Intervention – 'The Spatial Paradoxes of "Radical" Activism'

The Spatial Paradoxes of ‘Radical’ Activism

Jill M. Williams, University of Hawaiʻi—Mānoa

On 22 July 2013, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) organized an unconventional and provocative protest of US immigration policy and the massive number of deportations carried out under the Obama administration. Nine individuals presented themselves at the Nogales, Arizona port-of-entry and asked for permission to be let into the country despite a lack of formal authorization (such as a visa). The nine had all been brought to the US as children, where they lived without legal status for many years before they were either formally deported or ‘voluntarily’ returned to Mexico. These individuals came to be known as the DREAM9 in relation to the DREAM Act, proposed legislation that would provide a pathway to legal status for individuals brought to the US as children.[1]

The DREAM9 first asked to be admitted into the country on humanitarian parole; when this request was denied, they entered formal asylum claims. All were transported to Eloy Detention Center in Arizona pending review of their asylum applications. By 6 August, the Department of Homeland Security had ruled that all had a ‘credible fear’ of being persecuted if they returned to Mexico and thus could not be immediately removed. They were all released from detention pending formal asylum hearings, which will not happen until at least 2014 and could possibly take years.

On 30 September, 34 more individuals with similar histories of unauthorized childhood migration and formal deportation or ‘voluntary’ return presented at another port-of-entry, this time in Loredo, Texas (Planas 2013a). Once again, in an action organized by the NIYA, all 34 first asked for humanitarian parole before, in the majority of cases, moving on to an asylum-based strategy. However, the outcome of these 34 cases has been more complicated. By mid-November, 28 of the individuals had been released into the US. In eight of these cases (seven were children traveling with parents and one was an unaccompanied minor), immigration authorities used their discretion to release the individuals for a one-year renewable period; the other 20 were released pending formal asylum hearings (Planas 2013b). The six remaining activists failed to demonstrate credible fear and have been deported.[2]

The difference between humanitarian parole and asylum as legal strategies is important to highlight. Humanitarian parole, while less frequently mobilized, is a broader legal framework than asylum; it allows for territorial presence in the US for either an “urgent humanitarian reason” or a “significant public benefit” (USCIS 2012). Unlike the framework of transnational human rights that asylum law is based on, the public benefit clause of humanitarian parole acknowledges that non-citizens can provide a benefit to the national community—their territorial presence is granted not necessarily because they face a threat in their home country, but because their presence is beneficial to the US public. While humanitarian parole challenges narrow frameworks of criminality and deviance that are used to dismiss the contribution unauthorized migrants make to the national community, this intervention focuses on the political paradoxes of the alternate strategy that was turned to—namely, asylum.

Controversy and ‘Radical’ Activism

The actions of the DREAM9 and DREAM30 were widely referred to as particularly radical and created much controversy among migrant rights and immigration reform activists and politicians.[3] The NIYA’s stated goal was to both challenge the Obama administration’s deportation policies and allow families to reunite. As a press release on 23 September stated:

“The fight to keep families together happens every day, everywhere that immigrants fear leaving their homes and being separated from their families. We are putting back together the families that the president and unjust laws have broken apart” (NIYA 2013).

While immigration reform and migrant rights activists generally supported this goal of family reunification, some vocal critics challenged the strategies employed by the activists for two distinct reasons.

First, some were critical of the fact that a number of the activists involved in the actions had voluntarily left the US (i.e. had self-deported) in order to participate in the protest. For example, David Leopold, an immigration attorney and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, received much attention when he publicly stated that the actions of the DREAM9 were a “publicity stunt” threatening to derail the immigration reform debate in Congress and that the act of leaving the country could compromise their future legal status under any potential immigration reform (Nuño 2013). Leopold feared that because some of the most vocal activists involved in the event had explicitly left the US to participate in the action, this act would be used as evidence of undocumented migrants’ disregard of US immigration law and policy and thus bolster arguments against a pathway to legalization for the millions of undocumented individuals living in the country. As he wrote, “[t]he DREAM9, perhaps unwittingly, created an opportunity for people like nativist lawyer Kris Kobach…to cynically question the true motives of those that seek to find solutions to America’s broken immigration system” (Leopold 2013). Furthermore, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including long-time immigration reform advocate Luis Guitiérrez, refused to call the DHS or President Obama on behalf of the DREAM30, despite their initial support of the DREAM9, illustrating the limitations of their support for such actions (Nevarez 2013). In response to these criticisms, the activists and their supporters argued that their act of civil disobedience was necessary in order to draw attention to the human impacts of the Obama administration’s deportation and immigration enforcement policies and thus compel substantive legal reform.

While Leopold and his supporters were critical of the DREAM9/30 actions because they believed the explicitly confrontational strategy was making immigration reform increasingly difficult, others worried that in turning to asylum the efforts of the activists could make the asylum process even more difficult for other asylum seekers. For example, in October Carlos Spector, an El Paso-based immigration attorney and legal advocate for Mexican asylum seekers, spoke out against the NIYA and the actions of the activists, stating: “[w]hat they are doing plays into the anti-immigrant narrative that people (who claim the need for asylum in the US) are just coming to fix their papers” (quoted in Llorca 2013). Spector fears that in turning to an asylum-based strategy, the actions of the DREAM9/30 will hurt others’ claims for asylum, individuals that he believes are more likely to actually receive asylum because of the direct threats and violence they have experienced; between 2007 and 2011 only 2% of asylum applications made by Mexicans were granted (Planas 2013b).

Spector’s fear highlights the unfortunate reality of asylum law—it is a process dependent upon the hierarchical ordering of threats and violence that enables lines to be drawn between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ asylum seekers. Through the asylum process, bodily vulnerability is assessed and ranked in order to determine if one is exceptional enough to be granted legal status. In doing so, asylum replicates systems of injustice and exclusion, rather than challenging the territorial nature of the nation-state and related spatial frameworks for guaranteeing rights. Asylum, like all legal and social frameworks of belonging, fundamentally relies upon exclusion (see Van Houtum and Van Naerssen 2002; Paasi 2009).

Practical and Strategic Interests and Political (Im)Possibility

In the mid-1980s, Maxine Molyneux developed the framework of ‘practical and strategic interests’ to unpack the possibilities and limitations for women’s empowerment within the context of socialist revolutions. She defined practical interests as those that “are usually a response to an immediate perceived need…[T]hey do not generally entail a strategic goal such as women’s emancipation or gender equality” (Molyneux 1985: 233). Thus, practical strategies aim to make life better in the short term without necessarily intending to alter the larger social structures and power relations that create injustice in the first place. Strategic interests, on the other hand, aim to cause fundamental transformation in existing power structures, social relations, and political institutions.

This intervention aims to draw attention to the spatial paradoxes of the activists’ tactics and goals. While widely referred to as a particularly radical and provocative action, I argue that in turning to asylum as the legal framework through which territorial access is granted, the actions of the DREAM9/30 became one of practicality (as opposed to strategy) and undermined the radical potential of their work. Of particular importance is the way in which asylum limits, rather than enables, certain types of transnational mobility and further territorializes rights and entitlements.

Asylum is a legal framework that is founded on territorialized notions of fear and violence. US asylum law allows for individuals to obtain legal status and protection due to actualized or feared persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group. Importantly, asylum law functions around a spatial framework in which threat is territorialized within particular places and thus can be mitigated by removing the threatened individual from a geographic location. The asylum-based strategy mobilized by the majority of the activists in the July and September actions involves them demonstrating that they face persecution in their home country (most often in this case, Mexico), a persecution that can be avoided if they are allowed to remain in the US. Importantly, if granted asylum, legal status is contingent upon not returning to their home country—the location in which the threat is sited. Thus, if taken to its intended end, asylum-based legal strategies provide permission to remain within the territorial limits of the US, but do not allow for free movement across national borders—asylum-based political strategies uphold the territorialized nature of state power and individual rights.

Lizbeth Mateo (2013), one of the DREAM9 and a long-time organizer with the NIYA, stated the following regarding her motivation for participating in the action: “Millions of families like mine have been separated for far too long. I waited 15 years to see my grandfather again, and to meet the rest of my family”. This desire to move freely across national borders to visit families and maintain connections on either side of the line was one of the explicit motivations of the activists involved in these actions. However, free movement is fundamentally at odds with the legal strategy mobilized—a strategy in which the right to be within one territory is dependent upon relinquishing the right to freely move across national borders and return to the place from which one came.

Because asylum law exists within the framework of territorial sovereignty and territorialized political rights, it functions as an exception that upholds exclusionary immigration and border enforcement policies while also allowing nation-states to appeal to transnational human rights norms and responsibilities. As Miriam Ticktin (2006; 2011) argues, asylum and other ‘humanitarian’ frameworks for accessing legal status, serve as instruments of biopolitical subjection in which political subjectivity (and associated rights) are only granted when physical integrity, health, and safety are compromised (see also Fassin 2012).

Additionally important are the politics of truth and legitimacy upon which successful asylum claims are adjudicated in both the public and legal arenas. As geographers have repeatedly shown, discourses of ‘bogus’ and otherwise illegitimate refugees and asylum seekers are mobilized in public and political discourse to discount the claims of refugees and asylum seekers (see, for example, Mountz 2004; Hyndman and Mountz 2007; Mountz 2010; Ashutosh and Mountz 2012). Within the framework of asylum, the burden of proof rests upon the asylum seeker who must prove that they face a danger or threat so great that they deserve exceptional treatment. If one fails to prove that they face persecution in their country of origin and is not granted asylum, they are not allowed to remain in the US and are formally deported.

The critique I offer of the limitations of asylum-based legal tactics is not to dismiss the significance of the actions of the DREAM9/30, nor is it to assume that those involved are not aware of the political limitations of the strategies they employ (see Rodriguez and Martinez 2013). Rather, it is to highlight the importance of publicly and collectively discussing the political (im)possibilities of various spatio-legal strategies for achieving fundamental political and social change. Practically, this asylum-based strategy functioned to enable over 20 individuals to return ‘home’ and be reunited with family and communities in the US, even if in the long run not permanently. It provided a way to negotiate, rather than transform, the territorialized spatial framework upon which geopolitical relations are currently founded.

On the other hand, we have many recent examples of political strategies that disrupt the hegemonic linking of territory, rights, and political subjectivity. For example, the Undocubus Ride for Justice in summer 2012 and the recent actions across the country in which undocumented activists and supporters have engaged in civil disobedience to actively stop deportation processes. These actions work strategically to transform the foundational logic of political subjectivity: undocumented individuals assert themselves as legitimate political subjects outside of territorialized legal frameworks through the act of claiming public space and political voice. These types of actions deterritorialize rights, tying them to membership of a community and participation in civil society rather than formalized national membership through citizenship or other legal statuses (see Anderson et al. 2009; Millner 2011). While these actions do call for immigration reform, the focus is not on obtaining some form of legal status for those who are undocumented. Rather, the focus is simply making life more livable for families and communities by stopping deportations and the widespread criminalization of immigrant communities. In not focusing on obtaining legal status bestowed by the nation-state, these actions radically challenge the territorialized framework of rights based on citizenship and other state-granted legal statuses. These actions suggest that the right to be present, mobile, and without fear does not have to come through legal status, it can come instead through a recognition of the innumerable ways in which communities and families are made in and through space and place: it is our relationships with each other, not our relationship with the nation-state, that is the foundation from which rights are justified and guaranteed.

Paying attention to the territorial frameworks upon which political actions are implicitly or explicitly founded is a necessary task for critical geographers and those committed to social transformation. If we do not critically interrogate the spatio-legal implications of the strategies we mobilize we risk inadvertently undermining our own political goals and objectives. In appealing to the spatio-legal categories made available through and by the nation-state system—such as ‘asylee’—we uphold the state’s right to determine differential access to rights and entitlements, mobility and immobility.

The work of social and political transformation is rarely without paradox and contradiction. Achieving one goal often requires a strategy that directly or indirectly challenges others. This is particularly true for those of us working for more just border and immigration enforcement policies, as the very legal frameworks that provide access to rights and entitlements uphold the territorialized structures that we aim to dismantle. Recognizing, unpacking, and grappling with the paradoxical nature of the strategies we employ or support and our larger political objectives is an important task for both scholars and activists working to create more just and liveable worlds.

23 December 2013


[1] The Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors Act.

[2] See

[3] The second group of activists were referred to as the DREAM30 (rather than 34) because only 30 individuals were initially going to participate in the event.


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