The Immigrant Rights Movement
The Battle over National Citizenship
Walter J. Nicholls



DURING THE SUMMER OF 2016, I conducted a batch of interviews during the heady days of the presidential campaign. Several executive directors of prominent advocacy organizations expressed bewilderment. They marveled at the spectacle of Donald Trump. He was boorish and wholly unqualified. But more important, he channeled a vision of America that contrasted sharply with their own liberal views of national citizenship. For ten years, they had argued that this was a nation of immigrants and that immigrants deserved membership because they were de facto Americans. This nation’s exceptionalism did not stem from closed borders, immutable cultural boundaries, and blood ties. Instead, the country was exceptional because of its capacities to absorb strangers and make them into Americans. Strong borders were necessary but so too was a large door for Americans-in-waiting. Donald Trump was not a normal political adversary. His words and vision were anathema to their vision of liberal America.

Although many advocacy organizations looked on the Trump campaign with dismay, they were confident that Hillary Clinton would defeat him. Trump would lose and take down the xenophobic wing of the Republican Party with him. Republicans would suffer a terrible defeat and would never weaponize the issue of immigration again. High Latina/o turnout and the loss of the presidency and Senate would, many believed, ensure the passage of comprehensive immigration reform within the first six months of the new Clinton administration. When listening to these predictions, there was no reason for me to doubt my informants. Liberal hegemony was ascendant in the summer of 2016.

But since the election, the country has been experiencing the consequences of its outcome. Few, if any, observers now suggest that ethnonationalism is on the ropes. The president’s advisors have hailed from the extreme right, and his first attorney general was the most vociferous anti-immigrant voice in the Senate. These officials and their colleagues in Homeland Security have worked to refashion government norms and policies to align with a restrictionist worldview. The Trump administration has implemented a ban on travel from Muslim countries, justified the actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville, pardoned the infamous Joe Arpaio, rescinded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and separated migrant children from their parents, among other things. These spectacles of malice have been embraced by the base of the Republican Party. Migrant children sleeping in cold warehouses have been viewed by many as an unpleasant yet necessary step to stop immigrants from infesting the nation. Ethnonationalism has become legitimate for most rank-and-file Republicans. The liberal triumphalism of summer 2016 has given way to liberal dread.

The fight over the boundaries of national citizenship did not begin in 2016. Advocates on both sides of the debate have been pushing and pulling these boundaries since the creation of national citizenship. This book analyzes the immigrant rights movement as one recent emanation of these battles. As a genealogy of a social movement, it traces the massive and well-developed social movement of the 2010s to the small struggles for the rights of immigrants in countless localities across the country. Immigrants, allies, organizations, ideas, discourses, money, emotions, and politicians assembled in different places and times, metastasizing over a twenty-year period into a multi million-dollar, politically potent, and nationally consolidated social movement. The book traces how the movement scaled up into a national social movement, but it also suggests that the battle for immigrant rights became a struggle over the very meaning of national citizenship. The leading advocates from the mid-2000s onward embraced a liberal variant of nationalism that depicted America as welcoming and immigrants as highly deserving subjects. Rather than call for the dismantlement of borders or for postnational citizenship, the mainstream immigrant rights movement celebrated the nation and wrapped immigrants in the American flag. The movement, consequently, became a vehicle for buttressing citizenship’s nationalist underpinnings while seeking to make it more inclusive for those immigrants deemed sufficiently deserving.

Localities as the Breeding Grounds of Citizenship

For the past thirty years, the United States has been in a heated battle over where to set the boundaries of citizenship. The first part of the book takes the reader back to early struggles in the 1990s. Local residents struggled with one another over the new immigrants in their towns. They argued over what constitutes a national community and who deserves a place in it. To illustrate the process, the book focuses on local conflicts over immigrant day laborers. Because these workers moved into suburban areas and searched for work on public street corners, they became an early flash point of conflict between immigrant foes and supporters.

Contracting the Boundaries of Citizenship

For two generations, the lives of citizens in the United States were relatively fixed within a nationalized cultural, political, and economic system. The federal government had achieved unparalleled power, national interests were clearly defined, and the whiteness of national identity had come into sharp relief.1 From the 1920s to the early 1960s, immigration dropped to historical lows. There was Mexican immigration, but most immigrants were either temporary or had settled in ethnic barrios and rural towns.2 New immigrants during the mid-twentieth century remained far from the eyes and lives of most white Americans.

At a time when national citizenship was reaching its apogee, globalization began eating into its foundations. Multilateral trade agreements, offshoring of manufacturing, and growing international migration perforated borders. The more globalizing forces ate into the nation, the more people became aware of the nation’s importance for their moral, cultural, and material lives.3 For Seyla Benhabib, globalization diminished state sovereignty, which in turn spurred efforts to fortify the nation even more. She observes that “while state sovereignty in economic, military, and technological domains has been greatly eroded, it is nonetheless vigorously asserted.”4 Globalization also heightened feelings of status deprivation among many middle- and working-class white nationals.5 Justin Gest defines status deprivation as the difference between expectations of power and positioning in a social system and “perceptions of fulfillment.”6 The sense of deprivation among white nationals was exacerbated by the perceived advances of outsider reference groups such as immigrants and minorities. This gave rise to a feeling that good, normal Americans were being left behind by lower-status others. Whereas good white nationals paid their dues and did the right thing, foreigners cut in line and cheated to get ahead.7 Many white nationals consequently became, according to Gest, “consumed by their loss of social and political status in social hierarchies, particularly in relation to immigrant and minority reference groups. Their politics are motivated and pervaded by a nostalgia that reveres and seeks to reinstate a bygone era.”8

Ethnonationalism bubbled up from the four corners of America in the 1990s.9 It did not emerge as a fully formed ideology but as utterances informed by common-sense framings of citizenship. Notions of rights and belonging latched onto one another and slowly amassed into a relatively coherent understanding of citizenship that was narrow and structured by a friend-enemy binary. Citizenship centered on common culture, habitus, and sense of belonging, and as Michèle Lamont and Nicolas Duvoux argue for the case of France, an increasingly “narrowed definition of those worthy of attention, care and recognition.”10 Aggrieved citizens targeted immigrants because they were a direct expression of globalization and denationalization.11 Immigrants were the enemies that undercut jobs and imposed high costs on public services. They were intent on making the country Mexico and displacing—symbolically and territorially—Americans from their own country. Ethnonationalism pitted Americans against immigrants in a zero-sum conflict over the very survival of the country.

These conflicts were experienced and played out in localities. Larger gateway cities have, according to much of the literature, been more accommodating to immigrants because they have immigrant traditions, greater ethnic and racial diversity, supportive organizations, and more liberal political cultures.12 Suburban areas, by contrast, have had a long history of racial and class exclusion.13 The demographic, ideological, and civic conditions found in the suburbs have made them less accommodating to newcomers. Benjamin Newman14 adds that the rapid influx of immigrants in conservative and homogenous suburban areas has increased the likelihood of xenophobic responses. New immigrant businesses, public signs in foreign languages, and day laborers gathered on street corners were viewed as undermining good, normal society. The immigrant was no longer an abstract figure looming in distant border areas or in the barrios of big cities. The immigrant was now a real person who was invading intimate lived spaces and competing with good citizens for a rightful place in their own towns. The crisis of national identity was therefore experienced locally on thousands of street corners, neighborhoods, parking lots, and main streets. These were places in which immigrants disrupted the normal codes of belonging and helped, in Mabel Berezin’s terms, “transform differences from a social fact to a social exacerbation.”15

Many established residents had long believed in the nation and also in the federal government’s awesome capacities to protect it from foreign intruders. But the continued settlement of immigrants in their neighborhoods signaled the government’s inability to realize its authority over borders and national citizenship. It signaled a crisis of legitimacy. The perceived vacuum of power motivated locals to devise their own restrictions. Aggrieved locals produced policies to bar undocumented immigrants from settling in their towns.16 They passed restrictive measures such as bans on soliciting work in public, street vending, renting apartments to undocumented immigrants, and the use of foreign languages in public records. These restrictions were aimed at plugging the holes that ostensibly allowed so-called illegals to take root in communities. Creating this protective mesh required the participation of different actors (for example, police, landlords, store owners, employers, and contractors). These different actors assumed responsibility for checking the legal status of immigrants in various areas of life. They served as relays of the bordering state, providing it with the means to monitor immigrants and keep them from slipping through the cracks.17

Mitchell Dean and Kaspar Villadsen remind us of Foucault’s argument that social-control mechanisms often grew from local communities responding to the perceived incapacities of the state.

In effect Foucault described how localized social domains, the Gemeinshaft, constituted the breeding ground for pioneers in policing mechanisms “from below” that would pave the way for the subsequent state-controlled apparatuses of order, hygiene, and discipline. Foucault’s general narrative . . . tells us how techniques of intervening to modify and impose norms on human living were first invented in the context of local struggles and gradually taken up in state-administered biopolitics. . . . Society becomes a breeding ground for dispositive of legal and disciplinary power with an expansive reach (emphasis added).18

Localities became the breeding ground for experimentation in thinking about, talking about, and practicing citizenship. In the face of perceived state collapse, these experiments reflected bottom-up attempts to remake citizenship by sharpening boundaries between self and other.

Expanding the Boundaries of Citizenship

Undocumented immigrants certainly had complex identities before being rendered illegal in the United States.19 Their placement in this category, however, became an important part of their lives. It shaped their opportunities as well as their political feelings, identities, and the will to resist.20 When a landlord, government bureaucrat, or police officer denied a person a space or life-sustaining service because of her illegality, it was not simply the denial of crucial resources that was troubling but also the rationale (stigma, inequality, and otherness) underlying the denial. The countless small acts of denial, disrespect, and discrimination—whether at a bank, a service counter, a school, a sidewalk, or a job—reinforced stigma and feelings of marginalization. Resistance was forged in response to these everyday aggressions. Working-class undocumented immigrants also had few ways to escape their marginalization. Color, class, migration status, and limited opportunities for upward mobility conspired to make straight assimilation unlikely.21 Many undocumented immigrants were therefore trapped in their marginalized positions, which helped, in certain cases, forge a sense of group solidarity. The stronger the barriers facing a marginalized group, Alejandro Portes and Julia Sensenbrenner argue, “the stronger the sentiments of in-group solidarity among its members and the higher the appropriable social capital based on this solidarity.”22 The stigma of illegality and everyday repression made the lives of undocumented immigrants virtually impossible, but it also produced conditions for solidarity, identity, and resistance. Some established residents sought to eradicate the so-called illegals in their midst, but efforts to do so simultaneously produced a group with the will to resist in one way (passive) or another (active).23

Although hostile local policies were directed at a target population (undocumented immigrants), the effects of these polices were not contained to this population. Repression spilled over and triggered grievances and moral shocks among populations not directly targeted by restrictions.24 Local repressive policies often prompted sympathetic citizens to feel solidarity with illegalized people. Amalia Pallares calls the intermeshing of populations “tangling” and defines it as “tying together the lives and futures of the documented and the undocumented by underscoring the role played by the undocumented in the lives and caretaking of residents and citizens, and the ways in which deporting the undocumented leads to a dramatic decline in the affective, economic, and social conditions of the documented.”25 Several groups of people were negatively affected by repression and displayed some penchant for resistance. Latina/o immigrants with legal status or citizenship faced a higher likelihood of stigmatization and racial profiling when repressive measures were enacted. Many of these Latinas/os couldn’t distance themselves from undocumented immigrants because of their racialized traits and cultural dispositions. Ethnic markers reduced the possibility for many Latinas/os to exit the stigmatized group and identify with the dominant group.26 This generated grievances among established Latinas/os and provided undocumented immigrants with a reservoir of solidarity. Repressive measures also affected family members (citizens and immigrants) who stood to lose greatly from restrictive measures.27 Undocumented immigrants were also entangled in relations with many nationals, including employers, friends, and neighbors as well as those they knew through businesses, churches, and civic associations. These people came to know and depend on immigrants. They were enmeshed in personal, professional, and moral networks with repressed immigrants. These entanglements spread the costs (financial, physical, psychic, and emotional) of repression to those with ties to undocumented immigrants. Finally, some local residents held on to liberal or religious values,28 which conflicted with the enactment of anti-immigrant measures.29 A sense of moral outrage emerged among such residents, stemming from the belief that their country was being usurped by ethnonationalists. Thus repression created new alignments and solidarities between outraged citizens and immigrants, helping to blur rather than clearly delineate the boundaries between them.

Repression precipitated resistance from targeted immigrants and their supporters. Family, friends, and a plethora of supportive allies fought against ethnonationalist words and deeds. Some argued that immigrants had inalienable rights that could not be superseded by the discriminatory impulses of the local and federal government and that undocumented immigrants had a right to free speech, assembly, and due process. These arguments drew from a framing of citizenship as territorial personhood, whereby any person within the United States possessed constitutionally protected rights.30 The frames used to argue for the rights of immigrants, however, were not always consistent. Many early activists also adopted a postnational frame,31 stressing that immigrants had fundamental human rights that were protected by the state, treaties, and international institutions. Drawing on this frame, Hinda Seif argues that the struggle for immigrant rights “challenge[s] the boundaries of citizenship and insist[s] on human rights.”32 Still other activists framed their arguments through what we may call “liberal nationalism.” They argued that immigrants deserved membership because of their cultural assimilation, rootedness, and contributions to the national community. Immigrants possessing these attributes were already de facto members of the nation. National belonging and affiliation,33 according to this framing, made them eligible for membership and full rights.

Early rights claims were produced by amateur advocates and activists. They generated undisciplined statements that slipped and slid across the spectrum of citizenship. Activists drew on preexisting and not particularly well-formed ideologies and framings of citizenship. They could easily employ liberal national, postnational, and territorial personhood frames within the same breath. These “master frames”34 provided activists and advocates a discursive repertoire to construct concrete arguments for why the rights of undocumented immigrants in their towns should be recognized and protected. The frames provided activists with the values, sentiments, and narratives to forge specific public arguments. These early activists were blind to the inconsistencies between specific master frames because the underlying morality was the same: immigrants were rightful members of their communities, for one reason or another. Such early arguments were raw in every sense of the term. They had not been rationalized by a sophisticated communication infrastructure designed to ensure message discipline.

Repression in the 1990s onward, therefore, triggered multiple forms of resistance from friends, family, neighbors, coethnics, liberals, and others. Advocacy organizations were embroiled in fights for the protection of the basic rights of immigrants in the places in which immigrants lived. They fought forcefully for the right of day laborers to sell their labor on public street corners. They engaged in hard battles for domestic workers and street vendors. Some developed close alliances with labor unions organizing low-wage workers. These local battles drew from what John McCarthy has called “micromobilization contexts.” Such contexts consisted of “a variety of social sites within people’s daily rounds where informal and less formal ties between people can serve as solidarity and communication facilitating structures when and if they choose to go into dissent together.”35 These spaces provided the unity and resources needed to mount serious campaigns, allowing localities to become breeding grounds for more inclusive understandings of citizenship.36 Thus, restrictive anti-immigrant measures spurred countermobilizations demanding more expansive forms of citizenship. The immigrant rights movement was born from these geographically scattered battles in response to local restrictions.

There was a distinctive geography to local proimmigrant mobilizations. Suburban areas were often seedbeds of conflict and mobilization because newly settled immigrants typically generated more political disruptions in these places than in larger, more diverse cities. But although they may have been seedbeds for early battles, the relative paucity of political and discursive opportunities, high levels of racial homogeneity, and few supportive organizations made it difficult for small campaigns to grow into big, powerful mobilizations. Suburban areas may have been incubators of conflict, but they were rarely major hubs of immigrant rights struggles. Big cities played such a role. These areas were normatively more predisposed to immigrants in particular and diversity in general. They concentrated more supportive organizations and resources and were more likely to contain friendlier political elites.37 Large metropolitan regions therefore had an uneven political geography, with new conflicts flourishing in the suburbs but mobilization infrastructure and opportunities concentrating in traditional gateway cities. Fledgling suburban struggles often depended on the support (direction, money, media support, logistical assistance, and legal assistance) of better-resourced organizations in central cities. The supportive ties helped suburban activists acquire more resources and engage in more ambitious actions. For the purposes of this book, large local organizations located in central cities are called regional organizations. The book draws attention to these organizations and shows how they played an essential role in channeling local struggles into regional and then national mobilizations.

Rather than dismantle national citizenship, globalization has amplified national angst. It has accelerated unease that the country is being taken further and further away from the promise of national greatness. The threat has been experienced most viscerally in localities in which new immigrant populations have settled and become present in public space. In the 1990s and 2000s, this unleashed a plethora of new local struggles to define the boundaries of citizenship.38 Efforts to constrict and racialize citizenship did not unfold without resistance. “Where there is power,” Michel Foucault aptly noted, “there is resistance.”39 Struggles for immigrant rights began at the specific points at which repressive powers were enacted. Immigrants and their allies pushed back and drew from different citizenship frames to express their claims, giving rise to hybrid understandings of political community. Localities therefore became the breeding ground for new forms of citizenship, with people cobbling together context-specific arguments, policies, and practices into uneven assemblages of rights and belonging.40


1. Sassen 2006; FitzGerald and Cook-Martín 2014.

2. Portes and Rumbaut 1996.

3. Berezin 2009.

4. Benhabib 2004, 4.

5. Gest 2016; Hochschild 2016.

6. Gest 2016, 12.

7. Hochschild 2016.

8. Gest 2016, 12.

9. Varsanyi 2011; Menjívar and Kanstroom 2013; Nicholls 2016b.

10. Lamont and Duvoux 2014, 60.

11. Chavez 2008; Massey and Pren 2012.

12. Walker and Leitner 2011; Strunk and Leitner 2013; Menjívar 2000; De Graauw, Gleeson, and Bloemraad 2013.

13. Massey and Denton 1998; Massey 2007; Carpio, Irazabal, and Pulido 2011.

14. Newman 2013.

15. Berezin 2009, 34.

16. Strunk and Leitner 2013.

17. Inda 2006; Nicholls 2016b.

18. Dean and Villadsen 2016, 63.

19. Nicholls 2016a.

20. Derby 2014; Menjívar and Abrego 2012.

21. Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993; Portes and Zhou 1993; Portes and Rumbaut 1996.

22. Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993, 1329.

23. Scott 1985, 1990.

24. Jasper 1997.

25. Pallares 2014, 17.

26. Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993.

27. Pallares and González 2011, 163.

28. Hondagneu-Sotelo 2006; Heredia 2011.

29. Nicholls 2016b.

30. Bosniak 2007, 2010; Motomura 2014.

31. Soysal 1994.

32. Seif 2010, 445.

33. Motomura 2006, 2012.

34. Snow et. al. 1986; Benford 1993; Benford and Snow 2000.

35. McCarthy 1996, 143.

36. Dean and Villadsen 2016, 63.

37. Gould 1995; Diani and Bison 2004; Nicholls 2008.

38. Walker and Leitner 2011; Strunk and Leitner 2013; Steil and Vasi 2014.

39. Foucault 1978.

40. Ong 1996; Isin 2001.