Critical dialogue – ‘The Spatial Paradoxes of “Radical” Activism’

Sarah Launius, University of Arizona

Jill Williams’ recent intervention on, ‘The Spatial Paradoxes of “Radical” Activism’, presents the recent high-profile actions of the DREAM 9/DREAM 30 as a way to deconstruct the spatio-legal strategies that activists use to militate against the violent process of deportation. Williams’ piece is both timely and important, as scholars and activists negotiate the limitations and contradictions that shape contemporary immigration reform debates, which promise dignity qua citizenship for only some, while further criminalizing and mandating extremely harsh enforcement against many others. Drawing from sociologist Maxine Molyneux’s (1985) framing of ‘practical’ and ‘strategic’ agendas, Williams urges activists and scholars to understand how practical agendas focused on relieving an immediate need or violence do not always equate to, and can undermine, strategic agendas capable of transforming the very foundations of “power structures, social relations, and political institutions”.

Yet Williams’ analysis would gain from an account of the ordering logic behind the spatio-legal frameworks at play in the actions she critiques, and attending to these is critical for both activists and scholars when we attempt to intervene in state violence. Further, in an effort to push Williams’ critique, we would benefit from a more careful understanding of how immigration law operates spatially and temporally, some times allowing for, and other times excluding, certain political or legal strategies. Likewise, it is useful to consider the larger landscape of political movements in which the DREAM9/30 are embedded. I will address each in turn below, after providing a brief summary of Williams’ arguments.

Williams calls upon readers to interrogate the DREAM9/30’s use of asylum law, arguing that asylum law functions to reify the territorial boundaries of the granting nation-state, resting on the sending country’s inability to protect asylum-seekers[1]. Furthermore, Williams draws attention to the ways that public discourse (e.g. the DREAM9 slogan ‘Bring Them Home’) as well as legal tactics may reify the territorial bounds of the U.S. and naturalize the right of the state to draw hard borders on who may be deemed a legitimate entrant.

Important to Williams’ critique is the way that asylum law functions to draw new exclusions by way of producing legitimate and illegitimate claimants and ultimately ordering geopolitical threats and violence. This is the basis of widely circulated criticism launched by immigration attorneys like David Leopold and Carlos Spector, who have argued that the DREAM9/30 public acts, which crossed multiple people into the U.S. using the asylum process, undermine both ‘legitimate’ asylum-seekers and the prospect for immigration reform. It is perhaps precisely this fear that should bring us pause when assessing whether the DREAM9/30 actions are indeed solely ‘practical’ (in Molyneux’s framework), not to mention whether her practical/strategic binary is useful–a point I will return to below.

First, we must account for the pre-existing spatio-legal frameworks at play vis-à-vis asylum law and the act of seeking asylum. The case of the DREAM9/30 is illustrative. The territorial dimensions of immigration law construct a binary: one is either present on U.S. soil or one is not, and the kinds of legal claims and procedural opportunities available are entirely determined by this fact. The DREAM9/30’s initial location outside of the territorial bounds of the state functioned within immigration law to deny them a formal means to return lawfully to the U.S. In light of this, the only existing legal framework available to these individuals was asylum or humanitarian parole—and although both were requested, humanitarian parole was not granted by U.S. authorities. Thus, asylum was the only legal avenue available to the DREAM9/30.

The alternative for these activists would have been to cross clandestinely, a crossing increasingly structured by violence on both sides of the Mexico / U.S. border. Non-state actors as well as Mexican and U.S. authorities who come into contact with unauthorized migrants are implicated in this violence (No More Deaths 2011; Slack et al. 2013). Yet their asylum claims allowed the DREAM9/30 to cross collectively through the ports, which, coupled with a very public political campaign, offered additional protection and power to these individuals. Furthermore, without any knowledge of their individual asylum claims, critics of the DREAM9/30 have foreclosed consideration of how U.S. deportation itself constitutes a violence that may, in certain circumstances, contribute to the vulnerability and threat directed against specific classes of individuals. By claiming asylum, the DREAM9/30 participants deterritorialized their own vulnerability to violence, while simultaneously implicating U.S. policy in perpetuating this violence.

And it was the use of asylum tactics that drew criticism from immigration attorneys who believed their actions would significantly disrupt the ways that asylum is currently practiced. It is important to recall that legal frameworks, and asylum law specifically, are subject to change. As Leopold and Spector criticized the DREAM9/30 for pushing the normative bounds of both asylum law and immigration reform, we should be asking ourselves why these actions warranted their disparagement. Leopold argued that their “publicity stunt” would harm current immigration reform negotiations—negotiations which had already produced bills that would drastically expand the already far-reaching immigration enforcement regime. Spector criticized the actions as disrupting notions of legitimacy vis-à-vis asylum law and related practices. Spector is not wrong to suggest that challenging who may be admitted into the U.S. under asylum law, in an effort to broaden its application, calls into question the structuring logic of asylum itself. Yet this is precisely why actions like the DREAM9/30 should be embraced. It is this tension that renders it impossible to clearly fit these actions within Molyneux’s binary.

This tension also calls us to ask whether and what we gain by understanding legal tactics and political movement as discrete forces. The DREAM9/30 and Undocubus[2] actions, cited in Williams’ intervention, functioned within a larger milieu of forces pushing against deportations and the enforcement practices which lead to them, yet it was the pre-existing spatio-legal frameworks applicable to each group based on territoriality which necessitate different tactics and different forms of legal defense tools. I argue that we should understand the legal tactics as tools and that there can be no a priori boundaries constraining how these tools may be used, as they, too, are in fact produced through political movements.

Looking at the efforts of Central American refugees, immigration attorneys, and religious groups during the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s, we may see precisely how political mobilization can, and has, affected asylum law. The Sanctuary Movement incorporated numerous public and clandestine tactics to ensure that Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing U.S.-backed violence would not be returned to face torture and assassination at the hands of death squads. Public actions alongside leveraging legal tools were critical components of the movement.

As lawyer and legal scholar Susan Gzesh (2006) argues, “in hundreds of individual immigration hearings, lawyers for asylum applicants and INS lawyers waged a low-intensity struggle over the nature of the conflict in Central America and the rights of individual Central Americans to asylum status”. Thousands of asylum claims were filed, many for campesinos and union organizers for whom there was no pre-existing asylum category which recognized them as legitimate claimants—this was not the case for academics, journalists or individuals with overt political party affiliations. Thus, at the time, asylum functioned to only recognize violence perpetrated against elites as legitimate and worthy of recognition.

By the mid-1980s, as the public discourse surrounding the wars in Central America began to shift, spurred by discussion around household kitchen tables and in churches, synagogues and community centers, immigration judges began using their discretion to recognize new social classes of asylum seekers. For the first time campesinos were acknowledged as political subjects whose experiences of threat were valid and important, and this furthermore implicated U.S. foreign policy in their experiences of violence. This opening was expanded by the American Baptist Churches vs Thornburgh class-action lawsuit ruling, which allowed asylum applicants to reopen their cases following denial, while further protecting them from deportation. Public pressure also forced the U.S. Congress to create ‘Temporary Protected Status’ (TPS) classes, thereby widening how, when, and who may be understood as eligible for asylum during times of conflict and crisis (Gzesh, 2006).

While these moves were still limited, they did offer entry and regularization to over 390,000 Central Americans through TPS alone (Davy 2006). Yet, the process took many years and necessitated broader political formations to open up the normative bounds of asylum law in the U.S. To assume that less than a year following the actions of the DREAM9/30 that all of its political possibilities have played out, rendering its manifestations clear, is to blind ourselves to the long process of political movement and to strip away the many connections, diverse tactics, and players who help shape political movements. Further, we should ask ourselves what the territorial implications would be if a new social category, that of ‘U.S. deportee’ were to be recognized as a ‘legitimate’ asylum category.

Finally, Williams offers us important ways to trouble how territoriality is mobilized vis-a-vis the actions of the DREAM9/30. Yet, in this case, we gain by first understanding the existing parameters through which spatio-legal dynamics are currently structured and the nuanced, often messy, ways that political movements can over time change these dynamics.

Sarah Launius is a PhD student in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona. She is a co-founder of the Keep Tucson Together immigration legal clinic which provides representation to the DREAM 9, among others.


[1] While it is true that the very juridical bounds of asylum law excludes these DREAMers from bi-national mobility initially by prohibiting them from returning to their country of origin, where they claim to be persecuted, this is only the case while their cases are being fought in immigration courts. Once granted asylum they must wait one year and then may adjust their status to be a Legal Permanent Resident—a status which acknowledges bi-national ties and cross-border mobility.

[2] In contrast to the functional political resistance of the DREAM9/30 actions, Williams offers the reader the Undocubus Ride for Justice actions as examples of strategic interventions occurring around the same time. Undocubus participants engaged in a set of civil disobedience actions by undocumented residents in the U.S. that sought to urge not for citizenship per se, but rather for an end to enforcement practices which threaten to cast undocumented residents as second-class.


Davy M (2006) The Central American foreign-born in the United States. Migration Information Source 1 April (last accessed 16 April 2014)

Gzesh S (2006) Central Americans and asylum policy in the Reagan era. Migration Information Source 1 April (last accessed 16 April 2014)

Molyneux M (1985) Mobilization without emancipation? Women’s interests, the state, and revolution in Nicaragua. Feminist Studies 11(2):227-254

No More Deaths (2011) A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short-term U.S. Border Patrol Custody. Tucson: No More Deaths / No Más Muertes

Slack J, Martinez D, Whiteford S and Peiffer E (2013) In the Shadow of the Wall: Family Separation, Immigration Enforcement, and Security. Tucson: Center for Latin American Studies, University of Arizona