Isolation and Acts of Resistance in Immigrant Rights Movements

By Alfonso Roca Suárez (Department of Spanish & Portuguese)

In 2020, Oxford Languages adopted a corpus analysis-based approach to do justice to the linguistic complexity used to talk about the main events of the year. The change in strategy came after realizing that it would not be adequate to reduce the intricacy of those events—which will surely leave its stamp on the memory of the generations to come—to the usual word-of-the-year style. This time, it seemed better to talk of “Words of an Unprecedented Year.” Yet despite increasing the number of items, many of the words in this corpus clearly clustered around the theme of the pandemic: “quarantine,” “distancing,” “self-isolate,” “lockdown,” “stay-at-home,” and “isolation.”

When the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency in January of 2020, isolation became the most effective way to protect the population against the proliferation of the deadly virus. In the United States, California became the first state to issue a stay-at-home order, restricting all movement that was not deemed to be “essential.” By the time the state of Ohio was about to put into effect its own order mandating its residents to remain at home, new concerns about the toll that social isolation might have on mental health began to emerge among public officials, journalists, scientist, and the general population. But regardless of how “unprecedented” the events of 2020 were, the defensive measures that were taken and the cost they carry were not entirely novel, as illustrated by a news story that appeared on the The Columbus Dispatch: “Coronavirus: Isolation nothing new for immigrant Edith Espinal after 2 1/2 years in sanctuary at Ohio church.”

For centuries, entering sanctuary—a practice that began in the Greco-Roman world—has been a way to seek safety from various threats. Only within the last two decades has the practice of sanctuary been used in sheltering people from deportation. In 2006, for example, a Church in Chicago became activist Elvira Arellano’s sanctuary until she eventually was deported. Like these women’s cases, dozens of “mixed-status” families—namely, families constituted by members of various citizenship status ranging from U.S. citizens by birth, to naturalized citizens, to legal permanent residents, to undocumented individuals, and others—have seen some of their members being given sanctuary. In Ohio, Espinal was one of the two other names that became known and filled the pages of local and national news outlets. Although only a few names enter public scrutiny, it is important to note that they are indicative of a larger phenomenon. While those living in sanctuary might be delaying their deportations, millions of others have been removed from the U.S. by immigration enforcement, particularly in the post-9/11 era.

My research explores how immigrant activists perform acts of resistance within the context of the U.S. immigration system. Isolation, in the sanctuary case, is not motivated by the prudential reasons behind U.S. residents struggling to fight against a mindless disease. Rather, immigrant activists’ action stem from their desire to resist a human-made institutional authority, which despite its coercive powers is constrained by various factors. To better understand the conditions of possibility of activists’ actions, it is crucial to take on board a historical perspective examining the development of political, social, and economic processes that have given rise to the current conjuncture. In exploring these questions, the conference Worlds in Contention: Race, Neoliberalism, and Injustice held on May 7-8 became a valuable space to engage in discussions and learn about the ways racialized groups across the globe have been affected by and responded to various forms of institutional oppression.

In a paper entitled “The Brown Family and Social Reproduction in U.S. Capitalism,” Inés Valdez argues that a historical perspective reveals that family separation, and other forms of state-sponsored coercion targeting what she calls the “brown family” are not novel phenomena. On the contrary, they have been an essential ingredient of the U.S. domination regime. A genealogy of this regime uncovers other ingredients such as a history of conquest, settlement, exploitative forms of guest labor accompanied by militarized surveillance, and other tactics which ultimately underwrite both the creation and degradation of racialized families. Particularly, Valdez points out that such degradation is a structural element ensuring the availability of exploitative labor that fuels the U.S. capitalist apparatus. Among the programs feeding such apparatus, Valdez mentions the establishment of the Bracero program in the 1940s.

A different case is examined by Megan Ming Francis, who investigates in “The Crimes of Freedom” the role that legal systems played in the reconstruction of the South in the post-Civil War period. Francis argues that the economy that was once dependent of the labor of Black slaves did not change its exploitative spirit. Although slavery as such was abolished, Southern states preserve a set of conditions suitable for profit through the introduction of new criminal laws targeting Blacks and the use of forced labor as a form of punishment.

These two papers cast light onto the enduring implications of immigration policies for activists in immigrant rights movements. The “zero-tolerance” policy implemented during the Trump administration, which drove many undocumented to seek sanctuary in locations regarded as “sensitive” by an Obama-era policy, is just the latest iteration of a cycle of injustices. Given the mixed status of many families, deportations inevitably lead to the fragmentation of families and the damaging of networks of support essential for individuals’ well-being. Even with the temporary protection of sanctuary, there are nonetheless left with the harmful consequences of long-term isolation: for the undocumented members of the families, degradation of mental and physical health are the most immediate effects; for the family as a social unit, the loss of not only economic but also emotional resources follow suit. As the works of both Valdez and Francis shows in their own terms, rather than seeking to reduce entirely racialized populations, capitalist systems have historically needed subjects who are vulnerable and readily exploitable for profit.

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