Monday, 23 January 2017

Leverhulme project launch - Undocumented Young People in the USA, Political Activism and Citizenship

By Ala Sirriyeh

In September 2015 I visited Los Angeles to conduct some research about the undocumented youth movement for a book I have been writing about emotions and immigration policy. While I was there I began working on a bid for a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to develop some of this work further. Through meeting with activists and academics I learned more about the inspiring work that had been taking place over the last decade within the undocumented youth movement. It was also while I was in LA that I watched Donald Trump set out his anti-immigration platform in televised debates with other Republican presidential hopefuls. This month I began work on the 13 month Leverhulme Research Fellowship that was a result of that bid developed in LA. Meanwhile, as I write this post, I reflect on the fact that in a few hours  Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States after fighting a campaign that was centred on a virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric. More than ever I’m thinking about how people can and do resist the hostile and exclusionary immigration policies that seem to be such a central and enduring feature of contemporary politics. In this post I’ll briefly set out what I’m going to be working on over the next few months during the project.

In this project I will be exploring undocumented young people’s pathways through political activism and how this has shaped and been shaped by their understandings and experiences of ‘citizenship. In the early 2000s the undocumented youth movement emerged through a campaign for the DREAM Act, which, if passed, would have provided a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented young people who had arrived in the USA as children. Despite considerable political support for the DREAM Act, the legislation has failed to be passed several times, most recently in 2010. However, facing ongoing pressures to do something for these young people, in 2012 President Obama issued an executive order called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This has given 714, 546 undocumented young people a temporary 2-year renewable deferral on deportation (Zong and Baracova 2016). As documented recently in the Twitter hashtag #WithDaca, DACA has enabled recipients to attend college, work and build their careers, get driving licences and have considerably more freedom to go about their everyday life in many other ways. This is now in jeopardy as during his presidential campaign Trump  vowed that he would end Obama’s executive orders, including DACA.

Over the years since the undocumented youth movement began it has become increasingly more autonomous and youth-led (Nicholls 2013). Meanwhile, following critiques of exclusionary aspects of the ‘Dreamer’ messaging (based on the innocent, contributing, ‘all American kid’ narrative), there has been an evolution in campaign messaging and a shift in some of the movement’s key priorities and goals. There is now greater recognition of heterogenous identities within the undocumented population and the particular experiences of, for example, queer and black undocumented people (Terriquez 2015). There is also increased focus on defending communities against detention and deportation (Patler and Gonzales 2015) and critiquing the criminal justice system, rather than prioritising a campaign for citizenship for those who are most able to enact the conditionalities required for this.

Through a southern California case study (interviewing undocumented young activists), I will be examining young activists’ narratives of entry into, and pathways through, political activism. I will explore how their understandings and experiences of citizenship shape, and are shaped by, political activism in the movement. This study looks beyond formal, legal and nation-state notions of citizenship and, instead, is informed by the ‘acts of citizenship’ theoretical approach (Isin2008). This approach examines how citizenship is mediated between lived experiences and formal entitlements by focussing on moments when, regardless of status, people constitute themselves as citizens. This enables us to consider how people define citizenship and how people enact citizenship and ‘become claimants of rights and responsibilities, under surprising conditions’ (Isin 2008: 17).

More specifically these are the objectives of the study: To explore how and why young people became involved in the undocumented youth movement and pathways through the movement, including groups/streams of the movement they became active in (e.g. undocuqueer, undocublack, campus or community based groups). 2) To examine young activists’ normative understandings of the concept of ‘citizenship’ and what it means to act and be recognised as a ‘citizen’. 3) To explore how identities and experiences they bring into the movement and their understandings of ‘citizenship’ have shaped their pathway of political activism within the movement. 4) To assess how their experiences within the movement have shaped their understandings of citizenship and the extent to which they regard themselves as acting as, and being, citizens….and now….5) To examine how the election of Donald Trump is shaping young people’s current engagement with political activism.

Restrictive immigration and citizenship policies across the Global North mean that young people who arrived in the 90s and 2000s during a growth in international migration have grown up into adulthood in these nation states yet legally remain ‘noncitizens’. This study will, I hope, produce insights on how and why undocumented young people became, and could become, politically mobilised in the USA. However potential insights for other Global North countries, such as the UK, which share some similar contexts (restrictive immigration policies, populations of young people with precarious immigration statuses). I would like to develop knowledge about facilitators and barriers to political participation and what opportunities and impacts such inclusion has on young people’s sense of citizenship and belonging. The grant also incorporates a workshop which will be held towards the end of the fellowship and will be organised for academic and non-academic stakeholders, focussing on race, migration, young people’s contemporary political activism in the USA and UK. (Please do get in touch if you like to be involved and have ideas about what you would like this to include!) This will be used to share the study findings and enable participants to explore the relationship between citizenship and political action and both existing and potential transnational links between young activists across these two states.

I will be blogging about the project and more broadly on the topics of immigration, refugees and young people. You will also be able to find publications and other outputs from this and other projects on my new website (please bear with me as I add some more content to this over the next few weeks). Please do get in touch if you would like to find out more and have a chat. Contact: Twitter: @AlaSirriyeh.

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