Securitized Immigration in a New Jersey Town
Daniel M. Goldstein is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University. He studies the global meanings and practices of security and securitization, particularly as these come into conflict with human rights.
As I write, the United States Supreme Court is debating the constitutionality of Arizona’s SB 1070, the state law that imposes extremely harsh penalties on undocumented immigrants, effectively criminalizing the immigrant presence in the state. Whatever the Court decides, this piece of legislation has already had a broad national impact. In states and municipalities across the U.S., legislators and policy makers have introduced laws and ordinances similar to Arizona’s, making it ever more difficult for the undocumented person to obtain a driver’s license, a job, and a place to live, to educate his or her children, and to move about in public.
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This legislative trend is part of the “securitization” of immigration in the U.S. – that is, the rendering of immigration (and specifically Latino immigration) as a threat to the security of the American public and the stability of the American way of life. As immigration has become increasingly securitized in recent years, the principal site of immigration control has shifted from the national borders to the spaces within those borders, and from the federal to the local levels of legislation and enforcement, even as the prototypical security threat has extended from the “Islamic terrorist” to the Latino day laborer. In such a context, it is critical to understand the ways in which increasing securitization at the state and local levels is experienced in daily life, and how that experience shapes the perceptions that Latino immigrants and their non-immigrant neighbors have of their own security and how to ensure it. What does security mean in the context of undocumented immigration in the U.S. today, and what effects do laws meant to guarantee it produce in daily life?
A Presidential Authority Award from the Russell Sage Foundation in 2011 allowed me to study the impacts that ordinances like those described above have had on undocumented Latino residents of a small New Jersey town, one of the “new destinations” of migrant settlement in the U.S. My research examines the lived experience of securitized immigration, focusing on the ways in which undocumented migrants respond to the increasingly restrictive legal environment within which they must build their lives. As a cultural anthropologist, I rely on a qualitative research methodology grounded in long-term participant-observation in the study community and intensive individual and group interviewing to collect data on local life. This research brings a much-needed ethnographic perspective to the study of immigration and its impacts on local communities in the U.S. Whereas much research on immigration has tended to focus on macro-level policies and politics using surveys and other quantitative methodologies, the ethnographic approach relies on direct personal interactions between ethnographer and research subjects to highlight the daily experience of life in a particular study location. This research site is not understood as a bounded isolate, but rather must be situated within the broader sociocultural, political, and economic context of a wider region, nation, and world. In trying to understand how securitization operates in one town – a place I call, pseudonymously, Hometown, NJ – my intention is not to generalize to all immigrant communities, but to analyze people’s experiences, in depth and detail, in one particular location. By doing so, I hope to suggest the complex and contradictory ways in which anti-immigrant laws can shape local realities.
New Jersey has long been an immigrant “gateway” state. According to U.S. Census and American Community Survey data, one in five of New Jersey’s residents is foreign born, with Latinos recently emerging as the largest foreign-born population in the state. Compared to other states New Jersey has been relatively welcoming to immigrants, though this varies greatly at the local level. While one town may declare itself a “sanctuary city” for the undocumented, its neighbor might pass extremely harsh local ordinances restricting immigrant rights. Locality, then, is key to understanding immigrant life in New Jersey.
Hometown, NJ, is in fact two towns: Hometown Boro, completely surrounded on all sides by Hometown Township, each with its own municipal government and services. This is a common geography in New Jersey. But whereas the Boro is very welcoming to immigrants, the Township is very restrictive. Immigrants seek jobs in public spaces and feel free to circulate in the Boro, yet they avoid the Township, where a police officer might stop them and demand to see their papers simply for being on the street. Municipal court judges in the Boro will rarely ask about immigration status, whereas Township courts routinely inquire and pass the undocumented along to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) affiliate in the nearby county prison.
In this environment, immigrants have adopted a series of techniques for self-defense – securitizing themselves, one might say, against the intrusions of the law. Extensive migrant networks operate to educate new arrivals to town on how to conduct themselves, both to avoid trouble with the law and to preserve the “safe space” that they feel in Hometown Boro. Migrants know that driving a vehicle is the surest way to encounter law enforcement, so most refuse to get behind the wheel. Many foreswear drinking alcohol, as this can loosen inhibitions and cause one, they say, to step out of line. They avoid parties and other gatherings that might be noisy and attract attention. Men and women alike turn to religion (there are nearly 30 different Christian houses of worship in town), finding in the church a safe place to engage socially and so distract themselves from what might otherwise be a tedious routine of daily life. The church is also a place where migrants learn from one another about how to stay safe. These forms of “horizontal” education are complemented by more “vertical” forms, in which immigrant advocacy groups and activists (which include both undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens) provide a more top-down set of instructions on how to keep one’s self and one’s family safe from the law. Most recently, this includes developing a personal plan in case of detention and deportation – a response to the expansion of the federal Secure Communities program into New Jersey in February, 2012. Fearing that they might lose their children if they are taken by ICE, some immigrants prepare by assigning power of attorney to a legal resident or trusted friend who can make decisions on their behalf if they are detained. These behaviors constitute a process that I call “self-securitization,” a means of adaptation to a new legal environment that is not uniform across space, but spread like a patchwork across the political geography of the state. Immigrants learn where and where not to go and how to behave while there, part of an indigenous and locally maintained system for managing insecurity in the securitized context.
This study is a pilot project that I hope to expand to other towns in New Jersey, to provide comparative data on the ways in which public securitization may or may not provoke immigrant self-securitization in different contexts. Further work also needs to be done with non-immigrant residents of Hometown and other locations in New Jersey, to understand how and whether securitization creates a greater sense of security for that segment of the population, or in similar ways serves to undermine it.
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