Do it for the Children! Notes for a Counter-Narrative

(Originally published in AREA issue #14: Childhoods – April 23, 2014)
Across the political spectrum, people are talking about the “illegal immigration” crisis and about Immigration Reform as the best possible “solution.” But these debates do not challenge the root causes of forced migration, and do not consider how or why migration has become so criminalized. Instead, the debates center on the supposed need for a vast expansion of militarization and enforcement, and a national surveillance system. All the forms of the proposed legislation also explicitly expand definitions of crime for the purposes of immigration enforcement (poverty, irregular employment, gang affiliation, etc). But the legislation is touted as a “step in the right direction” by supposedly pro-immigrant politicians and NGOs because it would grant certain select categories of immigrants probationary legal status. The debate reinforces longstanding fictions that are structurally built into the myth of Americanness—the fiction of the migrant as criminal or threat, on the one hand, and the fiction of the worthy or innocent migrant, who can be “saved” from the fate that has been created for them, on the other. Both of these fictions invoke the image of the Child as a powerful symbol of innocence. When we say, the Child, we are not referring to real children and the ways they are imprisoned, displaced and abused every day. Instead, we mean the fictitious Child that Power constantly invokes, one which can be simultaneously illegalized and benevolently rescued.

Our group has been working for the past four years based on the premise that there is no such thing as illegal migration, only illegalized migration. We do not think displaced migrant people have created a crisis—instead, we see the crisis as created by laws, economic policies, perceptions and social habits that designate some people’s mobility as legitimate while making others illegal. The resistance slogan “the border is the problem” succinctly expresses this perspective; it calls into question both the physical line that represents the national border, and the entire social order of citizenship along with the forms of domination it creates. This includes the distinction between good and bad migrant, legal and illegal migration, and eligible and ineligible migrants as produced through immigration policies and the national imaginary.

Members of our group recently got together over several meetings to discuss how the image of the Child is used to create and reinforce these distinctions. We began by looking closely at specific examples of how powerful political players use the image of the Child in order to justify their positions and boost their public image. The fiction of the Child is not a singular narrative—we identified several types of Child characters, each with a specific costume, script, choreography, and even a supporting cast; each emerging out of specific historical and social conditions. This effort urged us to identify some underlying issues related to reproduction and futurity. It also led us to ask: What are the political effects of these fictions upon migrant communities and immigrant rights movements? The fictions of the Child become imposed coercively, with very real consequences in the lives of millions of children and their communities; how can they be resisted and what are the counternarratives we must create? These notes track a course through our discussions and represent a partial and still emerging understanding.

The US is suffering from specific anxieties about the demographic future, stemming from the fear that politically Brown migrant bodies will reproduce and within a few decades replace the white majority. The crisis, in this sense, is the crisis of the existing racial order—how can white supremacy ensure its continuity into the future, how can it reproduce itself, given the ways it depends on exploitable migrant labor? The physical and social reality of immigrant children is implicitly a threat to this reproduction precisely because Brown children will grow up and produce more Brown bodies. The fictitious Child invoked to manage this threat represents the ideal future citizen, but this Child must never grow up. This Child is always envisioned in a prepolitical stage and remains the one in whose name the passing of bills is being done. The Child is imagined as an innocent, ideal, and inert subject, prior to an active antagonism or tension with the state. The Child becomes a figure used to represent a future in which the social order of today, that which is supposedly challenged through its evocation, is projected into the future perpetually.

We have started trying to describe how this happens, as a series of overlapping violent, coercive processes—some of which can be traced by reading laws and policies, while others unfold as social and symbolic forms. Policies like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and proposals like the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and SB744 are all argued in the name of a specific Child stereotype known as “Childhood Arrival” or DREAMer. This is a stereotype invoked by politicians, corporate interests, and media alike to reinforce the idea that certain categories of immigrants are exceptional; thus they are eligible to be “reformed” and worthy of differential treatment. The image of the DREAMer is used to sell us a specific bargain: limited relief for this Child—in the form of provisional or probationary status—in exchange for extending conditions for deportability faced structurally by all others. In the name of the exceptional worthiness of the DREAMer, these policies also pave the very future envisioned for American society based on militarism, surveillance, and displacement both internal to the nation state and abroad. If young people can be coerced to meet this image—which means not just to jump through the hoops to get papers, not just to submit to surveillance and policing, but to internalize the values of the surveillance-police state, to prove they can assimilate as productive members of a multicultural, “post-racial” order that is predicated on leaving justice undone for the majority of other undocumented people—then the future envisioned by those already in power will be secure.

We named this pressure the imperative to “citizenfy.” To citizenfy is distinct from getting papers, distinct even from assimilation. Citizenfying is a violent process in which the state forces people onto a particular track, conditioning individuals into accepting the racist, xenophobic policies of politicians who claim to be pro-immigrant while criminalizing immigration.

Citizenification is when the state specifies that only certain people are “eligible” for reformation, implicitly and explicitly reinforcing others as inherently criminal. Citizenification is when young people are forced to identify with the Child image created by Power as their only alternative. It is a coercive process that forces people to prove themselves as exceptional by rendering others expendable. People remain deportable, exposed to all forms of state violence and exploitation; structurally, people are left dangling perpetually, as the years of probationary status extend precariously, never providing full political agency or participation. With all the military amendments, high financial cost, and biometric surveillance, citizenship is deferred while creating the conditions for a form of imprisonment.

Politicians’ moral and affective tactic is to ask: “How could a child be illegal?” This argument suggests the need for protection of the Child against the harsh conditions imposed upon those cast as illegal. But “illegal” is a position determined by the state as a necessary category of human commodity in the detention-prison-industrial-complex, as exploitable labor, as a subject already guilty of the crime of being. In addition, as we have seen with the “undocumented, unafraid” movements across the US, undocumented is clearly being proposed as a euphemism for illegal and being claimed by many as an identity, one that can only be temporary, that must cease existing when citizenship status is granted or deportation occurs. The structural position of illegality and the need to fill it remain, even if some people are able to cast off their nonstatus and enter the properly political sphere. Illegal is not an identity, but perhaps it names what has the potential to resist the state’s power to place people in cages and render people disposable. The psychosocial labor of citizenification can be seen in the narrative of the childhood arrival, who, culturally and ideologically, are already performing as ideal citizens, but are denied legal papers.

The future being designed for these worthy Children must be purchased at the expense of everyone else, but also demands their own subordination. Military contracts for border security, drones, electronic fences, conscripted military services through the as-yet unpassed DREAM Act. A memorandum for deferred action in which hundreds of thousands are biometrically cataloged in exchange for everyday survival tools, such as drivers licenses and workers permits, that can be revoked by any US administration. It would be naive to doubt that there is no national consideration that is not already a military consideration. To place border security within the framework of the war on terror is missing the point on the imperative to fully integrate and ingratiate young people as a point of national security.

The future feared by the right wing, their xenophobic fantasies of an unrecognizable America overrun by Brown people is being prepared for, with the wall, the construction of detention centers, and “poli-migra” programs that extend the border into every town and on every street. The future envisioned by the left is the same, except with un pueblo unido who accept the underlying tenets of these policies, plenty of funding for nonprofits that co-opt the language of struggle, and diffuse and sanitize the threat posed by stateless people and by those populations whose very existence delegitimizes the existence of the border. The liberal faith in the abstract universality of the subject, to extend rights to those who are denied them, is reassured by the reformed Child becoming properly civically engaged.

Our discussions refer to the image of the Child, not the lived experience of actual children. The image of the Child regulates political discourse, it constructs/generates a future ideal citizen, entitled to claim rights to its future share of the imperial nation’s good. The Child must always be safeguarded not only from laws that are seen as too harsh for Children but also from ever realizing “maturity” outside of the prefabricated goal of citizenship, never becoming a threat to the social order. The threat of the lurking, unassimilable, and seemingly untraceable child is eliminated by DACA. The Child’s politics and radicalism are managed within the bounds of Undocumented and Unafraid and through strict models of future ideal citizenship. The Child’s perceived emancipation is also its prison.

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