Q&A with Xóchitl Bada and Shannon Gleeson on Migrant Rights

Immigration policy, enforcement, and reform has dominated national discourse in the United States for many years. Vital research on trends, institutions, and policies that could be most impactful in this national discourse are often underrepresented or deliberately obfuscated for political reasons.

Scholars Xóchitl Bada and Shannon Gleeson have brought together a timely, transnational examination of the institutions in Mexico, Canada, and the United States that engage migrant populations in becoming agents of change for immigrant rights while holding government authorities accountable in the new book Accountability Across Borders: Migrant Rights in North America.

Collecting the diverse perspectives of scholars, labor organizers, and human-rights advocates, Accountability Across Borders is the first edited collection that connects studies of immigrant integration in host countries to accounts of transnational migrant advocacy efforts, including case studies from the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

We asked Professors Xóchitl Bada and Shannon Gleeson to answer a few questions about their research and how their findings can inform both policy makers and rights activists.

Give us the elevator pitch for your research and the resulting book.

In the last thirty years, immigrant advocacy organizations have demanded protections in various arenas, including employment, health, and education. They have used a variety of strategies that transcend the container of the nation-state as they work to hold local, national, and global bureaucracies accountable to the needs of migrant populations. But we do not yet well understand the relationship between these organizations and the countries of origin and destination whose systems of governance they are lobbying for change.

In our ongoing collaboration, we seek to analyze the advocacy practices of transnational civil society organizations so as to advance and implement protections afforded to migrants in North America. We argue that these practices are not uniform; rather, they are constituted at different scales, ranging from the local to national and the transnational. Advocacy organizations also pursue various cross-border strategies to build power beyond sovereign states. This volume examines the perspectives of a range of actors, including national and binantional bureaucracies, local consular offices, educational institutions, and a variety of civil society groups.

Taking Canada, Mexico, the United States as entry points, this edited collection includes several case studies addressing efforts to ensure Mexican migrants’ basic rights and their access to the protections those rights should afford. The contributors analyze the multiple mechanisms for accountability from governments of the countries of origin and countries of destination, in both domestic and international legislative frameworks. The chapters discuss a range of institutional arenas where migrant rights matter, such as global governance, labor rights, health-care access, schooling for indigenous migrants, and returned and undocumented immigrant youth.

How do you define migrant civil society?

We use “migrant civil society” to refer to migrant-led membership organizations and public institutions. These can include membership organizations, nongovernmental organizations, media, and other autonomous groups. Migrants organize around a variety of often overlapping identities, as workers, say, or as members of a neighborhood, a village of origin, an ethnicity, or a religion. These multiple identities and allegiances can in turn fuel civic and political leadership. In other words, the notion of a migrant civil society refers to the capacity of migrants to represent themselves rather than having advocates speak on their behalf, although they may collaborate with allies as well.

How did first the Obama administration and then the Trump administration alter the course of your research and writing?

Our efforts to bring together a group of North American scholars interested in migrant rights and accountability began in the spring of 2016, close to the beginning of Donald Trump´s presidential campaign. We had received generous funding from the Cornell University ILR School’s Pierce Memorial Fund to organize a workshop on transnational migrant advocacy, and by the time we met in December, it became clear that our work was not only relevant but urgent. By mid-December of 2016, we had secured an invitation to submit our edited collection to the UT Press, and we encouraged our collaborators to engage with current immigration policy changes as much as possible. Of course, the constant evolution of this policy field always presents immigration scholars with challenges in their research and writing. On the one hand, the current president has undoubtedly produced an unprecedented number of executive actions on immigration that make it difficult to produce up-to-date research and analysis. On the other, many of the policies that threaten immigrant communities have a deep foundation in previous Republican and Democratic administrations. So there is a continuity in many of our core themes.

Your book focuses on three areas of migration governance: education, labor, and health. Can you broadly cover your findings in these respective areas?

It is always difficult to tackle several institutional arenas of migrant rights at once, especially in more than one country. But we attempt to do so here with a focus on education, labor, and health across Mexico, Canada, and the United States.

Undocumented immigrants and returned migrants have demanded increased support for and investment in education from their countries of origin. Accordingly, Alexandra Délano discusses the new roles that Mexican consulates in the United States have played in securing rights for Mexican migrants and facilitating US protections. For example, Mexican consulates have helped facilitate the application process for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program, which opens important educational and professional opportunities. With respect to Canada, Patricia Landolt and Luin Goldring consider the importance of grassroots activists in demanding educational access for all students in Toronto, regardless of immigration status. And regarding Mexico, Mónica Jacobo finds that returned and deported Mexican youth have organized to eliminate the highly expensive and bureaucratic procedure to validate their US education and gain access to Mexico’s higher education institutions.

In a moment of significant discussions about the future of NAFTA, we find that migrant labor-rights protections may at long last be meaningfully addressed in regional trade negotiations thanks to the dedicated efforts over the past two decades by labor unions and transnational labor-advocacy organizations. While the portability of migrant labor-rights protection is far from being fully implemented in the region, the chapters by Bada and Gleeson and by Gálvez, Godoy, and Meinema find that civil society has taken an increasingly visible role in demanding accountability from public officials for guestworkers in bilateral agreements, trade negotiations, and labor enforcement initiatives.

Access to health care remains one of the most difficult challenges for migrants in the United States. The Affordable Care Act enacted during the Obama administration prohibited undocumented immigrants from acquiring federally subsidized health insurance in the newly created health markets. This kept migrants in an already overburdened system served primarily by local community health centers. The chapter by Osorio, Dávila, and Castañeda offers the first historical overview of the Binational Health Week, sponsored by Mexico´s Ministry of Health, which provides access to free preventive care for underinsured migrants. The program has existed for more than a decade and is now replicated by a dozen Latin American consulates across the United States.

How can your research contextualize immigration-based fear and racism in the United States?

Migrants workers are disproportionally represented in precarious work and face significant structural vulnerabilities, violence, and human- and labor-rights violations during their transit, settlement, and return in countries of origin, transit, and destination.

Yet for over three decades, the federal government has failed to reach a bipartisan compromise on comprehensive immigration reform. As a result, state and local governments in the United States have had to take up the slack, playing a substantial role on issues ranging from enforcement to benefits and services. In 2017 alone, states enacted 206 laws on all sides of issues ranging from so-called sanctuary policies to refugee resettlement, education/civics, and in-state tuition.

In this context, immigrant civil society plays a significant role in enacting and implementing local immigrant policies. Our research documents how migrant civil society organizations engage civic and political institutions in countries of origin and destination to demand better enforcement and implementation of Mexican migrant rights across borders. These groups also serve as cultural brokers that help immigrants navigate local bureaucracies and help advocate for the rights of migrants in—sometimes welcoming, sometimes hostile—destination communities.

Can you highlight major gaps or inconsistencies in immigration policy and enforcement that your findings reveal?

In the United States, Mexican migrants make up nearly a third of all immigrants and more than half of the undocumented population, estimated at 11 million. Even so, “lawfully present” Mexican immigrants vastly outnumber the undocumented. In fact, the estimate of Mexican migrants living in the United States without authorization declined from 6.9 million in 2007 to 5.8 million in 2014. Many undocumented immigrants have resided in the United States for more than a decade; the typical unauthorized immigrant has lived there for a median of fifteen years. A variety of factors have led to this decline, including Mexico’s changing demography and decreasing fertility rates, improved conditions in Mexico’s labor market, higher levels of education, dramatic increases in the costs of crossing the border, the Great Recession of 2007, and decreasing family remittances that could finance new border crossings. However, family remittances to Mexico were at historic new highs between 2016 and 2018, possibly because of President Trump’s anti-immigrant measures and his threat to tax family remittances.

Nevertheless, Mexican migrants have been a major target for immigration enforcement actions under Clinton, Bush, and Obama, and even more systematically and brazenly under the Trump administration. More migrants from Mexico were deported in fiscal year 2018 than from any other country: 141,045 of 252,405 removals (56%), not including voluntary returns. President Trump even declared a national emergency at the border by falsely claiming that the Democratic Party is leading an assault on the United States by inciting large flows of people from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to cross Mexico and continue to the United States. Although total apprehensions at the southern border by Customs and Border Protection (CPB) reached 521,090 in fiscal year 2018, CBP had apprehended a total of 569,237 people in 2014, during the Obama administration. In fact, the United States has for decades increased border militarization in an attempt to stem the northward flow that began before US borders were even drawn. The Trump administration’s current policy of separating families in detention is a further manifestation of this state violence, given that there are literally now thousands of children lost as a consequence to this punitive measure, which many international scholars agree is a violation of human rights. Conversely, the children held in detention have also reported a range of abuses, including sexual assault, an alarming reality for which the administration has yet to be held accountable.

Restrictive immigration policies and harshly punitive deportation measures have been accompanied by ill-informed public perceptions about what contributions migrants make. Mexican migrants embody a narrative about Latino migrants in the United States that is at once contradictory and reductive. They are frequently held up to be hard-working people, a criminal threat, a drain on the welfare state, a cultural stain on democracy, and resistant to assimilation. These perceptions are further fueled by Trump’s racist rhetoric, coupled with a series of repressive measures that include a vast expansion of the groups prioritized for deportation, arrests of subjects at places previously considered safe, a plan to hire 15,000 more immigration agents, a broad ban on refugees and even on basic travel for migrants from several majority-Muslim countries, and the creation of a Victims of Immigrant Crime Enforcement Office.

The United States is facing these difficult conversations around immigration while simultaneously grappling with declining fertility rates and population decline. By 1980, eighteen of the twenty-five most populous cities in 1950 had lost residents. Of the twenty-five largest cities in 1980s, seventeen gained residents over the subsequent thirty years, largely because of a rapid increase in the Latino population. Of the twenty-five largest US cities, twelve have populations that are more than one-quarter Hispanic; Latinos make up over one-third the population in eight of those, and they constitute the majority in two. In other words, Latinos, and especially Mexicans, are a part of the fabric of US society. The continued inaction on immigration reform and the absence of inclusive local policies toward immigrants is therefore of serious consequence.

Could you establish an approach to your book for both policy makers and rights activists? How can readers best utilize the research-based tools for improvement that you present?

Our book offers a multidisciplinary institutional analysis of migrant rights through a cross-sectoral, multisited, and multiscalar lens. We highlight the cross-border relations between government actors and civil society, across a variety of policy arenas, including global labor regulation, public education, health care, and criminal justice. Given our limited regional focus, we have knowingly overlooked several sectors and binational relations, such as sustainable trade and rural development, environmental justice, development and violence-induced internal displacement, and voting-rights coalitions. To fill this gap, policy makers, scholars, and migrant rights activists should pay more attention to variations across specific policy arenas at local, state or provincial, federal, and transnational scales.

For example, the experiences of traditional destination countries like the United States and Canada are not likely to mirror those of other destinations that lack the same bureaucratic capacity for immigration enforcement and migrant integration, such as Mexico. The Mexican government’s failure to offer immediate access to public education (a result of byzantine bureaucratic obstacles) to thousands of Mexican American children caught in the US deportation regime illustrates the urgent need to interrogate such policies affecting returned migrants. Conversely, the Mexican government’s unwillingness to offer even minimal access to basic health care and other resources to thousands of Central Americans waiting their turn in temporary shelters to request asylum to the United States on the Mexican side of the border is equally shameful. It is unclear whether states closer to the border have fared any better than those in central and southern Mexico.

We also know surprisingly little about the educational outcomes of US-born Mexican American children who return to Mexico and continue their education in public schools that have no programs dedicated to integrating students whose first language is English or other nonindigenous languages. Studying these and other outcomes will become increasingly important under Trump-era immigration enforcement policies in the United States.

President Trump’s anti-immigrant rethoric and policies have already stranded thousands of migrants in Mexican border states. These groups may hold out hope for a new administration in 2020 that is more sympathethic to those fleeing criminal violence from state and nonstate actors alike. Thus far, Mexico has only begrudgingly accepted its new role as a transit country and has agreed to receive Central Americans while they wait their turn to request asylum.

However, those immigrants may decide to stay in Mexico, taking advantage of the positive rethoric of a recently inaugurated center-left government. Mexico, a country with a foreign-born population of 1.2 million (0.99% of the total population)—the vast majority coming from the United States (899,311)—will likely be forced to incorporate a large group of Central Americans with little precedent for doing so on a large scale. While Trump’s famous campaign promise of a border wall is only partially funded 2.5 years into his presidency, his declaration of a national emergency already faces multiple lawsuits in several state courts. Further, the xenophobia and racism coming out of the White House and targeted at Latinos and immigrants fuel anxiety and amplify uncertainty among migrants and would-be migrants alike.

Our volume admittedly focuses on primarily positive examples of collaboration. Further work should continue to examine more contested efforts to enforce rights across borders, especially in varied federalist contexts such as Canada, where provinces have more control over certain policies—such as collective bargaining—that impact migrants. Moving forward, we will continue to examine consular advocacy on behalf of migrant worker rights across traditional and new migrant destinations in the United States. Our findings also lay the groundwork for future research in other areas of policymaking (beyond immigration) that implicate state-society collaborations and contestations.

Xóchitl Bada is an associate professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Mexican Hometown Associations in Chicagoacán: From Local to Transnational Civic Engagement and a coeditor of two forthcoming works: New Migration Patterns in the Americas: Challenges for the 21st Century and Handbook of Latin American Sociology.

Shannon Gleeson is an associate professor of labor relations, law, and history at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. She is the author of Precarious Claims: The Promise and Failure of Workplace Protections in the United States and Conflicting Commitments: The Politics of Enforcing Immigrant Worker Rights in San Jose and Houston. She also coedited Building Citizenship from Below: Precarity, Migration, and Agency and The Nation and Its Peoples: Citizens, Denizens, Migrants.