My Master’s thesis was born, like a phoenix, in a fire. A fire that did not, directly, consume anything in my life, but took rather the worldly possessions of two good friends of mine. Including, in the case of one friend, all of the documentation that proved that he was, in fact, who he claimed to be. There are all these interesting moments in life that offer a chance to suddenly confront an aspect of privilege that had heretofore been obscured. The loss of a friend’s ability to politically appear, however briefly, was such a moment. The privilege that I carry with me in my wallet filled with plastic and paper and my name and my picture and a host of other numbers and letters that are somehow me-as-I-am-politically, or digitally, was not one I had thought of before. I was never worried that the systems of politics that arch over everything we do as a community would be unable or unwilling to recognize me. Realizing that such a lack of recognition could be possible left me wondering about identity and the construction of the person by the state. (We might ask how much of this precise thought was rolled into my actual thesis, but let’s not)
The text message I got this morning was of a similar kind of privilege check.
- I might need you to pick me up. X might be arrested
As it turned out, no one was arrested, but there was definitely a Hypatia’s taxi service. I have a friend who lives in the States with expired immigration documentation. Has lived here, in fact, for years, quietly working at the same job and driving the same car (with increasingly out-of-date registration) and somehow not really contributing to the downfall of America at all. But now, with the accidental revelation of immigration status, all sorts of public/political appearing are fraught, or at the very least interesting. And frankly, this is Georgia, being an immigrant in general here has to suck, let alone as someone who has expired documentation.
The rhetoric around immigration, documented properly or not, in this country has really left the realm of sense. I recognize that the state has a vested interest in knowing and, to a certain extent, controlling who is within its borders, however the fact that the “conversation” is not actually about why the state might have that interest and how the state might satisfy that interest (for totes fascinating questions, which would be a rocking public conversation) makes my knee-jerk reaction to all immigration questions go something like: Fuck you, racist, who fucking cares.
What makes the question of immigration, and the politics of the state’s involvement and legitimate interest in immigration, so interesting to me is not the bullshit fear-mongering that gets plastered all over the place – ZOMFG BROWN PEOPLE FROM DOWN SOUTH ARE STEALING OUR WHITE WOMEN AND JOBS – but rather where and how the state-constructed identity intersects with our actual lives. And, interestingly, it seems that our systems of politics intersect necessarily in our lives in very, very limited ways. My friend’s papers expired six years ago. In six years my friend has encountered no system of politics that has turned on the construction of citizenship. (Again, expired license and registration notwithstanding – also – I am for totes impressed with anyone who can drive around for years with expired tags. I’m routinely months late, because I am lazy as fuck, and that was terrifying for me) But this is what the face, the real face, of the immigrations hullabaloo is: people who’ve come over for school, or a job, with all sorts of appropriate documentation and stamps and signatures and shit, and then, eh, just forgot to leave, or renew. And there is nothing a non-totalitarian state can do about it.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the immigrant with expired documents has it easy. There is the forfeiture of legal driving and the inability to change jobs, but with license and job being attained whilst still properly documented, the individual must make herself visible to the systems of politics, the systems of politics do not have a means, and, I would argue, to a certain extent do not have sufficient interest in identifying those individuals. Immigrants who are undocumented are certainly more vulnerable, lacking any history of documentation (the bringing to life political identity through paperwork) undocumented immigrants are for all intents and purposes overtly stateless. There is no recourse to juridical or political power, and there is no veneer of destigmatized personal identity. The immigrant with expired papers, while still actually lacking access to juridical and political systems of power, has a lingering ghost of a political identity. A state that has the systems in place to force the giving up of that ghost is a state with far too much constitutive power over all identities within it.
This is what should give all of us pause when we are thinking about the immigration debate. To “successfully” address the question of the immigrants with expired documents, the systems of politics within which we live would have to have a sort of all pervasive power, everything we did would need to be attached to a greater or lesser extent to those systems, and there would need to be extensive surveillance to maintain those connections. The fragility of our political identities (I am my social security number, I am my birth certificate, I am little else to systems of politics) means that each one of us is only a keystroke (mistaken or otherwise) away from that same sort of political ghosting. To maintain and enforce such an all-encompassing system of politics, surveillance would be required of all persons, irrespective of immigration status. That level of surveillance would turn us all into suspects. The young woman who was deported despite being a natural-born citizen is nice evidence of the danger.
[This is not the most exciting return to blogging ever, but – I’ll try to whip up some righteous anger over the GOP field of candidates soon. I also really don't feel like hyperlinking all over the place. I'll do a better job soon, I swear.]