Mobilizing Threat

—Greg Prieto

[This piece was originally published on Mobilizing Ideas.]

While grievances are common, collective mobilization to address them is rare. Take the case of Xiomara, whom I profile in my new book Immigrants Under Threat. An undocumented single mother of three sons, she fled her home state of Zacatecas, Mexico in 2001 and crossed the border without authorization to escape her abuser, to be nearer to her sisters in California, and to avail herself of the economic opportunities al norte. Shortly after Xiomara arrived to California’s Central Coast, she met a man and the abuse began anew. Too fearful that her undocumented status would land her in deportation proceedings, she called the police only when her abuser began threatening her young sons. Besieged by the legal violence of the deportation regime, on one side, and gender violence, on the other, Xiomara recalled the period as a dark one, one in which she felt immobilized, deeply fearful, and alone.

The threat of deportation confronting Xiomara and others like her has intensified in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The jingoistic response from political elites and the majority of Americans led to an immigration crackdown. As a consequence, the immigration reform effort underway at the time was torpedoed, and immigration was transformed from a domestic policy issue to a national security anxiety. The result has been the proliferation of collaborative local-federal programs designed to fold local police into the work of federal immigration enforcement. Grouped together under the umbrella of the Criminal Alien Program, programs like Secure Communities and 287(g) have been lambasted for incentivizing racial profiling and disproportionately ensnaringLatino and Caribbean men. This shift in the architecture of immigration enforcement has turned the border from a one-time hurdle into a daily threat, transforming every police stop into a potential entry point to the deportation pipeline and driving these “impossible subjects” further into the shadows of American political, economic, and social life. Indeed, the number of deportations from 1997 onwards is greater than two times the total number of deportations prior to 1997, earning the United States the moniker “Deportation Nation.”

And yet, collective mobilization by immigrants continues to push through the cracks of the deportation regime. The year 2006 was a watershed in immigrant political power when cities large and small witnessed one of the largest outpourings of protest in U.S. history. What explains the participation of these unlikely immigrant challengers who have been less engaged historically in contentious politics than whites and other racialized minorities?

These enforcement trends have led illegality studies scholars within the field of the immigration to overemphasize social control, while the social movements literature has often overlooked immigration as a cause. Earlier generations of social movement scholars often assumed that threats in the broader political environment would dampen participation in collective mobilization because potential participants would be deterred if the risks of doing so were too high. But as scholars moved outside the American context and looked toward cases of violent resistanceright wing movements, and Latin American protest, it quickly became clear that threat could also have a positive effect on mobilization. Scholars of immigration have turned to social movement studies to understand why and how immigrants respond collectively to their conditions, calling for more nuanced analyses of the way threat inspires collective mobilization, especially in local political environments that are playing an increasingly important role in welcoming or rejecting their immigrant residents. How exactly do marginalized and unlikely challengers understand threat and how can they be convinced to participate in the inherently risky work of collective mobilization?

In the first systematic analysis of the 2006 immigrant protest cycle, Chris Zepeda-Millán urges us to consider the scope, timing, and visibility of threats when considering which kinds of threats prompt a collective response. Abigail Andrews focuses on the political life of the sending community, which shapes whether immigrants go on to engage in contentious politics in the new destination. Angela García argues that immigrants assimilate strategically to mitigate the threats of restrictive local laws by speaking English, leaving the house well dressed, and driving a dent-free car to avoid police suspicion.

In my own work with adult Mexican immigrants on California’s Central Coast, I also observed these different types of immigrant agency, ranging from everyday avoidance to collective mobilization. Immigrant agency certainly varies, but these different kinds of responses to threat also stand in relationship to each other. Avoidance, isolation, keeping your head down, lumping it, working hard, and focusing on the reproduction of the family were the primary responses to the risks of daily life in the deportation nation. These habituated risk management strategies offered short term protection from the reach of law enforcement, but also formed a barrier to participation in the form of agency that is most likely to deliver long term relief: social movement organizing. For this risk-averse population of adult Mexican immigrants, the public and confrontational nature of protest (not to mention raising children and holding down multiple jobs) was a significant deterrent.

At the same time, I was struck by the regularity with which immigrant respondents expressed a profound sense of unfairness about their circumstances. As one Mexican immigrant man in his middle 30s who worked as a day laborer imparted, “they want you, but in their way,” echoing a common refrain among advocates and academics critical of the present arrangement: “we want your labor, but we don’t want you.” This oppositional consciousness, or that quality of mind that links structural inequality to subjectively experienced grievance, was evident at varying levels with nearly all respondents. Xiomara, from above, reflects on the role of community organizers in fostering her oppositional consciousness: “You know it has only been recently that I have begun to be more conscious about what really has been happening, of the danger that we are facing and that we have to do something now…And even though we are illegally here, I understand we have rights before the police. We have rights.”

This organic critique of U.S. law (enforcement) offered community organizers—vital players in the manifestation of collective mobilization—an unexpected tactical opportunity. In their effort to convince immigrants to attend some action or event, instead of promising safety, community organizers amplified threat. Primary informant, and longtime volunteer organizer, Esmeralda would make her pitch to potential immigrant activists by ticking off three delitos [crimes] on her fingers. “One,” she’d intone, “you crossed the border without papers. Two, you have an instance of drunk driving in your past. And three, you’re driving with your rosary colgada [hung] around your rear-view mirror” (along with a broken taillight, these were the most common pretexts officers used when stopping and impounding unlicensed immigrant drivers’ cars). By undermining their primary strategy for risk mitigation—avoidance and isolation—Esmeralda strived to convince immigrant activists-in-waiting that a collective response is both a more effective strategy and an ethical imperative.

Threat is not only an objective structural condition, but also a subjective tactical resource that can be leveraged in the fundamentally interactional process of community organizing. Threat may bear down on us from above, but it also inspires us to action from below. In the present political climate, threats abound. Ongoing immigrant protest reminds that wherever we encounter injustice, we also encounter the conditions for its collective redress. Immigrant protest is nothing short of a demand, made of all citizens, to abide by our own norms of work as worth and equal treatment under the law: to make good on the promise of a fading American Dream.

Greg Prieto is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of San Diego and the author of Immigrants Under Threat: Risk and Resistance in Deportation Nation (NYU Press, 2018).

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