How ‘Government Activists’ Use the System to Help Undocumented Immigrants


In recent years, the federal government has gone out of its way to track down, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants. A new paper suggests that some local governments are taking on an activist role by protecting these immigrants — but doing so from within the confines of the powers that be.

Baruch College Professor Els de Graauw documents the ways in which government officials in cities with growing foreign-born populations like New York and San Francisco are working to extend what’s called “urban citizenship.” The term refers to policies and practices that provide undocumented immigrants with, among other things, health care, legal services, and municipal ID cards they can use if stopped by the police or to access libraries and schools. De Graauw’s article appears in Antipode.

“These advances in urban citizenship have allowed undocumented immigrants to conduct their daily lives with a modicum of dignity and safety, while feeling a greater sense of local belonging, recognition, and voice,” de Graauw writes.

“These innovative city policies and practices appear radical and disruptive because they extend important sociocultural, economic, and political rights and benefits to immigrants whose US residence is federally unauthorised.”

Activists and organizers argue that because undocumented immigrants are integral to communities — doing everything from working and paying local taxes to buying homes and sending their children to school — they should be able to participate in citizenship just like any  legal immigrant or nation-state citizen.

These local “government activists” push back against harmful, restrictive national immigration policies to implement pro-immigrant practices. But de Graauw questions whether this approach is disruption or conformity. Are these officials disrupting the harmful status quo that spells trouble for undocumented immigrants, or are they affirming the system?

“These urban citizenship policies create the impression that activist city officials are behaving disruptively and even unconstitutionally by defying their historically subordinate role in the governmental chain of command,” de Graauw writes.

She concludes: “Yet even as these local practices frustrate federal immigration goals, they do not immediately disrupt traditional understandings of national citizenship or undermine the federal monopoly over immigration and citizenship matters. Legally challenged local policies have evolved to conform to federal law, and not one New York City or San Francisco official I spoke to questioned the federal government’s exclusive powers over immigration and citizenship.”