The University of Texas at Austin Latino Research Initiative

If loving you is wrong: US immigration policy and the criminalization of intimacy

Mon, March 4, 2019
If loving you is wrong: US immigration policy and the criminalization of intimacy
Yard signs in Tucson in support of volunteers. Photo Credit: No More Deaths –

Written by Jessie Temple

If you want to enter the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, you’ll need a permit. You’ll also need to sign a statement promising that you will not leave food, water, or clothes. This law is not to protect the natural beauty or the roaming bighorn sheep; rather, it is a restriction placed on visitors by the Trump administration to prevent volunteers from leaving aid for migrants.

Since 2014, at least 91 people have died trying to cross the refuge, a vast and dusty expanse of the Yuma Desert south of Ajo, Arizona. In response, volunteers with the humanitarian organization No More Deaths have been leaving basic supplies – water, beans, clean socks – for migrants making their way north. Some of these volunteers are now on trial, charged with operating a motor vehicle in a wilderness area, with abandonment of property, with entering a wildlife refuge without a permit, and, in one case, with felony harboring and conspiracy.

For Dr. Eithne Luibhéid, currently a fellow at the Latino Research Initiative, the No More Deaths trial is one illustration of an ongoing crisis unfolding at the border and elsewhere in the US: namely, the criminalization of basic human relationships. She points to other examples: government attempts to require teachers, health care providers, food pantry workers, and others to inquire into clients’ legal status before providing services; the Trump administration’s punishment of so-called sanctuary cities; and “harboring” charges filed against people who offer shelter or a ride to an undocumented person. For millions of mixed status families in the US, anti-harboring laws threaten punishment for conducting daily activities with an undocumented partner, child, or cousin. As Catherine Gaffney, a volunteer with No More Deaths, asked on Twitter, “If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?” 

Using a queer, feminist, and ethnic studies perspective, Dr. Luibhéid explores both how the government attempts to regulate and control these relationships and how people fight back or work around those attempts. To describe the multiple changing forces at play in interpersonal relationships, Dr. Luibhéid uses the term “intimacies”. Examples of intimacies might include the relationship between domestic partners, between a church congregation and their community, between two neighbors, or between a border patrol agent and a volunteer in the Arizona desert. While intimacies might seem to be private and personal, they are in fact intricately connected to and shaped by other relations of power – racial, gendered, economic, ideological, state, market, and global. In private life, as in immigration law, the personal is political.

While people may think of nation-states and border controls as timeless and fixed, Dr. Luibhéid notes, settler-states like the US emerged through complex histories of colonialism, capitalism, racial slavery and other unfree labor, forced displacement, genocide, and the imposition of a patriarchal gender and sexual order. US immigration law, for instance, is a fairly recent invention, dating back only to the early 20th century (as an exercise, imagine if current immigration policy were in place in the 1700s, during the peak of the slave trade). As an immigrant from the Republic of Ireland, Dr. Luibhéid takes both a personal and historical view of immigration. “I came to the US at a time when most Irish-born people in the US were undocumented. I was not undocumented but many of my friends and peers were. Circumstances were such that people had to emigrate, but US laws made it very difficult to get legal status.” By the 1990s, she says, immigration policies gave Irish migrants opportunities to legalize, while non-white Mexican and Latin American migrants were excluded from those opportunities. Witnessing first-hand how US immigration policies were designed to favor white heterosexual migrants, she began to examine how white supremacy and a commitment to normative gender and sexuality shapes the US's response to undocumented migration.

Dr. Luibhéid stresses that the ripple effects of US immigration policy affect everyone, not only those seeking legal status in the United States. Deportation, she says, is a severe form of state violence that builds off and reinforces racist, heterosexist, anti-poor, and colonialist policing strategies. Of current US immigration policies, she says, “We need to refuse the myth that they provide security or safety, and instead, work to change or entirely dismantle them.” Immigration controls like anti-harboring laws or the penalties imposed on the No More Deaths volunteers criminalize not only immigration and immigrants but entire communities and networks of support. Essentially, these controls confound our basic human impulses to help each other while authorizing violence towards vulnerable people. To resist state-sponsored violence, we need to be willing to defend our intimacies. When we encounter a thirsty person, we do not need to see papers before we offer them water.

Dr. Luibhéid will speak about her current work on March 5th, 12–1:30, GWB 2.206.


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