Where and for whom is the undocumented immigrant*?
*Here I mostly speak of myself (even if I use plural indicators) and this is not intended to generalize to every other experience, although if it does, great!
To discuss where I am, I want to situate myself as both within and between boundaries of social identity and geographic space.
One of the clearest truths I felt growing up was that documentation (i.e., a green card or citizenship) was a very salient and crucial form of recognition. Legitimized as a human member of society not just in the eyes of the law, but socially too. Lacking documentation has acted as the removal (or better yet, withholding) of recognition, forcing a state of disidentification where one must manage (and in doing so, co-opt) invisibility while living outside of the boundaries of legitimacy. This state is felt as a loss, as a long-term disorientation where identity is ungrounded and shifting and illegible within current modes of racio-ethnic-national understandings. The only constant is social illegibility, but even this itself is changing through the national construction and proliferation of deservingness and merit (e.g., DREAMers and DACA) that draws a tangible benchmark for receiving a piece of humanity and the societal rewards that follow.
However, in that space between legality, merit, and recognition, there is freedom to re-orient the boundaries of recognition. Current strategies in the fight for immigrants accept these benchmarks by fighting for indiscriminate assimilation. They contort and bend and fold themselves to embody the model minority, to live a recognizable life. But what good is a recognizable life if it requires you to cover up the people behind you? We must take advantage of this unstable state of disidentification to make a nonDREAMer life livable, to pry open eyes and national discourses to the value of the unseen. We must shake off any doubts we have when we say that we value the life of the “criminal“, that we value the life of those who invisibly survive and thrive in the U.S. in ways that aren’t considered excellence, that we value the life of the deported and the future undocumented.
And as we negotiate identity through discourse, undocumented identity is also geographically ungrounded and seems to be nowhere and everywhere at once. I’m not in Mexico, but I am. I’m am in the United States, but I’m not. I may step on the same physical ground as you, yet I wade through alternate social matrices that place me everywhere and nowhere. I believe some line of research has deemed this third culture, but if I don’t belong to the first two, how can this be my third?
If intersectionality refers to the invisibility and vulnerability of living within the overlaps of oppressive structures, then (un)documentation is a battleground where legality, nationalism, racism, sexism, queerantagonism all collide to produce highly invisible yet malleable targets. This malleability is a product of a group that by design is not meant to be publicly heard or seen. This means we’re mainly constructed by media think pieces on legality (towards whichever image is useful at the time) and by the few times our stories get told on a wider scale. Yet why is this invisibility by design? What is the function of having a physically recognizable yet socially unrecognizable body of people?
The answer I’d like to emphasize is that we form the basis of identity for the documented. We solidify others’ identities by being The Other. If they can point to what they are not, they can recognize each other as worthy of societal participation. You can see this by the many existing technologies for enforcing otherness. It happens legally through I.C.E raids, deportation, criminalization, and the impossible bureaucracy of formal citizenship. It happens psychologically through aggressive stereotypes and mistreatment and by stripping our ability to fully ground ourselves to previous and current cultural frameworks and geography. It happens politically through disenfranchisement – the literal instantiation of silence – and economic depravation. And while we exist for others, we don’t get to exist for ourselves. We cleave away at our being, cutting and cutting until we’re recognized by everyone but ourselves.
Where is the undocumented immigrant?
Mangled through the glorifying lens of merit AND rendered invisible through violent acts of forced misrecognition.
For whom is the undocumented immigrant?
For those who seize recognition.