Making Sense of the Ambivalent Politics of Deportation Defense Campaigns

Although I can empathize with the desire by many scholars to view political activism by undocumented immigrants as radical (for it is, in some ways, inherently radical to simply exist in the United States without papers), I am opposed to the tendency to glamorize or sensationalize such activism as the expression of political radicalism because, in my experience, I have seen this activism unfold in far more ambiguous and indeterminate ways.

In an article with Dr. Angela Stuesse published earlier this year in Antipode, we examined the phenomenon of deportation defense campaigns, which we described as employing a variety of tactics that aim to temporarily or permanently prevent non-citizens from being deported.

The key feature of deportation defense campaigns that I wanted to emphasize in that article was a sense of pervasive internal tension between resistance and conforming that I think goes largely unnoticed or at least unanalyzed.

We put it like this:

“At their core, DDCs are animated by two countervailing characteristics: although DDCs generate opposition to ICE’s regular practices of deportation, DDCs nonetheless depend on ICE’s favorable use of discretion, which ICE has the power to decline.”

I attempted to conceptualize this tension through the lens of Deleuze & Guatarri call “minor politics” in their short book about how to understand Franz Kafka, that German-Jewish writer who so entrancingly captured the disenchantment of modernity. I won’t go into that here (no one seems to like Deleuzian digressions, and I can’t blame them).

But suffice it to say that the point there was actually quite simple, I think: that when immigrants mobilize to prevent a case of deportation, there is almost always some aspect of navigating the normative and the radical simultaneously through the strategic or even incidental deployment of personal narratives. Deportation defense campaigns very often cross back and forth across the invisible line of representing the person facing deportation as both normal and exceptional at the same time, and this raises all kinds of internal contradictions and tensions that strikes me as infinitely more interesting than simply whether that person is being authentically radical or naively conformist.

Take this example from the article, in which I try to explain how motherhood worked in the campaign of Maribel Trujillo Diaz, a woman from Cincinnati, Ohio, who represented perhaps the first major deportation defense campaign of the Trump administration.

The emphasis on Maribel’s motherhood could be viewed as simply conforming to patriarchal and heteronormative discourses within immigration law that create an incentive structure for immigrant women who represent themselves as good wives and good mothers. And, no doubt, it could be argued that participating in these incentive structures raises ethical questions about the effects of such strategies on non-normative identifies (queer, trans women, unmarried, childless, etc.). Indeed, campaign organizers were well aware that the emphasis on Maribel’s role as a mother, as well as the effects of her possible deportation on her children, could be viewed as creating a moral hierarchy of deservingness. Yet the public emphasis on Maribel’s motherhood during her campaign was itself a form of resistance to its previous exclusion, a way of reinserting the parts of Maribel’s social life that were effaced during her legal proceedings and undermining the individualizing effects of the deportation process. Like the undocumented activists who waved American flags in 2006, Maribel’s campaign articulated her case within the dominant language of the law’s discretionary parameters, and yet by doing so, simultaneously undermined it.

As I look back on this argument several months after its publication now, the part that most sticks out to me is how interested I realize I was then (and now) in the role that ambivalence plays in immigrant rights politics. For Freud, the concept of ambivalence was not (as we use it now) the state of not being sure what we want, but rather, the state of loving and hating a thing at the same time. And perhaps what I was trying to say (or what I thought I was saying) was that immigrant rights politics, as I have observed it and participated in it, includes within it a love-hate relationship with the act of having to contest one’s own deportation through the deployment of personal narratives that inevitably get recuperated into dominant discourses over which one simply does not have full control.

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Austin Kocher, PhD

I study America’s immigration enforcement system. Assistant Professor at TRAC. Graduate of OSU Geography. Online at austinkocher.com.