Migrant “Illegality” and the Metaphysics of Antiterrorism: “Immigrants’ Rights” in the Aftermath of the Homeland Security State
Published on: Jul 28, 2006

Nicholas De Genova is assistant professor of anthropology and Latina/o studies at Columbia University. His most recent book is Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and "Illegality" in Mexican Chicago (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

The mass protest mobilizations in defense of the rights of immigrants, and especially the undocumented, took the United States by storm during the spring of 2006, with half a million marching in Chicago on March 10 (reportedly the largest single demonstration on record in the city’s history), at least a million in Los Angeles on March 25 (in addition to several smaller protests that week), hundreds of thousands in New York City at various rallies in early April, as well as tens of thousands each in numerous other cities, and culminating in millions nationally with the “Day Without an Immigrant” one-day general strike and boycott on May 1. These protests forcefully galvanized widespread public awareness of the U.S. Senate’s ongoing deliberations in response to the single most expansively punitive immigration legislation in U.S. history, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act [HR 4437]—the “Sensenbrenner bill” passed on December 16, 2005, by the House of Representatives. And on April 20 (following the largest workplace enforcement raid operation against undocumented workers in recent memory, earlier that same week), evidently in response to this audacious upsurge in migrant labor and community organizing and as an intimidation tactic in anticipation of the May 1 rallies, the Department of Homeland Security announced a new “aggressive” and “hard-hitting” campaign of raids and deportations to “[reverse] the growing tolerance for . . . illegal immigration” (U.S. ICE 2006b), and to ensure that undocumented workers “not be allowed to think they [are] safe once they [are] inside the country” (BBC News 2006; emphasis added). Immigration authorities arrested 1,187 employees of a single company across 26 states, as an explicit warning to put “employers and workers alike . . . on notice that the status quo has changed” (ICE 2006a; emphasis added). Numerous raids have followed in locales across the country. As I have argued in considerable detail elsewhere (De Genova 2002; 2005), however, U.S. immigration authorities have almost never even pretended to try to achieve the presumed goal of a mass deportation of all undocumented migrants. On the contrary, it is deportability, and not deportation as such, that ensures that some are deported in order that most may remain (un-deported) as workers, whose pronounced and protracted legal vulnerability may thus be sustained indefinitely.

In the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, nonetheless, migrant “illegality” and deportability have been dramatically reconfigured by the implementation of draconian police powers domestically that I call the Homeland Security State. The practical ramifications of the virtually instantaneous hegemony of a metaphysics of antiterrorism for all migrations and migrant transnationalism are already profound—above all evidenced by the complete subsumption of the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) into the new Department of Homeland Security—and may become still more dramatic. Indeed, amidst the recent flurry of controversy over new immigration proposals, KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, was quietly awarded on January 24, 2006 a $385 million contingency contract that provides for the creation of new detention facilities “in the event of an emergency influx of immigrants into the U.S., or to support the rapid development of new programs.” Those prospective “new programs” that might require mass detentions, predictably, are shrouded in an ominous ambiguity. But “detentions,” which is to say, indefinite imprisonment without formal charges or any semblance of due process or law, have indeed been the hallmark of the Homeland Security State.

Since September 11, 2001, 80,000 male foreign nationals visiting the U.S. from 25 designated countries of origin (of which 24 were predominantly Arab and/or Muslim) were required to register with authorities and be photographed and fingerprinted; 8,000 Arab or other Muslim migrants or visitors were sought out for FBI interviews; and more than 5,000 have been subjected to detentions (culminating in deportations for 515) as a result of the purported anti-“terrorism” dragnet. The vast majority of these presumed “enemies,” notably, have overwhelmingly been citizens of states that are ostensibly allies of the United States. Yet, out of these 93,000 Arab and other Muslim non-citizens variously subjected to registration, interrogation, indefinite imprisonment, and casual brutality, literally not one person has ever been convicted of anything remotely resembling a terrorist crime (Cole 2006:17; cf. Cole 2003). In retrospect, it ought to be painfully—torturously—clear that the production of these de facto “enemy aliens” within the United States, the demonological construction of them as terrorism “suspects,” and their flagrant relegation to an astounding state of exception bereft of even the most elementary protections of the law through secretive and extra-legal procedures of “preventative” detention and political disappearance—truly the domestic complement to the Bush administration’s avowed doctrine of “preemptive” war (National Security Council, 2002:13-16)—have served above all to render still more vulnerable and precarious the great mass of labor migrants. And predictably, as the circle of increasingly authoritarian law enforcement has defiled any meager pretense of the sacrosanct rule of law and due process, the production of utterly rights-less denizens reveals itself to be a permanent menace to the presumed security and stability of the putative rights of citizens.

While undocumented Mexican and other Latino migrants are clearly not the primary object of the sorts of racial profiling that distinguish the new nativism of antiterrorism, which have been overwhelmingly targeted against Arab and other Muslims, the practical ramifications for all migrations and manifestations of migrant transnationalism, as the current debate makes abundantly clear, have already been substantial. After all, the very title of the House legislation explicitly couples “Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration.” Indeed, inasmuch as the figure of the “illegal alien” has long been rendered synonymous with a corrosion of law and order, the porosity of the U.S.-Mexico border, and a supposed crisis of national sovereignty itself, one common and remarkably virulent strain of the post-9/11 nativism boldly declares all undocumented migrants, in effect, to be potential terrorists. One need only consider, for example, Michelle Malkin’s nativist diatribe Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores (2002), the first chapter of which declares: “When we assess the security of our borders, our immigration laws, and our tourism policies … we must ask at every turn: What would Mohamed do?” (2002:3). Referring literally to 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, but transparently insinuating the more generic and thus iconic figure of a racialized Arab/Muslim menace by implication, Malkin contends that “illegal immigration through Canada and Mexico is the passageway of countless terrorist brethren” (8), and that al-Q’aeda operatives can readily enter the U.S. from Mexico undetected “alongside hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers” (9). The juxtaposition of “countless terrorist[s]” and “hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers,” of course, operates rhetorically to strategically blur any distinction between “illegal aliens” and “enemy aliens.”