Legality, race, and inequality: An interview with Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz (Part III)

This is Part III of an interview with Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz, who is an assistant professor of anthropology at Loyola University Chicago. Her 2011 book, Labor and Legality, explores the work and social lives of undocumented busboys in Chicago. Since 2011, Gomberg-Muñoz has been conducting ethnographic research with mixed status couples as they go through the process of legalization; a book manuscript based on that research is in the works.  Part I of the interview is here.  Part II is here.

RA: And so, while Obama’s latest action does have some positive aspects, the underlying problems persist, right? This seems to be a long-running theme in US immigration policy: we end up with one partial solution after another, but the underlying problems are still there. Meanwhile, we have all of these migrants stuck in various liminal states — whether legal, social, political, or cultural. Sometimes this means prison. Sometimes it means they live the “shadowed lives” that Leo Chavez detailed years ago. Often it means many of these people live in incredibly marginalized conditions. Every election cycle, politicians on both sides often talk about the need to “fix” the immigration system, but that never seems to happen. It’s almost as if it’s this massive, unsolvable problem. What’s your take on this? Why are these problems with immigration so persistent? And, coming from this as an anthropologist — as opposed to an economist or political scientist — what can be done to move things forward?

RGM: The first thing to note is that immigration is not a “problem” for everyone. In fact, many people benefit not only from migration but also from the massive enforcement apparatus that has been built up around it. Employers benefit from having a disempowered work force; U.S. consumers benefit from low prices on food, goods, and services made possible by underpaid migrant labor; the U.S. government benefits from billions of tax dollars that flow into Social Security and Medicaid coffers that are paid, but cannot be claimed, by non-legal workers; enforcement agencies, government contractors, and prison private corporations benefit from massive expenditures on detention, militarization, and enforcement; finally, politicians on both sides of the political “aisle” benefit from fanning the flames of immigration passions to win votes from constituents, as well as from campaign donations made by the companies that profit from immigrant detention. In fact, the private corporations that hold immigration contracts spend tens of millions of dollars on political lobbying and have been major campaign contributors to immigration hard-liners. In return, congress has mandated that 34,000 people be kept in immigrant detention, including children, every day.

In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that political winds seem to blow in favor of stagnation on immigration reform or toward policies that only reproduce the flaws of a “broken” system. But it is not clear to me that immigration policies alone are actually capable of preventing unauthorized migration, even if politicians were inclined to try. The build-up of bigger, badder national borders will never stem migration; only addressing the global inequalities that foster mass migrations in the first place can do that.

Anthropologists are working everyday with immigrant communities to push back against the enforcement juggernaut. I could never do justice to the scope of that work here, but anthropologists help craft policy, offer legal counsel and moral support to detained and deported immigrants, do advocacy work with community organizations, and provide nuanced and complex analyses of migration in our classrooms. Anthropology is especially well suited to help students develop a contextualized and “long view” analysis of migration and the forces that shape and define it in specific ways. This is a significant endeavor given the broader dehumanizing and decontextualized rhetoric that tends to accompany immigration discourse in the United States.

RA: Your latest research follows mixed status couples as they attempt to move through the process of legalization. What does the process of legalization look like from an ethnographic vantage point? Where is your most recent work leading you?

RGM: In the beginning, I envisioned my latest project as a sort of sequel to Labor and Legality that would explore what happened to undocumented workers when they became “legal.” Would constraints on workers’ upward mobility be largely removed, as many workers in Labor and Legality believe, or would workers continue to face restricted opportunities and limited financial security as newly legal immigrants? That is, I was mostly interested in the degree to which legalization transforms workers’ lives. I did not anticipate that the journey would be a story unto itself.

The first thing I learned is that almost none of the undocumented people who I know can change their immigration status — even those who have lived in the U.S. for many years and have U.S. citizen relatives. I ended up focusing on mixed status couples because marriage to a U.S. citizen is one of the few relationships that can put some undocumented people on a path to legal status. But even eligible spouses of U.S. citizens face a gauntlet of onerous criteria, complicated forms, expensive fees, and, in some cases, indefinite separation to reach — if their luck holds — lawful permanent residency at the end. Only half of the couples who I profiled made it to lawful residency by the end of my 3-year field season. The others live separately or have relocated together outside of the United States.

I also found that the process of legalization largely diverges according to mode of entry into the United States. Undocumented visa-overstayers with U.S. citizen spouses can typically change their status at an immigration office within the United States. People who enter unlawfully, on the other hand, must leave the U.S. to be processed at a U.S. consulate in their country of origin. All but a few trigger a 10-year bar on their return. Because undocumented Latinos are more likely to be border-crossers than undocumented people from elsewhere, they are also more likely to face these higher hurdles to legalization.

Not only does this process require families that are already together to split apart, it also places U.S. citizens at the center of immigration petitions. This is because the 10-year bar can only be waived if the U.S. citizen would suffer “extreme hardship” in the event of a ten-year separation from his or her spouse. The pain and loss of family separation is considered regular hardship, not extreme, and U.S. citizens must be able to articulate their suffering in mostly medical and/or financial terms. In the process, they learn that their citizenship offers little protection from stigmatization, bureaucratic indifference, and vulnerability to prolonged family separation. Thus, immigration policies simultaneously uphold the value of U.S. citizenship and degrade U.S. citizens — a contradiction, I argue, that inevitably results when legal exclusion and lived inclusion collide.

I am writing about this process now; ongoing data analysis and writing will likely keep me busy for a few more years. In the meantime, I will be working with a legal clinic to process DAPA applications and using that time to think about the implications of this expanded tier of temporary status for the organization of inequality in the United States.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

One thought on “Legality, race, and inequality: An interview with Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz (Part III)

  1. Ruth, Ryan, thank you for this series of interviews. There is much to think about here. I would like to offer a couple of suggestions about Ryan’s observation that,

    “This seems to be a long-running theme in US immigration policy: we end up with one partial solution after another, but the underlying problems are still there.”

    First, at the heart of the matter is the modern nation-state and the Romantic [capital R intended] idea that ideally the nation should be one blood, one soil, one language or, alternatively, a melting pot in which diffences disappear. History is full of people and peoples moving en masse to escape worse situations and attempt to find better ones. The Goths who dismembered the Roman Empire are perhaps the most famiiar example; the Manchus who became China’s last dynasty are another. Sometimes the invaders have numbers and better weapons on their side; ask the First Nations of North America what happens then. The modern nation state, with its highly controlled yet still permeable borders, is an outgrowth of this history. Attempting to decide who is in and who to keep out is a perennial problem with solutions that include ethnic cleansing.

    Second, there is the politics of representative democracy. People on all sides of political issues yearn for final solutions. But representative democracy is, at least in the case of the United States Constitution, a system designed to prevent final solutions. The result, as Ryan notes, is partial solutions, partial solutions that, as Ruth observes, rapidly become the locus of competing interests that profit from the lack of a final solution. Were there one, it would put them out of business. Thus the stagger and lurch of democratic politics, which may, however, unlike Frankenstein’s monster, sometimes lurch in progressive directions. The question is how to encourage that tendency.

    To identify the problems is the first step. Then comes the hard question, “What must be done?” When I was young I still believed in “Come the revolution.” Knowing what the revolutions produced in Africa, Cambodia, China, the former USSR, what is the alternative?

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