Surviving the Prairies of Illinois

A palpable enthusiasm has emerged over the 2012 Presidential election and how its outcome signals a major demographic shift in the United States. The excitement pairs with heightened anticipation that “Latina/o issues”—principally comprehensive immigration reform—may soon rise to the top of the national agenda to become a more substantive part of the political debate. But I pause, given how both this demographic shift and these issues are already being cast in the national discussion. I suggest caution in excitement, beginning with how this “born-again” humanism pertaining to transnational Latina/o migrants—particularly among conservative elements—leaves fundamentally unquestioned precisely the same nativist sentiments that have continually reproduced the dehumanizing logics of illegality whereby those deemed removable under US immigration law have been constructed as a racialized criminal population wholly threatening to the nation’s sovereignty.  In other words, this sudden change of heart—that is, to finally see migrants as human beings—is anything but heartening, particularly when talk surrounding a revision in approach remains committed to border militarization and continues to see low intensity conflict and policing in Latina/o communities throughout the United States as necessary parts of the political equation. With attention to how national politics come into relief in the everydayness of the local, then, I present the case of Champaign County, Illinois: the tireless work of students and activists in scaling back the Secure Communities deportation program; the story of a young pregnant migrant woman who is at this moment being detained and is soon to be deported; and university students—citizens of the United States—who are beginning to question the ethics of the Deferred Action agenda.

Stepping back for a moment, the shifting electorate of which Latinas/os form part congealed in seemingly unexpected ways to re-elect President Barack Obama to his second term in office, or so goes the conventional analysis. And having won only 27% of the Latina/o vote—despite Governor Mitt Romney’s pitiable claims to Mexican ancestry—conservatives have now pivoted entirely on their hard-lined anti-immigrant position with a relative ease that warrants suspicion. In the wake of this scrambling, policy and platform concessions to garner the Latina/o vote ought not be equated with a fundamental shift in a political worldview now assumed to be reflective of the growing needs, desires, and interests of this part of the electorate. If anything, in this election cycle we finally saw the unraveling of the Reagan coalition once held together by free market conservatives, national security conservatives, racial conservatives, and evangelicals. No longer tenable, this now fractured alliance is facing not so much the reality of human suffering the result of their policies, but a political reality based on a shrewd calculus concerned with transforming constituencies into potential votes, but most problematically for racial conservatives, ones of color. Case in point, more a public relations campaign than an attempt at an inclusive democratic politics, retiring Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Jon Kyl (R- Arizona) introduced the Achieve Act, a DREAM Act-style piece of legislation—though it offers no pathway to citizenship—as a way to capitalize on the November outcome, or “get the ball rolling” as Jon Kyl put it. This and other national appeals ring hollow, for the call for change has been consistently cast as a need for a change in tone —a political tokenism bereft of any genuine dismantling of the fundamentally sexist, heteronormative, and racist worldview that continues to brace the institution of male white supremacy. The right is now left asking itself: “how do we create constituents out of people we have utter disdain for?”

This political legacy extends well beyond the realm of immigration policy, of course, having impacted all communities of color in this country, for in advancing a vision of a “real” America—or a white exceptionalism—conservative Americans have gradually defunded the public sector (i.e. schools, social services) in the face of demographic shifts, refusing to invest in a brown American they don’t see as part of their cultural legacy. A self-fulfilling prophecy, the breakdown of social institutions so often blamed on immigrants and people of color, then, is the result of white retrenchment and not the imagined cultural dysfunctionality so projected onto racialized populations. And now, in the aftermath of the 2012 election cycle, conservatives have butted up against the “other,” prompting the nation at large to consider, sure, who gets the Latina/o vote. But, naturally, a far more important and related set of questions is presently lost in the discussion. Among them, what does this cultural gerrymandering have to do with Latina/o daily life and the institutions that serve them at a local level?

In Champaign County, Illinois, hand in hand with the local University YMCA and an activist student group, La Colectiva, the Champaign-Urbana Immigration Forum was formed in 2009 in direct response to the need for collaborative advocacy in support of immigrant rights ( Its arrival nearly coincided with the enactment of the Secure Communities American deportation program managed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This initiative currently enlists local law enforcement in implementing the federal mandate of identifying and removing all criminal aliens who, it is presumed, pose a threat to public safety —1.06 million people as of September 2011 under the Obama administration. At the federal and executive levels, the failure of this program is being met with great lengths of damage control locally where relationships between immigrants and police have become deeply strained.

The C-U Immigration Forum branded their anti-Secure Communities campaign “InSecure Communities” as a way to recast this program as antithetically damaging and fracturing, revealing the irony of the Secure Communities moniker. The group held a public forum on December 1st, 2011, providing space for discussion with local authorities, most significantly to demand complete transparency and end ICE holds of detainees. Their case was strengthened by the fact that Illinois Governor Pat Quinn had rejected Secure Communities months earlier, yet their work served as a significant counter-pressure against the efforts of emboldened local law enforcement agencies. Students have held “Know Your Rights” workshops for the local immigrant community; clergy have formed an interfaith group to provide ongoing support and cultural advocacy; the University YMCA has served as a meeting space and source of activist energy for building a system for sharing information; and local leaders from the ACLU and Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice have convened to not only provide legal advice, but also pressure local level politicians around the issue of immigration enforcement. 

A University YMCA organizer, Kasey Umland, frames the synergy of local grassroots efforts vis-à-vis the post-election national discussion: “There is momentum, but it’s not political.” Her statement equates the political with the all-too-common shrewd beltway strategizing, with the empty electoral politics-as-usual where change often amounts to little more than a public relations slogan utilized to mobilize voters rather than meaningful social transformation. The momentum in central Illinois, she suggests, is from below and therefore accountable, especially to those it seeks to make welcome and assist in the face of everyday obstacles. Yet Umland and other organizers are painfully aware of the disjunct between local and national, also seeking to bridge that gap by initiating dialogue. In one notable effort, Umland coordinated the visit of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas—who recently revealed his status as undocumented migrant—to speak in conjunction with a campaign called “Do I Look Like An American To You?” at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) just prior to the presidential election. She comments, “[Jose Antonio] challenged [the local community], and he pushed them, and he said, ‘You don’t just get to be excited, you don’t just get your optimism . . . but what are you doing to keep fighting.’”  After encountering victories on the local level, the C-U Immigration Forum had to reframe their advocacy and action in that spirit —to keep fighting, particularly in the face of continued xenophobia at the federal policy level.

As of late, national discussions around self-deportation have braced heightened levels of violence throughout immigrant communities. The suggestion is that conditions will be made so unbearable that undocumented immigrants will make the prudent and responsible personal decision to leave the United States. Fearing the worst under these circumstances is often times justified, as Francisco Baires, another local activist knows all too well as he tells of a pregnant woman who is presently incarcerated:

This woman is being detained; she has her court coming up by the end of this month. By precedent she is more than likely going to be detained for four to six months here locally at a local county jail a couple of counties over —being held by the local government before she is passed over to ICE and then processed for deportation. She is about two and a half months pregnant. And it’s been surprising for the jail that we’ve showed up . . . We’ve reminded her public defender that we are not going away. We know we are not going to stop her deportation, but it’s not even about that. It’s the fact that this is a human being and we want to make sure that she’s as comfortable as she can possibly be and we are going to push whatever parameters that the state has in place . . . If we can get her a little extra food because she’s pregnant, we are going to ask for that.

Similar measures aimed at checking the immigration status of all reasonably suspicious individuals have been proposed in several states —Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama garnering the most national attention. And in the midst of these punitive actions against immigrants, a sense of excitement over new policies infects young Latina/os, yet not without significant questions.

How much information is too much? Do I encourage friends who are undocumented to volunteer their personal information to the government and apply to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA)? These and other concerns are common among my students and reveal both ethical questions embedded in their own political analysis and how they approach decisions surrounding immigration in their everyday lives. This past summer, the Obama administration announced DACA, which will allow for close to 1.7 million undocumented migrants to apply for “deferred action.” Presently, there are between 50,000 to 90,000 undocumented youth in Illinois who may qualify. However, those who apply risk exposing themselves and their families to federal surveillance and potential deportation. My students ask, who has access to this information and what will they do with it? As allies, how can they help, but cautiously? What role do they play? The dilemma looms large for all of us. And a mere change in tone does little to remedy the fundamental moral antinomy of an approach to immigration that promotes transnational economic integration and yet fixes the border in place when it comes to individuals —purposefully dehumanizing those caught in the middle. As a teacher, a citizen, and a friend, I have encountered these ethical questions in the classroom, through my research, and in my everyday life. They are accompanied by a grave realization that from every policy change that seems like a step towards hopefulness, new and greater fears arise.

In the media, much has been made of how this election was centrally about who mattered, about the 47%, and therefore, about cultivating a truly inclusive politics. Yet, as it pertains to transnational migrants and the issues surrounding illegality, Francisco Baires observes, “We are not hearing the echo of the voices of the people on the ground because those voices have never had a space.” This is precisely evidenced in the emergent discussion now circulating and the not-so-veiled cooptation of this “Latina/o issue.” Kasey Umland elaborates, “That’s the scary part about the reactionary part of democracy, where people are willing to adjust on elections, but they are not willing to lead . . . [they] are not willing to tell [their] constituency,  ‘We’ve been wrong.’” Unfortunately, within the post-election political calculus the underlying social location of undocumented migrants is still one of laborers, a resource to reelect those in office that would maintain the order of things. Ultimately, opposed to what many would so desire, in this equation, migrants are yet to be humanized.

Far-reaching political change occurs at all levels of society and this includes the actions of social movements. Those organizing in central Illinois have increased their efforts despite post-election enthusiasm by initiating DACA training; pressing the UIUC President to commit to formal support of the DREAM Act; continuing the work of La Linea, a helpline that provides helpful information and resources to immigrants including translation and networking services; and drivers license advocacy. Much like their previous work, these efforts are a concerted push, such that their achievements are not mere concessions, but the product of struggle in the forms of direct protest, community-building, and structural dealings with local elected officials and authorities. One such victory came in March 2012 as Champaign County Sheriff, Dan Walsh, notified ICE that Champaign County would suspend holds on immigrants. What the case of central Illinois ultimately reveals is that despite the high and opportunist rhetoric of “immigration reform” now stirring so much excitement, illegality must die on the ground first.

Alex E. Chávez is a Visiting Lecturer in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.