Lost in this summer's congressional debate about comprehensive immigration reform is the reality that immigration is also a very local issue for those living in and around centers of immigration. Abstract notions of insurmountable barbed wire fences and 'Gangs of Eight' obscure the importance of the individuals and activists on both sides of the border and all sides of the key issues. Two new books draw these local stories out in deeply interesting and well-researched ways.
The first, Shaping the Immigration Debate: Contending Civil Societies on the U.S.-Mexico Border (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013), is written by Dr. Cari Lee Skogberg Eastman. Eastman provides an overview of the policy history of immigration in the US as a way to introduce the complexity of border policy and border politics. In particular, she focuses on three civic organizations: Humane Borders, No More Deaths, and Minutemen Civil Defense Corps. Each has a different view of what U.S. policy should be, and they compete to attract media attention to the region and frame the immigration problem.
Eastman travels to the Arizona-Mexico border with leaders from these groups, and her writing brings the brutal reality of border crossings to life. Because she was able to interview and travel with so many activists, Eastman provides a portrait of border politics that is sympathetic to various views, though not supportive of every belief and policy objective.
The second is from Shannon Gleeson (assistant professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz), who is the author of Conflicting Commitments: The Politics of Enforcing Immigrant Worker Rights in San Jose and Houston (Cornell University Press, 2012). Gleeson moves us from the border to so-called 'gateway cities', the final destination of millions of immigrants.
Through years of first-hand research, she explores San Jose, CA and Houston, TX. San Jose is home to more than 500,000 immigrants, a third of local residents, whereas more than a million immigrants live in Houston, TX, around 20 percent of its local population.
What these two cities share in demographics, they differ in local politics. Gleeson unearths the varied ways local political institutions and civic actors accommodate the large number of newcomers and enact worker rights laws. These are two very different cities and immigration is taken up by a different set of political actors from organized labor, business, and various areas of civic society. Gleeson also draws in the role foreign consulates increasingly play in protecting the rights of migrants.
Neither Gleeson nor Eastman offers an easy way to solve the congressional immigration dilemma. What they do, though, is help to add color, texture, and nuance to better understand where these issues matter most. Congressional leaders would do well to add each to their summer reading list.