Terror Incognita: Immigrants and the Homeland Security State

October 31, 2008

The word homeland entered national U.S. discourse just weeks after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, when President Bush announced the creation of what would come to be the massive Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The recrudescence of xenophobic U.S. nationalism occasioned by the attacks was predictable enough, mirrored by the government’s resort to the ironically foreign-sounding homeland—even former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan complained that it “isn’t really an American word, it’s not something we used to say or say now.”

But perhaps more significant than homeland was the use of security, which in the post-9/11 era has largely replaced defense as an “umbrella term, incorporating local and national public-health preparedness for attack, the defense of the nation offered by the armed services, plus the intelligence and internal security activities of the C.I.A., F.B.I. and local police,” according to former New York Times columnist William Safire.

This Report explores the new “security environment” as it relates to Latin American migrant communities—from the courtroom to the detainment center to borderlands to the media to the urban enclave. We begin with Roberto Lovato’s thesis that the new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), DHS’s largest investigative component, was established to battle a new kind of domestic enemy, undocumented immigration. If the Bush administration’s reaction to 9/11 was to launch a permanent war abroad, this decision cannot but have profound consequences for the some 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, who, according to Lovato, are now being harnessed as the raw material for expanding an increasingly privatized domestic security apparatus.

Joseph Nevins and Timothy Dunn examine the government’s mad dash to fortify the U.S.-Mexico border with an extremely expensive “security wall” whose efficacy in actually obstructing unauthorized immigration is highly questionable. Nonetheless, they argue, the wall serves a larger purpose: presenting border enforcement as a key component of homeland security. This phenomenon is also visible from a courtroom in Laredo, Texas, where, as Renee Feltz reports, a convergence of legal categories, perhaps the defining characteristic of homeland security, stands in high relief. There, immigration officials have teamed up with the Department of Justice, federal judges, and the nation’s largest private prison company to merge immigration and criminal policy. Many undocumented immigrants now face jail time pending their immigration hearing in civil court.

Cultural critic Roger N. Lancaster takes a different tack, emphasizing anti-immigrant legislation as a result of popular demand, and less so the exigencies of expanding domestic security. He sees in the anti-immigrant hysteria an echo of “moral panic”—a mass movement that emerges in response to a false, exaggerated, or ill-defined moral threat to society, and that proposes to address this threat through punitive measures. This hysteria has produced, he argues, all manner of punitive laws directed against perceived and imagined threats, ranging from sexual predators to undocumented immigrants.

The Report concludes with an essay by Forrest Hylton on the gentrification of Bushwick, a heavily Latino neighborhood in Brooklyn. The appearance of a new, mostly white, middle-class “demographic” was only made possible, he argues, by a “murderously routine” form of neoliberal terror in the form of urban planning. In the 1970s, city planners proposed that “sick neighborhoods” be starved of public services so that they might die a natural death and then be reborn, attracting capital and new residents. As the drug economy took over, the local state deployed counterinsurgency strategies and tactics designed to defeat third world guerrillas against insurgent urban movements in what today would be called a “security” program.

The United States is moving through an unknown landscape—terror incognita. In the current political and cultural moment, we are terrorized by very real terrors, and also by crumbling neighborhoods, “moral” predators, and undocumented immigrants. As terror is deployed against these terrors, it becomes amorphous, ubiquitous, and inexorably linked to the programs and institutions of the homeland security state, which simultaneously defends against terror and provokes it.


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