blocs of actors, within the state and broader society, he utilizes innovative methods and theoretical principles to sift through the most recent complications embedded in the struggle for migrants’ rights. His “critical ethnography” consists of 10 years of participant observation and five dozen interviews with grassroots leaders and rank and file activists in the United States, Mexico, and El Salvador, as well as an analysis of right-wing voices and institutional purviews. Reform Without Justice is accessibly written and carefully explained, providing experts and readers entering the debate an excellent overview of the latest chapter in U.S. immigration politics.

Gonzales draws considerably from Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci to illuminate the relationship between Latina/o migrant politics and various permutations of state power, or what Gonzales calls an “anti-migrant hegemony.” For example, he examines the 2006 mega-marches for their counter-hegemonic exertion of power, but also their brevity, especially the fleeting unity of pro-migrant groups, which “disintegrated almost as quickly as it congealed.” This “radical moment” was followed by a series of protests and actions, as well as reform attempts marked by internal divisions over strategy, compromise, and long-term goals, and the inability of mainstream advocates to think outside the box of enforcement-first frameworks. Reform Without Justice thus utilizes neo-Gramscian analysis to explore how and why pro-migrant factions reproduce elements of anti-migrant discourse and policy, or fail to adopt more radical challenges to the homeland security state.

Gonzales frames the typology of political voices and actors into three major camps: the anti-migrant bloc and the pro-migrant “Latino social bloc,” the latter of which is drawn as two separate, but occasionally unified political forces—“reformers” and “oppositional forces.” All of these actors, from grassroots activists to charismatic media personalities, are analyzed as Gramscian organic intellectuals, capable of influencing the common sense of migration control.

Gonzales provides a brief historical development of the anti- and pro-migrant blocs, naming specific think tanks, foundations, mainstream political and organizational leaders, and grassroots activists. Whereas Gonzales limits his explanation of the anti-migrant bloc to one that is relatively monolithic and generally unified, he treats the Latino social bloc in a more nuanced fashion, a benefit of his years of on-the-ground research.

Among the Latino social bloc, the pro-migrant reformers include politicians, nonprofit and union leaders, and advocates with mainstream institutional support. They work within the existing system and are willing to compromise with the anti-migrant bloc. The oppositional forces are a mix of Latina/o working class migrants and non-migrants, seasoned and young activists, progressive religious leaders, and more. They are the faces in the streets—autonomous from mainstream institutional resources, idealistic, uncompromising, and seeking social justice for the broadest pool of migrants.

Gonzales recognizes that groups and individuals straddle both factions, yet for the most part the author sustains the typology of reformers and oppositional forces throughout his analysis with productive results, revealing important tensions among these groups, as unity is fleeting and often the factions function as separate parallel voices or are at odds with each other. The analysis is fruitful and could be applied to other historical events. For example, one could analyze the decade-long struggle to pass or slow passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in the 1970s and 1980s or the political campaign “Coordinadora ‘96” which yielded the Latino March on Washington on October 12, 1996. Both of these struggles included many of the same grassroots leaders and mainstream reformers in Gonzales’s study, and reflected similar divisions among the pro-migrant struggle.

Reform Without Justice concludes with the most recent political efforts for and against migration reform, including the bipartisan Senate proposal for CIR, which institutionalizes even further common sense notions of Latina/o migrant criminality under a guise of race neutrality, while also preserving long term access to cheap and vulnerable labor. Because the legislation contains an arduous pathway to citizenship, for which it’s estimated that 40% of the undocumented won’t qualify and others cannot afford, the proposal drives a deeper wedge between reformers who support the legislation and the oppositional forces.

In the end, Reform Without Justice provides readers a multi-scaled view inside twenty-first century migrant struggles. The fissures among mainstream advocates and grassroots activists explored here expose the different senses of urgency felt by persons confronting criminalization and deportation, and those parties claiming to be representative voices of Latinas/os and migrants. These are real differences. In Gonzales’s view, “the greatest victories have not come from the corporate board rooms in Washington, D.C., but from Latino youth and politically autonomous movements that acted from below.” Moreover, Gonzales reveals what’s hidden in plain sight in the national discourse—that behind each deportation statistic or unit of analysis is a human being with a family and a community. These are the bodies bearing the brunt of the actions of the anti-migrant bloc and the inactions of mainstream reformers. This groundswell of actors, despite the evidence of diverse views and goals for migration reform presented here, has the potential to steer us toward a “new common sense,” one that challenges the foundations of the homeland security state and seeks justice for the broadest possible group of migrants. That’s why, as Gonzales insists, “the people directly affected must be in the lead.”

David Hernández is Assistant Professor of Latina/o Studies at Mount Holyoke College. He is completing a book on the U.S. immigrant detention regime entitled Undue Process: Immigrant Detention and Lesser Citizenship.

Read the rest of NACLA's 2014 Fall Issue: Horizontalism & Autonomy




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