Citizenship and “The Border”

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Citizenship and “The Border”

In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001 (9/11), and the spurious linkages made between this tragedy and the immigration issue, the United States has witnessed an overwhelming amount of attention to “securing our borders.” Of course, this was not the first time national security and immigration were linked to one another. In the early 1990s policy advisers and academics suggested that international migration was a critical concern for peace and stability in the post–cold war era (Doty 1998). However, the attacks of 9/11 did intensify this connection in the minds of many. This attention has taken the form of rhetoric on the part of citizen border patrol groups, immigration “reform” organizations, the news media, and public officials. This attention has also resulted in practices aimed at fortifying entry points, monitoring day labor sites, and increased arrests and deportations of the undocumented. Both the discourse and the practices are based on a simplified view of the extremely complex, multifaceted, and contested nature of “the border.” They presume that the border is simply a national, territorial boundary that—given sufficient money and troops, high enough walls, sophisticated enough technology, and the political will—can be fortified, secured, and thus forever ensure the safety and sanctity of “the citizen.” However, the border is multi-faceted and the territorial border is only one aspect of a much larger phenomenon of border that divides human beings from one another, creates a “self” and “other,” a subject who belongs and one who does not, a subject who is deserving and one who is not, a subject who can be called “citizen” and one whose existence can be deemed “illegal.” In every sense of the word and in all of its manifestations, “the border” is a site of resistance, which itself takes many forms. The very fact that the border elicits so much attention is an indication of its contested nature. The numerous practices of resistance revolving around the border also attest to this.

The most obvious form of resistance is the physical act of crossing national territorial borders without the proper documents. It is a form of resistance that the label illegal erases. Illegal conveys a black and white world in which those who cross without documents are deemed criminals regardless of the circumstances. Among Hispanic immigrants, the terms “with papers” or “without papers” are used (con papeles or sin papeles), which softens the boundary between “legals” and “illegals.” The use of the term illegal immigrant is not limited to anti-immigrant, nativist groups, but is a rather common designation for migrants without legal documents. This concept is itself implicated in the production of a border that divides the many people who live, work, and contribute to a society. In contrast, if one conceptualizes the very act of crossing the border without documents as a statement about the limitations of citizen as a legal concept attached to a national territory, one comes away with a much more complex understanding of the tension between life on the ground, so to speak, and the conceptual apparatus by which one seeks to understand it.

Citizen as a concept struggles to survive in the face of globalization and its own inherent limitations. One can pose the question as to whether the current manifestation of the concept of citizen in political and legal practices that function to exclude and deny rights to those who are not citizens can ultimately survive, or whether one needs to rethink the meaning of this concept in light of the reality of the contemporary world. The human beings who contribute to society but live in fear because of their undocumented status make a silent statement about the limitations of current understandings of the citizen. This contestation took a more visible and openly articulated form in the immigrant rights’ demonstrations that took place throughout the United States in the spring of 2005.

Perhaps the ultimate and most tragic form of border contestation is exercised by those who pay with their lives in the dangerous crossing locations of the southwestern United States. Their bodies lay scattered across a harsh landscape, sometimes identified by name, often simply labeled no identificado (unidentified). The existence of these bodies and the memories of the lives that once surged through them is a form of resistance that disrupts the border between citizen and human being (Doty 2005). They call attention to what we all are ultimately, when the trappings of a nationalist identity are stripped away by the heat, the sun, a rattlesnake, lack of water. The desert knows none of these markers of identity, nor do the waters in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Contestation and resistance often result in counter-practices. Several contemporary happenings serve to illustrate practices that seek to reinforce borders and thus the presumed identity of the citizen. One of these is the militarization of the border, which dates back to the 1990s with the beginnings of the “prevention through deterrence” policies of the U.S. Border Patrol. These policies began with Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, Texas, and continued with Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego and a series of other border operations that functioned to seal off major crossing points on the Arizona/Mexico and New Mexico/Mexico borders. The stated purpose of these policies was to deter migrants from crossing in the more populated urban areas. In one sense they were symbolic, a “border game” (Andreas 2000). In actuality they resulted in skyrocketing numbers of deaths of border crossers who were pushed into harsher terrains. In addition, they created another border: a border between those whose lives were deemed dispensable, whose deaths would be the price to show that the United States was serious in trying to secure its borders. In the twenty-first century, the militarization continues: both unofficial, as in civilian border groups such as the Minutemen, and official, as with the National Guard Troops deployed on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Another, perhaps less publicized practice that seeks to reinforce a different kind of border is the effort in the United States to deny “birthright citizenship” to babies born to undocumented parents. Almost every anti-immigrant organization and a number of civilian border groups, as well as some policy makers, favor revoking this long-standing right guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. House Bill 698, which was sponsored by forty-nine members of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006, would have eliminated this right. It ran aground in December 2006, but it will likely resurface (Crary 2006). The bill would create a border that divides human beings at the very moment of their birth.

The issues of race and culture inevitably arise within the struggle to reinforce borders that arguably always have been extremely porous. It is extremely difficult to pinpoint precisely how these two complex concepts become intertwined. After biological notions of race have been thoroughly debunked, how does one begin to think of the impact of borders on race and ethnicity? One way is to consider the notion of “cultural racism,” or what some have referred to as “neo-racism” (Barker 1981; Balibar 1991; Doty 2003; Taguieff 1990). Neo-racism suggests that it is natural for antagonisms to develop between members of a bounded community—that is, a nation and its “outsiders.” “But feelings of antagonism will be aroused if outsiders are admitted” (Barker 1991, p. 21). In the decade around the turn of the twenty-first century, there was a virtual proliferation of books that argue that immigrants threaten the cultural integrity of the United States. Such books include Peter Brimlow’s Alien Nation, published in 1995, and Samuel Hunting-ton’s Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) and his 2004 work Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, and Pat Buchanan’s State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America (2006); all assert that Mexican immigrants pose dangers to the United States. These are all examples of what the term neo-racism is meant to capture. They create the notion of unassimilable “others” who threaten “our” very existence. In contrast to earlier forms of racism, neo-racism professes an ideology of equality while it shuns the mixing of cultures and peoples. Etienne Balibar has suggested that neo-racism is a racism of the reversal of population movement, that is, movements from Third World countries to the rich industrialized countries (Balibar 1991). This way of thinking about peoples and cultures and borders provides a simplified and dangerous way of interpreting the consequences of the movement of human beings all over the world. It creates a border that hinders addressing real issues associated with population movements in a humane way. Theorist Edward Said best posed the question that arises with borders, citizenship, and difference: “Can one divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanly?” (Said 1979, p. 45).

SEE ALSO Border Crossings and Human Rights; Border Patrol.


Andreas, Peter. 2000. Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Balibar, Etienne. 1991. “Is There a Neo-Racism?” In Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, edited by Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein. London: Verso.

Barker, Martin. 1981. The New Racism: Conservatives and the Ideology of the Tribe. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Crary, David. 2005. “Bitter Debate Over ‘Birthright Citizenship.”’ Newsday, December 6.

Doty, Roxanne Lynn. 1998. “Immigration and the Politics of Security.” Security Studies 8 (2): 71–93.

———. 2003. Anti-Immigrationism in Western Democracies-Statecraft, Desire, and the Politics of Exclusion. London: Routledge.

———. 2006. “Crossroads of Death.” In The Logics of Biopower and the War on Terror: Living, Dying, Surviving, edited by Elizabeth Dauphinee and Cristina Masters. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.

Taguieff, Pierre-Andre. 1990. “The New Cultural Racism in France.” Telos 83: 109–122.

Roxanne Lynn Doty