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Rethinking the Path to Migrant Rights

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This post was co-authored with Ty Joplin, an undergraduate at Haverford College.

Over 60,000 undocumented children are currently being held at detention centers, where they lack basic legal protection. They occupy a shadow ground in the U.S. -- part of this country but not part of it. It's not just the undocumented youth; adult detained migrants are continuously exploited for cheap labor with no protection. Certain controversial, political issues only seem to gain traction around election time, and this is no surprise. Pundits and politicians would like to have the public believe they constantly lose sleep over issues like China's increasing global hegemony, the debt, overseas involvement, and Obamacare. But once the segment airs or the results come in from all the polling stations, the issue becomes much less urgent. Immigration is one of those issues damned to such election-media cycles. Immigration is perceived as a crisis, but ends up on the proverbial back burner of American Politics. This is a travesty given that it issue involves real people who are directly affected by the national conversation on it. For the émigrés, their opportunity for large-scale change is largely dependent upon whether immigration is in the news cycle, but even then that doesn't do much.

This is because the issue is not packaged as one that is a crisis for us, but for them. Democrats have haphazardly pushed for pathways to citizenship for migrant workers, which Republicans have vehemently rejected in Congress. A little time passes, and the process is repeated but it never builds momentum. There is only a periodic rise and release of pressure. Even though it is essentially undeniable that the rise in the Latino population spells existential trouble for Republicans' grip on the Legislature, there is no urgency. Why? Political Theorist at Johns Hopkins, P.J. Brendese, explores this in his forthcoming book on time and politics when he asks, "Whose time is it?" Clearly not the migrant workers'. Since it is not their time, they will have to wait, which is a struggle endemic to civil rights movements -- slaves were told they had to wait, because the South wasn't ready for the radical liberationist shift. It wasn't their time. Women were told to wait awhile, because they weren't ready for the rights classically doled to men. It wasn't their time either. Now, migrant laborers, who work dangerous jobs for little pay with the somber possibility of deportation ever-lingering, are being told to wait, because we are busy with other things. Now is not their time.

What's needed is a pragmatic approach that raises the stakes on those whose time it is currently. Two major impediments in immigration reform are House Republicans, who still won't budge on reform, and Democrats who raise the issue and then concede it soon thereafter. Those who sell the issue to both parties as an issue of civil rights are correct in theory, but incomplete in their approach, since that framing lacks the compulsion it had for other movements. A complementary approach should be introduced, framing the issue as one of political and demographic inevitability: this would contain the compelling element, since it pins the issue not on theoretical social justice, but on very real, tangible votes that Republicans are losing. Protest marches on Washington have their place, but perhaps to complete the push, the cold facts should be emphasized with more intensity than they are now. This wouldn't be very appealing to those protest-driven migrant rights advocates, but it should be if they aim to achieve their ends in a democratic way. It should also be equally appealing to Republicans who occupy the business of politics where the bottom line is votes. Thus far, the migrant rights movement has neglected to emphasize that bottom line, which portends to collapse under the Republicans.

Framing the issue purely in terms of votes is a dangerous; it threatens the human face of the issue. Striking a balance between playing politics and appealing to social justice hardliners is key. American politics is quickly approaching a demographic turning point, which is only being acknowledged but not addressed. It would behoove all those who are concerned with providing a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants to begin looking at the issue as a democratic one that looks to unseat the Republican Party. Only then will it become the migrant workers' time.


Ty Joplin is an undergraduate at Haverford College, where he has researched on immigration, temporality, and democracy with Johns Hopkins professor P.J. Brendese. He is currently studying abroad at Mansfield College, University of Oxford.