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s a first-generation queer Latino from a mixed-status household in the Midwest of the United States (US), I have cared deeply about issues of difference, illegality, and migration in my work. I grew up around narratives that emphasized hard work in education as the pathway out of poverty, which inevitably created divisions in how people in my family, at school, and at work valued certain activities as important, and others as not. These divisions became apparent in the important work that immigration advocates were doing around the DREAM Act and the figure of the “DREAMer.” The focus on the “DREAMer” trope has become a mainstay for immigration justice agendas that often effaces the many violences—settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, and femicide in the Americás—that shape migrants’ lives. While clashes about the cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program remain persistent in US contemporary politics, the “DREAMer” narrative continues to inform activism and scholarship on migration.
The “DREAMer” narrative developed to counteract the negative images of undocumented migrants within political debates about immigration reform, particularly the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act, in 2001 (Critelli 2008; Lauby 2016). The trope relies on a narrative about youth who crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S. as children, worked hard to earn good grades in school, and now seek documentation to attend college. Particular logics about valorization coalesced to transform the “DREAMer” narrative into one of the most prominent immigration agendas. Firstly, the “DREAMer” trope relies on the figure of the child to emphasize the potential future that might be lost if the undocumented youth is unable to attend college. The figure of the youth, or child, is often employed to produce political hope about the future. Scholars have argued that the figure of the child is “always already white” (Muñoz 2009, 95) and excludes racialized children from constructing their future.
The implicit focus of the “DREAMer” trope on youth who cross the border from Mexico to the US further complicates this usage. Most of the voices that receive attention within political debates emphasize Mexico as the migrant-sending country. Mexicans often stand in for undocumented communities within immigration debates. An inclusion of Mexicans as youths can challenge the whiteness of the figure of the child, but this incorporation often maintains a light-skinned, although still racialized, subject. The Mexican, college-bound, hard-working DREAMer is often constructed in opposition to the undocumented youth gang member from El Salvador, who is further considered dangerous and criminal (Cacho 2012). These claims for immigration reform still maintain a focus on some youth of color.
The trope similarly draws on a particular social position to make selective claims on immigration reform. The narratives rely on depicting the youth as not having been able to decide to come to the US because they were children. These stories often depict parents as separate from the youth, as not having the same kind of value. Consequently, “DREAMer” narratives participate in a process of differential devaluation wherein “[v]alue is ascribed through explicitly or implicitly disavowing relationships to the already devalued and disciplined categories of deviance and nonnormativity” (Cacho 2012, 18). These tropes similarly disavow those who have already been deemed as ‘criminals’ and ‘illegal aliens’ in order to prop this figure of the “DREAMer” up as the subject that has worked hard and therefore has earned their claims to citizenship.
I do not want to discount the material and psychological benefits that mixed-status households receive from having a DACA recipient in the family (Abrego 2018). Rather, I seek to problematize the overarching discourses about unauthorized migration and migrants. These discourses valorize certain forms of activisms over others. Often these activisms center lobbying in Washington, DC, marches and demonstrations, and actions outside of courtrooms as sites where radical immigration politics occurs. While significant, the emphasis that these political actions receive means that DREAMers receive a disproportionate amount of attention and resources, further shoring up the differential devaluation between migrants across various axes of difference.
The recent alliance between Black and Latinx geographical thought affords an opportunity to build upon research on immigration politics. The alliance inspires me to be open to different geographic stories for undocumented migrants, paralleling the call by undocumented artists to offer more expansive representations of migrants’ lives. It also enables an examination of the racial hierarchies that maintain the differential incorporation of immigrants in our society. I draw on the reconceptualization of a sense of place through Black geographies and the notion of utopia within queer of color critique to explore an immigration agenda that moves beyond the limits of the “DREAMer” trope. I illustrate how migrants’ everyday practices of political action, particularly those of the most marginalized undocumented peoples, can speculate on a yet-to-be terrain of radical immigration politics.
I first came across Black geographies as a graduate student, engaging with the works of Katherine McKittrick, Clyde Woods, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore in a seminar on critical race geographies. The scholarship challenged me to think critically about how geography, both as a discipline and on the ground, shapes and is shaped by racism. In “On plantations, prisons, and a black sense of place,” Katherine McKittrick (2011) rearticulates a ‘sense of place’ through Black geographies to not define ‘blackness’ solely through racism and the resistances to racism. Scholars have preoccupied themselves with the suffering black body and denied a black sense of place. McKittrick argues that diverse spatial practices help form a black sense of place that pays attention to the structural workings of racism and the practices of resistances that can be found in spaces of encounter. Hard empirical evidence of death and decay for Black communities obscures the complexity of a black sense of place and “descriptively replicate acts of racial violence which end in the death of the targeted ‘savage’ without” (954). Similarly, undocumented artists and activists have argued that portrayals of undocumented migrants often represent them within discourses of violence. This becomes particularly poignant when considering recent events of the migrant caravan from Central America, the continued use of tear gas against mothers and children at the border, and the deaths of two children—Felipe and Jakelin—from Guatemala in US Border Patrol custody.
We must move beyond the analytical trajectory that reproduces the linear progression toward death for black, poor, and marginalized peoples. McKittrick argues that our present order reproduces the racial categories of being ‘with’ and being ‘without,’ and the work of Ruth Gilmore (2007) on Mothers Reclaiming Our Children (ROC) challenge this binary by conceptualizing a flesh-and-blood worldview and human relationality. It moves away from “bifurcated systems of dispossess and possession” (McKittrick 2011, 959) and towards “solidarities based in recognition of the life-threating harms that new and old racist structures produce in all kinds of households of all races and ethnicities” (Gilmore 2007, 247). This conceptualization of a black sense of place can denaturalize the narratives of violence and death for undocumented and migrant communities.
I also came across queer of color critique in a graduate seminar with the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. While the course illustrated how queer scholarship may characterize queers of color as devoid of a future, similar to the descriptive violence around race that McKittrick points to, I became enthralled in how the ‘everyday’ contains a map of the utopia that is “not yet here” (Muñoz 2009, 1). The overwhelming straightness and whiteness of temporality pushes José Esteban Muñoz to “call on a utopian political imagination that will enable us to glimpse another time and place: a ‘not-yet’ where queer youths of color actually get to grow up” (Muñoz 2009, 96). Queer people of color must imagine ways of being that exist within certain spaces but have not fully been manifested. Muñoz draws on “a queer feeling of hope in the face of hopeless heteronormative maps of the present where futurity is indeed the province of normative reproduction” that pushes him to use a “queer utopian hermeneutic…to look for queer relational formations within the social” (Muñoz 2009, 28). By pushing against normative reproductions within the present, I believe this enables the development of a type of relationality that attends to difference, that pushes back against some of the logics in the “DREAMer” trope and the overwhelming violence at the border. Queers of color will imagine other forms of belonging and affiliation that do not replicate heteronormative logics through a conception of utopia. People can come together as a collectivity beside—not despite—their difference.
I join McKittrick’s and Muñoz’s thinking about the everyday and geography, relationality and labor, and oppression and resistance toward scholarship that analytically and empirically engages with undocumented peoples. This coalition offers insights for expanding our thinking on who is undocumented, where they navigate and contest violence, and what practices they employ to navigate these spaces of marginalization, exclusion, and exploitation. I work with the concept of ‘migrant struggles’ as the entrance point into incorporating the insights offered. Black geographies and queer of color critique both examine issues of migration, and I draw on migration studies to further amplify these areas’ similarities. According to Casas-Cortes et al. (2015, 26), migrant struggles refer to 1) organized struggles in which migrants openly challenge dominant politics of mobility, the regime of labor, or the space of citizenship; and 2) “the daily strategies, refusals, and resistances through which migrants enact their (contested) presence—even if they are not expressed or manifested as ‘political’ battles demanding something in particular.” This conceptualization of migrant struggles incorporates a range of people, spaces, and politics for grasping the complexity and liveliness of undocumented and migrant communities. I suggest that we shift attention toward the everyday sites where undocumented migrants engage in place- and meaning-making.
For the majority of undocumented peoples and migrants, immigration politics occurs at various, everyday sites in the US. While Muñoz suggests that the everyday holds potential for imagining utopian futures, McKittrick’s conceptualization of a black sense of place beyond plantations and prisons brings a more expansive consideration to the production of space and practices for racialized communities. We should understand race outside of only racism and the oppositions to it. Research on migrants can and should identify migrants’ social and political practices for a radical immigration agenda outside of lobbying in Washington, DC, courtrooms, and detention centers. These sites represent one part of a larger cartography by communities to navigate, resist, and reshape the vulnerable conditions under which they must live. Ruth Gilmore (2007) in an excellent example of scholarship that attends to everyday sites for examining how prison life politically and socially isolates community members from one another, and how mothers work to care for each other and their communities. While borders, mass incarceration, and the deportation regime sever the social ties of people they affect, we must also illustrate how people thread these relations back together in each other’s homes, community spaces, and on the streets.
Scholarship should be critical of community relations as well. Muñoz’s belonging-in-difference and Gilmore’s human relationality invoke the sense of collectivity, a collectively that requires an attention to who engages in the labor of suturing community relations together after being severed. Rather than romanticize the belonging-in-difference proposed by utopia, Muñoz’s point that the utopian is not yet here suggests that there is a lot of work that needs to be done in the present. Much of the labor of making this happen, however, is not evenly distributed. As McKittrick (2011, 959) claims, Gilmore’s work with the ROC exemplifies how human relationality calls attention to “the unevenness of political and activist labour as well as the social division of labour required of mothers.” Axes of difference such as sexuality, class, gender, and race often play a determining role in who does the invisible labor of maintaining community relations. We should remain attentive to the role our research plays in obscuring these community relations in favor of romanticized discourses of activism and social justice.
To move beyond the simplified articulations of race, belonging, and labor within the “DREAMer” trope, we must examine who does this labor and in what ways. Juan Herrera (2016) illustrates how illegality (in other words, a lack of acceptable documentation status) was further exacerbated and made complicated by the racial differences of day laborers. The differences found within migrant groups—people who are asylum seekers, refugees, or undocumented or who are from one of countries that have temporary protected status in the US—should be considered within this collectivity. It is about considering how racist structures produce harm for a range of people, who is expected to do the labor of keeping people together, and who is left behind. Each groups’ position within intersecting hierarchies shape their relations with other groups in ways that make some forms of work visible (marches, rallies, speeches) and other forms of labor invisible (unpaid care work). This attention to labor in creating collectivities challenges the mapping of immigration issues solely onto Mexican and Mexican-American populations. We must examine the different kinds of labor that women, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, LGBTQ, differently abled, and other peoples do to create more livable lives for themselves and their communities.
These everyday actions do the political work of creating a sense of place for imagining more just futures. McKittrick (2011, 959) argues that the labor of communities—particularly of mothers and, more specifically, their practices—create the conditions in the present for imagining a more radical black sense of place. This sense of place considers both the fluctuating geographical and historical contexts and the forms of resistance in which communities engage to make sense of the world around them and create more livable lives. McKittrick points to how these spaces of encounter contain within them anti-colonial practices, and Muñoz puts forth how queer aesthetics map out social relations for the future. Both attest to the power that the everyday has for understanding these practices, practices that are often mobilized against the seemingly totalizing nature of our detention and deportation regime.
Research on migrant struggles does not need to replicate structural forms of violence towards immigrants, mixed-status families, and people of color presumed to be undocumented. Black geographies and queer of color critique seek to illuminate how Black and queer of color communities create unique social and political practices, revealing the rich geographies that constitute the processes of migration, neoliberal state and economic formations, and racial and sexual hierarchies that shape the lives of undocumented people in our current conjuncture. Various issues around migration continue to arise in the US—whether the expansion of the border wall or the continued separation of migrant families in detention—so calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement and grant amnesty to the estimated 11 million undocumented people should be taken seriously. But these issues are not the only ones that affect these communities. Immigrants must navigate a landscape of violence while carrying out daily activities for themselves and their families. By examining the everyday, we can demonstrate that the vibrancy of these communities does not solely follow the logics embedded in the “DREAMer” trope or the images repeated in media. If we continue to build upon this coalition between Black and Latinx geographies, we can invite human geographers into the discipline to further transform our scholarship.