Nation-Making, Illegalization and Self-Definition through Negation

by Mariame Kaba

Rozalinda, thank you for your last intervention (here).  It provoked so many different ideas and questions for me. My thoughts are inchoate at this moment but I’ve decided to pick up on two ideas that you raise (implicitly and explicitly):

  1. Nation-making
  2. The process of illegalization

The quotes from the CIR bill’s “Congressional Findings” section did indeed provoke a chuckle. But the words are familiar. They aren’t new. They have their roots in a history of American nation-making which extends far beyond how the country enforces its territorial integrity (i.e. borders).  Nation-making extends to the stories that we invent and tell ourselves about who we are. I want to focus on this paragraph in particular:

“We have always welcomed newcomers to the United States and will continue to do so. But in order to qualify for the honor and privilege of eventual citizenship, our laws must be followed. The world depends on America to be strong — economically, militarily and ethically. The establishment of a stable, just and efficient immigration system only supports those goals. As a nation [emphasis mine], we have the right and responsibility to make our borders safe, to establish clear and just rules for seeking citizenship, to control the flow of legal immigration, and to eliminate illegal immigration, which in some cases has become a threat to our national security. “

Notice the use of the term “nation,” not country.  Nation-making has been an ongoing concern throughout American history. It’s not of course unique to the American project but that’s my focus today. The historical period that I have read most about in this respect is the late 19th and early 20th centuries when we were also debating immigration.

In the making of a nation, the state implicitly and explicitly demands an entrance fee from those who will populate and build said nation. That fee however is unequal and always unfair.  You wrote: “One never asks why do some have their citizenship assumed, while others must earn it?” But is this true, I wonder? I actually think that a number of people have explored this idea in the past and continue to do so today. Most of W.E.B. Dubois’s scholarship was devoted to interrogating the State’s denial of equal citizenship for blacks. In fact, the overarching question for most marginalized groups in the American nation has been: “What price must the marginalized/excluded “citizen” pay to be desired and welcome?” And I would add another: “If that citizen pays the price, does that ensure full admittance?” For example, thousands of black people served in the American Armed Forces and were greeted when they were discharged with continued discrimination & a denial of the rights of full citizenship.  This suggests that the very concept of citizenship is and has always been an invented and contested one. My question to you is: How do you see this playing out any differently in this current bill, if at all? My sense is that it is just a continuation of the long tradition of the American project of exclusion of certain groups.

What clearly comes across to me in the Congressional Findings section cited above is the need to ascribe a utilitarian purpose and function to the “immigrants” who built and presumably will continue to build the nation.  CIR is a process through which immigrants/people who might potentially become “citizens” can be evaluated for how they might contribute to nation-making.  This is why I think the state is so invested in inscribing whiteness in new potential citizens.  What I think that we are seeing in this bill is what has always been: the U.S. continues to be most concerned with nation-making along a particular set of criteria.  This is why it seems to me that so much emphasis has been put in the bill on excluding “criminals” and on obeying laws.

You rightly command our attention to the actions of the state rather than to the behavior of individuals. I am interested in your point that: “Immigration laws are directed at illegalizing people, and yet they put the process of this illegalization in a black box.” The idea of a “process of illegalization” is a fascinating one to me. Further, you write:

“Though the bill is touted as offering a pathway to legalization, perhaps it is more useful to read it as part of a process of illegalization — in other words, instead of assuming that some migrants are legal and some are illegal, that there is some kind of natural distinction between “authorized” presence and unauthorized presence, we can remember that these distinctions are always created by the law and are not in themselves natural, inevitable or given. Perhaps we can develop our own “findings” by looking precisely among the things we are not supposed to look for, at what we are not supposed to see: the law as pathway to illegalization.”

Is the “process of illegalization” different from the idea of contested citizenship?  If yes, how so? What came to my mind as I read your thoughts on this was Benedict Anderson’s contention that nations are primarily “imagined communities;” that their cultures and histories are invented (  Nations are given meaning by the values that they embrace which then produce particular types of policies. These policies then only make sense when they can be assessed and compared to those of other nations.  This is encapsulated by the Congressional Findings section of the bill in this sentence: “The world depends on America to be strong — economically, militarily and ethically.”  America can only see itself or understand itself through comparison with other nations. So I am positing that what you propose as a process of illegalization may in fact be a process of self-definition through negation.

In other words, the American nation (an imagined and invented concept) can only understand itself through deciding who is in fact NOT worthy of citizenship. If we consider this as a possibility, then perhaps we can read the CIR bill as an attempt at self-definition of the nation and the citizen through an evaluation of who cannot join the polity.  Perhaps it’s less about illegalization than it is about self-definition that can only come about through exclusion.

I don’t know. I’m still thinking and perhaps will gain more purchase over my ideas as I continue to consider the ideas that you raised. But thank you for continuing the dialogue…