Civility and the Undocumented Alien
Austin Sarat, ed., Civility, Legality, and Justice in American (Cambridge University Press, 2014)
42 Pages Posted: 27 Oct 2014
Date Written: July 30, 2014
In 2013, undocumented youth activists known as the DREAM 9 attempted to enter the borders of the United States from Mexico as a form of political protest. The action created a rare visible split among supporters of immigration reform. Some understood the action as an extension of the civil rights movement; others called it reckless and defiant. Other political activity by undocumented youth has been similarly criticized for “in-your-face agitation,” “arrogance” and the failure to be “respectful.” But as noncitizens, aliens are not allowed to take part in political processes, such as voting, that might otherwise channel legitimate political dissent. In this chapter I examine the relationship between the political activity of noncitizens, and the perception that this activity is uncivil. Can the undocumented alien's political activity ever be heard within the political boundaries of civility?
Civility can be understood to refer both to the conduct of a citizen and to the borders of civil expression. Political theorists who discuss civility assume as a discursive frame the internal life of a bounded political community, where what is put into question is the civility or incivility of the citizen. But what of the alien, who lacks the formal status of citizenship? More particularly, what of the undocumented alien, defined as an illegitimate civil subject? This chapter suggests that the relationship between civility, citizenship and the alien means that the political activity of undocumented immigrants, while in some sense the most robust civic participation imaginable, will not be experienced as civil. Arguably, civility's association with citizenship haunts the possibility of any noncitizen, particularly the undocumented noncitizen, to have her actions experienced as civil; she is perceived to simultaneously make claims upon and stand outside the demos. The turn to more confrontational political tactics risks that undocumented youth are perceived as something other than dutiful, loyal, hardworking, patriotic human capital. But this concern betrays a fundamental sense that the appropriate position is one of passive gratitude, rather than robust activity.
While civility offers itself as a universal value and as an impartial practice, it aligns itself with the powerful, casting the charge of incivility on those making a disruptive demand for inclusion. Undocumented immigrants are making claims as new political actors, pushing beyond existing frames of claim making. Undocumented youth activists remind us that civility, like citizenship, has both an inclusive and an exclusive function, in creating a space within, as well as an outside. And they tell us that while civility is sometimes vaunted for its importance in stitching the fabric between those within the political community, its most salient characteristic may be how it can be used to push others outside.
Keywords: civility, immigration, citizenship, undocumented, social movements, protest, DREAM
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