As a graduate student conducting research on immigration activism, I wanted to understand the political discourse, or debate, on immigration in relation with the academic literature. So for the spring 2015 semester, I decided to intern for the Texas House legislature for Representative Joe Farias. Representative Joe Farias is a Democratic house member who represents Bexar County in San Antonio, and is supportive of comprehensive immigration reform. As an intern, I was given the title of policy analyst working directly with his staff which includes the chief of staff, legislative director, legislative aide, and legislative correspondent. Even though Rep. Farias mostly works with veteran issues, he needed me to provide the staff with more information on current immigration policies and progress.
Rep. Farias is on the fourth floor of the Capitol building due to his seniority status. I was told by the staff that this is how they decide office spaces at the capitol. New members of the state legislature usually get offices on the lower underground levels. The basic layout of the office space is split into three offices that we share with Rep. Rodriguez, a Democrat and Rep. Hughes, a Republican. We do not have an office space that is a separate room, but is more of a cubicle enclosed area where I shared an office space with the legislative aide, legislative director, and legislative correspondent. The chief of staff has her own office that leads to the office of the representative. This layout of the office is a good and bad setup. It’s a good setup in the sense that people cannot automatically come in to the representative’s office without having to first walk into the office space of the staff. It is a bad thing because our office area is not surrounded by any walls, so people often come up to our office area or walk past us. Sometimes tourists walk into our office area and just roam around, which can be pretty distracting.
Moreover, the overall political atmosphere of the capitol has changed with the new recent local and state elections. With a new Republican governor Greg Abbott and a majority Republican ruled legislature, the 84th session of the Texas legislature is currently experiencing an introduction of unprogressive immigration policies such as SB 1819 and SB 185, as well as many others. The introduction of these bills is a product of many factors and, at the same time, sets a precedent for how our state government handles the immigration system. In order to understand these policies and find ways to counter them, it is necessary to question their purpose, what they are addressing, and why they are being created. These questions require an understanding of immigration history through a socio-historical approach. Working as an anthropologist and policy analyst, it is crucial to bring into perspective the concept of illegality as a social construction in relation to immigration, and how it has affected the lived experience of undocumented people.
Duties as a Policy Analyst Intern
Not only did I provide feedback on these immigration policies, but also in other areas concerning health, education reform, and veteran affairs. My daily duties involved attending immigration-related committee hearings, press conferences, and meetings. In addition to these immigration-related meetings, I served as a reference for visitors who wanted to meet with Rep. Farias on a subject or bill they wanted him to support or reject. My daily tasks also included helping to formulate bills based on specific topics, conducting research, as well as communicating with other representative offices to garner support or co-authorship.
On a daily basis, the office of Rep. Farias is visited by lobbyists, organization members, activists, other representatives and senators, staff members, and constituents. I met with some of these groups, listened to their purpose and objectives, and briefed the chief of staff and the legislative director. Because of the high volume of visitors each day, most of these meetings are informal and conducted in a small meeting area by the office. Unless the group has a designated appointment with the representative, meetings are about 20 minutes long. If the meeting is related to veterans, county affairs, or health, the main staff members such as the chief of staff, legislative director, and legislative correspondent are in charge of these meetings. Other miscellaneous social issues like immigration and education are open for the legislative aide or intern.
Taking a graduate course in anthropological methods two semesters ago proved to be a valuable experience for my internship. The ethnographic methods I learned in the class helped me to engage in conversation and effectively communicate with people of various backgrounds. This is especially important when it comes to an issue or bill that Rep. Farias does not agree with. Many times, constituents and organization leaders for a certain issue or bill come to the office or call on a regular basis to discuss their opinion or Rep. Farias’s stance. It can be difficult conducting meetings with these groups because some are persistent and want to speak to the representative directly. For example, Rep. Farias is a pro-choice supporter and is not going to vote in support of any pro-life legislation, yet I still met with a pro-life religious group. During this meeting, one of the pro-life advocates handed me a flyer with the title, “Support Traditional Marriage.” She then began to have a discussion with me about what traditional marriage is and how same sex couples ruin the institution of marriage. As anthropologists, we understand that correlation does not equal causation and have a multi-faceted definition of marriage. Even though her arguments were not based on facts, as she claimed they were, I mediated the conversation by focusing not on the issue, but on her religious personal background to emphasize that Rep. Farias respects her religious beliefs. Organizations and constituents want to feel a sense of respect when advocating for a cause or issue they feel strongly about, regardless if you disagree or not. Thus, interacting with groups and people of all backgrounds and cultures is a skill anthropologists have, and requires not only a high level of professionalism but of understanding.
Another important task of my position as policy analyst is conducting bill research and creating bill analyses based on research. This research can involve analyzing the subject matter of Rep. Farias’s own bills, or the bills of other representatives and senators. A bill analysis is a document that accompanies a bill when it is submitted for the first time for the legislative process, and is composed of a bill’s background and purpose. The background and purpose lays the foundation of the bill, and serves as a reference point for anyone who seeks to understand the bill without having to read the actual document.
For Rep. Farias’ bills, I assisted the legislative director and chief of staff on veteran related bills by creating a bill analysis for a house-concurrent resolution. The bill analysis that I helped to create was related to incarcerated veterans. The bill would allow for incarcerated veterans who are hospitalized to receive medical benefits from the Dept. of Veteran Affairs. Even though I had no prior knowledge on the veteran issues, I decided I would approach it the same way I learned how to approach my own thesis work, by providing a multi-faceted framework of who, what, why, and how. I first researched information on the number of incarcerated veterans, the effects of PTSD, mental and physical illnesses, and personal stories from incarcerated veterans and their families. Together this information helped me to create a background and purpose for HCR 46. After the background and purpose is created the actual bill along with supportive material, such as the bill analysis, is submitted and requested to be placed in a committee.
Countering Anti-Immigrant Senate Bills at the State Legislature
Creating a bill analysis for HCR 46 also helped me to examine the bill analyses of the anti-immigrant bills for this legislative session such as SB 185 “Sanctuary Cities” bill, HB 11, and SB 1819. During this current 84th legislative session, Republican senators and house members have constructed anti-immigrant legislation that is meant to impede immigration reform efforts. I describe these bills as anti-immigrant because its measures and provisions unjustly target a marginalized and vulnerable population, undocumented immigrants. They seek to police and alienate undocumented immigrants by disenfranchising them and making their lives in the United States harder. With these bills, Texas Legislators want to advance their xenophobic agenda by not granting rights and citizenship to an immigrant population that is largely Latino.
In summary, SB 185 by Sen. Perry, from Lubbock, would allow for police officers or any peace officer to ask for citizenship documentation if they have “reasonable suspicion” that the individual is here illegally. Additionally, this bill would also cut off any state funding for any local government entities that forbid law enforcement or peace officers to inquire about immigration status. HB 11 from Rep. Bonnen, from Angleton, would speed up hiring of more Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and establish a physical repository for crime statistics on the border. It also would re-establish state police checkpoints on the border to check southbound travelers for contraband, and making it a crime to “encourage or induce” a person to remain in the country illegally. Along with HB 11, SB 1819 by Sen. Donna Campbell of New Braunfels would repeal the Texas DREAM Act that provides in-state tuition to undocumented students residing in Texas.
I utilized the bill analysis of SB 185 and SB 1819 to help me understand the language and objective of each bill. I also met with Rep. Farias and his chief of staff, who gave me direction as to how to analyze these bills and ways that we can counter them. Since they knew that most of these bills would pass due to the Republican majority support, they wanted me to provide amendments or ways to counter specific measures of the bills when they went up for debate in committee hearings.
During this meeting, they advised me to compare the language of Arizona, New Mexico, and California legislation and research amendments made and whether or not they were passed. This information would then be shared and discussed with other members of the legislature who also opposed the bill, such as members of the Mexican-American Caucus. Rep. Farias and his chief of staff also told me that it was most likely that they would pass, and so their strategy was to instead make amendments to the bill and counter their provisions to make it less harsh. After our meeting I decided I would tackle SB 185 and HB 11 since it reminded me a lot of Arizona’s SB 1070 “show me your papers” bill from 2010. Arizona’s SB 1070 that was signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer, caused a wave of controversy due to its racial profiling implication. Like SB 185, Arizona’s SB 1070 would also require police to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained if there is “reasonable suspicion” that they are not in the U.S legally. Along with Arizona’s SB 1070, I also looked at Arizona’s HB 2162, which also added more state requirements and state penalties to law enforcement relating to federal immigration law in comparison to HB 11.
In order to provide effective arguing points for the senators and house members in the committee that would discuss HB 11, it is vital to have a contextual understanding of its motives, bill language, and a historical outline of similar legislation. Talking points must be able to have strong evidential support and should not be based on biased information. As a graduate student, when we discuss research articles in seminar or use for our thesis, we have to make sure the argument posed is valid and is supported by the methodology and data. Utilizing this same approach helped me to construct arguments against certain aspects of the bills. For example, an important talking point that countered the provisions of HB 11 was a federal decision that struck down similar measures of HB 11 in Arizona. After obtaining the original bill language of both SB 1070 and HB 2162, I realized that the Representative and my own hunches were correct. Sen. Perry’s SB 185 or the “Sanctuary Cities” bill contained almost the exact language when referencing the reinforcement of the state to enforce federal immigration law. In 2012, Arizona’s SB 1070 was put on trial at the Supreme Court to decide where or not its measures were constitutional. One of the recent federal decisions that were made in regards to SB 1070, HB 2162, and other immigration statutes was a ruling that struck down a significant provision. The decision was made in November 2014 by Justice Susan Bolton that argued that the smuggling provision, which made smuggling undocumented immigrants a federal crime, trumped federal statutes. This was an important ruling because many of the border security bills being crafted contain smuggling provisions, including SB 185. My argument points were then shared with other staff members who were already crafting debate points for the hearing on border security that would take place to discuss HB 11.
Anti-Immigrant Discourses and Narrative at the State Legislature
Because Latinos have constituted the majority of the immigrant population, and have been negatively portrayed and targeted by the media and politicians, they have become one of the biggest groups to mobilize within the immigrant rights movement. F.I.E.L, the immigrant rights organization I researched for my thesis, like many immigrant rights organizations, has found ways to empower the undocumented immigrant community to counter the anti-immigrant discourse and criminalization. One of the ways in which they do this is by encouraging undocumented students to be active, to voice their experiences, and to embrace their undocumented status as a tool of agency rather than one of shame and invisibility. This type of strategy was observed at the Senate subcommittee on border security for SB 185 and SB 1819. It may not have prevented SB 1819 from passing the committee but it brought about a change in the anti-immigrant discourse that was produced.
Anthropologist Leo Chavez also refers to this discourse construction as the “Latino Threat Narrative” that functions to portray Latinos whether immigrant or not as a homogenous group of “uneducated, monolingual Spanish speakers” that are incapable of social and cultural change and unwilling to integrate into American society (Chavez 2008:41) It reflects the objects of the discourse in simple binaries of citizen/foreigner, real Americans/ “Mexicans” or real Americans/ “Hispanics,” natives/enemies, us/them, and legitimate/illegal. These binaries help to depict Mexican and other Latin American immigrants, even U.S born-Latinos, as invaders and whose very presence threatens to destroy the nation’s identity. This Latino Threat Narrative discourse that is manifested is taken to be true through the prevailing consciousness system of “values, attitudes, morality, and other beliefs that passively or actively support the established order and thus the class interests that dominate it” (Gramsci 1971, Chavez 2008:41). In other words, common sense serves as an uncritical way of perceiving the world that is largely unconscious but helps to maintain prevailing ideas and power. For example, Sen. Donna Campbell and Sen. Perry would not describe their legislation as anti-immigrant but most of their points centered on the argument that, “illegal is illegal.” For them, illegality is self-evident. If you break the law, its common sense for you to be penalized for your crime and to be considered a “criminal.” This argument, however, leaves no room for understanding how millions of individuals became “illegal” and the social-historical narrative of undocumented migration.
Furthermore, the committee hearing on border security created a space where this narrative was manifested. Many of the arguments that were used by the Senators of SB 185 and SB 1819, were based on criminalization and generalizations of undocumented immigrants. Sen. Donna Campbell decided to discuss her legislation that targets young undocumented students and their education at the committee for border security and not at the committee for education. Her action supports the idea that these undocumented students are a threat, and are thus a matter of border security. On the contrary, all of these students have been granted legal deferred action through Obama’s executive order and are therefore legally permitted to work and go to school without citizenship.
Like Sen. Campbell, Sen. Perry also depicted undocumented immigrants as a threat by his subtle language. He attributed this bill to a response in drug cartel activity and the insecurity he felt among all “illegal aliens”, whether old or young. He said he had statistics that showcased that young “illegal aliens” under the age of 17 were involved in drug cartel activity. Because of that, we as Texans have a moral obligation to secure our schools and communities. He emphasized the need to have more trust in police enforcement, especially because of the recent “rebellions” that the country has experienced within the past year. His language bothered me, not only because he continuously referred to undocumented immigrants as “illegal aliens”, but als0 how he generalized undocumented immigrants as criminals involved in drug activity. Supporters of both bills also mimicked this language. One man who testified for Sen. Perry’s and Sen. Campbell’s bill angrily stated that these Mexican illegals were taking advantage of the system, were refusing to become American, and should not be granted in-state tuition because they are criminals.
During the discussion of SB 1819 amongst Senators in the subcommittee, all of Sen. Campbell’s points were debunked. Sen. Campbell argued that undocumented students were taking the spots of legal citizens and that they were costing the state money. She argued that it was right to put Texas citizens first and those undocumented students who entered the U.S. illegally, should not be rewarded for illegal behavior and should pay out of state tuition. She also stated that the Texas DREAM Act is luring more illegal immigration. Her arguments reflected the Latino Threat Narrative by constructing her argument and subjects as legal Texans vs. illegal immigrants. From her perspective, undocumented immigrant students present a threat to the legal population because they are taking potential college acceptance spots from them, despite meeting the admission requirements.
Moreover, most of Sen. Campbell’s arguments that focused on the negative effects of undocumented students receiving in-state tuition were proven to be wrong. Senators opposing her bill brought in resource testimonies that proved that undocumented students are actually bringing in revenue for the state of Texas. Universities and community colleges are actually benefitting about 55 million dollars from undocumented students. Not only that, but undocumented students are also paying general sales tax because many of them have been living here since they were young. In addition, the claim that they are “taking” the spots of legal citizens is also false. The Higher Education board as well as representatives from other universities stated that there is no “cap” or problems with the number of students coming in. The main reasons legal citizens are rejected is a matter of admission requirements and not because there is not enough room. And, no Texas university chancellor had problems (because they are benefitting economically) with undocumented students paying in-state tuition and that in fact many support the Texas DREAM Act.
Additionally, her claim that the TX DREAM Act was luring more illegal immigration was also false. Campbell asked the Dept. of Public Safety director Steve McCraw if illegal immigrants are coming in to take advantage of this policy and he simply stated that they weren’t. Sen. Campbell kept referring to her bill as a matter of “policy” even after all her claims were debunked. Her language consisted of referring to undocumented students as “illegal aliens”, and she kept insisting that they were not “legal” citizens and therefore did not deserve the same rights that legal citizens are entitled to. This part of her rhetoric brought into perspective our discussion in class on the terms used to refer to immigrants and how this serves to separate ourselves from them. In this case, it served as a way for Sen. Campbell to position herself as a person of authority who is a citizen and therefore worthy of rights, whereas undocumented immigrants are not and, thus, should be penalized for their illegality. Even after Sen. Garcia stressed that this population came very young without a will of their own, Sen. Campbell still sought to punish them.
The hearing went on until two in the morning, as more than 100 public testimonies were heard from the public. The majority of the testimonies were from DREAMers who shared their stories, as well as educators, activists and even former representatives. However, it was the stories of the DREAMers that were the most powerful testimonies and provided a strong and humanizing response. Sen. Campbell at one point did seem to be touched by their stories as she shed a tear after listening to the story of a DREAMer who was a victim of human trafficking. The stories were so compelling and forced Sen. Campbell, (at least I hope it did), to question her humanity and morality. But her xenophobia prevailed. She stuck to her stance and still argued that it was a matter of policy and not of anti-immigrant sentiment. She expressed frustration over the broken immigration system and over high tuition costs. Yet neither she nor any member of her political party has done anything to fix this problem. Instead they chose to disempower and disenfranchise a vulnerable and marginal group. Why they are doing this? I can only come to either a racist or xenophobic reason or maybe both. I left the hearing late, but I knew that it was going to pass because of the majority-led Republican committee. The vote was 2-1 with Sen. Lucio being the only one to vote against it. The bill is now going to go through a series of amendments and will go on consideration on the senate floor.
Furthermore, I couldn’t deny that I was angry and disappointed. I was in shock that these are our elected officials. People who make false and illogical statements without any evidence, and, yet, people still believe their claims to be true. Instead of making any real progress, they choose to follow the agenda of a political party that is simply outdated, racist and xenophobic. One thing that I know Sen. Campbell and Sen. Perry cannot deny, or they probably choose to be ignorant of, is that Latinos are becoming the majority. I strongly believe that this bill and any anti-immigrant bill that are constructed from this party are going to push the community to act and vote. It may not happen within the next year but sooner or later the Latino vote is going to haunt this political party and I am positive they are going to regret the decisions they made in that committee hearing.
This anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric does not only exist in Texas but all over the country, as tea party Republican politicians continue to seek ways to disempower and disenfranchise undocumented immigrants rather than seek a solution for immigration reform. So how can undocumented immigrants utilize their cultural expression and voice, in a hostile environment that deems them unworthy of rights and constantly policies them?
During the Senate hearing for Sen Campbell’s bill, FIEL, along with hundreds of activists dressed in caps and gowns showed up to the Texas capitol to provide testimonies against her bill. Many politicians do not consider this group as having power or agency, or as being capable to bring positive change. However, these students and activists utilized their experience as a way to advocate for equal rights by fearlessly telling their stories as undocumented immigrants. Despite that they are undocumented, they are, in fact, redefining what it means to be citizens through their mobilization and agency. When we think about citizenship, we think about it in the juridical sense and the practices associated with this such as voting and being able to serve in the military. With this idea in mind, even though undocumented immigrants are not considered citizens, undocumented immigrants have found a way in which they can come together as cultural citizens. This way of thinking about citizenship showcases how people come together through shared experiences to fight back against oppression and claim rights in society (Rosaldo 1994:402). Thus, cultural citizenship is a counter representation of “illegal immigrant” and to the Latino Threat Narrative. It brings into perspective how undocumented immigrants are exhibiting the agency and freedom that comes with citizenship rights, yet lacking legal status.
It is important to recognize that this community is no longer invisible, and is not defined by illegality and vulnerability. They have a power to create change and create consciousness. They are most importantly redefining their struggle to not just an immigrant rights issue, but a human rights one as well. Despite the setbacks regarding immigration reform and the anti-immigrant bills attempting to pass the Texas state legislature and in other states, the struggle continues or, “la lucha sigue.” “La Lucha Sigue”, or the struggle continues, is something that many immigrant rights activists say in the midst of hardships and obstacles.
If I could describe my internship experience at the state legislature in one word it would be rewarding. It was rewarding to be able to provide Rep. Farias and the staff with my knowledge of immigration from an anthropological perspective. I not only helped them to counter anti-immigrant bills, but I also learned about veteran issues and all the work Rep. Farias and his staff are doing to help incarcerated, homeless, and disabled veterans and their families.
In addition, I was able to provide my thesis with more qualitative data of immigration policy and immigrant rights activism. The Senate committee hearing on SB 185 and SB 1819 showcased the power of immigrant rights activists and organizations such as FIEL, who helped to counter the anti-immigrant discourse. Attending this committee hearing once again fueled my passion for immigrant rights, and served as reminder that the struggle for citizenship and justice is far from over.
It was also rewarding in the sense that I witnessed the difficult and, at times, ugly side of politics. I observed firsthand the busy lives of Representatives, Senators, and their staff that often stay past midnight to get legislation passed. Negotiating, making friends with enemies, making new enemies, debating and convincing, coming to terms with your failed efforts to pass legislation and doing it all over again the next day is, to say the least, overwhelming. Not only do you have to face your fellow state legislators, you must also face and respond to your constituents who will have differing views on a myriad of topics. As an anthropologist, I realized that the state legislature is a dynamic, stagnant, positive, and hostile environment all at once. Alliances along and between party lines are constantly being formed in order to stop or pass legislation. This type of interaction is not only found in the state government but in the national government as well and, for issues such as immigration, has helped to impede progress.
My passion and dedication for immigrant rights is not always the same for others. There were times when I became frustrated because I wished, not only Rep. Farias, but other Representatives, to do more than just create amendments but to advocate for the thousands of undocumented immigrants who reside in Texas. I realized that immigration is a heavily bipartisan divided topic that can easily cause you to create enemies and become a target of Tea Party propaganda. This could potentially make you lose your seat. With an already majority-led Republican Texas legislature, many Democrats and even moderate Republicans are not willing to make that sacrifice.
Moreover, if I were to give advice for other students interested in immigrant rights or any human rights related issue, interning at the state legislature or government agency is a beneficial learning experience. It provided me with knowledge on how public policy is implemented and how it affects people. Being able to have this internship experience, definitely made me lean more towards grass root level activism and community organizing. I believe that this is where the real change can occur, from the ground up. I hope that I can have a career where I can apply anthropological methods and theoretical frameworks to better understand the lived experience of, not just immigrants, but refuges and marginalized groups, and to make some positive change.
- Chavez, Leo. 2013 The Latino threat: Constructing immigrants, citizens, and the nation: Stanford University Press.
- Gramsci, A., Q. Hoare, and G. Nowell-Smith. 1971 Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci: International Publishers.
- Rosaldo, Renato. 1994 Cultural Citizenship and Educational Democracy. Cultural Anthropology. 9(3):402-11.