Citizen as contested and the violence of “inclusion”

Mariame’s post (link here) brings into question the problematic category of “citizen”. Who and what is a citizen? How “real” is the citizen? How is this myth constituted, what is its rhetorical power? and: what are we erasing when we believe it, when we do not contest it?

As you say, the process of nation-building involves, among many things, a process of exclusion, of definition through negation. The nation is an imagined, invented concept, as is the citizen: the body that is supposedly the bearer of “inalienable rights”. This is a relatively recent invention, but already so normalized that its constructedness is often well concealed. The myth of the citizen also works to conceal the ways that nation-building means not just citizens and non-citizens, but social categories that are both “citizens” and excluded from citizenship at the same time. There are many forms of conditional inclusion , or selective inclusion, that are in effect forms of exclusion. This is part of the process of establishing a social order of racial domination in the United States, relegating blacks to a category of unequal or excluded citizens.

I think the questions you raise are precisely the ones that are absent from the debate around “immigrant rights” —  namely, the ways in which current immigration practices emerge from, and express, longstanding practices of exclusion and marginalization of particular groups, especially (not exclusively) along racial lines; what you call “nation-making along a particular set of criteria”. The dominant logic within immigrant rights circles is to press for “papers”, any papers, because presumably each small procedure that conditionally includes some is a small step on the “path to legalization”. I think I was looking for ways to use the terms of that debate in order to question some of its underlying assumptions, maybe to estrange the language just enough to where something that appears normal, given, can once again be revealed as contestable (as citizenship has been a highly contested category in certain critical traditions, as you mention, but not as much in the context of immigrant rights in the US). The narrative of “path to citizenship” i.e. “path to inclusion” is so pervasive, so dominant, there is little room to ask:  how does recognizing only some bodies as bearers of inalienable rights legitimize exposing all others to forms of diminishment, exploitation and violence? How does the demand of inclusion reinforce the logic that some lives are worth less?

As Mariame stated, this is not a new story, it is a new form, or a new expression for something very familiar in the story of “America”.  How can organizing around something like this particular “reform” bill become a moment for taking this into account — for challenging the myth of citizenship and of inclusion? For stepping outside of the logic of advocacy for special interest groups (immigrants, or immigrants with degrees in STEM disciplines, or those who arrive before a certain date, under certain circumstances, or those with certain incomes, or with no criminal record, or with citizen children, or from certain countries etc etc), but instead a perspective on migrant justice that is anchored in resisting the exclusionary violence of the myth of “citizenship”? What does an abolitionist perspective in terms of borders and citizenship look like?  These are broad questions — but this bill is also a specific thing, with specific provisions that will impact many peoples lives and it is moving fast, very fast. Even if it does not pass, the rhetoric and hey around it have succeeded in creating a new normal — by floating so many possible provisions with little to no opposition, the “reform” process has very real consequences even if the bill does not pass. This is not a time to ask general questions but to put those desires into practice — to learn by doing. And so far the hype surrounding the bill, and the promise of a quasi-status that renders some people documented but still not legal (which the dominant forces in the movement are claiming as a “win”) are starting to feel like pacifying mechanisms, like a way of preempting these very desires  — of cooping and disarming what less than a decade ago seemed like a powerful movement.

And since this is evolving as an open-ended conversation, i would like to end with a few observations that hopefully can open up towards further conversations – instead of conclusions, triggers for possible future questions.

1. it is not only that immigration policy is shaped by the existing forms of racial subordination and oppression, it is also that the migrant has become an experiment in non-personhood which in turn can affect how categories of “lesser citizenship” can be re-jigged — and historically we see a reciprocal relationship between forms of exclusion targeting migrants and other populations shaping and influencing each other. In addition, detention is the fastest growing form of captivity in the US — and although detention is considered outside of the provisions of the criminal system, it is precisely this space “outside”, as an exceptional space, that allows for it to experiment with the logic of incarceration in ways that work to reshape the domestic penal system. We do not seem equipped to understand these two systems together — instead we try to reduce one to the other. How can engaging with some of the specific aspects of this bill trigger a closer analysis of this dynamic, and possibly facilitate an intersection between prison abolition and migrant justice?

2. there are many provisions in the bill that fall under “exceptional” measures — these are financial maneuvers, forms of cooperation between federal and local authorities, forms of plenary power attributed to homeland security, to domestic militarization, domestic surveillance and biometric programs — which use the pretext or opportunity of an “immigration bill” to become implemented with the full force of the law — in other words, the bill regularizes what have been until maybe familiar but extralegal practices. in other words — it is a myth that this is an immigration reform bill.

3. there are some provisions that will indeed grant some forms of relief to some people. a few things, buried in the bill, that are incredibly important for people who are facing deportation or who are at risk of being targeted. mandating a bond hearing for people captured by ICE, the question of defense for those undergoing deportation proceedings. a critique of this bill is in no way intended to minimize how important these basic provisions are, how urgently needed. but there are also many any ways in which enforcement, punishment, surveillance and targeting of immigrants will increase and find new forms. there will indeed be people who can find some benefit from the Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status, just as many people were able to benefit from DACA, although the requirements here will be almost impossible to meet for people who do not have some serious money at their disposal. there are many reasons for people to greet this bill with a great deal of hope. But is it is incredibly cynical to push the diminishment, marginalization and criminalization of entire categories of people so far as to make limited non-statuses like RPI seem like an improvement. RPI does nothing to change what and who is considered deportable, does nothing to address the diminishment of people, does nothing to recognize the humanity and inherent rights of all people. instead, RPI normalizes the lesser citizen in new and perverse ways. It specifically excludes people based on criminal record, income levels, ability to document steady uninterrupted employment (with few exceptions) and on and on… it is incredibly selective. and it justifies increased punishment against all those who remain outside of this “status”, and against future migrants. and then there is the “registered” part, for which I think we would do well to look into historical examples of ‘registries” used to institutionalize lesser citizenship for blacks. (forthcoming. i hope this is something we can look at next)

4. if current anti-immigrant practices are a new expression for an long and ongoing history of exclusion, some aspects of this new expression may be important to look at in their specificity, because they may help us understand something about the nature of power and of the articulation of the state within global markets. This bill is a good example. It is a neoliberal expression, with the familiar constellation of terms: security, efficiency, competitiveness, opportunity. It is, as the bill states, a “modernization” of the rhetoric and practice of exclusion. What exactly does the modernization entail? Cybernetics, drones, integration, flexibility, stratification, streamlining. Tt outlines a more nimble system for population management that is responsive to changing economic imperatives. It is very much like supply chain management — or logistics — applied to the movement of human beings instead of commodities (or as commodities).

5. why and how is a bill like this promoted by democrats as “pro-immigrant?”, and heavily — HEAVILY — promoted by the dominant sector of the immigrant rights liberal NGO complex? How does this complex work to silence dissent, to mobilize “popular” support for the bill, or to produce the spectacle of popular support? What are the taboos around organizing any resistance to it? How has the Obama administration managed to deport more people than any president in history and also win the immigrant vote? What are the lessons for us in terms of the possibilities for social change today?