Peace and Immigrants' Rights: The Militarization of Citizenship

Immigrants’ Rights March in 2006. Photo:

By Jenna Loyd

When the Senate failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform in June of this year, many immigrants' rights activists were relieved. The Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007 promised to end the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. That historic act emphasized family unification and partially remedied the noxious national quota system that favored Europeans and disfavored people from Asian nations. Despite charges from anti-immigration advocates that this summer's bill granted 'amnesty,' it in fact promised to further criminalize US migration policy, increase the numbers of enforcement officers and detainment facilities, and place additional stumbling blocks on the path to legalization and citizenship.

Immigrants' rights and just immigration reform are imperative to the peace movement for two key reasons. First, military solutions to migration fail to resolve the social and economic forces fueling migration. To the contrary, 'domestic militarization' - in the form of border militarization and internal criminalization and policing - increases vulnerabilities to exploitation and human rights abuses while simultaneously reinforcing the xenophobic conviction that entire groups of people endanger the nation and should be kept out. This brings us to our second point. Like war, the violence of militarized solutions is justified and obscured through racism, even as charges of racism are denied by claims that the US is a nation that respects the rule of law. Treating migration as a national security issue creates internal and external enemies that shore up the popular feeling that the US is beleaguered. Such perceptions of insecurity in turn justify militarism as the key to safety. In short, just immigration reform is a fundamental part of peace and justice movements' long-term efforts to demilitarize society and craft non-violent solutions to social conflicts.

Militarized Border: A Failure of Legal and Moral Imagination
The US-Mexico border is a military spectacle that illustrates the utter failure of walls to stop the movement of people. The Southern border has been increasingly fortified since the 1930s, and particularly since the 1994 launch of Operation Gatekeeper (the same year as NAFTA). Since its creation soon after Sept. 11, 2001, the Homeland Security budget has grown dramatically with a 145% and 118% increase in spending on border security and immigration enforcement respectively. Nor has the US-Canadian border been ignored. At a recent town hall meeting, Congressman Jim Walsh, reiterated the myth that the 9/11 bombers entered the US across a lax Canadian border. This myth informs hard-line immigration restriction advocates who want 'enforcement first' before any change in visa policies or paths to legalization and citizenship for the approximately 12 million people living here without legal status. Yet border militarization has not decreased the numbers of people entering the US. In fact, fortifying the US-Mexico border has forced migrants to cross in more treacherous environs and use exploitative human smugglers. In the ten years following Operation Gatekeeper, deaths of migrants increased from 57 deaths in 1994 to some 422 deaths in 2003.

Since last spring's historic nationwide mobilizations of immigrants and their supporters, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has dramatically stepped up its raids, a number of which have been conducted in Central New York. While ICE claims their efforts are directed at people with criminal warrants, the vast majority of those who have been picked up have been those with civil immigration violations, that is, simply being here without proper papers. Once arrested these people are detained in city and county jails or ICE facilities, where many are put on the 'fast track' to deportation. According to the Detention Watch Network, 84% of people in ICE cells (at a cost of $1 billion annually) receive no legal counsel. This imprisonment nightmare is a result of the selective criminalization of immigration law. In short, since the mid-1980s Congress has been lengthening the list of immigration offenses yet migrants charged under these laws are not guaranteed the legal protections afforded for criminal cases, including state-provided legal counsel, prohibition of double jeopardy, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Last year's Sensenbrenner bill promised to step up the criminalization of migration policy by turning the civil violation of undocumented presence in the United States into an aggravated felony. Felony convictions make it impossible to become a US citizen.

Memorial at the US/Mexico border for those who died making the dangerous journey across the desert.
Photo: Andrew Burridge

Brown Terrorists: The Criminalization of Immigrants
The trend to criminalize migration is part of the 20+ year fury of what prison abolitionist Ruthie Gilmore calls domestic militarization. Since the early 1980s the prison population has skyrocketed some 400% to over 2.1 million today. Cages are being used as fixes for the systematic failure to fund social welfare and education services and respond to structural joblessness induced by global economic shifts. This fix simultaneously establishes new grounds for asserting white privilege in ever more precarious times. Inaugurated by Richard Nixon, the Right's appeal to 'law-and-order' worked to contain the powerful peace and freedom movements of the 1960s, which had cracked Jim Crow and won a series of social welfare entitlements.

Three pieces of Clinton-era legislation are important for understanding how immigrants also have been ensnared. The Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) expanded the list of crimes resulting in deportation and stripped immigrants charged with certain crimes of some basic legal rights. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) requires mandatory detention for any immigrant charged with a crime with a jail time penalty of one year or longer, and applies retroactively. In the very same year as these bills, the destruction of welfare was accomplished by mobilizing the potent icons of the "black welfare queen" and the "acquisitive Mexican immigrant" as scapegoats for growing economic insecurity. Taken together with Clinton's so-called welfare reform, these laws further consolidated a perfect storm of white supremacist, anti-poor legislation, which has acted as a veritable dragnet for working class African American, Latino young people, as well as poor white folks.

Thus, the all too easy conflation of immigrant with "criminal" or "terrorist" is enabled by the equally facile treatment of people of color - regardless of citizenship - as criminals. Questioning and opposing the criminalization of migrants also means questioning and opposing the criminalization of entire groups of US citizens.

Feminist and anti-militarist Cynthia Enloe explains that the militarization of citizenship occurs in conditions in which the military promises to meet everyday needs (such as housing, health care, and a college education) that otherwise are not universally available. Despite the US' shrinking welfare state and growing wealth inequalities, US citizenship itself remains valuable. As the African American enlistment rate has plummeted since the early 1980s, the military has turned its attention to recruiting Latinos, including offering citizenship to immigrants seeking legal status. As Iraq war resister and immigrant Camilo Mejia explains, war and the global economic system that creates the poverty-driving migration are the "same struggle, the same injustice." Thus, in tandem with the continued destruction of public social services and stringent immigration restrictions, the militarization of citizenship takes two distinct, but related, forms: martialization, or the 'poverty draft,' and criminalization, or mass incarceration. Military service confers privileges while criminalization strips citizenship rights, but both trends are rooted in sharpened hierarchies of race and class.

Immigrants' Rights are Human Rights
Demilitarizing US society is a fundamental aspect of the long term effort to forge nonviolent solutions to social conflicts. Immigrants' rights are important for peace activism because just treatment of immigrants undercuts the scapegoating and xenophobia that justify military solutions. The common belief that immigrants are to blame for overtaxed health and education services diverts attention from war and the vast sums of tax dollars devoted to building military infrastructures around the world, from border fences to prison cells.

Peace and social justice activists have done well to criticize the racism fueling the war on terror, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the prison industrial complex. But we need to be able to connect the dots among these apparently separate issues in order to fully appreciate how militarization and racism support one another. Thinking about the militarization of citizenship allows us to do this. We are talking about deadly struggles over who is and who is not a legitimate part of the citizenry. Disenfranchisement of felons and the creation of 'illegal' humans are both legal tools that strip political power from entire groups of people in the service of institutionalized racial and class hierarchy. Opposing the ideologies and legal tools that create internal and external enemies is a necessary part of the peace agenda.

Detainment Task Force
The Detainment Task Force meets each Monday at 5:30 pm at the Worker's Rights Center of Central New York, located in Plymouth Church at 232 E. Onondaga. People involved in the task force are also working on the New Sanctuary Movement. All are welcome. To find out more, email me at or come to a meeting.

Jenna Loyd has been part of the immigrants' rights and anti-war movements in California and Syracuse. She is a postdoctoral fellow in the Geography Department at Syracuse University.