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The Crisis of the Social Imaginary of the State: Immigration

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It has almost been a month since the Obama administration put into practice the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy first announced in June, which provides an opportunity for many illegal immigrants under the age of 31 and who came to the U.S. when they were younger than 16 to avoid deportation and obtain a work permit. Thousands lined up to apply in immigration centers such as Chicago and Houston, and the Migration Policy Institute estimates that the total number of people eligible might total almost 1.8 million.

Although supporters of immigration reform should be pleased with this development, the reality is that Obama has not been able to provide any more far-reaching reform to the immigration system. In fact, the rate of deportations under the Obama administration is the highest in history: nearly 33,000 each month, compared to 21,000 under George W. Bush and 9,000 under Bill Clinton, and this despite the declining number of immigrants (both legal and illegal) entering the country as a result of the economic downturn.

There has also been a significant change in how the Obama administration has carried out immigration enforcement. Most importantly, less focus has been put on work site raids to apprehend illegal workers, and more on prosecuting the employers themselves. Although ostensibly meant to ease the burden on the immigrants, this has not led to a decrease in deportations. Rather, immigration enforcement is now tied to local law enforcement. The vast majority of immigration proceedings begin through contact with the police, whether a serious crime or a minor traffic violation. The Obama administration has made use of the Secure Communities program, established under President Bush, in which fingerprints collected at jail bookings are checked with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) database. The 287(g) program, which enabled local law enforcement to act as immigration agents, although shut down earlier this year, has also played a role. Finally, state immigration laws such as those in Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia, despite being opposed by the Obama administration, are still part of the immigration enforcement landscape.

The emphasis on work site enforcement under President Bush culminated in the major raids in Marshalltown and Postville, Iowa, and Laurel, Mississippi. Although immigration enforcement has widespread public support, these raids became national media events, with images of helicopters hovering over corn fields and armed agents leading away unarmed migrant workers, in many cases themselves the victims of financial and sexual exploitation by their employers. The legal abuses inflicted on the immigrants were documented and made known.  It is exactly this publicity that I believe was a major factor contributing to the shift in tactics. The new tactics reflect a strategy of isolation; an immigrant pulled over for a traffic stop encounters the police alone, barely noticed by the people around him. These detentions do not disrupt the everyday lives of the surrounding populace, and do not garner media attention. In a sense they are hidden, even if in plain sight.

To provide a better understanding of what is going on here and why it is important, we need to look at why the modern state perceives illegal immigration to be a problem. Many social theorists today speak of the state as a “social imaginary.” What this means is that the state is not “out there,” a reality independent of the human mind with which individuals interact; rather, the state is a reality that exists in the shared understanding of a defined group of individuals. This shared understanding is created and maintained through practices, sometimes ritualistic in nature, but mostly through the everyday activities of the state, such as law-making, delivering the mail, and fighting wars (in other words, the state exists because we act like there is a state). Most of the time a social imaginary works by not being noticed, by appearing “natural”; the state, however, can use violence when it is challenged. The term “social imaginary” is not intended to imply unreality; the term “social fact,” first coined by Emile Durkheim, means basically the same thing. There is also nothing inherently insidious about the existence of social imaginaries, such as the state. Most of the time they simply reflect the quest for meaning in the pursuit of basic human needs. What matters is the form that social imaginaries take and whether they promote or hinder human flourishing. The current state system is failing to promote the flourishing of millions of immigrants and refugees, so it is vital to look at why.

Scholars agree that the social imaginary of the modern state took shape in the early modern period, traditionally dated by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The defining feature of the modern state is sovereignty. The modern notion of sovereignty includes the element of territoriality, meaning that the state governs a clearly delimited space. Any political community will be spatial since it governs physical bodies, but the modern state is defined by strictly demarcated borders. Borders are an excellent example of what is meant by a social imaginary; it is plain to see that borders do not physically exist, yet “everybody knows” where they are, and their existence is reinforced by state practices (customs, border patrol, etc.). Within the space marked by borders, the rule of the state is supreme; outside of that space, in the relations among states, anarchy rules.

It was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the state was identified not only with a territory, but also with the people living in it. Whereas in the past the principal threat to a state’s sovereignty was the unauthorized penetration of another state’s agents into its territory, now the penetration of unauthorized people also poses a threat to the state’s identity. The state began to regulate the flow of people across borders to an unprecedented degree; the widespread use of passports began during World War I, and the U.S. created its first comprehensive immigration policies in 1921 and 1924. Laws such as these created the concept of “illegal immigrant.”

For decades the regulation of immigration was relatively manageable, but beginning in the 1980s the number of illegal immigrants exploded, in both the United States and Western Europe. This explosion has undoubtedly been caused by the increasing globalization of the world economy, a process initiated and largely beneficial to the developed nations now receiving immigrants. Most of these countries have responded to this influx with draconian measures. The disproportionate vehemence of public sentiment supporting these measures shows that the perceived threat is not only to the job market, but also to the community’s collective identity.

The transition in U.S. immigration policy from publicity to isolation is a symptom of a crisis in the social imaginary of the modern state. The nationalist, sovereign state has come crashing against the reality in which it is imbedded, our economically, culturally, and environmentally globalized world. States regulate immigration to maintain their identity, yet the increasing unmanageability of the problem and the exposure of the coercion used to deal with it threatens to unmask the socially-constructed nature of that identity, calling its naturalness into question. The strategy of isolation is an attempt to disguise this crisis by avoiding publicity, but it is bound to fail, not only because the state cannot keep its actions a secret, but more importantly because the crisis is at its root a reflection of the increasing inadequacy of the current social imaginary of the state.

Next week I will look at another example of the crisis of the social imaginary of the state, the use of drone warfare, and then outline a Christian theological response to this crisis.

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Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. He is the author of The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011) and has published articles in Political Theology, the Journal of Catholic Social Thought, Horizons, and the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics.