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

Given many U.S. employers’ deeply entrenched historical dependency on the abundant availability of legally vulnerable undocumented migrant labor, however, and in spite of the pervasive rhetoric of “securing” borders, it hardly comes as a surprise that on January 7, 2004, the Bush administration proposed a new scheme for the emphatically “temporary” regularization of undocumented workers’ “illegal” status and for the expansion of a Bracero-style migrant labor contracting system orchestrated directly by the U.S. state (Bush 2004; cf. Calavita 1992; Papademetriou 2002). Notably, Bush’s original immigration “reform” proposal expressly precluded any prospective eligibility for permanent residence or citizenship, and merely sought to devise a more congenial formula by which to sustain the permanent availability of disposable (and still deportable) migrant labor, but under conditions of dramatically enhanced (“legal”) regimentation and control. According to such a formula, the state would, in effect, operate as a broker of virtually indentured laborers whose continued presence in the United States was conditioned by their faithful servitude to designated employers. Confronted with an unanticipated insurgency of immigrant rights protests, however, on May 15, 2006, Bush revised his formulation of “reform.” While declaring that “illegal immigration … brings crime to our communities” and more generally reaffirming the criminalization of undocumented migrants as law-breakers, pledging to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to assist the Border Patrol, and taking great pains to appear to repudiate anything that might be characterized as an “amnesty” for undocumented workers, Bush nevertheless defended an eventual eligibility for naturalization for some undocumented migrants who have been in the United States for several years and could meet multiple other requirements (Bush 2006). Notably, those undocumented migrants who could qualify for such an “adjustment of status” would be subjected to several additional years of heightened vulnerability and continued deportability as they sought to satisfy all of these requirements, while those who do not qualify would be immediately subject to deportation and, at best, might merely be invited to join the ranks of the new mass of eminently disposable guestworkers. Those who could finally naturalize as U.S. citizens, moreover, would ultimately have served a very long and arduous apprenticeship in “illegality” and subsequent subjection to considerable scrutiny, surveillance, and discipline as the precondition for their “legalization.” This is truly what Bush means when he depicts this plan as “a way for those who have broken the law to pay their debt to society, and demonstrate the character that makes a good citizen” (2006).

Amidst the storm of competing proposals that have animated the immigration debate (symptomatically manifest in the more than 800 pages that comprise the draft currently circulating in the Senate), there is nonetheless a resounding (indeed, rather explicit) consensus from both conservatives and liberals that supplies the shared premise for their otherwise apparently opposed positions: both sides in this argument concur that the immigration system is “broken.” One is therefore invited to contemplate what exactly may be at stake in that avowed will to “fix” it. In general, the implied if not overt claim is that the millions of undocumented migrants currently living and working in the United States represent a dire “problem” that is presumed to be evidence that somehow the state has “lost control” over its borders. Furthermore, for those who argue in favor of one or another guestworker initiative and “legalization” scheme, the further contention is that the current provisions for “legal” migration have simply been inadequate to meet the labor demands of U.S. employers. In short, they suggest, there is a kind of systematic “mismatch” between what U.S. immigration law permits and what happens inexorably as a result of the voracious appetite for relatively tractable labor of that amorphous force of nature called “the market.” Hence, the scramble to “fix” a system that seems only to generate more and more of the “illegality” that it is supposedly intended to remedy. Quite a paradox, or so it would appear.

Part of the explanation for this puzzle is already given in the terms of the proposed guestworker schemes, which, in order to ensure the ample availability of a mass of highly vulnerable and hence very probably tractable “temporary” workers for employers, must also actively recruit migrant workers, thereby sustaining and expanding existing migration networks. This would enhance and intensify the mutually constituted dependency of migrant workers on their employment prospects in the United States and the dependency of their employers, not only on the virtual indentured servants who would be contracted through the state’s guestworker arrangements but also on those same migrant workers whose subordination as labor might be still more effectively ensured under conditions of even greater legal vulnerability. This is, after all, precisely what happened during the last large-scale experiment with a guestworker program in the United States. Employers quickly came to prefer undocumented workers, because they could evade the bond and contracting fees, minimum employment periods, fixed wages and other safeguards required in employing braceros (Galarza 1964). Through the development of a migration infrastructure combined with employers’ encouragement of braceros to overstay the limited tenure of their contracts, the Bracero Program thus facilitated undocumented migration at levels that far surpassed the numbers of “legal” braceros. It is estimated that there were four undocumented workers for every legally contracted bracero. Approximately 4.8 million contracts were issued to Mexican workers for employment as braceros over the course of the program’s 22 years, and during that same period there were more than 5 million apprehensions of undocumented Mexican migrants (Samora 1971). It is a matter of speculation, of course, how many undocumented migrants succeeded for each of those caught. Both of these figures, furthermore, include redundancies, and thus are not indicative of absolute numbers in any case; they are revealing nonetheless of the more general complementarity between contracted and undocumented migration flows.

The second part of the explanation may be discerned in the history that followed. The termination of the Bracero Program in 1964, coupled with the unprecedented introduction of numerical quotas to restrict “legal” migration from Western Hemisphere countries in 1965 and again in 1976, were literally tantamount to a mass illegalization of workers already deeply involved in transnational migration to the United States (with Mexicans in particular being singularly and inordinately affected; cf. De Genova 2005:213-49). The susceptibility of undocumented migrants to deportation, therefore, is an effect of the more fundamental and longstanding fact of their robust and enthusiastic importation as labor, on the terms most advantageous for the purposes of capital accumulation.