What documents constrain, narrate, or liberate subjecthood?

Black and white photo of Carolyn Pinedo-Turnovsky
Carolyn Pinedo-Turnovsky is a sociologist whose research and teaching focus on race, ethnicity and migration studies in the United States. Her first book, Daily Labors. Marketing Identity and Bodies on a New York City Street Corner (Temple University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic community study of day laborers. The field research reveals how ideologies about race, gender, nation, and legal status operate on a street corner shaping the labor, vulnerabilities and community-building that workers - undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens - experience in the labor market. Her current book project focuses on documenting and citizenship practices within immigrant communities that challenge rigid state-based definitions and sanctioned processes for membership.

“Un/documented Presence”

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Citizenship has never been simple. History shows that the rules of its formation have been debated. The implementation and protection of it has always been unjust - a discrimination that persists in communities of color (see Glenn, 2002). Documents assist in this problem and succinctly narrate the identity of a citizen that is located in a particular time and place as well as specify the resource it grants or the function it serves for the holder. State-authorized documents are likely what ring most familiar in this context, i.e. a United States passport, a birth certificate or a driver’s license. More often, we refer to documents as a state’s material possession that controls our membership within it and codifies our relationship to it (see Torpey, 2000). A document, such as a passport, is used to authorize our living within and mobility across states of imagined borders. Without certain legal documents, a person’s living is not only illegible to the state, but is also undermined in having control in the capacity to access resources, prosper economically, and to fully experience social belonging. Living with an unauthorized legal status, an outcome of immigration laws defined by the nation state, is devastating.
Historically, immigration laws have corroborated with discriminatory intentions to shape particular communities of citizens and non-citizens. Examples like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the 1920s Quota Acts, and recent ones like 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act validate institutionalized racism, economic injustices, and carceral detentions and deportations, just to name a few (see Lee, 2004 ). States and localities have passed anti-immigrant laws that sanction daily life in areas, such as work, health care, mobility, housing, and education (see Longazel, 2016). These laws work to socially harm, criminalize, and/or exclude non-citizens from the nation, particularly targeting undocumented migrants and mainly in communities of color. Pew Research reports that Mexicans represent a little less than half of undocumented immigrants and growth is in immigrants arriving from Central America and Asia (see Passel and Cohn, 2019). The compounding forms of exclusion are also violent as they displace the self from identities such as mothers, husbands, students, caregivers, workers, and so on. The resulting outcomes situate migrants in precarious lives, experiencing a debilitating social violence that is legitimized by immigration law (see Menjívar and Abrego, 2012).
COVID-19 relief bills in the United States, such as the CARES Act enacted in March, are recent stark examples where receipt of aid requires documentary proof of a social security number, excluding millions of undocumented immigrants. The most recent Pew Research estimate of this population in the United States is 10.5 million in 2017, comprising less than one-quarter of the foreign-born population (see Passel and Cohn, 2019). Of this, eight million contribute to the labor force, many of whom are vulnerable, working in jobs that identify them as “essential” in medicine, the food and service industry, agriculture and meat processing, just to name a few. Deemed essential workers, immigrants are encouraged to continue working. But without valid documents, immigrants are excluded from relief. It is their work that is essential, just not the worker. Here, a discriminatory and normative mechanism is at work - a distinction is made between the work and the worker which raises a question I often pose in class – how do we understand the worth of a worker? An undocumented legal status cancels a person’s essential standing.
While certain documents are counted in conferring citizenship, having access to resources, rights of representation, and protection under the law can materialize from other documentary forms. In my research, possession of state-authorized documents critically shapes the ways immigrants experience daily life (see Pinedo-Turnovsky, 2019). Understanding that documents can limit, reject, and erase presence, examining different documenting practices can also empower immigrants, in particular undocumented migrants. This endeavor is purposeful in shifting power away from the state and into the hands of non-citizens who wish to capture, more richly, their identities and lives as parents, children, workers, students, organizers, etc. in diverse communities. My research focuses on learning about alternative documents and documenting practices for centering immigrants’ voices in narrating a record of their lives and which holds potential for establishing membership and full inclusion. The query arose when thinking about the concept of “undocumented” while conducting my earlier field research. Time spent with undocumented immigrant workers quickly exposed that the concept is inaccurate when accounting for the documentary record that undocumented migrants create about their active presence. How can we comprehend personhood as contributing to the life of a community, while simultaneously living without belonging in that life? A shift is necessary for contemplating citizenship differently and contesting immigration law’s legislated and enforced erasure of it. This is not to suggest that, for undocumented immigrants, legal recognition as a citizen or legal permanent resident, for example, does not matter. It matters. We should fight for immigration legislation that will provide a path towards full recognition and inclusion. My point is to blurry the rigid parameters we have around the concepts of undocumented and citizen and weaken the restrictive borders in assessing its membership.
I’ll offer one example below about the Santos Brothers, who were undocumented immigrants working as day laborers in New York City. Luis, one of the Santos Brothers, gave a card to a potential employer on the street corner. He added a remark that the Santos Brothers had been working in the neighborhood for a long time. When I inquired about who was Santos, he pointed out himself and two other workers, but also clarified, “They’re not my real brothers but we help each other, like a family. And people feel better if they hire a family. We’re good men…We’re just trying to survive.” On the corner, Luis formed a strong working network and friendships which enhanced work opportunities and offered mutual aid. Business cards identified them as the Santos Brothers, which was a fraudulent name, but was telling in reflecting their intent of being perceived as good workers and hinted at a kinship which Luis felt would appeal to employers wishing to support a family of immigrants and excuse their unauthorized presence. While business cards point to community membership that is economic, other collected documents represented social and political formations, i.e. certificates and licenses, pictures of family and community events and receipts for money transfers. As important as these were for record-keeping, these practices were especially meaningful in community-building.
Attention is often given to the administrative conditions that construct a presence that is legible to the state in the ways that it controls people and surveilles their lives. However, presence remains little theorized. In political scientist Kamal Sadiq’s research of undocumented migrants living and working in India, Pakistan, and Malaysia (2008), the concept of “documentary citizenship” explains how migrants’ use of fraudulent documents to claim status and the rights of citizenship weakens the state’s power to identify and control its citizenry. In my work, undocumented workers can show that a range of documents yields opportunities to recover some control over their legibility to the state. This scrutiny of diverse forms of documentation redefines a documentary citizenship solely predicated on state documents. Neither imagined, nor merely symbolic, documents that materialize from a person’s grounded engagement in daily life are material forces that realize a person’s capacity and authority to construct identity and document a legible presence.
Immigrants narrating their presence runs as a counternarrative to the understanding that living undocumented - having no papers - ensures an exclusion that is long-lasting and stable. Narrating presence in documenting work histories, achieving milestones in education and the family, or organizing for immigrant rights via social media are examples that go beyond the state’s ability to wholly determine how and what we document that establishes a linked citizenship in community. State practices that produce marginality, exploitation, social death and erasure are intensely real and studies of these are critical for exposing and dismantling them. However, the query shared above also has merit in affording possibility in the breadth of documents that can record community presence and redefine the makeup of our citizenship. It is undeniable that we should continue to document the violations of non-citizens’ rights and their economic, political, and social exclusion from various arenas of social life. It is just as necessary, that we learn from noncitizens, who compel us to center their voices, and that their lives serve as a critical resource in defining the community of citizens we all wish to be.
Sources cited
Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. 2002. Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Lee, Erica. 2004. “American Gatekeeping: Race and Immigration Law in the Twentieth Century.” In George Fredrickson and Nancy Foner (Eds.), Not Just Black and White: Immigration, Race, and Ethnicity, Then to Now (pp. 119-144). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Longazel, Jaime G. 2016. Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazelton, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Menjívar, Cecilia and Leisy Abrego. 2012. “Legal Violence: Immigration Law and the Lives of Central American Immigrants.” American Journal of Sociology 117(5): 1380-1421.
Passel, Jeffrey S. and D’Vera Cohn. “Mexicans Decline to Less Than Half the U.S. Authorized Immigrant Population for the First Time.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (2019) https://pewrsr.ch/31s3twf
Pinedo-Turnovsky, Carolyn. 2019. Daily Labors. Marketing Identity and Bodies on a New York City Street Corner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Sadiq, Kamal. 2008. Paper Citizens: How Illegal Immigrants Acquire Citizenship in Developing Countries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Torpey, John C. 2000. The Invention of the Passport. Surveillance, Citizenship and the State. New York: Cambridge University Press.