Cover image for American Immigration After 1996: The Shifting Ground of Political Inclusion By Kathleen R. Arnold

American Immigration After 1996

The Shifting Ground of Political Inclusion

Kathleen R. Arnold


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ISBN: 978-0-271-04890-1

192 pages
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American Immigration After 1996

The Shifting Ground of Political Inclusion

Kathleen R. Arnold

“This book is extremely well researched and cited. A must have for university libraries and highly recommended for graduate students and policy makers.”


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  • Table of Contents
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Few topics generate as much heated public debate in the United States today as immigration across our southern border. Two positions have been staked out, one favoring the expansion of guest-worker programs and focusing on the economic benefits of immigration, and the other proposing greater physical and other barriers to entry and focusing more on the perceived threat to national security from immigration. Both sides of this debate, however, rely in their arguments on preconceived notions and unexamined assumptions about assimilation, national identity, economic participation, legality, political loyalty, and gender roles. In American Immigration After 1996, Kathleen Arnold aims to reveal more of the underlying complexities of immigration and, in particular, to cast light on the relationship between globalization of the economy and issues of political sovereignty, especially what she calls “prerogative power” as it is exercised by the U.S. government.
“This book is extremely well researched and cited. A must have for university libraries and highly recommended for graduate students and policy makers.”
“This book will be of great interest to scholars of immigration across the disciplines and, more generally, to political theorists and international relations scholars.”
“Scholarly, concise, and lucid, Kathleen Arnold’s American Immigration After 1996 unmasks the psychosocial underpinnings of anti-immigrant ideology, U.S. immigration policy, and the undeclared war on immigrant labor, as part of both a hegemonic agenda for the twenty-first century and a xenophobic reaction to globalization. This is an essential update on immigration history and theory, as well as a coherent new vision of immigration as the transnational phenomenon it truly is.”
“Kathleen Arnold has written a fascinating account of the ‘undecidable’ status of Mexican immigrants in the United States, as well as factory workers (the ‘maquiladoras’) who work along the U.S./Mexico border. For Arnold, these groups represent the intersection between sovereignty and bare life. Arnold shows how in the United States both right-wing and liberal ‘solutions’ to the ‘problem’ of undocumented immigration collude to produce a group of people without rights. Where the right wing produces the sovereign response, separating these workers from the rest of U.S. society, the liberal solution serves to take advantage of this community’s statelessness and reduce them to merely economic subjects with no legal protections of any kind. In this way there is a kind of unholy alliance between the forces of globalization and neoliberalism on the one hand and sovereignty, nationalism, and racism on the other. In her astute analysis, Arnold identifies a potential for ‘postnational citizenship,’ a status whereby the undecidability of the border offers new hybrid forms of identity that can resist or subvert rather than simply succumb to the pernicious effects of globalization and sovereignty.”
“Since 9/11, the war on terror and national economic crises have narrowed the parameters of the immigration debate in the United States, even as the vitriol has expanded. More than ever, immigration is a topic crying out for fresh perspective and theoretically informed analysis. Kathleen Arnold’s book offers both.

“Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, Arnold uses concepts such as ‘bio-power’ and ‘bare life’ to illuminate the daily struggles and political controversies surrounding immigration to the United States (particularly Mexican immigration), the reconfiguration of state sovereignty in an era of globalization, and the nature of American national identity. In doing so, she challenges unquestioned assumptions about immigration, pushes the discussion beyond ideology and crude empiricism, and ultimately opens space for further innovation in both theory building and policy making.

“Because of its timeliness and theoretical sophistication, American Immigration After 1996 is likely to appeal not only to an audience interested in immigration but also to students and scholars of international relations and political theory more generally.”
“Kathleen Arnold examines the contemporary ‘problem’ of immigration—and ‘illegal’ migrants specifically—in a unique and fascinating manner that illuminates how it came to be. In doing so, she identifies and challenges widely held assumptions and provides invaluable insights into globalization, sovereignty, citizenship, and human rights. She puts critical theory to work as one should: to help us understand a messy and complicated ‘reality’ and, more important, to imagine and put into practice a profoundly transformational politics to bring about a more just world. American Immigration After 1996 is of great importance and deserves a wide audience.”

Kathleen R. Arnold is currently Visiting Professor at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of America's New Working Class: Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in a Biopolitical Age (Penn State, 2007).




1. Contemporary Assimilation in the United States

2. Enemy Invaders! Mexican Immigrants and U.S. Wars Against Them

3. Anti-immigration Groups and Civil Society: Pathway to Democracy or Support for Prerogative Power?

4. Homo laborans, Statelessness, and Terror: Economic Deregulation and the Strengthening of Sovereignty

Conclusion: The Right to Rights?



In the two years preceding the 2008 presidential election, immigration became a hot topic of public discussion for the first time since the mid-1990s. In light of the events of September 11, 2001, it has generally been taken for granted that there is an “immigration problem,” and concern has largely been directed at unauthorized entrants, mostly from Mexico. Although the perception that there is a serious immigration problem is nothing new, the issue took on new momentum in this brief time period. In 2006, for example, arrests of immigrants nationwide doubled; President George W. Bush succeeded in doubling the number of Border Patrol agents and increased National Guard presence on the southern border; and different states and municipalities began to crack down on immigrants in various ways, including English-only laws, the increased use of E-Verify (a program that verifies a potential employee’s citizenship), expedited deportation, as well as increased numbers of deportations. The self-evidence with which it has been asserted that immigration, and particularly unauthorized entry, constituted major problems meant that there was a backlash with little recognition of this fact. This has been the case even though today’s backlash is reminiscent of those during other periods in American history, drawing on the same stereotypes and worries. But perhaps because the United States is facing a new problem—terrorism and the accompanying “war on terror”—today’s measures are viewed not as reactionary, but rather as “responsible” and getting “serious” about immigration. As in other recent time periods, however, the “problem” is narrowly construed.

It seems that the debates on immigration in the new millennium have left people in two camps. On the one hand, proponents of immigration argue that the United States should continue to allow immigrants to enter because they are necessary for the workforce. This group is bipartisan and sees immigration as necessary for the low-tier labor market and to maintain American international economic competitiveness. On the other, there are those who would significantly decrease immigration, build a wall between the United States and Mexico, and increase scrutiny of any remaining immigrants to the United States. For example, one proposal from 2005 included making unauthorized entry a felony, making the provision of aid to any unauthorized entrant a felony, expedited deportation, prohibiting states to grant sanctuary to suspected illegals, and, most notably, increasing surveillance of all entrants, augmenting law enforcement, and building the aforementioned wall. While the first group appears to be more humane toward immigrants and tolerant of their presence, their proposals for the guest-worker program, for example, show that they are much closer to the second group in their desire for surveillance, easier deportation procedures, and weak labor standards that lead to worker exploitation. Alternatively, the second group’s concerns are seemingly limited to worries about national security, but their calls for increased surveillance, a wall, and other measures that militarize the southern border ensure that those who work here do so in unfree conditions. In effect, these proposals are really two sides of the same coin, with the only real difference being how many immigrants can enter legally. What these debates tell us is that old stereotypes about immigrants are being redeployed in a time of “war”: a war without borders, which has not been officially declared, and yet is being used to justify the suspension of civil rights and the Geneva Conventions. The wars on terror, drugs, and narco-terrorism allow for new power dynamics that will ensure immigrants’ rights and political needs cannot be met by the nation-state.

The continued merging of immigration policy with anti-terror provisions has led to increased arrests of immigrants, harsh treatment of unauthorized entrants, and charges of racial profiling. In one recent case, the interpreter Erik Camayd-Freixas noted that the treatment of 297 undocumented workers in Postville, Iowa, by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials went far beyond the “crimes” these individuals committed. Camayd-Freixas contends that “according to its new paradigm, the agency [ICE] fancies that it can conflate the diverse aspects of its operations and pretend that immigration enforcement is really part and parcel of the ‘war on terror.’ This way, statistics in the former translate as evidence of success in the latter. Thus, the Postville charges—document fraud and identity theft—treat every illegal alien as a potential terrorist, and with the same rigor.” Nevertheless, because the United States hopes to maintain international economic competitiveness, it also views the same immigrants as crucial to the functioning of its economy. As immigrants are viewed and treated both as a threat to national security and as an exploitable group of workers, their political status becomes increasingly undecidable, leaving them vulnerable in a new way.

Although the United States receives an incredibly diverse group of immigrants and asylum claimants, the perception of an immigration “problem” is mainly focused on Mexicans and Mexican Americans. For this reason, I will also concentrate almost exclusively on this group in this book—not to illuminate its particular characteristics, but to consider why it is the most controversial group in this country at this particular moment in history. On the one hand, this group is now the nation’s largest minority and is the main source of both legal and illegal immigration to the United States. It also has deep historical and cultural ties to the United States because of a shared border. For these reasons, the attention paid to this group is logical. On the other, Mexicans and Mexican Americans are arguably viewed as controversial because of the range of stereotypes about them—from poor education, to poor work habits, to high fertility rates, to their supposed desire to milk the United States for its benefits. They are most often low-tier workers and less educated than some other immigrant groups, and they are now considered the heart of such U.S. problems as overcrowded health facilities and “stolen” jobs. Indeed, the conditions of this group and the stereotypes about them have a striking resemblance to discriminatory rhetoric and actions against poor Irish immigrants from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Both groups have been charged with stealing jobs, being parasites, overcrowding housing, having too many children, burdening public welfare, and lacking restraint. But these feelings and stereotypes have far more to do with U.S. political and economic issues than with issues in the particular immigrant community. Essentially, they symbolize all the United States’ present concerns: the loss of a social safety net, a crisis in health care, a faltering economy, and the threat of terrorism.

In particular, it is alleged that Mexicans do not assimilate, that they want to use the United States for services or to send remittances home but are not loyal to this country, and that they are a major drain on welfare. But in the context of the war on terror (and related wars), Mexicans’ presence is viewed as not merely an economic threat but also a sovereign one—this is a key difference from the perception of the Irish in the mid-1800s. One reason for this is that the border today is far tighter than it was in the nineteenth century, and therefore unauthorized entry has a very different political meaning than it did in the past. Particularly since the 1990s, both the government and vigilante groups have increasingly militarized the border. Nevertheless, the United States’ desire to remain competitive in the international market ensures that Mexicans are never denied access to this country. Rather, the goal is to facilitate economic exploitability through increased surveillance and control.

Although there is a significant amount of literature on immigration—issuing from the backlash against immigration in the 1990s and the second backlash resulting from the events of September 11, 2001—there are fewer political-theoretical interpretations of these debates and little recognition of the effect of these “wars” on immigrants. Rather, much of the conventional political literature rests on preconceived notions or unexamined assumptions about the objects of study. Samuel Huntington’s article “The Hispanic Challenge,” his subsequent book Who Are We? The Challenge to America’s National Identity, and the spate of responses to his arguments (from popular responses in newspapers to the series of articles examining his premises in Perspectives on Politics in 2006 and 2007) are examples of how political scientists take for granted terms like assimilation, national identity, economic participation, legality, and political loyalty. For instance, Huntington contends that Mexicans’ Catholicism is a hindrance to their economic progress. Not only does he not explore this assumption (which rests on the notion of Protestantism’s superiority), but in fact many of his critics misunderstand his point or simply try to disprove him. For example, one author simply notes that it is true Latinos have not converted to Protestantism, rather than challenging the preconception that only certain religious values will make an individual fit for U.S. citizenship. Further, all parties involved seem to think that these matters can be settled empirically even though they involve highly arbitrary, qualitative terms (e.g., measuring loyalty by examining a survey question regarding feelings about the U.S. flag).

In this book, I examine the monolithic images that can be found in public policy, opinion, and recent debates (all of which Michel Foucault would broadly term “discourse”), rather than looking at the target populations (Mexicans, as well as individuals from Central and South America, the Caribbean, and those of Arab/Middle Eastern/Islamic descent or belief) in terms of their culture and their “assimilability.” In the spirit of Bonnie Honig, Saskia Sassen, and Yasemin Soysal, I believe that host countries are not passive agents in immigration patterns, simply receiving immigrants and formulating policy on their goodwill or lack thereof. Further, I do not think immigrants simply come to this country because of the deficiencies of their home country per se, or for purely individual reasons. In conventional lines of argument, questions of assimilation, work conditions, political status, and loyalty are viewed in terms of the immigrant groups’ background and beliefs. Rather, it is more fruitful to consider the “linkages” or “bridges” that the United States has built to foster these migration processes (as Saskia Sassen has called for), what norms of assimilation can tell us about American national self-understanding, and how requisites of the nation-state as well as global capital inform political status and produce a situation far more complicated than mainstream U.S. public debate and policy provide for.

More specifically, I believe that few conventional analyses of immigration have fully accounted for the linkage between the globalization of the economy and issues of sovereignty. This is particularly true in political accounts of immigration and less true of scholars whose work is interdisciplinary (though these ideas are not reflected in mainstream debates or in the media). Since the end of the Cold War and the increasing predominance of neoliberalism, the connection between a more global economy and sovereignty is more significant than in the past: that is, as sovereign matters have increasingly become intertwined with economic ones. Issues of immigration crystallize both sets of concerns and shed light on the status of citizenship, democracy, and the meaning of assimilation. Unlike some authors who claim that the increasing globalization of the economy means that the sovereign state is weakening, I believe that the U.S. government is increasing its deployments of sovereignty—particularly prerogative power—at the same time that borders are challenged by global capital and global terror. Immigration is a significant area in which sovereignty has been strengthened, despite the rhetoric of a loss of control over the border. Prerogative power is the legal suspension of the law during times of emergency, natural disaster, or when the law is outdated. As low-tier immigrant workers are hired and yet denied the rights and protections afforded citizens, a “free” market is established alongside an increasingly unfree labor force. Indeed, there is a symbiotic relationship among the increasing militarization of the border, Patriot Act provisions that suspend some civil and human rights, the greater surveillance of all immigrants, and the greater exploitation of immigrants who work in low-tier, informal conditions (e.g., in sweatshops, deregulated factories and meat-processing plants, and maquiladoras). But this does not mean that the traditional nation-state is the only source of power or legitimacy; rather, transnational areas and identities are becoming the norm alongside the transmogrification of state power (rather than its increasing absence). It is for this reason that U.S. policies and mainstream debates, including conventional scholarly analyses, are too narrow and outdated.

As discussed above, recent proposals for immigration policy reform have suggested that there are only two possible solutions to the alleged problem of immigration and unauthorized entry: either enlarge the guest-worker program or militarize the southern border even more, make punishments and fines for illegal entry (or aiding illegal entry) even harsher, and work to stem or halt the flow of the Mexican “invasion.” The first solution has been presented as more humanitarian and democratic, but both sets of proposals issue from mutually informing notions of immigrants—either as exploitable labor or as potential security threats. In this way, they are binary modes of operation that reinforce rather than challenge the connection between sovereign power and the demands of global capital. Further, neither solution accounts for increasingly transnational processes of labor relations, political identities, and geographical areas that defy the logic of the nation-state (e.g., free zones). The transnational status of many Mexicans and Mexican Americans is particularly relevant to this discussion.

What makes these workers’ political status ambivalent and thus precarious is the politically undecidable character of their lives. The status of Mexican immigrants today is transnational in at least three ways: First, there is a great deal of crossing the southern border, accompanied by mixed allegiances. Transnational families are those “whose core members are located in at least two nation-states.” These arrangements reflect border enforcement at the individual level, which comes at the expense of family or community: “Transnational households signify segregation.” Second, the border area is truly transnational because of the agreement that established the Border Industrialization Program (BIP) in 1964, which created a free zone on the Mexican border, allowing “foreign manufacturers to assemble goods without having to abide by existing import-export duties and regulations.” Significantly, employment and factory regulations are lax in this area. Third, the United States’ historical ambivalence about Mexicans places them in a paradoxical position—valued and degraded, crucial to the U.S. economy and yet waging a war on it, upholding family values and yet destroying social welfare institutions and producing too many babies. These ambivalent spaces allow for hybrid identities (e.g., Chicano/a identity), hybrid political formations, and some financial gains, but they also constitute a precarious political space that is increasingly marked by a war mentality and violence.

Throughout the book, I consider the theories of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben together. In each chapter, I explicate how I use their theories, but here I will briefly sketch how their ideas are relevant to this subject. Two of the main Foucaultian concepts I use throughout the book are bio-power and disciplinary power. These concepts indicate the historical transformation of political power, broadly defined, with the growth of science and industrialization. Among other things, disciplinary power involves the increasing subjection of individuals to social, political, and economic norms that they are expected to internalize. It marks a turn from traditional institutional forms to more systematic arrangements in prisons, schools and the workplace, based on stricter schedules, the “optimization of [the body’s] capabilities,” and self-surveillance, leading to “usefulness and docility.” Although some have argued that disciplinary power is no longer relevant to today’s “flexible” work structure, I believe this term is still pertinent to immigrant workers’ conditions both within the United States and on the southern border; in particular, I am concerned about how these conditions have a disciplinary effect on low-tier conditions for all workers.

Bio-power emerged later, when scientific analysis began to conceive of individuals as a species and when the control of public health became possible. Bio-power involves the increasing concern of politics with biological matters, including issues of reproduction, disease control, demographics, and migration. More insidiously, this sort of power can lead not only to the “optimization of life” but also the use of bio-political norms to determine what counts as human and subhuman. For this reason, as notions of race became more “scientific” in the twentieth century and Western governments were increasingly oriented toward bio-politics, racial divisions and genocide have become the logical extensions of this concern with the population as a species. Although Foucault briefly discusses state-sponsored racism in his analysis of bio-power, in chapter 3 I explore this link in more depth and more specifically than he does. I argue that older racial images and stereotypes of Mexicans and Mexican Americans now have bio-political meaning; that is, for this population race has become an issue of sovereignty in ways that were not true in the past. Combined with an even more prevalent concern about immigrant women’s reproduction and “anchor babies,” these immigrants are not merely “other” but are conceived as threats to U.S. sovereignty.

Further, the case of Mexican workers in the United States and on the border show how the intersection of disciplinary power and bio-power can produce a subject that is economically necessary yet also often treated as a potential enemy. In Agamben’s terms, the economic and political conditions of many of these workers approach that of bare or biological life. Simply put, bare life is individual life stripped of its citizenship and “humanity.” For this to be possible, first the term humanity must be almost meaningless outside the status of citizenship, thus rendering human rights ineffective in a world still defined by the nation-state. Second, this implies that humanity itself has no biological referent, that it is constantly being defined and redefined, even though discourse indicates otherwise (i.e., it is naturalized). To Agamben, bare life is subject to prerogative power (again, the legal suspension of the law); thus it is the object of political power but has a highly ambivalent political status.

In terms of how I use the concept of bare life in this book, I am clearly not discussing a group of American-born citizens who have been stripped of their citizenship. But nor am I discussing a group—particularly individuals of Mexican descent—who have clearly been outsiders, even though they have recently been constructed this way. In fact, the unique history of Mexicans and Mexican Americans shows a narrative that challenges any inside/outside binary. For example, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) is a case of borders crossing people as portions of the Southwest went from being Mexican to American territory. In the twentieth century, two mass deportations indeed stripped Americans of their citizenship: the first such effort was called “repatriation” while the second utilized an ethnic slur as the title of an operation to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of individuals. Parts of the United States have often bled into Mexico, and this blurring of boundaries is most evident today in the Border Industrial Program (also known as the maquila program). Although other immigrant groups do not have the same history, many do have established ties to the United States both here and in their country of origin, even though these links have been de-emphasized in policy and public debates. These examples defy the inside/outside logic of terms like citizen and foreigner, and suggest a more undecidable status. It is this undecidability or ambivalence in Agamben’s concept of bare life that I want to draw on in the pages that follow.

The term bare life has also been very controversial. First, Agamben has developed this concept using the concentration camp as the paradigm of the extreme limit of bio-power. Although he has been careful to state that the concentration camp is the extreme manifestation of this sort of power, each declaration by him or others that a group is being treated as bare life has elicited such responses as “but they are not in a concentration camp” or “this is not Nazi Germany.” The point is not to call all uses of the suspension of the law Nazi, nor to call all individuals subject to prerogative power victims of fascism, but rather to highlight the significant rightlessness (broadly conceived) of the stateless in democracies. They occupy a space that is highly indeterminate but still political. Significantly, this does not mean a legal void, but often a second set of laws that somehow make the subject of these laws inferior to citizens; this is an important proviso in my own use of the term prerogative power. He is also trying to show how the power mechanisms at work in the Nazi regime are not foreign or wholly anomalous to the development of modern Western political power, but rather the most dangerous manifestation of the use of prerogative power in a democracy that declares a state of emergency. I do not want to suggest that my use of Agamben’s work then equates the plight of immigrants with the victims of fascism. Instead, I find his work suggestive in terms of the statelessness that is often the result of uprooting policies and norms. Like his emphasis on camps, I want to explore how politico-economic policies and practices in effect denationalize parts of national territory and render individuals stateless. In particular, I suggest the effects that the threat of deportation has on the lives of ordinary foreigners, as well as the broader perception that immigrants are no longer just potential lawbreakers but potential terrorists as well. Rather than focus on detention centers, however, I examine at greater length how the guest-worker system as well as the Border Industrial Program are geopolitical spaces that suspend workers’ rights during the length of their work contract.

A second problem is the possible conflation of the term bare life with “enemy.” To Agamben, the expression bare life should be held distinct from that of enemy, even if at times they are one and the same. Following Agamben, I draw on both terms, focusing on bare life first and then discussing how this term can be related to that of enemy in the context of the wars on terror and drugs. What I want to emphasize is that current power dynamics lead to the suspension of the law, but this does not mean that all individual entrants are treated the same way. Instead, given the current political and economic dynamics, controversial immigrants face a range of power mechanisms, the extreme point of which is detention or deportation.

I should also note that I use the term prerogative power (a term Agamben almost never uses), which I feel is more precise than the terms sovereign power or sovereignty. Sovereignty is in fact important when considering U.S. immigration: immigration is regulated by “Congress’s plenary, or absolute power to regulate immigration as part of its authority over foreign relations, in the same realm as declaring war and making treaties.” The term prerogative is a particular deployment of this sovereign power, indicating the act of suspending the law and establishing a less determinate political status of the subjects of this power; this term has special meaning in the context of the United States’ continued engagement in the war on terror and the current economic crisis of 2010. What is remarkable about prerogative power is that it is exercised internationally and domestically, and with increasing regularity and permanence. But I do not mean presidential prerogative or the prerogative power of a governor alone, but also a form of power wielded by a variety of governmental institutions and agents under nondemocratic auspices and aimed at noncitizens. I also argue that vigilante groups can uphold this sort of power through physical threats and racial profiling. Roxanne Doty calls this a form of “statecraft from below.” Thus I conceive of this power as being deployed not vertically but in a weblike network (influenced by Foucault, but also challenging his distinction between sovereignty and, respectively, bio-power, disciplinary power, and governmentality). Additionally, it is important to note that as power becomes more dispersed and deterritorialized, it becomes more porous. Hence it should not be confused with older conceptions of prerogative as absolute or totalizing. The terms prerogative and bare life indicate that their objects—the stateless or enemies—are in a legal limbo, and that this limbo is not anomalous but rather produced by U.S. political power today. These distinctions will be made clearer throughout the book.

In sum, there are four factors crucial to my argument: (1) the growth of U.S. domestic wars and the state of emergency (i.e., the increased predominance of prerogative power), (2) the ambivalent political status of many recent Mexican immigrants and workers on the border, (3) a public debate that presents the (Mexican) immigration issue in polarized and simplistic terms, and (4) neoliberal demands for cheap, “flexible” labor to ensure that the U.S. economy is internationally competitive.

I begin examining these issues by considering assimilation norms in the United States today. As many have recognized, assimilation norms in the past were rigid, ethnocentric, class biased, and demanded a wholesale public disavowal of one’s identity, language, and traditions. Mainstream authors argue that this was replaced by a discourse of difference—whether it is multiculturalism, post-modernism, or post-structuralism—in the 1980s and 1990s, and that today a more sensible and democratic model of assimilation has returned. This return of assimilation, as Rogers Brubaker argues, corrects the excesses of the différance camp. If racism is accounted for and assimilation is viewed as a mutual interaction between immigrants and host country, Brubaker contends (along with others) that this is a welcome return of the canonical model. I dispute this view but find that it does unmask the preconceptions of a great number of immigrant researchers, who often unquestioningly accept the categories of the normative model of assimilation, derived from the Chicago School. These preconceptions are closely linked to stereotypes and conventional wisdom, reaffirming the status quo rather than challenging it. For example, why do these scholars take it for granted that economic success should be a criterion of democratic citizenship? Or that language acquisition is truly an issue in the United States and that it measures one’s fitness for citizenship? At the very least, these presuppositions must be questioned and their relationship to democracy considered. Although it is often argued that the categories of assimilation—wealth, skills, and language—are merely instrumental to citizenship, many of these authors slip into conceptualizing these categories as enacting or performing citizenship functions. For example, language in particular is not treated as a mere instrument to naturalizing in the United States, but is considered the litmus test of whether an immigrant is loyal to the country.

Assimilation debates also say very little about the immigrants themselves but quite a lot about “us,” the host country. As mainstream academics write about the subject, they obscure just as much as they explain. In particular, the focus on economic assimilation overemphasizes the economic viewpoint, obfuscating other facets of an individual’s life. But it also places the focus on the immigrant, with the assumption that she or her left home due to poverty, overpopulation, or poor job opportunities, among other things. Challenging these views, Saskia Sassen has convincingly shown that the political, economic, cultural, and military links that the host country formed with the sending country are crucial to understanding why certain groups move to a specific country. Nevertheless, the focus is nearly always on the immigrant individual or group and not the host country. Researchers of immigration who rely on conventional views also tend to neglect the interdisciplinary nature of this specific issue. I mean this in a special sense: the subjects of immigrants and immigration necessarily fall into domestic politics and international relations, thus splitting the conceptual “border” that often marks how these subjects are investigated. To put it differently, analyzing citizenship involves not only democratic theory but also an analysis of the nation-state. Interestingly, many authors presuppose the nation-state as a naturalized and singular homeland, a monolithic entity, without discussing this preconception. Linda Bosniak has also remarked on this, noting that citizenship scholars tend to ignore the “growing (though uneven) permeability of national borders,” leading to an “insular framework” that “treat[s] the national society as the total universe of analytical and moral concern.” For this reason, they stay firmly in the intellectual terrain that was set when assimilation norms were intolerant and openly biased. While there are excellent accounts of assimilation that are far more complex and interdisciplinary, these accounts do not seem to have influenced policy, media portrayals of assimilation, public debate, or conventional views of immigration in mainstream academic work.

Finally, today’s expectations of assimilation shed light on the status of democracy and citizenship in the United States. Indeed, I believe that the concept of assimilation unites all other concerns about immigrants—it is an “umbrella” issue, bringing together all anxieties about immigrants and guiding public reaction, public policy, and mainstream scholarly work. Demands for assimilation today reflect sovereign concerns and economic requisites, as I have argued above, but they also demonstrate that U.S. citizenship and democracy are based on notions of conformity and consensus rather than debate, diversity, and the right to dissent. Mainstream and right-wing reactions to the mass protests on behalf of immigrants in April 2006 are evidence of this; the protests were portrayed as illegal, traitorous, and evidence of immigrants’—particularly Mexicans’—unassimilability. What is more, they demonstrate that economic issues are tightly linked to sovereign ones as illegal entrants are increasingly treated as threatening to national security and as potential terrorists. What I suggest in chapter 1 is, first, that the scholarly norms of assimilation that find the most resonance in immigration policy and public debates are also the most conventional ones; and second, that not only are the U.S. norms of assimilation impossible to meet for the bulk of immigrants, but they also suggest the limitations of current democratic conceptions and processes.

In the second chapter, I explore aspects of gender, race, and class in public discourse and policy, and link these to sovereign interests. In particular, public discourse and policy demonstrate binary modes of operation concerning work and the work ethic: Mexicans steal jobs but also welfare; Mexicans depress wages but are also apathetic; Mexicans are taking over the job market but are lazy. These binary modes not only are mutually reinforcing but also can be linked to other binary modes of operation regarding gender and fertility: Mexicans are models of family values but have too many children; they are models of religious faith, but this belief system leads to their lack of restraint regarding birth control. Mexican women are models of sacrifice but they also burden the educational and medical systems as a result of their profligacy; they are viewed as irresponsible and as drains on the economy, but they are also clearly viewed as vehicles of assimilation, responsible for taming their wilder male counterparts. Mexican men are ideal laborers but are also portrayed as hypersexual, out-of-control, potential rapists (e.g., in the documentary POV: Farmingville). But these binary modes of operation are more significant for what they say about American national self-understanding, notions of race and ethnicity, and gender than about the Mexicans themselves. These meanings in turn have important implications for the status of U.S. democracy today.

In the third chapter, I argue that just as civil society groups can foster democracy, we forget an important lesson from Tocqueville, who also warned about the linkage between tyranny of the majority and the increasing centralization of government: that civil society can also serve a far more negative role, which can ultimately lead to censorship, conformity, and an expansion of the central government at the expense of truly democratic processes. Applied to contemporary immigration politics, I examine the role of anti-immigration groups like Ranch Rescue, American Patrol, and the Minutemen. I find that although they follow the rule of law, they use individual rights to create a warlike atmosphere and facilitate the suspension of law. In this way, although these groups often position themselves against the government, they uphold the state of emergency and the suspension of law that the government actively seeks in order to foster its wars on terror, drugs, and narco-terrorism. This book challenges conventional notions of assimilation and immigrants, not to mention drawing attention to the connection between conventional presuppositions about immigrants and the status of democracy today.

In the following chapter, I examine the guest-worker program for low-tier workers and the BIP (aka the maquila program). I argue that the power dynamics of these two programs are ideal forms both of neoliberal policies and of sovereign power, as they seek to control the movements of workers while creating “free” conditions for their employers. Although these zones have been rhetorically construed as purely economic and therefore absent of politics and the political, I contend that the deterritorialization and rightlessness they effect work with sovereign power to create a more exploitable and controllable population. These two programs, which are outside the norms of citizenship and immigration law, are aimed at controlling illegal entry (a problem of sovereignty) and ensuring U.S. competitiveness in the global market (an economic problem that relies on the intervention of the state). For these reasons, they have an important role in structuring policy goals toward all immigrants as well as affecting the conditions of low-tier work in less formal sectors. That is, they are ideal types for the treatment of all low-tier workers in this country and on the border, influencing the political and economic status of immigrants who are not participants in either program.

As I discussed above, I draw on Giorgio Agamben’s work on sovereignty to explain how the suspension of law problematizes conventional and scholarly assumptions about assimilation and the immigrant experience. I expand this argument in chapter 4 to discuss how the suspension of economic laws and the increasing inequality of the labor contract effectively leave these workers stateless. That is, they are stateless by virtue of working in a denationalized territory, being subject to a different set of laws, marked by the suspension of normal law and policing, and laboring in conditions that are not considered healthy or normal for full citizens. The Border Industrial Program, which has been a partnership of the U.S. and Mexican governments, has effectively created such a space on the U.S. southern border. The unsolved murders of more than three hundred women in this area over the past ten years are evidence that the disciplinary power of the factories is also shaped by bio-power as theorized by Agamben. These women have been murdered with impunity, based on their status as workers (these have been called the “maquila murders”) and as women (most of the women have been raped and disfigured before their murders).

Correspondingly, the U.S. guest-worker program and other service programs that bring in workers to the United States are also marked by abuse and conditions that do not allow workers to unionize or negotiate wages and working conditions. These workers are tied to one employer and have no political or legal rights. Additionally, they usually owe recruiters a fee for their placement. Their lack of mobility, inability to change employers, and suspension of nearly all political rights lead to a contemporary form of indentured servitude. Low-tier workers outside the guest-worker program are often subject to the same conditions and with just as little recourse if an unauthorized entrant, even if they are freer in other ways. Saskia Sassen has argued that informal workplaces and conditions today have analogues in the formal sector; I would like to suggest that the guest-worker program has a similar effect on low-tier work in the same sector (e.g., agricultural). For this reason, I believe that the conditions of this program not only are undemocratic for these particular workers but also have a negative effect on the dynamics and expectations of low-tier immigrant workers in general. In turn, economic conditions (e.g., flexibility and deregulation) cannot be divorced from political ones. These two programs open up spaces of deterritorialized territory that can lead to the abandonment or over-policing of workers; this space is where sovereign aims are carried out, rather than in the more limited space of domestic politics, the rule of law, and citizenship. Importantly, both programs have been responses to crises—which is why they both bypass normal regulations on labor, the environment, safety, housing, and citizenship—and yet have been relatively long lasting.

I conclude this book by reflecting on how immigration norms and policies, public debate, and informal politics elucidate the status of U.S. democracy and citizenship. I also consider the question of whether today’s wars—on terror and drugs—will continue to shape immigration policy to such a degree. Some may diagnose the mood in the contemporary United States as one akin to the post-Vietnam era, when citizens were disgusted with presidential excess and a proxy war with dire costs in lives and dollars; therefore, such commenters expect that these more abstract wars will soon end. But I do not think that change will come so rapidly; the push for a free market has ironically entailed greater uses of prerogative power and hence a more warlike atmosphere. Unless the linkage between these two dynamics is recognized, the United States will continue to fight enemies abroad and within, while economically exploiting the latter. Moreover, state and municipal governments have adopted many of the repressive measures initiated at the federal level and are continuing this trend unabated. As I have argued elsewhere, cosmopolitan visions of the future are the appropriate solutions for dealing with processes that are not only domestic but also markedly transnational and hybrid. For example, because domestic efforts to hold the police and Mexican government accountable for investigating the maquiladora murders have failed, a transnational group of human rights advocates (including professors and NGOs) filed a suit in international court against the Mexican government. It is at this level that the most disenfranchised individuals—immigrant women of color, indigenous groups, the least skilled workers—may be able to carve out an adequate political status that has historically been denied them at the domestic level. But human rights norms, practices, and institutions must undergo radical change in order to establish democracy for individuals at the international level. Statelessness must be moved from the conceptual margins to the ideational center to critique not only existing immigration policies, practices, and rhetoric but also a political status that moves between and in the margins of nation-states. With Agamben I argue that the stateless are not just emblematic of the most pressing immigration issues today, but also provide insight into identifying cosmopolitan practices that will broaden democratic agency. Although quite a bit of transformation and innovation is necessary, hopefully my arguments (particularly in the conclusion) will show the urgency of this task.

In sum, I want to introduce a sort of critical theory of conventional assumptions regarding immigration, which are predominant not only in everyday discourse but also in much academic work on the subject. In this regard, I want to highlight relationships between global capital and sovereignty, domestic politics, and transnational or international politics, and the centrality of the nation-state in these conventional understandings, all of which is often unacknowledged. Although I do not aim to add to the literature on race, class, and gender per se, I do want to examine the important connection between sovereignty and race, class, and gender. The significance of race and gender to sovereign concerns today demonstrates the degree to which racism and sexism are not merely cultural forms. Nor can they merely be reformed through altered legislation. Recognizing the use of racial and gendered stereotypes to mobilize a politics of fear, to argue that immigrants do not assimilate, and to suggest that they are stealing “our” jobs and invading the country is to recognize the connection between bio-power, disciplinary power, and sovereignty. The global economy’s use and abuse of immigrant men and women has similar foundations that articulate with sovereign concerns. Conventional notions of assimilation, work, and immigrant worthiness for American citizenship must be reconsidered in light of this analysis. Indeed, these categories say far more about U.S. citizenship and politics than they do about any particular immigrant group. In essence, I hope to open a new set of debates that recognizes the linkages among the many factors affecting immigrants’ lives and the contemporary forms of political belonging in the United States today.