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Undocumented vs. Illegal: A Distinction without a Difference

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December 10, 2012

In representing only the good immigrants, undocumented activists are literally and metaphorically the dream activists of neoliberalismemphasising individualised narratives about freedom over systemic critique.


No one is Illegal–Except the Ones We Don't Like1

Since 2009, “Undocumented and Unafraid” has been the mantra of the undocumented student movement.2 Undocumented student activists initiated a now widespread campaign to “Drop the “I” [as in illegal] word”, supported by some media outlets  and think tanks but rejected by others. At this point in time, the undocumented student movement is the most visible and arguably the most powerful immigrant group, having grown from a grassroots effort to a sophisticated political lobby with slick media messaging and a professionalised workforce. So many of these undocumented youth activists identify as queer that theirs is now referred to as the “undocuqueer” movement; they use the rhetoric of coming out as queer and “coming out of the shadows” to emphasise that they are “undocumented and unafraid.” Because the presence of queer activists is so pronounced, this essay will use the terms “undocuqueer” and “undocumented” interchangeably.


As a result of this combination of identity politics and what looks like a left-progressive agenda on immigration, the undocuqueer movement has become one of the darlings of  progressives, with think tanks like the Applied Research Center taking on its cause and adopting it as one of their own.


Given the toxic recent history of the term “illegal alien” and its association with an extreme right-wing perspective on immigration, it is only natural that liberal and progressive activists should want a change in terminology. Yet, this desired change is meaningless. To use “undocumented” instead of “illegal” is to evoke a distinction without a difference. The use of “undocumented” presumes that the only problem facing those who bear the name is a collective lack of documents, that the granting of papers by the State is all that is required to bestow safety and legality upon millions who are here without said papers, and that the biggest problem with the immigration crisis is the terminology we use to describe those who are neither citizens nor temporary residents. In all of this, there is no critique of the larger systemic problems with immigration.


The undocumented movement is built upon a discourse of exceptionalism and explicit statements that the undocumented are better than others, the “illegals” in this country. Within these parameters, the “illegals” are the nasty underside of the immigrant population, presumably the worst of the lot, who have committed crimes so heinous that they must be swiftly punished, deported, and expunged from the land and public memory. This was never so obvious as in the second Presidential debate of 2012, when Mitt Romney referred to “illegal immigration” and Obama declared:

What I’ve also said is if we’re going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families. And that’s what we’ve done.

Dream Action Coalition responded to Romney, stating that “he demonstrated his lack of sensitivity towards us by calling us 'Illegals.' Indeed, our citizen family members were offended by the fact that a national candidate called us, their brothers and sisters, 'illegals.'”


Colorlines rebuked Obama with a detailed explanation of how few of the “undocumented” posses criminal records:

In preliminary data for the January-March 2012 quarter collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, for example, just 14 percent of those deported had any criminal record. (Immigration violations are typically considered civil violations, and do not constitute a criminal offense.) But, a closer look at the data shows that just 4 percent of those deported had a so-called “aggravated felon” on their record, an immigration court-specific designation of crimes that can include crimes as serious as rape and murder, but has also been expanded to include violations like theft or non-violent drug offenses.

Erased or occasionally embedded within these huffy disclaimers is the simple fact that “illegal” is itself an arbitrary term used to describe a vast population of people and a variety of acts. Most damaging of all, the call to exceptionalism ignores the fact that it is not citizenship but the structure of illegality that denies basic benefits to several million U.S citizens as well as foreign nationals. Furthermore, as Eithne Luibhéid points out in Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border, the line between “legal” and “illegal” in immigration law is a constantly shifting one.


The U.S has 5 per cent of the world's population, but 25 per cent of the world's prison population.  The vast majority of US prisoners are poor, and a majority are people of colour. Once placed in the neoliberal prison system a system that works to create a perpetual and enslaved prison population and to increase the disenfranchisement of the most marginalised ex-prisoners face lives crippled by a lack of access to basic resources, and most eventually spiral downwards into lives of unending stigma and poverty.  Among those who are foreign nationals, even their crimes of drug-dealing and gang-banging, so vividly evoked by Obama, are exacerbated or reclassified  in order to increase the scope of the prison industrial complex (PIC). The unrelenting “drug wars” are targeted at immigrants, in order to create a constant flow of people into the PIC. As Laura Carlsen points out,  the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), “the largest for-profit prison company in the country” has openly stated that,

The demand for our facilities could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.(p.19) (Emphasis mine)

As U.S prison abolitionists know too well, the “drug wars” also criminalise U.S. citizens, particularly people of colour. According to Drug Policy Alliance, “African Americans comprise 14% of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses.”  Treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) further this criminalisation by decimating the economies of countries like Mexico, compelling millions to traverse borders and laws in desperate searches for better economic conditions.  In effect, the “drug wars” are serving to criminalise both domestic and immigrant populations and exacerbating the racism and the economic inequality that plagues poorer and marginalised communities.


The undocuqueer movement depends upon an erasure of all these complicated economic circumstances under which people, including U.S citizens, are determined as “illegal,” and it erases and leaves uncriticised and untouched the reality of the frightening nightmare of neoliberalism.3 In fact, the undocuqueer movement depends upon the criminalisation of the very parents who brought these now exceptional children into the U.S. Under the system of distinction between legal and illegal so directly advocated for by the undocumented, parents and siblings who do not fit the parameters of perfect citizenship-in-waiting are already the “illegals”, simply because they came here.


The undocuqueer movement reconciles these contradictory factors ineffectually by drawing upon the narrative that their parents came here to make a better life for their children, and that their sacrifice is worth it. In this way, their parents' and siblings' illegality is left behind and reabsorbed into a larger narrative about good citizens in waiting. What might happen to their families? The answer is unclear but also deemed ultimately unimportant in comparison to the larger cultural insistence that the undocumented students are innocent, a term often used to describe them.


In the push to redefine themselves as “undocumented,” the undocuqueers have essentially used the “illegals” as their bargaining chips. In the quest to achieve normalcy and “legality,” they offer up their friends, compadres, and families as sacrifices on the altar of The American Dream.


How did an unfunded grassroots movement become such a powerful force in the immigration rights movement? How did its retrograde and deeply assimiliationist politics become (mis)recognised as a part of left/progressive politics? The history of this nascent and developing movement is still being written, but among the factors we can trace at this stage are the uses of the undocuqueer students' strategic use of the rhetoric of “coming out” and the larger currents in immmigration reform that served to push them to the forefront of immigration rights activism and politics.


Immigration Reform, Bush, and the Obama Non-Policy

Obama rose to power with the gloss of progressive politics and yet, ironically, his record on immigration is far worse than that of George W. Bush, who at least made an attempt at comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) in 2006. Bush's eight years were hardly a time of peace and harmony for immigrants; the 2008 Postville raid in Iowa was only one glaring example of the severity of Bush-era policies.  But, as Karma Chávez points out in “Coming Out as Coalitional Gesture?”

The Obama administration moved away from the visible spectacle of apprehending migrants using workplace raids, a practice popularized during Bush’s years. Using quieter strategies, the 2010 fiscal year ended with the highest number of migrant deportations in U.S. history—392,000—and the highest number of business audits to check the legal status of workers at more than 2000.

At this point in time, Obama has deported more immigrants than Bush in both his terms.  So far, he has done little to advance any meaningful immigration reform. Towards the end of the election cycle in 2012, he announced a “prosecutorial discretion” relief for undocumented youth, also known as “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).” This compels youth to reveal their undocumented status to authorities in order to determine whether they are eligible to have their deportations deferred; it can best be described as the promise for the hope of a possible solution, maybe. Since it is a matter of discretion and not law, it can be revoked at any time. This measure has rightly been described as “bullshit” by the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign (MDC) which points out that “this campaign promises nothing more than a chance that maybe the government will postpone its efforts to deport you–while exposing you to extreme risks, including the risk of deportation simply for applying!” MDC goes on to state that, “[w]hile Deferred Action...may be a good option for people already in custody, it is incredibly cynical to bait young people who are not yet in custody and are therefore not subject to deportation in the first place.” 

But even before Obama's rise to power, the broader immigration rights movement had already fizzled out after an initial burst of energy in 2006, a year that saw the spectacular March 10 march in Chicago against the harsh and punitive anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner Bill. Since then, there have been a few successes like the lifting of the HIV travel ban in 2009 (after over two decades of work by HIV/AIDS activists). Today, most immigration campaigns focus on exceptional individuals, preferably with families and exemplary qualifications. The case histories do nothing more than plead individual cases for clemency, fixing the State as the ultimate saviour of the individual. While it is a fact that it is impossible to simultaneously ask the State for clemency while also critiquing it, it is necessary to point out that these campaigns, through their sheer number and emotional force (signing up for any of the organisational listservs invites a daily slew of such appeals) have determined the contours of the larger movement.


To date, while smaller and more grassroots organisations and collectives like MDC, Queers for Economic Justice, and the Oakland and San Francisco-based HAVOQ have a vision for what real change should look like, the legislative agenda is commandeered and determined by larger organisations like Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), which are instrumental in pushing DACA forward.


Given the relatively moribund and unimaginative immigration rights movement, it was inevitable that the spirited message and campaigns of the undocumented student movement should now be seen as the only cohesive movement.


Coming Out As Undocumented: A brief history

Today, the undocuqueer movement widely evokes the metaphor and rhetoric of “coming out,”  deliberately aligning itself with the mainstream gay movement which has always attached great importance to the concept of coming out.


As Chávez  points out, this achieves a few strategic meaures: The undocumented movement gets the support of the gay movement whose only other interest in immigration has been around the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow gays and lesbians to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration. DREAM activists have also aligned themselves with groups that fought for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but with limited success. While DADT has ended, the DREAM Act still languishes under a rubble of promises since its inception in 2001.


But if we are to consider “coming out” in a broader framework, we would have to acknowledged that the 2006 March 10 march in Chicago was perhaps the most visible instance of tens of thousands of illegal aliens choosing to out themselves in the streets.


At the time, the air crackled with anticipation and excitement about a movement forward on immigration, but the push for CIR never went anywhere. While the Sensenbrenner Bill was ultimately defeated, its main provisions have re-emerged in various  pieces of legislation across the country, most notably in Arizona's SB-1070. March 10 continues to be an annual occasion for immigrant groups to convene and rally together and, at least in Chicago, May Day rallies have effectively turned into immigrant rights marches. To the credit of organisers, May Day marches have provided a way for immigrant rights groups to more directly interact and engage with labour, which has historically been suspicious of immigrants and their effects on the domestic job market.


Still, the larger movement was stalled and without a clear agenda. Then, in early 2009, a young UIC student named Rigo Padilla was arrested on charges of driving under the influence. Chicago has long been designated a “sanctuary city” which theoretically means that law enforcement cannot ask arrestees about their legal status. But Padilla was asked, it emerged that he was without papers, and he was put in deportation proceedings.


Over the next few months, through a series of circumstances, Rigo Padilla's case became a national story and the lynchpin for a rapidly coalescing DREAM Activist movement in Chicago. I and my colleagues and friends in Gender JUST and other groups rallied around Padilla, recognising that we could simultaneously help him avoid deportation and draw attention to the arbitrary ways in which people like him were subject to unfair and unjust laws. Most importantly, although we did not fully understand the full significance of this at the time, Padilla gained the support of the powerful Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).


The campaign around Padilla became the catalysing force for the formation of the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL), which supported the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) even though several of us had reservations about its military component, which would require those not able to go college to enlist in the army for a mandatory period in order to qualify for a path towards citizenship.  A dormant immigration rights movement suddenly had a cause and a hugely energised and much younger population affected by the immigration crisis. ICIRR's influence upon the DREAM Activists became more apparent and stronger and soon, any hope some of us had that the nascent youth movement in Chicago would become a force for change dissipated in light of the awareness that groups like IYJL (which was fast accruing more cultural capital) were absorbing the narratives of ICIRR, positioning exceptional immigrants against “illegals,” and prioritising “family reunification” over any meaningful conversation about immigration as, at its core, an economic issue. At this point in time, IYJL has clear and strong ties to ICIRR, which serves as the group's fiscal sponsor (though it should be pointed out that such a relationship does not always mean an ideological influence). The relationship between the two is of mutual benefit: ICIRR gains the street credibility of a youth organisation, and the youth activists gain the legal, financial, and cultural capital of an organisation with a $7.9 million budget.


A public meeting on new immigration proposals organised by the Chicago-based LGBTQ Immigrant Rights Organization included IYJL and ICIRR on the panel; I covered it for the Windy City Times. One audience member expressed concern about the DREAM Act and other measures of reform, and the ways these distinguish between good and bad immigrants.  Fred Tsao, Policy Director for ICIRR responded that the group sought power in the immigration debate, implying that it did what it had to in get the changes it wanted.


Seeking power is not in itself problematic – the left tends to be suspicious of power and fails to recognise how it might grapple with and gain power to effect the changes it needs to make. But in Tsao's terms, and the ever-growing silence of undocuqueers and the youth, is the assumption that power will bring change. The question left unanswered is, “Power for whom?” Power in and of itself also means the forced creation of a disempowered constituency. In this case, and as the next installment in this series will show more clearly, those seeking power turn upon those whom they consider more dispensable – the undocumented deliberately erase the lives and realities of those whose lives are not as exceptional as theirs.


The DREAM Act is now inextricably woven with this complex narrative about coming out.  It is worth noting that this is in fact an extraordinary feature, because rarely in American public life does sexual identity actually function in such a public way to draw attention to a political set of causes (even if these are eventually absorbed back into a highly problematic set of personalised narratives).


Coming Out As a Break in Solidarity

The end result of this active coalition between youth activists and more established and mainstream organisations like ICIRR is that they exert discursive pressures on the undocumented to come out. At a summer 2012 rally celebrating the undocumented movement, youth leaders admonished their compatriots to come out. One activist looked visibly angry as she commented that, “people really need to come out.” In public and private discussions, undocumented activists are given to either berating fellow immigrants or mocking them, and the implication is clear: Not coming out is an act of cowardice and a moral failing. When pressed about their problematic political agenda, undocumented activists and their allies will retort that they individually and collectively support workers' rights and other progressive/leftist issues.  The problem, of course, is that their political work within and as groups of undocumented activists undercuts any hope for progress on other fronts since their emphasis on exceptionalism effectively stigmatises all those who cannot offer similar qualifications and perfect lives.  In effect, even the most progressive undocumented and the illegal are caught up in a vicious cycle, wherein one group effectively negates the possibility that the other might gain anything approaching meaningful rights.  Yet, in public and private meetings, the undocumented continue to demonstrate their ability to echo and manipulate the discourse of radicalism and alterity to their own ends: Many of them are fond of repeating the words of Audre Lorde, “Your silence will not protect you.”  


Indeed, their access to the textual markers of privilege, particularly in using the words of those venerated in queer radical circles, is an example of how much the undocuqueer movement has assimilated from the mainstream gay movement, which frequently insists that not being able to marry is analogous to slavery or to being pushed to the back of the bus like Rosa Parks. But Lorde's words emerged from a completely different context, and it is unlikely that she meant to refer to a public relations campaign run by a group of relatively privileged college graduates who offer no critique of the state violence she spent her life describing and resisting.


In their constant call to come out, come out, undocumented youth and queers also ignore the fact that “coming out” has different consequences for people depending on their economic circumstances. What happens to the youth who drop out of high school or college, or refuse the logic of the DREAM Act and do not, unlike those praised by the Dream Act Coalition, have any desire to fight in American wars? For that matter, what happens to those who are not young and college-bound and without the luxury of starting life all over again?  Few have asked these questions in public, and Raúl Al-qaraz Ochoa's, “Letter to the DREAM Movement: My Painful Withdrawal of Support for the DREAM Act” is, to date, one of the only such public critiques.


Undocuqueers often speak of “coming out of the shadows.” This trope imagines that immigrants have been living unseen and can only emerge from the dark into light. But such an imagined move from darkness to light ignores the fact that those designated illegal are not invisible, but that the system they survive in operates to render them such even though it cannot function without their labour. In other words, they are in fact completely visible but ignored when convenient.   To erase this economic reality is to erase the possibility of thinking more deeply about how immigration in fact needs to be illegal if this country's economy is to continue the way it does.  To erase this economic reality is to erase the possiblity that we might consider that immigration is an economic crisis.   Furthermore, terms like “the shadows” erase the fact that the illegal do in fact have informal networks of economic, cultural, and political support  – the parents of the undocumented live within and are sustained by these networks.  Their children, the undocumented activists,  have also lived in and been sustained by them for years.  I am hardly calling these ways of living perfect or even desirable; I am simply pointing to the ways that undocumented activists misrepresent and erase the complex realities of the worlds they occupy.  


Coming out is supposed to magically transform people's lives, yet there is no acknowledgment of the fact that the ability to get citizenship anywhere is often severely restricted. The very concept of birthright citizenship is meaningless for vast numbers of people who are not only without US papers but without papers of their own country, effectively stripped of their citizenship and caught in Catch-22 situations which make it impossible to move forward. For instance, India will not even renew passports for its own citizens if they are in the United States without valid visas, which makes any kind of movement inside or outside the country impossible. For many, there are simply no papers to be had.


The emphasis on coming out allows us to forget that the process is meaningless for many because they have always been out, willingly or not. Just as, for many queers, coming out has never been an issue because they have always been recognised as queers – because of their gender-non-conformity, their gestures, the very movements of their bodies – most immigrants of colour are assumed to be illegal. As the case of Rigo Padilla shows, one is always already out as illegal because the system instantly defines people as such based on skin colour, accent, and other factors. The onus is upon the immigrant to prove that he or she is not illegal; “illegal” is the default position.


In the case of the undocuqueers in particular, the use of sexual identity serves as a neoliberal erasure of the economic foundations of immigration. Perhaps no figure crystalises this more clearly than José Antonio Vargas, who came out as undocumented in a now-famous New York Times story. Since then, Vargas has become a popular speaker on the topic of his life and dropping “illegal” in favour of “undoucumented.”   His popularity suffered a minor glitch, however, when he crossed a picket line in September 2012 to make a speech to the Online News Association at the San Francisco Hyatt Regency. He did so despite several requests from labour organisers who have been working on a global boycott of the chain while trying to negotiate a contract for Hyatt workers, many of whom are immigrants.  Vargas has described his own family as one of immigrant workers.


Any other kind of activist would undoubtedly have seen an end to their popularity, at least among progressives, but Vargas remains untouched by the issue.  In an interview with Colorlines's Rinku Sen, prior to his speaking at the 2012 Facing Race conference (organised by the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines), he was asked about having crossed the picket line. His response was to fall back upon a classic story about the untutored immigrant: “We were an immigrant working class family, but I had no experience with unions at all.” He continued, “No one has asked me why I did it.” The point of course is that asking him not to attend, a request made on several fronts, was in fact an offer to explain himself, which he has never done. Vargas, in other contexts, is well-educated and erudite young man, with a degree in Political Science and Black Studies from San Francisco State University, and was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists' team when he worked as a political reporter for the Washington Post. Regardless of the humble roots he strove to evoke, he possesses sufficient cultural and, arguably, economic capital to know and understand the role of unions. Yet, his non-explanation went unchallenged by Sen as he portrayed himself as the naïve immigrant who, apparently, simply cannot understand the maddening complexity of unions. Elsewhere,  in talking to HuffPo, he turned his crossing of the picket line into a validation of his supposed outsider status: 

As for crossing the picket line, Vargas told HuffPost it wasn't the first time he'd felt uncomfortable in a particular venue. “I'm never where I'm supposed to be,” he said. “That’s the story of my career.”

Vargas is a classic example of the costs endured when immigrants rights groups and their allies decide to forego a political and economic analysis of the issues in favour of personal stories about coming out. In the face of Vargas's story, Sen had to remain silent because she and others have simply painted themselves into a corner: Challenging Vargas would have meant, in effect, challenging the validity of simply substituting one word for another.  It would have meant questioning the logic of allowing someone like him to constantly evoke personal stories while erasing the economic realities of immigration  many of the hotel immigrant workers represented by striking unions are in fact also undocumented. 


Solutions, and More Questions

The undocumented movement is not without value and, in many ways, it has served to make some issues visible to the public.  But  progressive/left organisers should be concerned about the dilution of the movement's original zeal to think of immigration as a complicated and multi-faceted matter and the monocular single-issue advocacy program it has become. “Coming out” as undocumented is rather different from the impulse that drove tens of thousands to emerge onto the streets and protest a clearly heinous immigration bill; coming out should not involve separating one population from another, that of the  “illegals.” 


At its best, the DREAM and undocumented movement consists of activists who sincerely if erroneously believe that calling for an assimilationist and deeply problematic set of solutions based on affect and laden with identity politics can somehow bring about meaningful change. At its worst, the movement is being taken over by cynical activists turned professionalised politicians in training, working hand-in-hand with organisations like ICIRR to create “power” without redistribution. Within the terms set by the undocuqueers, a legal and potentially dangerous compulsion to expose one's status, as enforced by DACA, is used to make the “illegals” believe that not coming out is a moral failing.

It is not radical to claim that the undocumented are not illegal. In fact, that is a deeply conservative point. It is far more radical to think about all of us taking on the onus of interrogating the notion of the “illegal.” Do we, as people who believe in justice and fairness, want to leave anyone behind? In 1998, members of the South African AIDS activist organization Treatment Action Campaign  began to wear t-shirts that proclaimed them “HIV Positive,” regardless of whether they were positive or negative.  The gesture of solidarity has since been watered down, taken up by fashion designers like Kenneth Cole and celebrities for whom the issue is simply one more agenda item in their quest to be seen as socially responsible, but it reminds us of the dangers and privileges present in coming out.  The point is not simply to come out, but to ask: What do we come out as? 


In October 2012, San Francisco Giants closer Sergio Romo sported a t-shirt with the words, “I just look illegal,” earning praise from fans and commentators.  But what if he had instead worn a t-shirt with the words, “I AM illegal”?  Consider the discomfort, the questioning, and the far more difficult work of solidarity this might effect.  Consider the discursive shifts alone when people have to ask and answer the question of what it means to be illegal.


The truth, of course, is that t-shirts only go so far.  When immigration becomes a matter of a declarative identity, we stop seeing and dismantling the systems we have to fight.  When we think only in terms of rhetorical changes and in the highly personalised terms of immigration as a series of personal crises and the quest for a better life, we stop asking about the conditions which made other lives so unbearable:  We allow the brutality of the system that creates illegals to become naturalized and understood as neutral.  We begin to think that with a few tweaks, individuals  the good undocumented and not the bad illegals  might pass through freely.  In representing only the good immigrants, undocumented activists are literally and metaphorically the dream activists of neoliberalism, emphasising individualised narratives about freedom over systemic critique.


Listen to Yasmin Nair discussing these issues with Denise Morris on KBOO Radio (15 minutes)

Next: The Consequences of Coming Out Against the System

Previous: On Death and Exceptionalism

1This is the first of  a series on the undocumented movement, and a shorter version of a much larger piece. The histories of the movements discussed are still in the making, and barely being written about in analytical terms, so I'm deeply grateful to my friend, frequent collaborator, and fellow Against Equality member Karma Chávez, who has generously shared her research and findings with me; this includes access to her unpublished chapter, "Coming Out As Coalitinal Gesture?" in her book manuscript, Queer Migration Politics.  Vincent Chevalier, Christina Hanhardt, Theodore Kerr, Denise Morris, Richard Hoffman Reinhardt, and Kate Sosin all contributed suggestions and input.  The images are from 

2The undocumented student movement was begun by students of foreign-born parents who either entered the U.S or, for varous reasons, were unable to secure documentation for their children. The often tortuous complexity of current immigration law means that different family members of the same family can have different legal/illegal statuses. Being illegal/without papers means, for most students, that they lack social security numbers and other identity cards (Illinois is in the process of debating whether or not to allow them temporary resident drivers' licences). Their lack of status means that they also cannot apply to many colleges and universities, are ineligible for most federal and state grants, and in general suffer from being unable to work legally at many workplaces. While the undocumented and undocuqueer movement adheres to a general set of principles, including support of the DREAM Act and an aggressively assimiliationist agenda, it consists of several different organisations and groups across the country.  

3See also Tamara Nopper's critique of the ways in which immigrant rights activists tend to “re-imagine African Americans as akin to immigrants of color, whose status is tenuous, contingent, and flexible to the demands of the nation-state, capital, and whites.” She continues, “But for Blacks, there is no such thing as circumstance, pretext, or even, to use the words of immigrant rights activists, legality or illegality.”   


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