Abolish “papers”? Another look at Registered Provisional Immigrant

Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) is a new status invented in Senate Bill S-744. The status is conditional in several ways. First: no one can apply for it until the Secretary of Homeland Security has completed a border enforcement strategy that will outline how DHS will build new border walls and add drones, new troops and hi-tech surveillance in order to ensure 24/7 surveillance of the border, lead to a 90% capture rate of newly arriving migrants… among many other nightmarish ambitions (this is appropriately referred to as the “trigger”). Secondly, it has strict criteria that exclude people with a criminal record; exclude people who are not able to document that they have had continuous employment while the in  the United States (there is an allowance for interruptions of 60 days). Seasonal workers, those who work intermittent jobs, those who cannot prove employment… all will be excluded. It also excludes people who cannot document that they earn at least 100 percent of the poverty level wage — that means that in a family of two with one income earner, minimum-wage earners are excluded. From the time that the application process opens, people will have one year to complete all their documentation and to gather a lot of cash: to pay application fees and back taxes and, given the bewildering nature of the process, most likely to pay attorney fees as well. Who has that kind of money on hand?

For those who do qualify, RPI grants its bearer a few important benefits: the possibility to apply for RPI for family members, access to a drivers license and working authorization. But it does not constitute “legal resident”, status, does not guarantee rights and it can be revoked at any time.

Not undocumented

But is RPI a step in the “right direction” as we have been told by the promoters of the bill? Does it make the immigration system “more just?” It depends on what direction we think we need to go — and on what is our understanding of justice. Can there be more or less justice, or justice for some at the expense of others? How does one take the measure of a partial and selective justice?  We asked these same questions in relation to DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) — here, as there, we understood that individuals and their families would have to make incredibly difficult decisions to navigate a cynical system in the best way they can, trying to defend themselves in the terms imposed by the system with what little is at their disposal. But as a movement — and as a society — do we accept something like RPI as a new normal?

RPI is clearly no guarantee of rights. It does not entitle the bearer to make demands of the state, to be recognized as “legal”. It it does not in any ways change the conditions of deportability. RPI carves out a flexible space between authorized an unauthorized so that some people will still be “not legal” (and exposed to the risk of deportation) and will be documented as such. What kind of “papers” are these? Conversely, the bill guarantees that those forced out of RPI will face harsher penalties, a greater threat of deportation and a greater level of criminalization.

This small correspondence has been a way  to not look at immigration  practices in isolation, but instead recognize them in relation to longstanding practices of exclusion. There are many ways that the rhetoric surrounding the bill (even of those who support it and promote it), and some of the specific provisions, continue a trajectory of anti-blackness. Here I wanted to look at how RPI is possibly linked to historically  familiar examples of “registering” racialized populations as less than fully included. Promoted under the benevolent guise of freeing people from illegality or from the shackles of bondage,  “registering” instead provided a mechanism for rendering manageable populations that could be seen as “freed and not free”.  Perhaps this is an opportunity to test how these historical lessons can be applied; does it makes sense to make these comparisons here?

“Freed” and unfree

In the history of slavery there are many examples of procedures that required blacks to register for “free papers” in order to be recognized as freed slaves or non-slaves. It was supposedly intended to stop the practice of slaves being hired for wages, granting the bearer what today we would call employment authorization — the right to sell their services for a wage. The Virgina laws of 1793 required people to re-register for these papers every three years; unregistered blacks could be jailed as runaway slaves. Is this analogous to today’s RPI, or to the implementation of a national E-Verify system for employment authorization, which works to grant some a right to a wage while in effect also being a way to capture and illegalize? In the late 1800’s states such as Pennsylvania required free blacks to register with the authorities upon arrival in a new town, to register incoming or visiting relatives. etc.  So registering was coercive, under threat of re-capture — rendering conditional the freedom of freed slaves, and their rights “alienable”.  Not having free papers was used to legitimize the continued bondage and punishment of some, but registering also assured the surveillance and monitoring of all blacks…. and to reinforce blackness as illegality.

When the Chinese Exclusion Act expired, Chinese immigrants residing in the United States would no longer be legally barred from residency or citizenship rights. Racist anxieties over this inclusion were expressed in the Geary Bill, which was introduced as a way of  differentiating between authorized and unauthorized Chinese migrants — because, as Senatory Geary infamously stated, “you can’t tell one Chinaman from another”. All people identified as Chinese were required to register as the only means to prove their legal status. So even though people had been legally granted rights, these were not inalienable. The state continued to assume that all people racially marked in certain ways are illegal unless they could prove otherwise. Non-whiteness carried with it the burden of proof of legality.

The violence of bureaucracy: out of the shadows and into the …what exactly???

“One of the real significant improvements made by this bill is to bring people out of the shadows. We know who they are. We know where they are” – Janet Napolitano

The application of bureaucracy in the modern state has complex effects in relation to questions of individual rights and freedoms. Administrative power requires information encoded in such ways that it can be applied to the monitoring and direction of human activities. Databases, registers, tracking devices, security algorhythms, information-sharing, these are devices of capture that place the individual within a field of surveillance. The imposition of a coercive process of “registry” is part of this process of capture.

Migrants, by the millions, are on the move — waiting for no permission, as permission will not come from the laws of misery — they breach national borders to claim a piece of the wealth that was accumulated at their expense. Identifying them as “trespassers” is necessary if the state is to assert its monopoly over the means of movement in the modern world. Deporting 12 million people is not a realistic goal — not only is it not possible, it is undesirable given that an underclass of exploitable workers is a condition for the domestic economy. Deportability remains the condition of migrants today, predicated upon an expanded capacity for punishment — to register is to manage migration enforcement, to streamline and make it more efficient. It is about logistics, not justice.

But this is not merely about individual rights — in other words, it is not only that individuals are increasingly surveilled, monitored, tracked and subjected to risk calculations – preemptively considered dangerous, preemptively constrained. Over two years ago, when we looked at the rise of Secure Communities after the age of the mega-raids, MDC wrote the following:

this is also an all-out attack on the communal economies and social structures they immigrants often crucial in sustaining: neighborhood arrangements that collectivize domestic and reproductive work, economies of barter and exchange, social and institutional practices of self-governance and so on. In other words, all the social arrangements and relations that correspond to a definition of communities as living systems. These arrangements are a nuisance from the perspective of logistics management; they are an impediment to efficiency and profit maximization, as much an obstacle to the total marketization of life as public education and the few remaining entitlement programs – and equally under attack. (see here)

The state and globalized capital are expressing anxiety over the potential insurgent threat represented by unmanaged global migration: described in racist undertones as shadow worlds, dark economies, black markets, these unauthorized movements and forms of presence defy both the rules of the state and the imperatives of the “legal” economy. They represent a space that has not been entirely captured within the dominant economies — a space where other logics can and often do manifest, producing counter-economies at all scales, radical political possibilities and forms of being that run counter to the dominant order. And all over the world we have seen that the struggles of migrants offer all of us new possibilities for resistance. Bureaucracy is a way to manage this threat.

In this bill, the more obvious violence of “securing the border” is paired with the more subtle violence of bureaucracy: the development of a set of administrative tools that make other activities (exclusions, punishments, restrictions and forms of diminishment) possible and enforceable.

We have written before about the need to abolish citizenship — with its corresponding tethered, exploited and unfree populations. Can we imagine an abolitionist position beginning with the abolition of all “status” — all “papers” and their corresponding digital forms (registries, databases, and so on?)  How would we build institutions, social relations and forms of exchange if no one had any papers or “records” of any kind — no birth certificates, insurance documents, passports, property deeds, contracts or sales receipts, social security numbers – or conversely, what if all records were collective instead of individual (collective land deeds for instance) and/or cooperatively negotiable by all those affected by that social contract?  Where would such a thought experiment lead, and can we afford not to let ourselves leap that far?