Colonization under the guise of “immigrant rights”

Across the United States, immigrant rights advocacy groups have been pushing for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR), with increasing intensity over the past 16 months. They have worked hard to present this proposed legislation as an essential win for the movement, a unique chance to take a step in the right direction. They have grossly exaggerated the benefits and have consistently misrepresented the provisions of the bill, suggesting the legislation would legalize 11 million people, it would strengthen family unity and decrease deportations. None of this is true, as grassroots migrant justice groups like MDC have amply demonstrated. For the most part immigrant communities have not been duped. Despite their impressive budgets, political backing and media monopoly, and despite the deepening crisis facing migrant communities, large-scale, mass molibizations of the migrant grass-roots has eluded the NGO complex.

In parallel to the push for CIR, there has been a resurgence of protest around ending deportations, which has presented itself as an alternative to the manipulative and politically swarmy reformist movement. Seeming to be youth-lead and defiant of powerful political lobbies, this other movement emerges out of the DREAMer lobby, a powerful national campaign that involves a lot more than the brave young people we see in front of cameras. But is this DREAM 2.0 really an alternative to reformist deception, or a more nuanced, more covert and more difficult to critique manifestation of the same politics?

The NotOneMore campaigns initially demanded an end to deportations for those who would qualify for immigration reform, but by the end of 2013 the explicit reference to CIR became more rare. In the absence of an explicit rejection of CIR, veiled references announcing the annual Not 1 More conference (“Congress continues to deliberate reform, but ICE is not deliberating” as per the website) were paired with pro-reform slogans and chants at the site of the direct actions against ICE headquarters and busses. Bring Them Home seemed to sidestep any clear connection to the reformist movement, focusing instead on the bravery of young people trying to cross the border under refugee -seeking provisions. There is much to discuss about how this campaign deliberately mystifies the legal and bureaucratic realities of the refugee and asylum system, or how the outrage mobilized around these young people implicitly renders of less value the lives of tens of thousands of refugee-seekers who face mandatory detention and expulsion under horrific conditions. There is much to say about how Bring Them Home articulates the problem of asylum by capitalizing on the hysterical media representations of the drug wars as a symptom of Mexican society, deliberately obscuring the connections between narco capitalism, resource extraction and the financial and political interests of the US — in other words, the narco wars as a form of American politics. But we digress: the question here is what does the  “youth” movement have to do with CIR? We see more and more choreographed and spectacular actions that coopt what are traditionally autonomous tactics: direct action, hunger strikes and so on. Some of these are overtly pro-CIR, while others do not claim this explicitly.  But are these two strands in some way connected?

One way to look at this connection is to consider the ways both capitalize upon, and reproduce, the spectacle of the border.

The spectacular border

The proliferation of staged border images is breathtaking. Images of young people, families, children confronting walls, bars and barbed wire fences are broadcast along with personal narratives through which we glean that they are so very American, just like us. These powerful campaigns work to convince public opinion that migrants are human beings, that is to say they are American in a normative way — they speak English, dream in English, have family members here; they stand out as gringos in Mexico; they are productive members of society and share the aspirations of the US, with which they identify. They are no threat to the stability and prosperity of the nation. They are impossibly brave and heroic, and yet they are relatable because they are productive for capital, law-abiding, just like us.The very real people become actors, playing the part of the worthy or relatable or humanized migrant; the border becomes a prop against which these actors can locate themselves, can demonstrate their presence, their existence — we are here, we are of this place. In their very relatability, the heroic migrants of the border spectacle reproduce specific notions of what and who can be seen as human, as existing. The prop and the actor are bound together in a specific performance of presence and of visibility.

The pressure for all of us who are active in migrant justice struggles is to silence our critique. The enemy is the lunatic right, whereas the NGO movement, and sugar-Daddy democrats, are cast the solution, right? Many of us question the ethical and political directions we see developing in the movement, but our opposition is met with scorn, hostility and occasionally with police presence. But we know this is not the only way people are defining migrant justice, because we see it in our communities: we see workshops and teach-ins, protests and solidarity work , neighborhood defense and anti-policing work.

So we think simple questions need to be asked. Who and what is rendered invisible or non-existent in campaigns that make a spectacle of the border? Whose cannot, must not, be present ? How do these spectacles settle a specific understanding of what the border is, of its very existence as given, as beyond the possibility of not-existing? These may seem like esoteric questions, but they are actually quite practical, because they refer to accountability and consequence.

The other border

There is another US-Mexico border than the one produced through these spectacles. It is a much broader region, encompassing an area of land 100 km north and south of the current international boundary. CIR proposals are centered on the premise that any modification of immigration policy begins with increased militarization in this region. Every other aspect of CIR depends on the implementation of this package of heightened “security measures”.  47 billions for drones and 24 x 7 surveillance and double border walls and tens of thousand extra border patrol agents. The US-Mexico border region is a growth market in the war economy.

There is binational support for CIR, as the grinning presidents reassure us. But forced migration from the margins of empire to the center is not a binational issue. And this is not a binational space. It is occupied land. Today there are 25 Native American nations inhabiting the border region on this side of the fence alone. What we call the border is a complex, unstable and hybrid space. Immigrant rights NGO’s parachute in to stage short-term actions, and want to erase everything that threatens the logic of their campaigns. They roll out operations on top of ancestral Tohono O’odham, Hia C-ed O’odham and Lipan Apache lands, with no accountability to the history or current reality of the border as a space of ongoing occupation and resistance.


Tohono O’odham youth and elders have been confronting border militarization and opposing CIR for years, and although the border cuts across their lands the O’odham perspective seldom figures in debates around the border  – see below for two important videos, and an article here

The Gila River Indian community’s struggle against the Loop 202 highway has connected settler occupation with transnational trade corridors and border militarization; check out some amazing literature here and here. Lipan Apache Land Defenders are currently calling for solidarity in their struggle. Resistance is happening in community spaces, at border checkpoints, and through media — but also in the courts and through transnational diplomatic organizations.

We are a no-budget collective in Chicago — but even afar, it is not that difficult to get a tiny bit educated about some of this. The well-funded campaigns that treat the border as a blank space in which only the wall and ideal relatable migrants can appear are not based on ignorance: both overtly reformist and DREAM 2.0 organizing carefully repress any real consideration of the border as indigenous space. Just as the presence of autonomous stateless communities, of informal economies and unregulated movement constitute a threat to the capitalist state, so too the ongoing presence of sovereign indigenous nations — not merely individuals or families, but ways of life, languages, forms of governance and presence in a territory, land claims and practices that far predate the border and that have refused to be disappeared by it — is a threat to the NGO immigrant rights complex.

How is the threat managed or eliminated? Well, this is more complicated and hopefully someone can help figure that one out. We know that displaced migrants are excluded from the state through their inclusion as illegal. And there has been ample evidence of the token inclusion or incorporation of indigenous voices by immigrant rights NGO’s and the white ally industry. There is also an ongoing pattern of the immigrant rights movement equating itself with indigenous resistance, even while furthering settler incursions on indigenous lands. One recent example of this was a national conference in Arizona organized by Puente and Not One More; the organizers partnered with political players who are actively pushing a freeway project that is being resisted by the Gila River Indian community and by O’odham community members. Carrying a banner claiming that immigrant rights represent 500 years of indigenous resistance, these organizations not only failed to mobilize solidarity (a tactical no-brainer if you are going to bring hundreds of people from around the country to a place where there is a live fight going on), but actively bolstered the public image and political capital of a development project directly attacking indigenous lands.

Under the guise of “immigration reform”, “bringing them home” and “ending deportations”, the newest assault on indigenous sovereignty is fully underway. Unless we resist, we are all complicit. It is time we call this shit out.


An O’odham perspective on border patrols and immigration an O’odham blog with fresh and thoughtful analysis of CIR and the hunger strikes for Not 1 More

2 thoughts on “Colonization under the guise of “immigrant rights”

  1. I’ve never met this author yet I have to applaud her! She seems on point with everything except 2 things!

    But first I want to say that this is a very important article with very important questions! Some of these questions I asked myself as I joined 3 dreamers and 1 lpr called the trail of dreams (ironic since they played on the trail of tears); all from South America, none walked the desert or hid inside a camion almost dying like florida kid from argentina…i don’t want to generalize about the global south yet they all flew in to the country with a visa…they had all gone to high school in the us and made most of there first memories in miami…having mostly never interacted with mexicans…so that was very different from the Guatemalan indigenas that wanted to join us leaving jupiter, fl…one day over 100 or more joined us and walked several miles… i remember after they were told that they could not come with us i piled them all up in the rv, must have been over 30 or 40 familia and the tire blew from the weight…it should have been a metaphor for the strategy from there on out; aplastarlos a todos los que nos quieran separar, deportar, torturar, y abusar; although the never present genius organizers that were calling the shots said no! (they always seem to swoop in at some opportune time when somebodys already against the ropes because the whole community from all types of angles and dimensions are bending time and taking chingazos simultaneously engaging in pimpin all that work and selling it as theres only…dont even get me started about how one of the organizers tried to tell me that she single handedly took down lou dobs lol) #chismeforotrodia

    They needed ameriKKKan individualistic dreamer characters to manipulate and that fit the mold as worthy immigrant superheroes! I know one thing for certain, when we left Miami on jan 1 2010 I didn’t realize it would lead me to places like el salvador, guatemala, mexico and provided me the honor of learning from genios sin papeles y sin miedo…I love the humans on the trail as i love the ones we started Youth CAN (changing a nation aka uwd1.0)) and United We Dream and the NIYA and the scores of undocumented youth lead organizations that have emerged throughout this country and abroad…

    I say ameriKKKan because the author is right on… the new racist in our time are the ones that think like them, by them i mean those that do not want diversity, do not want ethnic studies, do not see patriarchy, sexism, racism, classism as existing and what we need to be working on…often time, unfortunately to achieve and succeed in school has been defined as how much you earn so naturally the skills valued are those that are going to advance the interests of US corporations… if we say to succeed is actually connected to freedom and liberation then what we see as achievement and successful in school is completely different… if we define success as what makes our communities more free then the tests change, our understanding of intelligences changes, as does our support for art, for culture, for theatre, for music, and so much of life that the millennial generation is completely missing! its something that was thriving long before columbus “discovered” us…therefore i agree with the authors analysis at the limitations of CIR frameworks and the current NPIC strategies and messaging… but i would distinguish the acts civil disobedience between blocking busses and blocking streets and uniting families that have been deported or were ethnically cleansed from places like arizona and alabama… its a simple difference… you are doing it to earn or your doing it for freedom/liberation… one is indivualistic and the other communitarian… both can be “good” or “bad” … i say this because when the trail of dreams arrived in DC they did not get arrested, they simply left there shoes, and walked off while the NPIC aka rifa aka somos america with papers y con privilege got arrested in the place of the undocumented youth all over the country that had put much hopes and prayers into that action-the first act of civil disobedience in this countries history by dreamers… although mostly every night we called some obama person and told her where we were; and every morning we told them where we are starting from… with the NIYA we dont get his help instead of walking away from the white house where we all told each other we would stay on a hunger strike when we started….the dreamers and mostly queermers from the dream is coming that got arrested in tucson a few months later; they were offered “relief” by the US government and refused…till this day i am not sure if gabby or felipe would have done what lizbeth, mo, and Yahaira did; i am sure tania would stand with the collective and carlos would take it and forest gump it in black pants-only black pants please! most people dont know that when offered deferred action as individuals the dream 5 said “NO, if we don’t all get it then we don’t want it” and proceeded to fight until they found themselves undocupying Obamas office until he signed some relief for all! I would say that the distinction is the collective consciousness, the shtetl kehillah, that is being built glocally!

    So 2 things off about this article that I can comment on now…

    1. You cannot conflate BringThemHome with Not1More campaigns! NIYA and NDLON are very different organizations that do not work together! Yes, NDLON now has people that used to ride with NIYA, but they are not the same! Moreover, we are so broke it ain’t funny; NIYA doesn’t get any NPIC million dollars grants! To say BringThemHome is well funded just exposes that you don’t know shit about who we are, what we been through, and where we are going; but I ain’t mad at you because it’s easy to think we are heavily funded given what is being produced and the quality of the work! Shit if I didn’t know any better I would think that NIYA had to be well funded to do what they do…we got something more important than funding from foundations-Tenemos Familia! Programs don’t work-Organizations don’t work: People Work! And the NIYA has some amazing gente and thats more valuable than $…they work long term multi year projects that build communities not just make deadlines with deliverables…Somos pocos pero lokos!

    2. To claim that theNIYA did not respect the indigenous peoples land and the herstorical struggle for land and liberation is not just nativist but also bullshit! I don’t know about NDLON pero before we did our arrest at the McCain action in 2010 we asked for permission from the O’odham community! It was one of the major reasons we did it in Xucson and not Phoenix; we even had an elder lead a ceremonia the morning of for participants! They did so in solidarity and also because Lizbeth Mateo is Zapoteca and so is Marco Saavedra and Ceferino Santiago all from oaxaca and the Dream9/Dream30 actions. They were and are in solidarity not just in AZ but throughout the Americas! This latest round involved indigenous families from Michoacan among them is Elvira Arellano is Purehe’pecha…Other families speak Nahuatl and still others speak other languages. To deny the indigenous identities of these families and not see BringThemHome struggle to keep them together as immigrant rights work today in 2014 is not coo boo boo as izzy from dream30 would say.

    Furthermore, this talking chankla about the lack of family trauma and how they are weakening the asylum process of more deserving victim is off center in multiple ways! first, you cannot argue that the US is illegitimate and then get mad when indigenous gente y immigrants dont respect its institution. So much so to say that they have enough trust it the government to measure the trauma of thousands upon thousands of peoples that seek help from the US. You can’t be a constructivist and believe all that is solid melts into air and then have a position on anything! secondly, Once you read the families cases then you can take that stuff about more deserving asylum seekers back!

    At the end of the day you have to take a position, when you listen to the testimonios of these families, and internalize the traumas, about the rapes, the beheadings, the violence, the kidnappings, the fear and the everyday mental health living conditions of these 150 families and what they experience in this colonial context the O’odham know exactly what that’s like-they have experienced it as well; although maybe not as long as these familias communities have in meso america…

    The point is that whoever is talking shit about the specifics of each families request for humanitarian help or political asylum can’t know until they read the cases, watch the testimonios, and walk in there shoes! I sincerely hope that once anyone realizes the rigorous process that the NIYA organizers went through to support some the most horrible cases of the over 2 million deported families you will understand, as I do, how they all qualify… In fact I feel bad for the officers doing there interviews because they are gonna feel like they just got emotionally and traumatically bombed! It’s not just any stories that make our gente in charge of mental health to get unbalanced! In fact I have not met 1 person that does this work and deals directly with the detainees that doesn’t lose it a bit! I mean how can one keep it together after learning about the horrendous cards people have been dealt?

    Lastly, I had a prominent professor from the US tell me that I was just buying into the sensationalism of the illusion of violence in mexico… He said that there are not as many people killed as reported…the point being that the violence is so normalized that it’s familiar and not questioned… Yet those that work with communities in Honduras y Peru know how things are even worse than we think! If unifying families together across imposed borders against the will of under the rule of law of an illegitimate government is not immigrant rights-it is now!

    I’ll stop my rant… Just wanted to share this nice write up by this author and say I almost support everything written!
    #callNIYAout for being bullies, having a boy band, having misogynists-n-sexist members, not being structured, going crazy, being queers, but never for being well funded and for being NDLON/Puente please! I respect many of there leaders yet have had my issues with the overall org!

  2. I recently received this comment from Felipe, who gives some personal insights on the contradictions the of the nonprofit complex. I appreciate we have lots of points of agreement — but Felipe also offers a few criticisms, which deserve some answers. Felipe’s comment also make me realize where things need to be more clear. We tend to defend the individuals, or to justify a campaign as though it mirrors the positive intentions of the individuals involved. But a criticism of a campaign is not the same as attacking individuals. I do not know the individuals involved, and I have no reason to assume anything about their intentions; it is not about intentions, it is about accountability to consequences and collateral damage. I deliberately do not refer to individuals, but to the ways organizations, tactics and media interests transform real people, real territories, into props for a certain kind of politics. My beef is with spectacle politics, no matter who perpetuates it. So thanks to Felipe for the comments and criticisms, my responses address these campaigns, as though we could talk to them directly — maybe we can, or maybe we should.

    1. NDLN, Puente and NIYA are not the same organization, no doubt. But the campaigns end up playing a very similar politics. They rely on media spectacle, they play to dominant notions of “Americaneness”, and they explicitly and implicitly support CIR without questioning what that means. These campaigns become circulated in ways that bolster the popular and media appeal of the reformists, and they are having the collateral effect of making it harder to challenge and resist the logic of CIR. Haven’t we seen what reformist politics has produced, time and time again — with the most recent proposals being off the charts to the right? How much more colonial, militaristic, racist and xenophobic can proposed “reform” be before we finally mobilize against these proposals? My take is this: it is irresponsible to even hint at supporting “reform” and to NOT denounce CIR.

    No one should be in detention; no one should be made to compete in the worthy/unworthy logic of the homeland security state. In circulating images and stories of families who are in desperate situations, there is an accountability on the part of the campaign managers — the people who frame the discourse around these events and lives — to be clear about detention policy, about the ways detention is justified and normalized, about the systemic connections between detention, deportability and US economic interests. it is not helpful in terms of movement-building to misinform people or to encourage simplified readings of the policy in order to prop up a campaign. I am not critical because I think some are more deserving than others, that logic is totally off and it denies the right to free movement and self-dermination of all peoples — my critique is that Bring Them Home uses asylum policy and yet I have never seen this campaign ever, ever, create a platform for political education about asylum policy.

    2. I am not aware of some formal collaboration between NIYA and O’odham communities. If you are building solidarities at an organization level, good for you! Maybe the next step can be for NIYA to learn from that, for example to learn from struggles like the resistance to the South Mountain freeway, (in addition to actually showing a bit of support, since you have such incredible visibility). These struggles teach us all how to link border militarization, colonialism, “free trade” and the displacement/illegalization of migrants. Why not resist the border from that perspective?

    Punte is now organizing a campaign called “Trail to End Deportations”, am obvious reference to the Trail of Tears. That is some heavy shit. Wow. Taking on that kind of reference, making that kind of comparison, is a pretty audacious move. I wonder if that means the campaign is a meaningful engagement with indigenous communities whose lands the walkers are actually crossing? I wonder if that means a commitment of resources to supporting the struggles currently underway, a commitment to coming out against CIR as a bill which is obviously a further violation of indigenous sovereignty and militarization of indigenous lands? I wonder what it means?

    There is a nuanced post about the difference between people and organiational politics here

    The author has deep knowledge of, respect for people doing this work, and also tries to (hesitantly) call critical attention to the appropriation of indigenous history. The desire to support people who are fighting despite great suffering is understandable, because real harm comes from lack of support, lack of allies who are there no matter what. But this does not justify turning a willful blind eye to the suffering of other communities, and the ways that immigrant rights has so often been leveraged to prop up colonial politics.

    Sometimes organizations cite permission or participation of indigenous people as a way to deflect critiques of their messaging. Of course many illegalized migrants who are resisting are themselves indigenous; but no matter how many people you consult or “include”, still, an organization and campaign are accountable to what they put out there, to the rhetoric they perpetuate. I think NIYA should be aware that what you are putting out there as a very visible public campaign — the messaging, the framing — ends up playing into a lot of colonialist bullshit. maybe unintentionally, but it is unavoidable when implicitly and explicitly supporting CIR and AVOIDING any direct or meaningful confrontation with border militarization as a colonial issue. And that is not coming from the participants in these actions, of course no one can deny their identities and lives. That is coming from those who frame the campaign, those who manage it, and from the tactics that are adopted organizationally by a larger movement in which certain ways of campaign-work are seen as “successful” because they get media coverage, because they get specific kinds of sympathies or key political relationships.

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