Threats in Immigrant Collective Action

By Maria de Jesus Mora

Contemporary movements across the world remind social movement scholars to rethink the role threat and grievances play in collective action. Recently, several movements have emerged in response to threats. From the occupy movement, and indigenous water rights mobilizations, to local environmental racism battles and immigrant rights social movements, marginalized and excluded social groups are mobilizing against increasing threats within their communities (Mora et al. 2017). Threats are defined as the negative conditions that inspire mobilization; although scholars have given more focus to political opportunities, threats were originally given the same weight as political opportunities (Tilly 1978). Some of the key threats that mobilize communities are environmental, economic, erosion of rights, and state repression (Almeida 2003; 2018).

When using the immigrant rights movements as an example, threats in particular policy arenas have generated mass movements not only on a national scale, but also locally. Policy threats include anti-immigrant ordinances and anti-immigrant legislation (Okamoto & Ebert, 2010; Steil and Vasi 2014; Zatz and Rodriguez 2015). Such policy threats that focus on further criminalizing undocumented groups at times mobilize immigrant communities and their allies (Menjívar et al. 2018; Bloemraad, Voss and Lee 2011; Terriquez 2015). For instance, during the spring of 2006 we saw mass mobilization against the policy threat of HR 4437, known as The Sensenbrenner Bill, which would turn the status of being undocumented in the United States from a civil violation to a federal felony. HR 4437 was a threat not just against undocumented immigrants, but all Latinos, regardless of citizenship status, because it was a racialized policy (Palleres and Flores-Gonzales 2010; Gonzales 2013; Zepeda-Millán 2017). As social movement scholars, we must begin to think more deeply about the role race and threats play in engaging collective action across an entire group (Bracey 2015), beyond immigration status. The way people of color face or react to threats might be different than others. HR 4437 would also penalize anyone who assisted immigrants with monetary fines and incarcerations. There have been various policy threats against immigrant communities, not only HR 4437, but also SB 1070 in Arizona, Prop 187 in California, the recent Muslim Ban, and the threats of rescinding DACA and TPS (temporary protected status).

Although there has been a strong focus on policy threats, scholars of immigrant movements have less often examined the role of repressive threats on suppressing immigrant-based collective action in the US context (Mora et al. 2018). Repressive threats in relation to immigrant rights movements include deportations, arrests, ICE raids and family separation (Sampaio 2015; Golash-Boza 2015; Prieto 2016). Hence, threats are not homogenous, policy threats and repressive threats may lead to different responses by vulnerable groups – from mass resistance to every day forms of resistance and de-mobilization. In addition, the severity and credibility of policy and repressive threat are also important to consider for the likelihood of immigrant collective action (Einwohner and Maher 2011).

Although, we witnessed a mass movement against family separation for refugees at the U.S./Mexico border in the summer of 2018, the threat of family separation has been present for several decades in immigrant families and communities who have lived with the threat and fear of deportation (Abrego 2017; Golash-Boza 2012). As social movement scholars, we also cannot forget that there has been a long history of familial dissolution, a history of migrants forced to leave their loved ones behind in hopes for a better future. Instead of thinking of family separation as a new threat, scholars must ask how this new movement against family separation arose, why are people now mobilizing against these repressive threats? When attending the local protest in my small immigrant community in the Salinas Valley against family separation this past summer, young children were wrapped around foil symbolizing the living conditions of the children from Central America currently incarcerated at the border. If young children are mobilizing against these threats, then, we must not only think the role threats play in mobilizing individuals, but also may want to consider what role do emotions play in the recruitment process. How do emotions enhance the threats by making them so salient that even children are involved in social movement participation?

Scholars need to consider the role various types of threat have in mobilizing not only immigrant communities, but also other marginalized and racialized populations. Specifically, considering the role repressive threats play in social movements. If there are repressive threats such as deportations and ice raids in the community, the community will be able to mobilize against the ice raids, using organizational infrastructures if available to the community. However, if the repressive threat of ice raids continues in the community that may drive down mobilization, because of how fearful the community will be. In the end we must ask how repressive do the threats need to be to demobilize the community. As scholars we must continue to explore the different types of threats that mobilize immigrant communities and develop better typologies and categorizations of threat and their impacts on mobilization. We need more consideration of repressive threats in the social movement literature for vulnerable groups such as immigrants and racialized populations in the United States. We also need more consideration on the role of emotions and how they intersect with policy and repressive threats (Jasper 2018). What role do emotions play in how much threats are felt in the community? How do emotions make someone feel the only option is to participate in collective action? Additionally, we must examine what are the types of threats that sustain mobilization in the long-term. At various points in time organizations and groups of people have come together to rally against policy and repressive threats, but after the initial policy threat passes, only some continue to organize and protest. When excluded immigrant and minority populations are just trying to survive for themselves and their families, how are organizations able to continue to resist against various types of threats? What does this mean for organizations and the different repertoires immigrant communities use to resist against repressive threats. We as immigrant social movement scholars must also ask how are new coalitions being built to battle these policy and repressive threats, and how the breadth of the coalition will matter when battling these threats. As movement scholars in the current hostile political environment, it is essential that we begin to acknowledge the types of threats that mobilize racialized populations.


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