Rozalinda Borcila (5/08/13) The authors and promoters of the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act” use the media to hypnotically repeat words that sound nice: “immigration reform”, “fixing the broken immigration system” , “pathway to citizenship”, “seize the moment”, “right thing to do”. But these words are never defined, they remain empty, untethered from accountability to actions upon human lives. They are slogans, available to anyone powerful enough to broadcast them. Even reading the title and first few pages of this bill can surprise anyone who has taken those terms at face value, or who believes that this bill truly represents an effort to address the situation of migrants’ exclusion, il-legalization and oppression in the US. Have you read it? Try it.
Of course, the bill is so long and so complicated and so full of technical language that it keeps most people, including most in the media, from being able to read and understand it. This reflects the nature of how it was produced – behind closed doors, in successive negotiations between powerful political and corporate players, the bill is more like a corporate merger deal than a political process in a so-called democracy. So we have a bill whose nature is twofold: on the one hand, the secrecy and self-interest of the “negotiations”, in which powerful players are calculating how best to capitalize upon the “immigration crisis”; and on the other hand the grotesquely misleading and endless hype in the media, which seeks to quickly shove it down our throats. And it’s not just the media — thanks to our NGO complex, mobilized largely mobilized behind this campaign — there is precious little space left for critique, response or interrogation. We are drowning in silence.
While some summaries have been produced to help outline the individual provisions of the bill, and some folks have developed pretty well-informed graphic visualizations and guides to the bill, these have generally taken the language of the bill at face value and are not sufficient when trying to question some of the underlying assumptions that this bill explicitly reinforces. In other words, not just what does the bill actually say – which is most often mis-represented – but also why does it say this and what are the implications? Here is a first attempt to read into the master narratives the bill is relying upon and reinforcing, to question and to rewrite them “from below”. Today, part 1. Hopefully there will also be parts 2 and 3.
Narrative 1: Border Security
The bulk of the rhetoric, and the bulk of the provisions and orientation of the bill, are around militarization, euphemistically called “security”. What is the ideological function of the emphasis on “security”? How can a militarization bill be advertised as “immigration reform” thus positioning its champions as beneficiaries of immigrant votes? Whose “security”, exactly?
Casting immigration as a “security” issue is not new, and certainly has been more and more explicit since 9-11. It functions to reproduce and reinforce a specific, and highly profitable, narrative of the “immigration crisis”. It tells us that the crisis is this: all these dangerous migrants are crossing the border and threatening our security and prosperity; they are coming here to take what is ours, to undermine the sovereignty of the state and to harm us. According to this logic the state has the “right and responsability” to protect itself . This part is about defining and legitimizing a vision of “security” from the perspective of the state and of the transnational economic interests it represents. It works to turn our attention away from the state and from capital, and instead to focus on the migrants as the cause of the crisis — migrants who must be hunted down, punished, adjusted, conditionally included, physically and symbolically and legally diminished, exploited, destroyed.
This narratives gives justification to a process of translation or reduction: it justifies reducing everything – the global economy, social dynamics, history and political relations, cultural experiences and every aspect of daily life – to the terms of an expanded, spectacular and very profitable battlefield of weapons, soldiers, a hi-tech hunt, 24 hour surveillance, databases, and so on. All of life must be recast in the terms of a relentless war that is always “on”, always unfolding. The border is its primary battle ground, and more: it is a staging area for experimenting with and defining the possibilities of warfare in the future, the possibilities for war as a generalized logic.
The bill not only translates questions of migration and of… well, anything, into questions of war, but it also gives Homeland Security the authority to decide when the state is “secure enough” as a controlling device that determines its unfolding in the future. It might seem like a detail, but it is not: I think — and someone demonstrate to me if I am wrong — that the bill does not guarantee migrants a single right or protectionagainst the threat of deportation, and it certainly does not confer full personhood. Instead, it guarantees Homeland Security control over how current and future migrants can be managed, registered, and legally categorized as non-persons or diminished persons. It enshrines and expands its power to govern by discretion, limiting judicial review of the actions of DHS in the name of “security”.
Specifically, the so-called pathway to citizenship is regulated in a series of steps (which we can look more closely at in the next part and perhaps ask what that is really a pathway towards). But for now, this: Homeland Security must determine the protocols and strategic plan for border security and then must ascertain that the border is secure enough (according to an effectiveness measure) before any provisions for applying for residency status can move forward. No one can apply for residency much less citizenship, until DHS is satisfied that the border is secure enough. This is measured how?? 1. 90% rate of capture of people trying to cross the border; 2) 24/7 surveillance of the border. 3) the implementation of a national E-Verify system; 4) an electronic exit system for all planes and vessels departing the country.
But security forces can never be satisfied, because they can only exist as long as there is perceived insecurity – in other words, Homeland Security would likely risk abolishing itself by establishing that the border is “secure”. The bill also explicitly outlines the incentivizing mechanisms for integrating Department of Defense operations with Homeland Security and local and tribal policing, which turns back provisions of previous laws limiting the government’s ability to wage war within the US. This bill creates a legal framework and procedural mechanism (as well as a series of bureaucratic instruments) for an endless and limitless war, or conversely illustrates the coincidence of law, bureaucracy and violence. A war on the border; but the border, of course, is everywhere, extending into local neighborhoods, hospital emergency rooms, schools and every workplace, stretching and expanding to encompass all social space.
As the senators begin the fight over amendments to the bill, adding or subtracting provisions that retool the details while reinforcing its overall orientation, we should question the master narrative of “security” and develop other understandings of the “immigration crisis” that this narrative is intended to suppress. There is indeed a crisis that is most dramatically expressed at the border. It emerges from a history in which the US has accumulated its wealth on the backs of people from around the world. This accumulation has been through colonial expropriation, the slave trade and continues through economic and military interventions that devastate local economies and ways of life, that dispossess and displace millions of people and rob them of the right to live – wars, trade agreements, coups and political deals. To survive, millions flee north, (interpreted geographically and politically) where they are seen as “criminals” upon arrival, where they are feared and attacked. Why fear this arrival? What kinds of fear are buried underneath all the violence, are appeased by its exercise? The story of the “immigration crisis” can be told in a different way than the narrative of millions coming to take what is ours, once we understand that this global phenomenon is about millions of people, many of them indigenous, coming to claim what is theirs – to claim the right to live that was robbed from them, to claim access to the wealth they helped produce, to the lands and resources that are legitimately theirs. The crisis of their dispossession has been turned into a spectacle of “defense” and “security” , intended to mask the true nature and causes of migration in globalized capitalism.
And while every spectacle is false, it also contains some truth, at times in the most obvious and routine aspects of its choreography. This truth is expressed in the confrontation between poor and unarmed men, women and children on one side, and a multi-billion dollar army of soldiers and drones and weapons, hi-tech surveillance technology, media, morgues, lock-ups and draconian laws on the other. It is expressed in a surreal and hysterical border wall. Not surprisingly, this theater of war is similar in its visual expression, in its forms and choreographies, to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and to other spaces of military occupation. The spectacle of war at the border reveals North America as occupied land, and the arrival of the politically red-brown migrants as a challenge to the legitimacy of the colonial democracy.