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Who Do We Think We Are?

Beyond the headlines … with Cecilia Menjívar

28 Oct 2022

Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to Who do we think we are? Beyond the headlines, the podcast which dissects the major global news stories about contemporary migration. I'm Michaela Benson.

Ala Sirriyeh [AS]: And I'm Ala Sirriyeh. In our day jobs we're sociologists at Lancaster University, and we work on migration. We've also got our own family migration stories that inspired our research in this area. Join us over the course of the series to hear more about our frustrations with the way that migration is so often reported in mainstream media, and how going beyond the headlines can create the space for thinking differently about migration today.

MB:  Hi, I'm Michaela Benson. And we're very pleased to be joined for today's episode of beyond the headlines by Professor Cecilia Menjívar, who is a professor in sociology at UCLA, and the immediate past president of the American Sociological Association. Just a little note, we're recording this in person at the IRIS conference in Birmingham. So there might be a little bit of background noise. But we're really, really happy to be joined by Cecilia. Her work centres on manifestations of state power through legal regimes, bureaucracies and formal institutions. She's the author of the award winning books of 'Fragmented ties, Salvadoran immigrant networks in America', and 'Enduring violence: Latina women's lives in Guatemala'. So welcome to the conversation today, Cecilia.

Cecilia Menjívar [CM]: Thank you so much, Michaela and Ala, for inviting me to have this chat. I'm very much looking forward to it.

AS:  So in each episode, we ask our guests to reflect on a headline that we've selected that we feel it in some way relates to the topic that we're going to discuss. So for this episode, we selected a headline from the LA Times. And it's the headline reads, 'Biden administration remade ICE after Trump. Will it last?' So it's one of those kinds of reflections on a supposedly an era of immigration controls. So I would just summarise so this was an article from the 19th of August 2022. And the story really begins with the story of a woman called Anastasia Abarca, who's a Mexican woman living in California. And it describes how officers from immigration, customs and enforcement, ICE as they're known, they arrived at her house and they were actually looking for her brother. But when they found her, they took her into detention because she was undocumented. She was released later that day, but she's still had a deportation order hanging over her. So then the article goes on to describe how, how this was during a period of ramping up with immigration enforcement under the Trump presidency. And they like to discuss some of the raids that took place during his presidency. And they then compare Trump with Biden and say that, you know, there was this hope that when Biden was elected, he will be, they used the words 'kinder' to immigrants. So Abraca's case was actually dismissed in in December. And they say that increasingly cases like hers, they note that she has no criminal record, the cases like hers are being dismissed. And so the ICE focuses on others and they don't specify who these others are. And so they note also they say that they quote the former head of ICE during Obama years, saying that ICE is now adhering to what what he calls common sense priorities. So I thought these were kind of sort of my summary of the piece and be really interesting to hear from you. When you saw that headline, what were your reflection?

CM: Yes, you know, this headlines that we see in the in the news, especially that one is quite misleading, because it hides much more than it shares. ICE continues to be the agency that has always been since the beginning. And it continues to deport and detain. It continues to fill up beds in detention facilities. It continues to create fear in immigrant communities in immigrant families. So that headline might, because immigration is so complex, and laws are so complex, and there's so many policies, it's difficult sometimes to put all that complexity to fit all that complexity into a headline. Especially a headline that seeks to grab people's attention. But by what has happened in the Biden administration, is that they have gone back to what the Obama administration put in place, which is not necessarily pro immigrant rights policy. It was very much different policies of detention, deportation, of increased enforcement. So during the Obama administration, we had increased enforcement but in different ways, because what they did was to prioritise people who were quote unquote, 'the real criminals', which has all sorts of connotations and problems, because who are the real criminals? Because when immigration laws criminalise people, it's very difficult to attach a real criminal definition to someone who hasn't done anything except cross the border without inspection. So those  headlines obscure the complexity of immigration, law, immigration enforcement, immigration policies, and mislead the public into thinking that, on the one hand, that there is less enforcement, which the public, a lot of people in the public do not welcome. And also, on the other hand, they create the the illusion that things are getting better, when in fact, the Biden administration has done a little bit, but mostly to reverse some of the policies that the Trump administration implemented, but not all, not nearly all. The Trump administration implemented over 1000 policies. And it's very difficult for even one, over the entire term of the Biden administration to undo all of that. So it's, it's piecemeal changes to bring it back to what the Obama administration had in place, but not to undo ICE, necessarily. So it hides quite a bit.

AS:  It's sort of tinkering with aspects of, of this system that's inherently violent and oppressive in the in the way that it operates. I think, what was interesting there as well, as is this sort of focus on individuals, so Trump, so obviously anti immigration that almost anybody else kind of goes on this binary, the other side of him. So, you know, Biden must be kinder to immigrants than Trump and perhaps I don't know, perhaps on an individual level, but, but like you were saying, it really, it prevents us from thinking about those structures that are really deeply embedded within an organisation like ICE, because it's, the organisation is not just one person doing that, yes.

CM: It's a very, very narrow focus in that piece of news, but also in the approach itself that doesn't take into account the entire body have have laws and policies that affect not only one individual, but communities and families. And so it leaves out so much that it's misleading.

AS:  So because it's the LA Times, of course, the story focuses on a women's experience in California, but as people living outside of the US often when we hear about immigrant experiences in the US and politics of immigration there, we do hear the new stories and coverage that are focused on the big urban centres like LA or like New York, for example, with really well known histories of immigration. And I was really interested to read your work around the immigrant experiences in Kansas, because I mean, I I don't know so much about that. So it was really, really interesting to read about. So since 2016, you've been conducting research with with Latino immigrants in rural and urban Kansas, looking at their health and access to care. And I was wondering if you could speak to us a bit more about that research programme and and perhaps a little bit about what we might learn from, from thinking about immigrant experiences beyond these big urban centres?

CM: Yes, you know that that project is a little broader than health access. It's on how immigrants and local established residents in small towns, rural towns, how they relate, how they think of each other, how they relate to one another.  It's an ethnographic project. And in the midst of doing that work, different, additional questions have come up. One of them is access to healthcare, that undocumented immigrants lack. What we learned from a context that is very different from the large urban context, one thing we learned is the importance of place, and what place means in terms of infrastructure to support immigrants, the location of the institutions that control immigrants—and I'll give you some examples of each of these things—and what it means to live in a small town where supposedly, immigration enforcement may not come because it's a small town. But that's deceiving because immigration enforcement is everywhere. The only reason we may get the idea that nothing is happening, that immigration enforcement focuses in on large areas is because media. There's no media attention on this on those small areas. But for instance, rural areas don't have the immigrant rights organisations that that exist in are in large urban areas. They don't have legal aid organisations or anything that can help immigrants when they are detained, for instance, when they need legal representation. And so that infrastructure is not there. ICE and immigration authorities still detaining the poor people from from small areas. The offices where state agencies are far from those small towns. So immigrants often have to travel long distances to process something with ICE with any state agency. And that means travelling without a driver's licence, for instance. And so there are so many aspects of living in vulnerable legal statuses that we don't know about  if we only get information from looking at urban areas,

MB:  That's really helpful. And it really shows how place matters when it comes to having those conversations around legal status. And, and also, I assume one of those concepts that is so clearly stated in your work, this idea of legal liminality, which we'll come back to for a while. But I wanted to focus on another concept and ask you to reflect on that a little bit that you've developed in your work with, with Professor Leisy Abrego. And that's the concept of legal violence. For me, what this does is it really captures that kind of normative, but cumulatively injurious effects of the law in the lives of the Central American migrants in the US that you've been working with. So I wondered if you could give a brief outline of this concept of legal violence and kind of what your entry points into it were?

CM: With this concept, the idea is to capture the effects of the system of immigration laws and enforcement on the lives of immigrants, especially those aspects that cause suffering, in the immediate term, and in the long term. Aspects that affect immigrants' life chances similar to any other axis of stratification, like social class, race. And how we came to that is there two things. I had done an ethnography in Guatemala, where I studied, I focused on the lives of women, but I ended up writing on the multiple forms of violence in women's lives, that are not physical violence, are less hidden or less visible, but still produce quite a bit of suffering, and similar to physical violence. And so I already had that framework or lens. And in my work then, in the United States, I had already been doing work in the United States, but it was that work in Guatemala that brought to my attention. There was also suffering, very similar to the suffering that I saw in with the Guatemala that that comes from institutions, that come from structures, that come from that don't have an identifiable individual behind them. That's the one entry point. The other one was very striking for me because it was immigrants in my studies in in Phoenix, who made the parallels and brought that to my attention. They, for instance, would say when enforcement really was amplified in Arizona, they would tell me it's like living in times of war in El Salvador. There,  you waited for someone, during the state terror, they could come to your home and take you and disappear you. Here, if you're home, you're more protected, but you still face a very similar threat, people from the state coming to take you away and disappear you from your normal life. So that brought to me the parallels between life and the state terror in Central America, and life under legal terror brought about by immigration enforcement in the United States. And so then I started to think about legal, legal status and how the state creates suffering in the lives of people similar to what we what I saw in Central America. So when I share these thoughts with Leisy, she had very similar empirical observations, because she had done work on Mexican and Central American immigrants in Los Angeles. And so we decided to bring together our empirical projects, and under this umbrella of legal violence that had come from my fieldwork in Guatemala and my fieldwork in Phoenix. And so. So that's how, how that came about.

MB:  I think that the way ... you're kind of entry points into it, and your work was that with Leisy I really, they're really powerful examples, actually, both of the value of those types of dialogues and those conversations, but also of listening to the people that we work with, when we do work with migrants and their communities, and hearing what what they're trying to say. So I can see that that's been a really productive example for you. And I wondered, because because you said before you started to really think about legal status. And one of the things that really stood out to me and reading your work, which I found really exciting, is this idea of legal liminality that you talk about. And what I find interesting about it is I think that that all too often when we think about citizens, we think about their other, the migrant, which of course is a state category. And yet, when we start to speak to people, we start to see that that distinction might not be as clear cut as it is. And I think this idea of legal liminality helps with some of that a little bit. So I wondered if you could say a little bit more about legal liminality. And what you see the prospects of it being?

CM: Yeah, that's a concept that also came about—everything I do comes from a close listening to the people who are in my studies—that also came from listening carefully to what they tell me. And that is, we had tended to see migrants  as either undocumented or documented. But the experiences of the Central Americans in my studies did not fit that binary. They were very much in between. They were either on temporary statuses or they were waiting for their applications to be processed for years and years. And so I started to think of these in between categories to capture that, which now, I think, reflects the experiences of many more people, because receiving governments are dealing with immigration in many ways by expanding temporary statuses. And so that's how, that's how I started thinking of this in between grey area where people can either, they can fall out of that status,  can continue on forever, for a long time. And so, um, so that that's how I started to think about how to capture those experiences very much in between.

MB:   And by a long time, my understanding is it's not months, you're talking decades, in some cases, aren't you?

CM: Yes, yes. For instance, the group I, I focused on and I started to think about liminal legality on. They, right now Salvadoreans and Hondurans have been on temporary protected status since 1999 and 2001. So for over two decades, they have lived temporary lives. They have created families, they have lived they have they have worked, but always eighteen months at a time because that's how long the permit works, which serves as a reminder that they're not in the United States permanently.

MB:  I'm really struck in thinking about the contrast between what you're describing and what we're seeing in the UK and in some European countries around what I think I would describe as like the creeping insecurity of people's legal status. And I'm thinking as well at the moment of the pending crisis around these temporary protection orders that have been given to people of Ukraine, moving to various European countries, and you can kind of see that as a potential crisis in the making, I think, or maybe, you know, as you said, it's it's, it's not as though that insecurity is not purposeful either, is it that temporary status is very deliberate?

CM: Oh yes, absolutely. This is done by design. Receiving countries have been expelling, have been pushing out immigrants, either through direct enforcement, through deportations, through fortifying the physical borders, through all sorts of means, including asylum seekers. But parallel to that they've also implemented laws to keep people from settling permanently. So it's done by design. It's the waiting, the long waiting times, the insecurity is created by design, not accidentally or coincidentally.

MB:  I'm just going to sigh. And I'll pass it over to Ala.

AS:  And I think it just and you sort of hinted that that already, it's you know, that  people go on to have that their lives, over those two decades, they have children, they have do jobs. But it's that must become absolutely wearing to live through, because it's intervenes in every aspects of people's lives. And as we've discussed in other episodes of this podcast, and Michaela's podcast as well about, you know,  people's planning, you know, what, how do you plan for the future when you're living in that kind of insecure status, but you can't not live for two decades. So it just is, I can imagine that the the exhaustion of that must be immense.

CM: Yes, yes, of course. People have to have to live. So they they send their children to school, they work, they they have celebrations, people live but with that insecurity in the background. So anything long term is always decided  or considered with that into account whether they're going to be still being the United States or not, when the kids grow up, for instance, when they, if they get married, what's going to happen. It affects really every decision people make, because it's, it's, it's living insecurity, for who knows. That's the thing, nobody knows. If people were told that they're going to live in this insecure situation and it's going to end by December 31, or even if it's a date in the future, people will be able to plan, people would be able to live differently. But the torture of living in this insecurity is that no one knows when that will end. And that is what creates, I think, this experience of of suffering, even though people live their lives. And it's a benefit to have some protection, even if it's temporary, even if it's partial. But at the same time,  it's not.

AS:  So you've kind of been talking in this direction through the discussion. But I wanted to ask you in here, because we're right at the start of the new academic term and Michaela I both teach around the sociology of migration and also around inequalities as well. And I know that you've, you've written a bit about what the sociology of migration has to offer to understanding inequalities. I was wondering if perhaps you could reflect a little bit on as sociologists of migration, what we can do or what we can offer to really understand inequalities and perhaps, you know, thinking about public sociology intervening in some way to to help address these?

CM: Yes. I think something that we need to start teaching more broadly, not just in the sociology of migration, but just sociology in general is, we teach about inequality, we teach about stratification, but legal status has become an important axis of stratification that affects not just a small group of people because it affects the individual upon whom legal status is extended, but also their families and communities. So we need to really more seriously integrate legal status as an axis of stratification more broadly, so that we can expand our conception of stratification and inequalities, how inequalities are created.

MB:  I think that's really interesting around thinking about how we integrate legal status into our understandings of stratification and inequalities. And I wondered if there's a more pointed point that can be taken home for our listeners who teach sociology or who are learning sociology, which has to do with how often the normative assumptions that we work with when we're talking about inequalities are ones which assume that the people that we're talking about are citizens. And, I mean, this takes me back to conversations that that Ala and I've been having on repeat about the extent to which over the course of our careers, which have not been that short, they're not they're not that long, but that they haven't been that short, we've been told that sociology of migration is not a field of research, or wasn't at least when we started. So, you know, obviously, we've taken that as a challenge and decided to do something with it. So it strikes me that perhaps, you know, this is actually a point that goes right to the heart of that kind of inherent methodological nationalism almost of sociology.

CM: Yes, methodological nationalism. But also, I think we need to question a little bit more the binaries that we have so ingrained in how we think about the social world, the categories, and what they mean, and how we may redo, undo, or at least be aware that they exist, I think that it opens the door to, to rethink these binaries that are so present in the study of migration, but applied more broadly too.

MB:  I think that's great. So, before we close, I just want to go back to something that you said at the beginning of the episode, when you were talking about your frustrations around how those kinds of headlines oversimplify, you know, the work of immigration control, immigration policy, immigration rules, and it's almost like Biden came along, waved a magic wand and undid everything that Trump ever did. So everything's okay with the world. And I wondered if you have a takeaway message for how we might think differently, what would it be?

CM: It would be perhaps, to, to work with media, with reporters, with journalists because they inform the public and this is a very critical job that they do, because the public then votes to elect the people who then make policies and laws. So it's a very important piece of this triangle, puzzle, to work with reporters and journalists to change how they construct, how they frame the information they produce, they share, so that the people in the public can be better informed without necessarily going into the complexities of immigration law and immigration enforcement. But to stay away a little bit from these headlines that grab attention, but mislead more than inform. And so perhaps we should work more with the people who produce those headlines who are not ill intentioned, they just, it's their job to produce headlines that will attract attention, but we can feed them information that can be digested for the public in a way that can reach the public.

AS: Thank you so much. And I think, you know, we're somewhat on the road to that actually, with some of the discussions we've had here. I think you've been so helpful to us and I'm sure to our listeners in terms of really breaking down some of the, as you said, some of the kinds of binaries that we that we think with and problematizing that and really showing us ways in which we could actually think differently or understand the social world in a different, more, perhaps more complex and accurate sort of way. And I'm particularly also struck with the power of that the theory of legal violence and what what that shows us as well in terms of immigrant experiences. So I think that's kind of us in conclusion, but I wondered if, if you'd like to say where people could find out a bit more about you and the research that you're doing, including ongoing research that you're doing in Kansas.

CM: I think the best way to do that is to look for my publications, which are on the internet, my departmental web page, and contact me if people are interested in specific publications or pieces of information, people can contact me.

MB:  And we'll put links to all of that into the Episode notes. So thank you very much Cecilia.

CM: Thank you so much for this opportunity. This is wonderful. Thank you for doing this.

AS:  Thank you very much. It's been fantastic.

MB:  Bye for now, everyone. You've been listening to Who do we think we are? Beyond the headlines, a podcast series produced and presented by Ala Sirriyeh and Michaela Benson. Thanks to Emma Houlton at brilliant audio for production and post production support, and to George Kalivis, for our fantastic cover art and social media assets. We'd also like to thank Niamh Welby, who provides much needed support behind the scenes to get these episodes together. If you like what you've heard, follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform. You can check out our show notes for further resources, transcripts, and links to all our socials. You can also find us at That's all for now, but we'll be back with another headline next month.

End of transcript

For many people, migration is about escaping persecution and state violence. But in the context increasingly criminalisation of migration, state violence may characterise the lives of immigrants. Hosts Ala Sirriyeh and Michaela Benson are joined by Professor Cecilia Menjívar to discuss her work with Central American migrants in the US. She highlights how those taking part in her empirical research from Arizona to Kansas revealed to her the ways in which the infrastructures of immigration enforcement and control in the US shape migrant lives and the parallels they draw in state violence before and after migration. And she stresses the urgent need to consider legal status as an axis of social inequality in contemporary society. 

In this episode we cover …

  1. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
  2. Legal violence and legal liminality
  3. Legal status and social inequalities


… that brought to me the parallels between life under state terror in Central America, and life under legal terror brought about by immigration enforcement in the United States

Cecilia Menjívar

Find out more

Find out more about Cecilia’s work on the UCLA website and follow her on Twitter

We recommend her work on Legal Liminality and her co-authored research with Leisy Abrego on Legal Violence

Our headline was this article from the LA Times about US Immigration and Customs enforcement in the shift from Trump to Biden.

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