Nicholas De Genova in conversation with Rozalinda Borcila. A shorter version of this text is published in the printed issue of AREA #11.
Rozalinda Borcila (RB): In your writing, you introduce the concept of a “Mexican Chicago” as a way theorize across spatial scales and to challenge the logic of the nation-state. I think we see a corresponding effort at reframing or re-imagining that emerges from grass-roots organizing around migrant justice. Can we speak about the relationship between these two ways of producing knowledge?
Nicholas De Genova (NDG): I suggested the concept of a Mexican Chicago to shake up our taken-for-granted ways of thinking. We are trained to assume that the space of the US nation-state is stable and coherent. Therefore, I wanted to propose the idea that there is a Chicago—alongside or overlapping with many other ones that we know—that must be understood to be part of Mexico, produced through the material and practical realities of Mexican migrants’ transnational social relations. Mexican Chicago is therefore a way to insist that the US (or at least important parts of it) can be meaningfully understood to belong to Latin America. The radical implications beyond esoteric scholarly concerns ought to be clear, as you rightly note. We have to begin to think about politics in ways that profoundly and rigorously refuse the premises and conceits of nationalism, especially the imperial national chauvinism of the US. And this sort of perspective can be crucial for critically formulating new organizing strategies, new forms of mobilization, and new political frameworks for imagining a radically open-ended future; a future that might surpass and transcend the confinements of a global order of “national” states and their ever-increasingly militarized borders.
Photo by Sarah Jane Rhee
RB. Under the guise of the war on terror, the new regime of immigration control has to do with creating a deportable population, as you have pointed out. Immigration management implies the visibility and trackability of now “illegal” migrants, a kind of logistics management that treats migrant bodies and migrant labor as commodities. This seems of course a fallacy, but a very profitable, speculative one, which also serves politically as a useful smokescreen. In this context, can you speak about the question of visibility and invisibility in relation to how people are rendered “illegal”?
NDG. We confront today a more aggressive and punitive regime of deportation than has been seen for many decades. Nonetheless, as I have argued in greater detail elsewhere, it is not and has never been deportation, as such, that is decisive. Rather, it is deportability—in other words, the fact that the great majority of so-called “illegal” migrants are not deported but instead remain, as labor, under excruciatingly vulnerable socio-political conditions indefinitely. This population is always subject to deportation, always utterly disposable, increasingly terrorized by the state’s immigration law enforcement tactics—but all the more enthusiastically desired by employers precisely because they are extraordinarily vulnerable. This is extremely productive and profitable for capital.
It also means that the more the anti-immigrant frenzy of right-wing politics howls and shrieks for “exclusion,” and the more the border is militarized, the more the inclusion of these “illegal” workers continues—inclusion as labor subordination. This is what I call the Border Spectacle. There is a whole very lucrative political economy of border policing and immigrant detention. There are political careers to be secured by pandering to and inflaming racist anti-immigrant hostility, to say nothing of the plush government contracts to be handed out to well-positioned, well-connected corporations. But more than anything else, this spectacle staged at “the” border (which is of course always understood to be the US-Mexico border) induces us to believe that there really is such a thing as “illegal immigration,” that it truly represents some sort of “invasion,” that it is genuinely “out of control,” and so on and on. The simple fact is that migrant “illegality” is produced by the law. A complex history of immigration law-making (and also selective law enforcement tactics and strategies) has literally produced the conditions of possibility for some migrations to be ”legal” while condemning other migrations (above all, those from Mexico) to disproportionate “illegality.” As a result of the spectacle that makes humble border-crossers extremely visible, immigration law remains invisible. This leaves us to believe that migrants are “illegal” simply because they somehow violated The Law, about which most of us are overwhelmingly clueless. So the spectacle renders “illegal” migrants exceptionally visible, in order to produce “illegal immigration” as some sort of “problem” or “crisis.”
In the ordinary course of everyday life, most undocumented migrants are compelled to keep a low profile, most of the time. This fact has encouraged the stupid (liberal) security-state language of “bringing them out of the shadows.” This language justifies the notion that “legalization” would provide the state with perfect and comprehensive surveillance over all migrants, and that this is somehow a matter of the “security” of citizens and their “homeland.” Thus, there’s a complex play, back and forth, around rendering “illegality” highly visible while forcing undocumented migrants into political invisibility. Yet all the while they are abundantly in evidence throughout social life in the US—working here, there, and everywhere. So “illegality” is a public secret, so to speak.
RB. You have written about the defiant assertion of presence in undocumented struggles, especially as workers, as undocumented labor. Currently, within the undocumented youth movement, a political critique is slowly emerging: of the rhetoric of the megamarches, the forms of organizing that do not build grassroots capacity or institutions but instead treat people as sign-holders, and the ways in which the political demands of much of the mainstream of the movement plays into conservative notions of Americaneness, of the “good immigrant” or the "assimilated immigrant" and so on. How, or where, do you see today the subversive potential of the immigrant rights movement or of the practices of immigrant communities? What interests you?
NDG. Yes, of course, the movement has been riddled with all the predictable contradictions, and the usual suspects have sought to capitalize on these insurgent energies as so much raw material for their own projects. In the 2006 mobilizations, however — and in a different way more recently, in the DREAM Act “coming out” rallies — untold thousands and millions of migrants seized the public square and effectively declared, “Here we are, we’re illegal, we defy you to come and get us! You can deport some of us, but you can never get rid of us!” ¡Aquí estamos, y no nos vamos! ¡Y si nos sacan, nos regresamos! This was a radically open-ended, anti-assimilationist politics of defiance and disaffection for state power. It didn’t beg anyone for pardon or mercy, didn’t plead for “rights,” and refused to play the dead-end game of electoral politics. Anti-capitalist organizers need to take a cue from this sort of organic expression of migrant insurgency, which articulated itself against the punitive recriminations of the US nation-state, but simultaneously announced itself as a transnational social force — labor against capital, with no regard for borders or deportation regimes.
RB. The next front of attack against immigrants comes via a re-interpretation and selective application of birthright citizenship. We can see this as a strategy to use the now stacked supreme court to force a reinterpretation of the 14th amendment, in particular the interpretation of jurisdiction. How do we attend to this? And how do we engage with various knowledges, social practices and forms that are emerging from immigrant communities themselves in this sense? This would mean being propositional, not merely oppositional perhaps.…
NDG. The assault against birthright citizenship for the children of the undocumented has been slowly but surely underway at least since the 1980s. But it has taken a long time to begin to acquire the sort of prominence that it now enjoys, because it is such a flagrant form of disenfranchisement. Of course, what underlies this whole campaign is that migrants of color are understood to be literally giving birth to a burgeoning US-citizen “minority” group, affiliated with the discourses of “crime” and “welfare-dependency.” “Illegal aliens,” thereby come to represent an “invasion” of undesirable intruders–a corrosive source of “delinquency” within the nation state. The campaign to eliminate birthright citizenship operates as part of a larger politics devoted to reconfiguring white supremacy in the US in ostensibly race-neutral terms. This has been a long-term (post-civil rights) neoconservative project that is now enthroned in the avowed post-racialism of the Obama presidency. Thus, a frontal attack against people of color and racial justice has managed to present itself not as a straightforward “civil rights” issue but rather in the idiom of a nativist politics of “citizenship.” What is finally at stake, I think, is for us to more radically question the whole politics of citizenship itself. Rather than imagine that the migrant struggle is a “new civil rights movement,” as many were quick to assert, we might begin to appreciate anew what people of color have always known in the US—that citizenship is no guarantee of anything. We need to relinquish those liberal illusions in favor of a more profound reckoning with the fact that we are all denizens. It’s not that “No Human Being is Illegal” but rather, that under the regime of global capitalism, we are in fact all “illegal.” And the struggles of the undocumented present to the rest of us an image of our own future, if we don’t get our heads straight and start finding some ways to stop this never-ending catastrophe that we complacently call our way of life.
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