Migration Geography Research: Immigration Advocacy and New Spaces of Welcome

As the broader conversation around immigration reform in the United States continues, the 2014 special issue of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers—the premier journal for major research articles in all fields of geography—is devoted to migration. The eighteen papers in this issue cover a lot of ground geographically, investigating migration from, to, or within at least fifteen countries. While some of the articles focus on a particular place, several of the articles focus on multiple places and scales. The breadth of scope covers interrelated themes including immigration, emigration, migration, transnationalism, forced migration, and diaspora studies. As geographer Richard Wright, a professor of geography and public affairs at Dartmouth College, notes in the introduction to this special issue, “several of the articles are deeply concerned with vulnerable populations.”  These particular pieces focus on women exiting North Korea, migrants facing climate change impacts on local environments, hotel employees in the United States laboring without work authorization, and other articles featuring migrant agency and resiliency. One article analyzes the work of various immigrant and asylum support groups contesting governmental practices and policies. Another explores the proliferation of exclusionary immigration policies in the United States. Yet another examines identity and belonging of Canadian-born children of immigrants.

One article particularly relevant to the immigration reform process in the United States, by Helga Leitner and Christopher Strunk, examines ways in which immigrant advocacy “has been contesting the proliferation of exclusionary immigration policies in the United States and in the course of this pushing against the boundaries” of liberal democratic citizenship. The article defines liberal democratic citizenship as “a legal status conferred by the state, defining individual membership in one nation-state that is associated with a bundle of individual rights and obligations.” The authors use Washington, D.C., as a case study to explore immigrant advocacy. In their introduction, the authors describe the context within which facets of the current immigration reform debate, which include immigrants and allies mobilizing to resist exclusionary policies, are situated:

“During the past two decades, immigrants in the United States have encountered an increasingly restrictive political landscape, as changes in federal laws and policies had a sweeping impact on foreigners’ access to legal and social services. The early to mid-2000s also saw the enactment of federal-local immigration enforcement partnership programs such as the 287(g) and Secure Communities programs, both of which enroll local police into federal immigration enforcement.”

The authors note that these federal policies:

“have been supplemented by a proliferation of exclusionary state and municipal policies designed to deter or expel undocumented immigrants from these territories. The repertoire of such policies ranges from antisolicitation ordinances, crafted to prevent migrant workers from congregating in public space to solicit work, to overcrowding ordinances thwarting extended family living in the same housing unit, to English-only ordinances and resolutions prohibiting local governments from conducting nonemergency business in other languages. States and localities also have imposed fines on employers and prohibited government contractors from hiring undocumented immigrants. Finally, state-level immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama have sought to require local police to determine the immigration status of persons arrested or detained, if there is reasonable suspicion that they are in the country without authorization.”

In several previous posts for The Migrationist, I described immigrant integration as an important process for the social and economic well-being of immigrant and native-born populations in local places and for the country as a whole. The above exclusionary policies are detrimental to processes of immigrant integration at the national and local levels. They end up harming not only the most vulnerable of immigrant populations in particular places, but they also harm the social and economic well-being of a community as a whole.

As the article describes, the mobilization of immigrants and their allies in advocacy around a variety of immigration issues, and the growth and expansion of such work in recent years, particularly in relation to immigration reform in the U.S., is a response to the expansion of national, state, and local exclusionary policies. As the authors note, such immigrant advocacy revolves around “highlighting such problems as the racial profiling of immigrants of color, the dramatic increase in detention and deportations, violations of workers and civil rights, and the fear that these policies have incited among immigrants.” Tactics typically involve legal challenges, protests, and a variety of national and local mobilizations. These actions have at times led to legal battles with exclusionary policies, in some cases causing such policies to be declared unconstitutional. The authors also observe that immigrant advocacy alliances have encouraged “welcoming policies” at different scales—from the national to the local. These policies involve such actions as supporting local offices for immigrant integration, which help connect newcomers with a variety of resources, as well as ordinances prohibiting local law enforcement from participating in federal immigration enforcement programs—allowing them to instead focus on more serious and violent criminal activity, and helping with efforts of community building. A growing number of cities have also passed resolutions supporting immigrants. Furthermore, an increasing number of states are passing versions of the DREAM Act, which would allow certain young undocumented immigrants brought to the state at a young age to attend local colleges on an in-state tuition basis, as well as allowing undocumented immigrants to legally obtain drivers’ licenses, further contributing to public safety.

Within the context of the idea of citizenship in democratic societies, the authors discuss “how and to what extent immigrants and their allies push against and exceed the boundaries of liberal democratic citizenship as they contest exclusionary and promote welcoming policies.” Specifically, the authors argue that immigration advocacy expands this concept of citizenship, and state that “the demands made through the discourses and actions of immigrants and their allies work on behalf of democracy by stretching the boundaries of liberal democratic citizenship and might lead to ‘a rethinking of democracy as also a cosmopolitan and not just a nation-centered set of solidarities, practices, and institutions’ (Honig 2003).” Their research, which involved in-depth interviews and participant observation with organizational directors and staff at different immigrant-serving, advocacy, faith-based, and community-based organizations in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, answers several questions: “What does immigrant advocacy do for liberal democracy and liberal democratic citizenship? What kinds of political spaces are being (re)created and how? Does all immigrant advocacy question established patterns of control and authority? Is immigrant advocacy advancing new values and rationalities beyond those generally associated with liberal democratic citizenship?” The authors observe that in examining the concept of immigrant advocacy’s impact on democratic citizenship, those involved represent all segments of society: “it is important to note that immigrants are not acting along” in their struggles. “Migrants and migrant organizations are joined by long-term residents and civic organizations, including labor unions, churches and other faith-based groups, and student organizations. Immigrant advocacy is also multiethnic and multiracial in character, bringing together immigrants from a variety of countries, native-born whites, African Americans, and Latinos.”

As their research shows, local and regional immigrant advocacy organizations expand the boundaries of liberal democratic citizenship as well as create new political spaces within and outside of the formal political system to transform the political landscape at different scales. In so doing, as the authors observe, immigration advocates “have constructed spaces of encounter and deliberation between migrants and long-term residents of different political persuasions.” These are new political spaces for deliberation and welcome, often involving immigrant service organizations, churches, politicians, and local businesses. As I’ve previously discussed, the pendulum may indeed be swinging away from a norm of exclusionary policies, towards a more receptive climate of warmer welcome and inclusion in local places as the results of actions and mobilizations by immigration advocates and others show. Although federal immigration reform is still up in the air, a growing list of local places are initiating proactive policies and initiatives to encourage welcome and inclusion of immigrants and newcomers, rather than pursue the reactive or exclusionary policies of years past. These efforts are aimed at promoting immigrant integration and social and economic cohesion within their communities. Local places are realizing that a future of inclusion, rather than exclusion, is a much better future to chart.

One comment

  1. […] geography of immigrant settlement in the United States has undergone many transitions. In the past, […]


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