Tag: Politics


Queering Desire from California

Việt Lê

During and after my father’s two-year terminal illness, and my own simultaneous cancer scare (2000-2003), I became concerned with individual illness as a metaphor for the failure of ideology and the political body, and called this series, “Still.” At the time, I was also dealing thematically with loss and the long shadow of HIV/AIDS in a continuing body of work entitled, “Pictures of You.” I was thinking of Susan Sontag,[1] Douglas Crimp, Joan Didion,[2] and Foucault. Above all else, I was thinking of two things: trauma and desire.

Lê girlhood among ghosts_L

untitled (girlhood among ghosts)

Desire denotes emptiness, a void, an impossibility, an ethical conundrum. Desire unattainably sits on the horizon. What do we desire most in this political moment? What really ails us?

I have been rethinking illness and failure after reading and teaching Anne Cvetkovich’s Depression, Anne Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief, Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, José Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, and Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness,[3] in conversation with other texts, artists, and thinkers.

I now understand “illness” as being culturally constructed—systemic failure. On one hand, with continued systemic oppression (along the lines of class, gender, race) minoritarian subjects would be ailing, not particularly content with the status quo. Critical voices of dissent are “killjoys,” as Sarah Ahmed[4] and Jan Bernabe[5] have observed. Postmodernity and its discontents: to be a killjoy is to be attuned to—and respondent to—a range of violence from micro-aggression to lethal force. Neither of these come with a trigger warning.

10 The Death of Marat

untitled (The Death of Marat)

According to the Washington Post’s real-time National Police Shootings Database,[6] there have been 408 fatal shootings by officers already this year (987 in 2017; daily the list grows). We are cannibalizing ourselves. These killings on our streets can be linked to longer histories of violence and empire, which is obscured under different guises. This mentality to “Make America Great Again” has viably amounted to making America hate again.

On top of all this, the U.S. Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 barred Asians and Arabs and also restricted immigration for Eastern and Southern Europeans. The Obama administration deported more than 2.7 million immigrants—a record for any presidency.[7] October 2017, President Trump proposed restricting the number of immigrants to 45,000,[8] down from 110,000 in 2016. But this isn’t limited to our gold coasts and miracle miles. Brexit and the outcry over the European refugee “crisis” suggest an unnerving political pendulum swing. Political victories and losses do not compare to and nor do they make up for the loss of rights, livelihood, and of life itself.

What do we do as a (social) body with threatening growth? We isolate, excise: through incarceration, corporal punishment, banishment (think about deportation, travel bans, and Muslim bans). Although, we can combat this mindset of threatening isolation through the Enlightenment discourse of rational helpfulness; racial uplift; liberté, egalité, fraternité; and the disguise of love. As Marguerite Duras writes of colonial desires: “love unto death.” Death is the end-logic of disease, of dis-ease, of being ill at ease.

The real illness lies in our fear of others—of terrorists, immigrants, refugees. Vietnamese refugees. Californians are not exempt from this, and have historically exhibited some of the more extreme versions in racist policies that get exported throughout the nation, and tend to fester here, hidden under the blinding sun. But refusing these, wherever they come from, is an option—an opting out of the ideological and real violence of empire, patriarchy, hetero- and homo-normativity. We do not want to be #winning (#whining?), if success means capitulating to capitalism’s misogynist, racist, ageist demands. We don’t have to give in, give up, cede to others, secede from ourselves (or the nation) to succeed. If to “succeed” under heteronormative patriarchy means to follow an ideal weight, age, skin color, (re-)productive timelines, ad nauseam, we would rather choose to fail, to un-follow, be fallow. The embrace of failure, indeed, opens up critical and creative possibilities. Muñoz admits, “Within straight time the queer can only fail; thus an aesthetic of failure can productively be occupied by the artist for delineating straight time’s measure.”[9] Artist Sowon Kwon notes that being perfect and perfectly average—exceptional yet unthreatening (model citizen, model minority)—strands us intersectional feminists in no man’s land.[10]

As our American idols fall (Weinstein, Rose, Spacey, Cosby, et al)—the fathers falter—their embodied pinnacles of success and predation display a pestering symptom. “A festering pustule in a diseased industry,” director/actress Sarah Polley called Weinstein in a New York Times op-ed.[11] Beyond op-eds, there’s no option: up end, opt out.

We want to fail. We want to fail if corporate excess (cum execs, sex) and captains of industry are quietly complicit in perpetuating decades and centuries of trauma.

How do we question, query, and queer our inherited timelines, cultural mythologies, and individual myths? To use Halberstam’s term, this is the queer art of failure. Muñoz observes that utopia is even predicated on failure. It comes to be this impossible horizon. This is the paradox of desire—love, beauty, community. Yet, they are implausible ideals that we as a people continually strive for. This desire to fare better, then, is to fail better.

Illness and its metaphors. We cannot “be illin’” (Netflix-and-chillin’) when our bodies, our political bodies, and our earth is in a state of emergency. In critical condition, we need critical mass, creative intervention—an ethics of refusal—in our despair and desires. And here, in this ascesis, we may eventually find better ways to truly hope.

4 kitchen window

untitled (kitchen window)

5 garage

untitled (garage)

6 yellow

untitled (yellow)

9 temple drum

untitled (temple drum)

11 waking alone

untitled (waking alone)

7 laundry, after Vermeer

 untitled (laundry, after Vermeer)

12 ants

(untitled) ants

13 flowers

untitled (flowers)



  • All photographs taken by Việt Lê, 2001-05, Lambda print face-mounted on Plex, Edition of 5 + 1 AP 36″ L x 36″ W x 1″ D framed (91.4 x 91.4 x 2.5 cm). Used by Permission.

** This short essay is excerpted and expanded from Madalyn K. Le and Việt Lê “CA+T (Center for Art + Thought) Interview with Việt Lê,” 28 December 2017,  http://centerforartandthought.org/cat-interview-vi%E1%BB%87t-l%C3%AA.

[1] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors (New York: Picador, 2001).

[2] Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (New York: Vintage, 2007).

[3] Anne Cvetkovich, Depression (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), Anne Cheng, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009), and Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

[4] https://feministkilljoys.com/.

[5] https://news.artnet.com/art-world/queering-contemporary-asian-american-art-986825.

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2017/.

[7] https://www.democracynow.org/2017/2/22/advocate_trumps_deportations_are_possible_because.

[8] Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Miriam Jordan, “Trump Plans 45,000 Limit on Refugees Admitted to U.S.,” New York Times, 27 September 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/us/politics/trump-plans-45000-limit-on-refugees-admitted-to-us.html.

[9] Cruising Utopia, 174.

[10] http://archive.bampfa.berkeley.edu/exhibition/196.

[11] Sarah Polley, “Sarah Polley: The Men You Meet Making Movies,” New York Times, 14 October 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/14/opinion/sunday/harvey-weinstein-sarah-polley.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0.

Việt Lê is a Vietnamese artist, writer, and curator whose work focuses on trauma, modernity and popular cultures in Southeast Asian diasporas. He is Assistant Professor (Visual Studies) at the California College of the Arts. His art and research has been featured at H Gallery Bangkok, the Shanghai Biennial and the Smithsonian. Recent publications include “White Gaze” with Dr. Michelle Dizon and “Myriad Modernities,” a Visual Anthropology special double issue coedited with Dr. Lan Duong. For more of his work, see vietle.net.

Copyright: © 2018 Việt Lê. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.



Vietnamese Adoptions

Allison Varzally

As part of targeted evacuation efforts from Southeast Asia in 1975, the U.S. government arranged for military and commercial planes to transport Vietnamese children to the United States. In theory, the airlifts simply facilitated adoption proceedings already in motion. Children selected for the airlifts were already paired with suitable American families who eagerly awaited their arrival. And the efforts were bolstered by collaboration with social welfare and adoption agencies such as Holt International, Welcome House, United Catholic Relief Services, Friends for All Children, and Friends of the Children of Vietnam (FCVN). However, in its rushed execution, the program resulted in confusion and tragedy. One of the first official flights, carrying an estimated three hundred children and adult caregivers, exploded in mid-air; only half of the flight’s passengers survived.

The horrific accident only strengthened the resolve of organizers to get children out of Vietnam. While expressing sorrow for the victims of the crash, President Ford insisted, “our mission of mercy must continue…. This tragedy must not deter us but offer new hope for the living.”[1] In prioritizing the plight of Vietnamese children after years of relative inattention, the U.S. government adopted the rhetoric of responsibility long articulated by left-leaning Americans. Admitting the nation’s culpability in the destruction and dissolution of Vietnamese families, officials sought not simply to atone for American sins and relieve the suffering of Vietnamese children, but to control the peace.

Yet Vietnamese would disrupt these efforts and dispute this message, reappearing as refugees who endeavored to have familial reunion within the United States. Seeking to preserve life amidst unfathomable loss, death, and ruin, Vietnamese mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents strategically chose Operation Babylift as a means of assuring the safety of their young kin, hoping they would be able to reunite with them if they were able to migrate to the United States successfully. Many of the children airlifted from Vietnam appeared to have family members who hoped to reclaim them—they were not all orphans. Vietnamese had seized the evacuation as a necessary, if desperate, step in a larger process of migration that could mitigate their grief and disorientation. Those fortunate enough to reach the United States and initiate their plans of reconciliation, however, were confronted with the contrary ambitions of American families, agencies and government officials who viewed adoption and the assimilation of Vietnamese children as both an apology for the nation’s wrongs and affirmation of its material and moral worth. In arguing for their parental rights and introducing Americans to the forms and obligations of the extended Vietnamese family, these refugees rejected American interpretations of the war in favor of their own. Such interpretations had challenged expected performances of Vietnamese women as either helpless victims or scheming enemies, which came to shape how they settled in the United States, how they sustained ties to Vietnam, and even how this would influence future foreign policy.


California played a leading role in this intense drama that was unfolding across the United States. Not only did Californians, Vietnamese and American, receive and process the largest number of airlifted children, but they also originated and organized the loudest opposition to American adoptions and benevolent representations of its war in Vietnam. In the process, the state provided a foundation for the establishment of Vietnamese communities and reinforced a tradition of protest and trans-pacific relations.

San Francisco’s Presidio, the largest of the reception centers, swiftly mobilized to process children airlifted from Vietnam. Indeed, of the over 2,000 children hastily removed as part of Operation Babylift, more than 1,500 passed through the military installation that was aided by more than 5,400 California volunteers who provided communication, shelter, food, security, and medical assistance. Among those Bay Area residents who answered the call (specifically for those fluent in Vietnamese) were Muoi McConnel, a Vietnamese nurse married to a former U.S. servicemen; Nhu Miller, a Vietnamese-born, European-raised, and American-educated (Barnard and University of California, Berkeley) woman who described herself as a revolutionary in later interviews; and Mai Chaplin, a homemaker of Vietnamese descent. While caring and conversing with children at the Presidio, the trio came to express such surprise that some of the youth did not appear to be orphans in their own right. Such youth had confessed confusion about their whereabouts and a longing for living Vietnamese parents and kin. Muoi asserted that of the twenty-three children whose names she recorded, three reported having two living parents in Vietnam, fourteen asked about their mothers, and two described grandparents residing in the United States.[2] Mai recalled her exchange with two sisters who claimed their parents were alive and well in Qui Nhon. Reportedly, they had placed their daughters—two of their nine children—in a Catholic orphanage whose director agreed to send the girls to the U.S. until they might return to Vietnam.[3]

Dismayed and determined to resolve the seeming problem of the non-orphans, Muoi and Nhu approached U.S. officials who straightaway ignored their appeals for assistance. However, Nhu’s husband, Tom, a Stanford trained lawyer, former staff member of the U.S. State Department, and long advocate for Vietnamese children who had helped establish the Children’s Medical Relief International and the Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in Saigon, listened closely to the women’s concerns and chose to act. Drawing support from a network of California based, anti-war attorneys and the Center for Constitutional Rights,[4] Tom helped file an action, Nguyen Da Yen et al. v. Kissinger et al., in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, charging Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Attorney General Edward Levi, and seven adoption agencies with bringing children to the United States who were not orphans properly released for immigration. Plaintiffs demanded “the accumulation of defendant’s records to determine each child’s adoptive status and enable any living parents to be located,” a process predicated upon halting the adoption proceedings of American families whom they conceded may be “concerned and loving” but “no substitute for biological parents.”[5]


While expressing sympathy for adoptive families and eschewing political motives, the plaintiffs emphasized the superiority of Vietnamese families, the harm done to displaced Vietnamese children, and proposed the fundamental flaws of the U.S. Government. In its motion for preliminary injunction, lawyers asserted that they did not intend to challenge the wisdom of admitting children during the last days of war, a clarification that seemed to remove the question of child custody from the context of controversy about the war’s closure. However, over the course of the trial, they struggled to maintain an apolitical stance and refrain from a broader commentary about the perceived injustice of the war and the ignorance of American couples. In its complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, the plaintiffs’ attorneys aired their grievances, accusing the government of orchestrating Operation Babylift “to create a climate of opinion favorable to the continuation of unconstitutional and illegal U.S. involvement in the war in South Vietnam to the end of securing from the United States Congress authorization and appropriation of additional funds to militarily support the war, and to provide a cover for United States military intervention.” In other documents, the plaintiffs found fault with adoptive parents, along with the officials and agencies who facilitated their efforts. “It is not difficult to imagine the pain and suffering the plaintiff children have already undergone, living their entire lives in a country torn by war, ripped from their families and home, brought thousands of miles away, held on military bases to be placed with families, no matter how well intentioned, of an alien culture with whom they are unable to communicate,” insisted lead attorney for the Plaintiffs, Nancy Stearns, in a court memo. To further support this reading, she offered the testimony of Joyce Ladner, a sociologist and civil rights activist who studied transracial adoption. Although Ladner acknowledged, “Asians may not experience as much hostility in the predominantly white American society” as African Americans, she believed that “they do experience subtler forms of discrimination.” Additionally, she anticipated how such Vietnamese adoptees would come to “face additional hostility as a result of feelings of anger in many Americans regarding the Vietnam war” and would suffer “a racial identity crisis comparable to that in black children.” Claiming the virtues of Vietnamese families, she concluded that “even if the circumstances to which they return are less economically secure than the American homes they are presently in, emotional security must not be traded for a middle class life style where racial and cultural gaps are so broad and so often ignored.”[6] She portrayed Americans as a group whose false faith in material advantages blinded them to the problems of transracial families. This exposed a broader, leftist opposition to capitalism that had founded the antiwar movement and informed the plaintiff’s case, but which members of the Center for Constitutional Rights strategically preferred to understate.


 It is not difficult to imagine the pain and suffering the plaintiff children have already undergone, living their entire lives in a country torn by war, ripped from their families and home, brought thousands of miles away, held on military bases to be placed with families, no matter how well intentioned, of an alien culture with whom they are unable to communicate.

In her April 1975 Affidavit, Nhu Miller further elaborated these points. She noted that Americans misunderstood the structure and strength of Vietnamese families, creating an unnecessary and self-serving crisis. Vietnamese practiced an extended system of family so that “if you lost your father, you still have your uncle. If you lose your mother, your aunt will still nurse you.” Rather than asylums, she explained, orphanages were used as places for boarding children during times of economic or political crisis…. Foreign adoption is an alien and repugnant notion to the Vietnamese.” Nhu countered a picture of neglected or absent Vietnamese mothers, chastising “foreigners, who see only orphanages and assume the Vietnamese don’t care for their children, do not hear about mothers struggling alone to care for ten children or women caring for children left in their care permanently who would never consider putting them in an orphanage.”[7] Nhu’s portrait of maternal struggle and adoption disrupted prevailing images of Vietnamese women that had shaped U.S. assertions in South Vietnam. Perpetuating a habit of feminizing Asian nations and casting Asian women as victims or vixens, U.S. media, soldiers, and policy makers alternatively imagined themselves as protecting or punishing a vulnerable, if sometimes treacherous, South Vietnam. Lost within these gendered constructions and justifications of military action were the real Vietnamese women whom Nhu depicted: individuals making tough but deliberate choices amidst arduous circumstances.[8] So confident in her conception of caregiving customs and the will of Vietnamese mothers was Nhu that she and her husband, Tom Miller, long resisted assuming fuller responsibility for Oktober, the son of a Vietnamese woman, A, who had pleaded for their help. Nhu’s mother, BachLan, had first supported the boy, but when she died, Nhu felt compelled to help A “take care of her own child.” Nhu removed Oktober from an orphanage where he spent some of his days after determining its operators “were essentially selling the children.” And when she finally accepted A’s pleas “to take care of him” on a permanent basis and bring him to the United States, Nhu made certain that Oktober sustained a relationship with his Vietnamese mother.[9]

The cases of Vietnamese families who endured separations and sought reunions in the United States seemed to underscore Nhu’s picture of caring Vietnamese kin and Americans’ propensity to sin. Li The Hang, whose work as an interpreter in a U.S. hospital in Vietnam familiarized her with American personnel and regulations, placed two of her five children, Phuong and Holly, with Catholic Charities and begged the organization “to get them out” before conditions deteriorated further in 1975. As she said her farewells, Li The Hang pressed into their hands a photo inscribed with a message intended to reassure and inspire: “My wish is for you to grow up free. We would rather be away from this country and live in freedom then be together under Communism.” When Li and her remaining children arrived in the United States four months later, she began hunting for Phuong and Holly. Despite the reluctance of an Oregon-based foster family to release their charges, the adoption papers they had filed were not yet processed and Li was able to recover her children with the help of a Catholic Priest. During a 2011 interview, she recalled the joy of the trio’s reunion. Her antipathy to Communism not only animated her plans of dividing, migrating, and eventually reuniting her family, but her service to other Vietnamese refugees. After settling and opening a successful restaurant in Decatur, Georgia during the 1980s, the Hangs would sponsor as many as 150 Vietnamese families.[10] Reclaiming her children within a context of virulent anticommunism and diaspora, Li confirmed an American narrative about the downfall and doom of Vietnam. However, her assertion of maternal rights as a refugee sheltered by the United States also underscored the failure of modernization and militarization in South Vietnam; rather than rescued or reprimanded under the discipline of American masculine power—fantasies that propelled American policy in Southeast Asia—Vietnamese women surfaced as independent forces seeking place and persuasion as parents within their new nation. Despite the trauma of dislocation and migration, experiences that many refugees have sublimated with silence, these women spoke out. Their declarations repurposed Vietnamese social norms and cultural types. Vietnamese society had valued women’s reproductive and motherly talents. The war both intensified the importance of and imperiled their duty to protect and prepare the next generation. While men’s contributions to the nation were typically connected with their military service and camaraderie, Vietnamese women demonstrated service by enduring separations from their adult children, especially enlisted sons, and waiting for peace. These gendered interpretations persisted in postwar Vietnam. Women were honored for surrendering and mourning their lost sons, a form of reverence that elided the less passive and broader roles they had played in combat and in daily life by managing households, businesses, farms, and family.[11]


Like the Hangs, many refugees replayed and refined Vietnamese constructions of gender and family within the United States using the lawsuit spearheaded by Californians to reunite them with their dependent relative. After the death of one son and one daughter in 1968, Nguyen Thi Phuc feared for the future of her remaining children. “If I don’t let [my sons] go out, then when they grow up the boy have to go military, had to go fighting. They die. I know that,” she stated during court testimony. Resisting the trope of sacrificial mother and risking retribution as disloyal to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Thi Phuc sent her boys to the United States in 1972. Two years later, she heard “the bomb and rocket shoot very close to Saigon,” which led to her placing her daughters in the care of a Mr. Jacobs who agreed to bring the pair safely to the United States. Thi Phuc insisted that she had never signed relinquishment papers and secured the promise of Mr. Jacobs that “if I stay in my country, later where I stay I be safe, he return my children to me.” However, eighteen months later, when she arrived at Fort Chafee, Arkansas—a domestic military base much like California’s Camp Pendleton that processed Southeast Asian refugees—and attempted to recover her four children, she was faced with significant hurdles. Her sons’ foster parents wished to adopt them, rather than to surrender the boys. Despite her queries to immigration officials, the United States Catholic Conference, and local press, she could not determine her daughters’ whereabouts.[12]

Dang Thi Hao showed similar resolve and met similar hindrances as she solicited assistance in winning back the two-year old daughter, whom a Catholic organization had brought to the United States, from Camp Pendleton, California officials. Fear, not neglect, prompted Thi Hao to yield the girl. She pleaded, but her pleas soon fell on deaf ears. One authority supposedly even urged her “to have another child,” a deeply disrespectful, even if not premeditated, remark that betrayed an insensitivity to the histories and individuality of Vietnamese refugees. Thi Hao told Miller, “there were other women seeking the return of their children, but they were being intimidated by the military and voluntary agencies.”[13] Char Thi Lan also portrayed American bureaucrats, specifically those employed at the California Department of Health and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as anything but helpful. Despite her appeals, she had failed to recover her four-month-old niece whose mother had not consented to the airlift.[14] In these three cases, and others beyond, Vietnamese women not only found fault with the American government and demanded reflection on its responsibilities to refugees, but desperately tried to configure their authority and relationship to the United States through intense parental terms. They drew upon a respect for mothers in Vietnamese culture, while criticizing a war and regime that had compromised their ability to fulfill that particular function. Rather than shore up the Socialist Republic of Vietnam by gifting their children, these women had dispatched the youth to the United States where they now expected to retrieve and enact their maternal powers.

One authority supposedly even urged her “to have another child,” a deeply disrespectful, even if not premeditated, remark that betrayed an insensitivity to the histories and individuality of Vietnamese refugees. Thi Hao told Miller, “there were other women seeking the return of their children, but they were being intimidated by the military and voluntary agencies.”

Adoption agencies and adoptive parents, including those in Cupertino, California who organized the Council for the Rights of Adoptive Families to protect their interests, had come to counter that Vietnamese children were legitimately abandoned, suffering, and available, that agencies had followed proper protocols, and that “the lawsuit was politically motivated and had nothing to do with the children.”[15] In their defense, they outlined the chaotic conditions of a war-torn Vietnam, the free will of Vietnamese mothers who chose, rather than were coerced, to relinquish their children, as well as the opportunities that these Vietnamese children would come to possess in the United States.

Confronted by conflicting reports and divisive testimonies, the Judge ultimately ruled that “the case was not properly a class action suit,” due to the fact that “each child’s situation [proved] so individual that common questions did not predominate over individual issues.” He represented the cases as being so complex and dizzyingly unique to defy the kind of generalization the plaintiffs desired. While acknowledging the confusion and occasional duplicity that had shaped the removal of Vietnamese children, he expressed skepticism about the plaintiff’s broad advocacy of reunification: “While beyond the scope of this court’s inquiry in this litigation, it is possible, in the individual circumstances peculiar to certain children, that the best interest of the children would be to not return them to their biological parents. It is not necessary to ruminate too extensively to imagine many situations where, for emotional, psychological, medical, or other reasons, a child would be better off remaining with the adoptive parents.”[16] Disappointed, but not dissuaded, select Vietnamese families initiated and often won individual custody battles in state courts—sometimes with the aid of Tom Miller and the California team who reached out to Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. and pressed the State Department to locate families in Vietnam seeking lost relatives.[17]

California, once a place of concentrated social protest where Asian immigrants had come to historically struggle and settle, soon assured that concerns of cultural autonomy, responsibility, and imperialism that were once raised during the American War in Vietnam were sustained. Debates about the constitution and influence of Vietnamese and American families exposed the long and difficult entanglements wrought by American power in Southeast Asia. As time passed and the Vietnam War became a memory to implore rather than a war to fight, Vietnamese children were reunited with their biological kin, adopted by American families, or belatedly invited to immigrate as young Amerasians. They would soon mature and become actors, as well as symbols of discussions of being representative of war legacies, constructions of ethno-racial communities, and proud patterns of assimilation.

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  • This article is adapted from Allison Varzally, Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migrations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).  

[1] “Ford Vows to Continue Operation Babylift,” Los Angeles Times (4 April 1972): 4.

[2] RG 276, Box 11 Reporter’s Partial Transcript, 19, 20 May 1975, RG 276 United States District Court of California, San Francisco, National Archives at San Francisco (RG 276, NARA-SF). Note, the author accessed court records stored at the National Archives in two visits separated by two years. During this interval, the court records were reorganized and the box numbers changed. Box numbers in the 500 range reflect the most recent iteration.

[3] Dana Sachs, The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010); Reporter’s Partial Transcript, 25 June 1975, Box 11, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[4] The Center for Constitutional Rights was established in 1966 by civil rights activists seeking to advance popular, progressive causes. https://ccrjustice.org/home/what-we-do/historic-cases?page=19, accessed 11 January 2018.

[5] Plaintiff’s Memo in Support of Entry of Preliminary Injunction Incorporating Provision of Consent Order and Petition for Rehearing and Suggestion for Rehearing En Banc, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[6] Ibid., Complaint for Declaratory Relief, RG-276, NARA-SF; Affidavit of Joyce Ladner, 20 January 1976, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[7] Affidavit of Tran Tuong Nhu (28 April 1975), RG 276, NARA-SF.

[8] Heather Marie Stur labeled the competing types of Vietnamese women conceived by Americans as “damsels in distress” (those in need of rescue from communist aggression) and “dragon ladies” (those whose duplicitous behavior compromised U.S. ambitions and invited censure). See Heather Marie Stur, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 176.

[9] Oktober is the boy’s “Berkeley, California” name. Author’s Interview with Nhu Miller 29 May 2012; “A” is a pseudonym for Oktober’s birth mother.

[10] Author’s Interview with Le Thi Hang, 13 October 2011.

[11] Helle Rydstrom, “Gendered Corporeality and Bare Lives: Local Sacrifices and Sufferings during the Vietnam War” Signs 37.2 (January 2012): 275-299; Lan Duong, Treacherous Subjects: Gender, Culture, and Trans-Vietnamese Feminism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012); Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, Memory is Another Country: Women of the Vietnamese Diaspora (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2009.)

[12] Reporter’s Transcript, Box 12, RG 276, NARA-SF. Although excluded from the specific class represented by Tom Miller because the children had arrived in the United States earlier than 1975, their stories resonated and Nguyen Thi Phuc’s had stepped forward because of the law suit, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[13] Affidavit of Thomas Miller, July 1975 box 6, Folder 2, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[14] Certificate of Attorney, 24 March 1976, Box 33, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[15] Cherie Clark, After Sorrow Comes Joy: One Woman’s Struggle to Bring Hope to Thousands of Children in Vietnam and India (Westminster, CO: Lawrence and Thomas Publishing House, 2000).

[16] Nguyen Da Yen v. Kissinger. 528 F.2d 1194. U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Cir. 5 Nov. 1975. The Judge’s concerns about the emotional costs of searches likely shaped his decision to seal the case files rather than appoint special masters to review the files. This effectively frustrated the efforts of plaintiff’s attorneys, in cooperation with the International Red Cross and Vietnamese government, to help families in Vietnam locate children in the United States. Author’s correspondence with Tom Miller, 11 July 2015.

[17] The County of Adams, State of Colorado, Dependency Action No. J6-5679-N; The People of the State of Colorado in the interest of Le Thanh Tung, aka Vo Huy Tung, aka Hoang Tung, aka Brice Zenk; Duong Bich Van v. John T. Dempsey, individually and as director of Social Services and the Michigan Department of Social Services and David and Barbara Pederson, jointly and Severally Civil Action No. 76-140 499 (23 June 1976); Peter Brennan, “Tug of Love: A Boy’s Tough Choice Between Two Mothers,” US Magazine (28 June 1977): 71-73; Le Thi Sang v. Knight, California Superior Court, San Joaquin County, docket No. 125898.


Allison Varzally is a professor of history at California State University, Fullerton. Her publications include Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring Outside Ethnic Lines (University of California Press, 2008), which won the Theodore Saloutos Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, and most recently Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migrations (University of North Carolina Press). She is Book Review Editor of Southern California Quarterly.

Copyright: © 2018 Allison Varzally. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.




Jie Tian

“The moment when a feeling enters the body is political.” -Adrienne Rich

Feelings well up in the Women’s March
Feeling mauve, Santa Ana, I grieve for the broken river bank
        the homeless  an ancient rage
        —the thirst to kill  the drive to war

Feeling angry at the deceit in the inauguration address—
        power to the people
        a masquerade disrupting the symphony and California air

Feeling ashamed of our unscrupulous race and pursuits
Feeling dis-eased
       there are lies, lies, lies in the human mouth

Feeling an ache for asking again
        when shall we ever learn

Feeling wanting to tell the truth, mouth cracked
Feeling opened & tender
        longing for green rain   wisteria   sustenance

Feeling partially irresponsible for preferring to retreat to Mount Baldy
        comforted by friendly snow      intelligent pine
        the swirled knots of kindness

Feeling pulled to the streets of Santa Ana
        the energy field of feelings    the humanly love and struggle

Feeling the intensely worried brown eyes of a handsome young father
        the older child sleeping in his arms   the infant strapped to his shoulder
        clearly feeling an uncertain future

Feeling unrest and agitation
        feelings of crisis criss-cross   faces   signs    and hearts
Feeling respect for the devotion to order and peace

Feeling reassured women who marched in the sixties rejoin the march today
        in vivid colored clothes and lipsticks and beliefs
Feeling we come from a long history of making public our feelings

Feeling a flash of recognition of a kindred spirit
        as a winged couple pass through—
        Hope is the thing with feathers

Feeling innocent and trusting again     seeing a girl’s smile
        and her sign   with the bold pink words   close to her heart—

        BUILD      KINDNESS               NOT    WALLS

Feeling humbled by the clear vision of the young
Feeling a secret conviction that our words can heal our warring worlds

Feeling into dreaming
Feeling into believing
Feeling into dancing

Feeling warmth now    in January    in genuine California sun and light
Feeling awe—           our bodies still blaze like the many colors of dawn
                —how we come together    how we will go on


Jie Tian is a poet, librarian, ecological artist, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside. Her work appears in Spillway, Solo Novo, Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics, Asian American Short Story Writers, and Asian American Playwrights. She is completing her poetry manuscript, Migration, and learning book arts.

Copyright: © 2018 Jie Tian. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


California’s Opportunities for Undocumented Students: Are They Enough?


Tanya Golash-Boza
Zulema Valdez

Only a quarter of the 122,600 undocumented students who graduate high school in the United States each year will attend college and less than 3 percent will complete university.[1] Undocumented students face tremendous obstacles to educational success—due to their legal status, financial hardship, and their parents’ lack of experience with higher education.[2] Many of these undocumented students have spent nearly all their lives in California and know no other home.

With nearly two and half million of the estimated eleven million undocumented migrants in the United States, California is the state with the largest number of undocumented migrants. The Golden State also offers some of the most favorable higher education policies for them.[3] Governor Gray Davis signed California Assembly Bill (AB) 540 into law in 2001, which granted undocumented students eligibility for in-state tuition. One decade later, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 130, making private scholarships available to undocumented students; and AB 131, which allowed eligible undocumented students to apply for Cal Grants and other state financial aid. These policies make higher education more affordable and accessible for undocumented students.

What happens when these students arrive on campus? In 2014, a group of undocumented students at the University of California, Merced—the institution where we work—asked us to help them find out. These students wanted to know what obstacles undocumented students face, and what opportunities allow for their success. We conducted focus groups with thirty-five undocumented students enrolled at the university, which is a Latino-majority university in California’s Central Valley.

Our findings reveal that a favorable local context, including ample university resources, targeted university policies and procedures, favorable state laws, as well as federal policies of administrative relief such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)[4] have brought a four-year degree within reach for undocumented students. As Yvette, one of our focus group participants, stated, “Here in California we’re lucky… I know other people in other states still have it really hard. If none of [these policies] had been in place, I would probably be back in Mexico.”

At the same time, undocumented students continue to experience the negative consequences associated with being undocumented, especially as it pertains to economic uncertainty and the threat of deportation, both directly and vicariously through the experiences of their family members. Joaquin captured the sentiment of many when he told us he has a “constant fear” his parents could be deported.

Financial concerns were paramount for the undocumented students we spoke to. Two-thirds of the students in our focus groups had an annual family income less than $25,000. Their undocumented parents were barely getting by and had difficulty coming up with financial support for their children in college. At the time, undocumented students did not qualify for student loans, a fact many of our participants lamented. Don, for example, explained: “We’re always worrying. Are my parents going to have enough money for the next payment?” John chimed in, saying: “It was hard because of not being able to not take out loans. My parents are low-income and even though they give us financial aid, it is not enough.” California now offers small loans to undocumented students, which alleviates some of these concerns.[5]


Don, for example, explained: “We’re always worrying. Are my parents going to have enough money for the next payment?” John chimed in, saying: “It was hard because of not being able to not take out loans. My parents are low-income and even though they give us financial aid, it is not enough.”

Although the adjustment to university was difficult for many students, they also spoke about how much support they found on campus. Sara summed up the climate at UC Merced: “I think that overall this school and the faculty and staff try to make us feel as comfortable as possible.”

California laws that legitimize undocumented students’ presence at university and enable their access to education combined with a supportive campus climate suggests undocumented students at UC Merced fare substantially better than those who came before the passage of such policies or reside outside of California. Our findings suggest that expanding access to opportunities for all undocumented people—or better yet, a massive legalization program—has the potential to change undocumented immigrants’ social and economic life chances in the United States.

Undocumented students’ daily lives are affected most by the contexts closest to them, which at the local level of UC Merced and California has improved their educational experiences and likelihood of attaining a four-year degree; and yet, they are unable to forget the larger national context, including federal policies of looming mass deportation, which underscore their own vulnerability and that of their family members, and the condition a persistent sense of exclusion and isolation. The specter of illegality forms the backdrop for undocumented students’ lives.

In a highly favorable local and state context, these students thrive in high school and move on to college. An encouraging teacher, a supportive group of friends, and a full ride to university all make their lives more bearable. Nevertheless, there are real limits to these students’ ability to excel in the absence of federal immigration reform, and their legal vulnerability is never far from their minds.

The financial constraints undocumented students confront affects their ability to enroll in needed classes in time, secure affordable housing, and dampens opportunities other students enjoy, such as taking advantage of study-abroad programs. Our findings underscore the importance of trained and skilled institutional agents and support staff at high schools and colleges who make an immediate impact on undocumented students’ decisions to apply for and attend university.

We conducted these focus groups in 2015, when President Obama was in office. The climate has changed. Whereas Obama participated in creating and supported DACA, President Trump ordered an end to the program.[6] In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s inauguration, students questioned whether they should continue to apply for DACA and also expressed growing unease regarding the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the wider off-campus community. Students also expressed some doubt that UC Merced administrators and faculty were doing enough to protect them on campus and off, which led to some campus protests and calls for faculty conducting research among this vulnerable community to be more accountable to students.

With the recent rescission of DACA, students who currently have DACA will eventually lose their work permits as well as access to employment in the formal economy. DACA has had a noticeably positive impact on its beneficiaries. It has opened up economic opportunities, allowing recipients to obtain driver licenses,[7] and even to open their first bank accounts. The rescission of DACA will negatively affect undocumented youths’ access to university as it affects their ability to work and thus afford university, either while working, or while having to pay back loan debt upon graduation.

In contrast, a more favorable federal context could be life-changing. Providing a pathway to legalization would go a long way to help remedy the issues undocumented students face.

Our research provides evidence that favorable policies at the local and state level improve the life chances of undocumented youths and students in California in very real ways, with positive effects on their educational outcomes and the broader community. From our perspective, then, policy reforms at the federal level that improve the national context are necessary to alleviate the challenges undocumented students face, expand their opportunities and chances of success, and enhance their lives and those of their family members.



[1] Esther Yu Hsi Lee, “Why So Few Undocumented Immigrants Make It Through College,” Think Progress, 31 March 2015, https://thinkprogress.org/why-so-few-undocumented-immigrants-make-it-through-college-d07d30136e5/; Tanya Golash-Boza and Benigno Merlin, “Here’s how undocumented students are able to enroll at American universities,” The Conversation, 24 November 2016, https://theconversation.com/heres-how-undocumented-students-are-able-to-enroll-at-american-universities-69269.

[2] Leisy J. Abrego, “I Can’t Go to College Because I Don’t Have Papers: Incorporation Patterns of Undocumented Latino Youth,” Latino Studies 4 (2006): 212-31; Leisy J. Abrego and Roberto G. Gonzales, “Blocked Paths, Uncertain Futures: The Postsecondary Education and Labor Market Prospects of Undocumented Latino Youth,” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk 15 (2010): 144-57.; Shannon Gleeson and Roberto G. Gonzales, “When Do Papers Matter? An Institutional Analysis of Undocumented Life in the United States,” International Migration 50 (2012): 1-19.

[3] Rodrigo Dorador, “The California Dream Act: A Financial Aid Guide for Undocumented Students,” April 2015, http://www.e4fc.org/images/E4FC_CADAGuide.pdf.

[4] https://www.uscis.gov/archive/consideration-deferred-action-childhood-arrivals-daca

[5] California DREAM Loan Program, http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/paying-for-uc/whats-available/dream-loan-program/index.html.

[6] Michael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Trump Moves to End DACA and Calls on Congress to Act,” New York Times, 5 September 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/05/us/politics/trump-daca-dreamers-immigration.html?mcubz=3.

[7] See Laura E. Enriquez, Daisy Vazquez Vera, and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, “On the Road to Opportunity: Racial Disparities in Obtaining an AB 60 Driver Licenses,” Boom California, 28 November 2017, https://boomcalifornia.com/2017/11/28/on-the-road-to-opportunity/.


Tanya Golash-Boza is a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She has published five books including: Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism (2016), Forced Out Fenced In: Immigration Tales from the Field (2018), and Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions, and Deportations in Post 9/11 America (2015).

Zulema Valdez is Associate Professor of Sociology at UC Merced. Her research interests include racial and ethnic relations, entrepreneurship, and health disparities. She is the author of two books, The New Entrepreneurs: How Race, Class and Gender Shape American Enterprise (2011) and Entrepreneurs and the Search for the American Dream (2015).


Copyright: © 2017 Tanya Golash-Boza and Zulema Valdez. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/



On the Road to Opportunity


Laura E. Enriquez
Daisy Vazquez Vera
S. Karthick Ramakrishnan

Previous research shows that undocumented immigrants face a variety of economic, educational, and social barriers due to their undocumented status.[1] However, little scholarship has specifically explored how immigrants’ undocumented status structures spatial mobility, particularly by limiting access to driver licenses. Driving without a license increases the risk of coming into contact with immigration enforcement mechanisms and thus increases the risk of deportation.[2] Even when police do not cooperate with immigration officials, there are financial consequences if the unlicensed driver is cited and/or their car is impounded.[3] These risks lead many undocumented immigrants to restructure their lives—driving only at certain times or to fewer places—and limit their economic, educational, and social participation. For example, undocumented immigrants may avoid driving farther for employment or educational opportunities or decline to engage in social activities that require driving or proof of government-issued ID.[4]

Given the anti-immigrant stance of the current federal government, sub-federal policies offer a glimmer of opportunity to undocumented Californians.[5] For example, California Assembly Bill (AB) 60, known as the Safe and Responsible Driver’s Act, went into effect January 2015. California became the tenth state to provide undocumented immigrants with access to driver licenses, moderating the consequences of illegality by allowing them to more fully participate in society.

A year after the implementation of AB 60, a reported 830,000 undocumented individuals had applied for an AB 60 driver license, roughly 31% of California’s undocumented immigrant population.[6] Yet, approximately one in four applicants were unsuccessful in obtaining a license during the first year.[7] While it is to be expected that not all undocumented immigrants would apply or successfully obtain a license, it is important to consider whether some groups are disproportionately unable to partake in this opportunity and move toward social integration.

It is not a simple matter to know whether immigrant communities in California have equal access to driver’s licenses; AB 60 was designed and implemented in a manner that explicitly prohibited the collection and dissemination of data on applicants’ race, ethnicity, and national origin. In order to overcome these limitations on administrative data, our research team conducted interviews with staff members from thirty-two immigrant-serving organizations in greater Southern California, to explore why some undocumented Californians have not applied for AB 60 driver licenses and identify the barriers that make applicants unsuccessful. We find four main barriers to successfully obtaining an AB 60 driver license:

  1. fear of revealing one’s immigration status;
  2. few acceptable identification documents when applying;
  3. language barriers; and
  4. limited advertising for testing accommodations.

Although all undocumented immigrants may face these barriers, race differentiates how these barriers emerge, making it so that undocumented immigrants who are not of Spanish-speaking, Mexican origin are more likely to be prevented from obtaining an AB 60 driver license. We argue that the implementation of AB 60 has raised unique barriers that disproportionately disadvantage some groups of undocumented Californians.

Racialized Illegality

Of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, 77% are of Latina/o origin. Yet, almost a quarter of undocumented immigrants are not from Latin America, with approximately 16% coming from Asia, 4% from the Caribbean, 3% from Africa, and 3% from Europe and Canada.[8] Furthermore, the Asian undocumented population has grown to approximately 1.7 million individuals, more than tripling between 2000 and 2015, accounting for about 1 in 7 of the Asian immigrants in the United States today.[9] Despite these demographic realities, pervasive images link Mexico and Latin America with undocumented immigration.[10]

The racialization of undocumented immigration as a Latina/o issue leads to racialized illegality, wherein undocumented immigrants experience illegality differently based on how they are racialized in the United States. This racialization can draw attention to Latina/o undocumented immigrants, leading to their increased risk of interaction with police and immigration enforcement mechanisms, higher deportation rates, xenophobic interpersonal interactions, and hate crimes.[11] However, Enriquez finds that the racialization of illegality can have a silver lining, as Latina/o undocumented college students have an easier time accessing educational resources and support structures than Asian/Pacific Islander undocumented students.[12] Research also indicates that the racialization of anti-immigrant policies like Proposition 187 in California led to greater mobilization among Latinas/os than among Asian Americans.[13] Thus, regardless of whether the cause is institutional bias or differential mobilization, prior work suggests that the demographic predominance of Latinas/os and the discursive racialization of undocumented migration as a Latina/o issue may disadvantage non-Latinas/os and non-Spanish speakers in institutional settings, such as applying for AB 60 driver licenses.


We draw on interviews with staff members from thirty-two immigrant-serving organizations in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties. We purposefully recruited staff members that serve undocumented immigrants. Interviews took place in two waves: from August to October 2016 and from July to August 2017. Each interview lasted approximately one hour and followed a semi-structured interview guide. For this article, we focus on the part of the interview where staff members discussed the barriers that their clients faced when applying for AB 60 licenses and the advocacy and/or services they provided around AB 60. Data analysis involved open and discrete coding to identify four primary types of barriers. We then compared across racial groups to see how these varied.

We also conducted participant observations at twelve DMV offices in Southern California. In Los Angeles and Orange counties we selected three offices in each: one in a predominantly White area, one in a Latina/o area, and one in an Asian area. In San Bernardino and San Diego counties we selected two offices in each: one in a predominantly White area and one in a Latina/o area. We also observed two Driver License Processing Centers, offices dedicated exclusively to driver license transactions. We conducted two hours of observations at each of the offices—one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Observations focused on observing client experiences as well as staffing and application volume and demographics.


Fear of Revealing Immigration Status

Our interviews suggest that both the state of California and non-profit organizations allocated significant funding to raise awareness about AB 60. Organizations reported holding community forums, distributing information at community events, putting on workshops, and designing infographic roadmaps describing the application process and requirements to apply. Latina/o organizations’ longstanding work on undocumented immigrant issues ensured that they had the institutional capacity to quickly disseminate information about AB 60 to their clients. Organizations’ work to raise awareness about AB 60 licenses revealed that undocumented immigrants from all countries of origin feared the potential repercussions of disclosing their immigration status to a government agency. A representative from the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice shared: “There was a lot of misinformation. There were people saying, ‘don’t get the AB 60 driver license, you’re going to get deported.’” Organizations worked to counteract these fears, highlighting how the AB 60 licenses are not marked differently in DMV databases and that the documents they submit with their application are not available in any public record.[14]

However, organizations recognized that in some cases the fear of being targeted for deportation was valid, particularly within the Latina/o community where individuals were more likely to have criminal records due to racialized policing practices. Law enforcement and immigration agencies often depend on driver license databases to identify and locate individuals as part of their investigations, posing a risk for AB 60 applicants with criminal histories.[15] A representative from the Mexican Consulate suggested that these practices can affect individuals convicted of minor offenses: “Operations that ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] has done tend to sort of get individuals with low criminal records. So sometimes … DUIs, failure to appear, failure to pay tickets.” A few organizations suggested that these types of minor criminal records were more likely to haunt Latinas/os because many of these infractions result from their higher risk of being pulled over for unlicensed driving due to racial profiling and police procedures.[16]

Stalled in Secondary Review: Few Acceptable Identification Documents

To apply for a license, applicants must provide documentation to confirm their identity; however, acceptable documentation is stratified by country of origin.[17] Essentially, the less secure the identification document, the more documents must be provided to substantiate an applicant’s identity. Applicants can present a single foreign document if it is an identification card issued by the Mexican government (i.e., passport, consular card, or electoral card) or a valid foreign passport with a verifiable U.S. social security number. Applicants from Korea and nine Latin American countries can provide two foreign documents, a valid passport and an approved identification card. All others must submit as many supplementary documents as possible, which are sent to secondary review for verification. This secondary review process disproportionately targets non-Latinas/os and can significantly delay or even prevent their application.

Notably, undocumented individuals from Mexico have the most straightforward identification process because they are only required to provide one identification document that is readily available via same-day processing at one of the six Mexican consulates in greater Southern California. According to a representative from the Mexican Consulate in San Bernardino, this unique opportunity to provide a single identification document resulted from close collaboration: “The DMV worked very close with the government of Mexico in order to have a system.” Indeed, the Mexican Consulate changed their consular card in November 2014 to meet DMV requirements by incorporating new safety features such as encrypted data and biometric measures.[18] In this case, long-standing relationships among the Mexican Consulate, organizations, and the DMV helped them establish a straightforward identification process for Mexican-origin immigrants applying for AB 60.

While this benefits Mexican-origin immigrants, those in more rural areas of California may still have trouble traveling to a Consulate.

All non-Mexican applicants are required to present multiple forms of identification, preventing their timely and successful application for a driver license. Prior to October 2016 (when Korean identification cards were approved),[19] the DMV had only approved consular or national identification cards from Latin American countries as a secondary form of identification. A representative from the Thai Community Development Center explained: “There was that issue and the fact that our folks couldn’t present their Thai national ID card. So they would [only] have their passport, and everyone was basically getting pushed into secondary review because they didn’t have the appropriate IDs that the DMV was looking for.” Unlike the Mexican Consulate, other national governments and non-Latina/o serving organizations had to spend time developing relationships with the DMV so that they could get their identification cards approved. This forces almost a quarter of the undocumented immigrants who are not from these eleven approved countries into the drawn-out secondary review process. Organizations found that many applicants lost the desire to pursue their license because the delay in their application process. In some cases secondary review could take so long that their one-year driving permit would expire before they receive a license, forcing them to re-start the entire process.

It is important to recognize that some groups are not able to get identification documents from their foreign governments. A representative from the Korean Resource Center shared, “The problem with the consular ID is that some nations don’t have it. And that creates inequities between immigrants. Some African nations, their government [sic] isn’t functional so there’s no way they’re going to get national ID. Some countries don’t even have consular offices nearby so they have to travel to Washington DC, which is not possible.” A representative from Korean Community Services also mentioned that Korean men between the ages of 18-35 have difficulties obtaining a consular ID because they are not serving their military obligation.

“The problem with the consular ID is that some nations don’t have it. And that creates inequities between immigrants. Some African nations, their government [sic] isn’t functional so there’s no way they’re going to get national ID. Some countries don’t even have consular offices nearby so they have to travel to Washington DC, which is not possible.”

Lost in Translation: Language Barriers

At all steps in the application process, AB 60 applicants have to navigate potential language barriers. A representative from the Thai Community Development Center explained,

“There’s a lot of language access barriers at all levels. Getting information. If they actually call the DMV, they only greet you in Spanish and English, so if I was a monolingual non-English, non-Spanish speaking person, how would I navigate a telephone system that I can’t understand? Even though the DMV has interpretation services available, how are you able to get through [to] that when you can’t even understand what you’re being told? A lot of the materials haven’t been translated yet, but are currently in the process.” Indeed, the DMV offers limited translation services, which disproportionately constrains non-Latina/o undocumented immigrants who do not speak Spanish.

Language barriers arise throughout the entire application process. First, applicants must acquire information about the AB 60 application process and make an appointment. However, the DMV’s website only provides AB 60 information in English and Spanish. Our observations at twelve DMV offices also found that most AB 60 resources were only available in English and Spanish. Second, applicants must interact with DMV employees as they apply and take tests. Our DMV office observations suggest that, regardless of the racial demographics of the area, there was often a DMV employee available who spoke Spanish, but not necessarily other languages. Third, applicants must study for their driver license knowledge test. While the tests are available in thirty-one languages, study materials are only available in fourteen non-English languages.[20] Finally, the behind-the-wheel driving exam is only administered in English; those who do not have a working understanding of English may struggle at this final stage.

Our DMV observations suggest that most non-Spanish speaking applicants navigate their limited English language skills by bringing someone to serve as their interpreter; however, study materials and knowledge tests remain unavailable in many languages. At the beginning of this project in 2016, DMV study materials were only available in ten languages: Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Farsi, Korean, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. Since then, four new languages were added to the list: Hindu, Japanese, Khmer, and Thai. These additions are the result of active advocacy by community organizations to expand language access. Yet, significant gaps in language offerings remain. In particular, representatives from Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) and Semillas de Esperanza spoke about indigenous Latina/o groups being some of the last to find out about AB 60 and among the most disadvantaged in receiving language assistance at the DMV.

Finally, all groups share some concerns that the language translations provided are too formal and lack cultural competency. Many organization representatives expressed concerned that the DMV was translating materials verbatim and not including any cultural context. A representative from Asian Americans Advancing Justice explained, “Certain words exist in English but it might not exist in Filipino, in Korean, in Thai, in Swahili, in different languages.” A representative from the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition also believed that this issue also impacts Spanish speakers since the majority use colloquial Spanish and the DMV’s Spanish translation includes more difficult and technical terms that cause confusion. Thus, even when translated materials are provided, language barriers can still contribute to failing the knowledge exam. 


Beyond the Computer Exam: Limited Advertising of Literacy and Technology Accommodations

The driver license knowledge test is offered as a computer-based test. However, undocumented immigrants, especially those from less educated and low-income backgrounds, may often struggle with limited technological skills. A representative from the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego shared, “They’re using now these touch screens that doesn’t allow people to come back to certain questions, or is very confusing sometimes when they skip a question and they don’t realize if they don’t go back to it or [that] they’re even able to go back to it, it’s qualified as a no answer so it’s wrong.”

The driver license knowledge test also poses unique barriers for individuals who struggle with literacy. A representative from the Mexican Consulate explained, “We do have a large population of individuals who can’t read or write. And those tend to be indigenous. And those are the ones that haven’t taken advantage of the license. … [Another] reason why is because they don’t know how to study.”

Attempting to accommodate individuals with special needs, the DMV offers several alternative methods for completing the driver license knowledge exams, including listening to an audio version of the test or having an examiner ask the questions.[21] These services appear to have been developed for general applicants who are visually disabled and it is unclear if these services extend to individuals with limited literacy. Most applicants are also not aware of these alternative options and information about these accommodations is not available on the DMV’s AB 60 website. A representative from the North County Immigration Task Force in San Diego, shared, “Many people do not know that they can ask for an oral test. Or people are being forced to take the test in the computer when they don’t feel comfortable doing it.” To counteract this, they encourage their clients to ask for paper or oral exam accommodations. Yet, the audio test is only available in fifteen non-English languages, and an audio version of the study materials is only available in English and Spanish.

Coordination and Advocacy: Broadening the Impact of AB 60

Two and a half years after the implementation of AB 60, it is important to reflect on who is struggling to benefit from this policy. We find that significant barriers remain for all undocumented immigrants. However, it is also clear that the implementation of AB 60 has disproportionately hindered the social integration of a significant portion of undocumented immigrants—namely those who are not of Spanish-speaking, Mexican origin. For the most part, this is the product of two factors: institutional capacity (the DMV was already equipped to work with Spanish-speaking clients), and strategic coordination (Latina/o-serving organizations were poised and funded to raise awareness about the new law, and the Mexican Consulate worked closely with policy makers to ensure that the identification documents available to Mexican undocumented immigrants would be accepted).

As these barriers revealed themselves, immigrant-serving organizations took note and began to advocate for clients. A coalition of organizations wrote an open letter to the DMV Director outlining the unique barriers faced by the African, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander undocumented communities, advocating for policy changes to increase their access.[22] Organizations, particularly Asian/Pacific Islander serving ones, translated information to clients—in person, over the phone and on their own websites. Some consulates looked to the Mexican Consulate as they began looking to coordinate with the DMV to ensure that their identification cards met DMV guidelines. Coalitions and networks abounded as organizations looked to one another for advice and resources, referring clients to others when they were not equipped to offer services.

Despite these barriers, California is poised to issue a million AB 60 licenses to undocumented immigrants by the end of 2017.[23] This is a substantial win for the undocumented community, and will contribute to countless positive outcomes for undocumented immigrants, their families, community members, and California as a whole. At the same time, our fieldwork in Southern California has revealed substantial barriers faced by Asian American and Pacific Islander immigrants, and there are good reasons to believe immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean face similar barriers. With other states looking to California for leadership on immigrant integration, the state has a unique opportunity and obligation to ensure that all share the benefits of policies such as immigrant driver’s licenses equally. 



Thank you to our project collaborator, Dr. Allan Colbern, and our research assistants, Rocio Garcia and Asbeidy Solano. The research received funding from the UC California Immigration Research Initiative. Special thanks to all interview participants, community organizers, and officials who worked to establish and implement AB 60.

[1] Leisy J. Abrego, “Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos: Fear and Stigma as Barriers to Claims-Making for First- and 1.5-Generation Immigrants,” Law & Society Review 45 (2011): 337-70; Nicholas P. De Genova, “Migrant ‘Illegality’ and Deportability in Everyday Life,” Annual Review of Anthropology 31 (2002): 419-47; Joanna Dreby, Everyday Illegal: When Policies Undermine Immigrant Families (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015); Shannon Gleeson and Roberto G. Gonzales, “When Do Papers Matter? An Institutional Analysis of Undocumented Life in the United States,” International Migration 50 (2012): 1-19; Shannon Gleeson, “Labor Rights for All? The Role of Undocumented Immigrant Status for Worker Claims Making,” Law and Social Inquiry 35 (2010): 561-602; Roberto G. Gonzales, Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015); Cecilia Menjívar and Leisy J. Abrego, “Legal Violence: Immigration Law and the Lives of Central American Immigrants,” American Journal of Sociology 117 (2012): 1380-1421; Laura E. Enriquez, “Multigenerational Punishment: Shared Experiences of Undocumented Immigration Status within Mixed-Status Families,” Journal of Marriage and Family 77 (2015): 939-53; Laura E. Enriquez, “A ‘Master Status’ or the ‘Final Straw’? Assessing the Role of Immigration Status in Latino Undocumented Youths’ Pathways out of School,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 43 (2017): 1526-1543.

[2] Amada Armenta, Protect, Serve, and Deport: The Rise of Policing as Immigration Enforcement (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017); Mary Romero, “Racial Profiling and Immigration Law Enforcement: Rounding up of Usual Suspects in the Latino Community,” Critical Sociology 32 (2006): 447-73.

[3] Ryan Gabrielson, “Sobriety Checkpoints Catch Unlicensed Drivers,” New York Times, 13 February 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/us/14sfcheck.html?_r=0

[4] See Laura E. Enriquez, “Gendering Illegality: Undocumented Young Adults’ Negotiation of the Family Formation Process,” American Behavioral Scientist 61 (2017): 1153-1171; Leah Schmalzbauer, The Last Best Place: Gender, Family, and Migration in the New West (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014); Angela Stuesse and Mathew Coleman, “Automobility, Immobility, Altermobility: Surviving and Resisting the Intensification of Immigrant Policing,” City & Society 26 (2014): 51-72. There is also compelling evidence that access to driver’s licenses reduces the incidence of hit-and-run incidents. See Hans Lueders, Jens Hainmueller, and Duncan Lawrence, “Providing Driver’s Licenses to Unauthorized Immigrants in California Improves Traffic Safety,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (2017): 4111-4116.

[5] Pratheepan Gulasekaram and S Karthick Ramakrishnan, The New Immigration Federalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Allan Colbern, “The ‘California Package’ of Immigrant Integration and the Evolving Nature of State Citizenship,” Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (2016),  http://www.irle.ucla.edu/publications/documents/IRLEReport_Full.pdf; Monica W. Varsanyi, “Interrogating ‘Urban Citizenship’ Vis-À-Vis Undocumented Migration,” Citizenship Studies 10 (2006): 229-49; Monica W. Varsanyi, Taking Local Control: Immigration Policy Activism in U.S. Cities and States (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).

[6] DMV, “AB 60: 605,000 Driver Licenses Issued in First Year,” (2016), accessed on 28 August 2017, https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/pubs/newsrel/newsrel16/2016_0; Joseph Hayes and Laura Hill, “Undocumented Immigrants in California,” Public Policy Institute of California (2017), http://www.ppic.org/publication/undocumented-immigrants-in-california/

[7] DMV, “AB 60: 605,000 Driver Licenses Issued in First Year.”

[8] 2015 estimates of the unauthorized population from Center for Migration Studies. Retrieved from http://data.cmsny.org, 15 September 2017

[9] S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Sono Shah, “One out of Every 7 Asian Immigrants Is Undocumented” (2017), accessed on 18 September 2017, http://aapidata.com/blog/asian-undoc-1in7/.

[10] Leo Chavez, The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008); Otto Santa Ana, Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002).

[11] See Armenta, Protect, Serve, and Deport; Amada Armenta, “Racializing Crimmigration: Structural Racism, Colorblindness, and the Institutional Production of Immigrant Criminality,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 3 (2016): 82-95; Tanya Golash-Boza and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, “Latino Immigrant Men and the Deportation Crisis: A Gendered Racial Removal Program,” Latino Studies 11 (2013): 271-292; Brentin Mock, “Hate Crimes against Latinos Rising Nationwide” (2007), accessed 20 September 2017, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2007/hate-crimes-against-latinos-rising-nationwide. Dennis Romero, “In the Era of Trump, Anti-Latino Hate Crimes Jumped 69% in L.A.,” LA Weekly, 29 September 2016, http://www.laweekly.com/news/in-the-era-of-trump-anti-latino-hate-crimes-jumped-69-in-la-7443401.

[12] Laura E. Enriquez, “Border-Hopping Mexicans, Law-Abiding Asians, and Racialized Illegality: Analyzing Undocumented College Students Experiences through a Relational Lens,” in Studying Race Relationally, ed. Natalia Molina, Daniel Martinez HoSang, and Ramón Gutiérrez (Oakland: University of California Press, forthcoming).

[13] S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, Democracy in Immigrant America: Changing Demographics and Political Participation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[14] For examples, see Drive CA, “AB60 FAQ” (n.d.), accessed on 31 August 2017, http://driveca.org/drive-ca-faq; Drive CA, “AB60 in an Era of Resistance: Know Your Rights” (2017), accessed 31 August 2017, https://www.aclunc.org/sites/default/files/20170208-ab60_era_of_resistance_know_your_rights.pdf. President Trump’s administration has made it clear that policies and priorities can shift at any time, potentially leaving applicants vulnerable to being identified by government records. For example, see the case of the New York City municipal ID card: Liz Robbins, “New York City Should Keep ID Data for Now, Judge Rules,”  New York Times, 21 December 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/21/nyregion/new-york-city-should-keep-id-data-for-now-judge-rules.html?mcubz=; Colin Lecher, “Facing a Trump Administration, NYC May Push Its Immigrant Data Kill Switch,” The Verge, 15 November 2016, https://www.theverge.com/2016/11/15/13640344/trump-president-immigration-data-idnyc-new-york-city

[15] NILC, “Documents Obtained under Freedom of Information Act: How U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement and State Motor Vehicle Departments Share Information” (2016), accessed 31 August 2017, https://www.nilc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Info-Sharing-FOIA-Summary-2016-05.pdf.

[16] Armenta, Protect, Serve, and Deport.

[17] DMV, “AB 60 User Friendly Guide to Document Options to Obtain a California Driver License” (2016), https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/wcm/connect/11a86d62-f848-4012-bc7d-4192bdef4f00/doc_req_matrix.pdf?MOD=AJPERES.

[18] Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores, “Mexico’s New Consular Id Card: Improving the Secure and Reliable Identification for Mexicans Abroad” (2014), accessed 31 August 2017, https://mex-eua.sre.gob.mx/images/stories/PDF/MatriculaConsularMexicanaingnueva.pdf.

[19] Hyoung Jae Kim, “New ID to Grant Rights to the Undocumented to Obtain Driver’s License,” Korea Daily, 22 September 2016, http://www.koreadailyus.com/new-id-to-grant-rights-to-the-undocumented-to-obtain-drivers-license/.

[20] DMV, “AB 60 Driver License” (2017), accessed 8 August 2017, http://dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/ab60.

[21] DMV, “Alternative Methods for Completing the Driver License Knowledge Tests,” accessed on 31 August 2017, https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/dl/dl_info#alternative.

[22] Drive CA, “Re: AB 60 Implementation Concerns from African, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Undocumented Communities in California” (2015), http://driveca.org/cms/assets/uploads/2015/05/AB60-African-Asian-Concerns-Letter-to-DMV_4-2-15.pdf.

[23] Alexei Koseff, “Undocumented Immigrant Driver’s Licenses near Milestone in California,” The Sacramento Bee, 26 July 2017, http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article163623103.html.


Laura E. Enriquez is Assistant Professor of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the educational, economic, political, and social experiences of undocumented young adults who immigrated to the United States as children.

Daisy Vazquez Vera is a doctoral student in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.

S. Karthick Ramakrishnan is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy and Associate Dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside. He received his Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University. His research focuses on civic participation, immigration policy, and the politics of race, ethnicity, and immigration in the United States.

Copyright: © 2017 Laura E. Enriquez, Daisy Vazquez Vera, and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


Every Wall is a Door


Image provided by Jill M. Holslin.

Ronald Rael

My first encounter with the borderwall between the United States and Mexico came summer 2003. I had left New York after 9/11, and was invited by the artist Marcos Ramirez (“ERRE”) to visit his Tijuana studio. His directions were simple: “It’s the first building on the right just as you go through the revolting door.” Having grown up in the linguistic borderlands of a bilingual family, I found it equally plausible that Marcos was either making a shrewd commentary on the door that served as the pedestrian port of entry into Tijuana, or that he simply meant revolving.[1] The richness of the ambiguity stayed with me, and led me to the idea that architecture—in this case, a door in a wall—can be endowed with different meanings, either by accident or by design, and that architectural expression can be at the same time serious and humorous, and a powerful tool in polemicizing an architecture fraught with controversy.

That same summer I met the architect Teddy Cruz and was introduced to his vision for design that transects the border. Fascinated by his approach of thinking perpendicular to the border, I became interested in the line of the border itself and the diversity of the landscapes it parallels. This eventually led me on a journey exploring the borderlands of California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas, where my creative practice worked on several design projects in the Big Bend region—projects that consistently explored ideas of political, cultural, and material dualities in design and architecture. At the same time my studio was exploring how to make buildings using mud and concrete (which we saw as conceptually parallel to the contrasts of wealth and poverty, the United States and Mexico, contemporaneity and tradition), we also considered ways that these material systems—and in many ways, the cultural values and economies of scale embodied by these materials—could be interwoven: two distinct elements working in concert. Some of these ideas culminated in a project entitled Prada Marfa, on which we collaborated with artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Constructed near the U.S.-Mexico border along a desolate highway in the Chihuahuan desert, a faux Prada store, built of mud and containing the 2004 line of Prada shoes and purses, both epitomizes and exaggerates the cultural and geopolitical dichotomies of the borderlands.

During the construction of Prada Marfa, we often witnessed helicopters descending on the horizon to pick up migrants walking through the desert. In fact, during our first visit to the building site for the project, several Border Patrol vehicles blocked our passage and agents surrounded us, demanding to know what exactly what we were doing there.[2] The heightened security in the borderlands, in preparation for the imminent expansion of wall construction, further fueled our desire to consider how design could be a vehicle for addressing the politics of border security.

As a finalist in the WPA 2.0 International Competition, my creative studio was able to explore the possibilities for political expression through architectural design. The competition, organized by the UCLA’s cityLAB, was inspired by the Depression-era Work Projects Administration (WPA) and the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This stimulus bill (the largest investment in public works in the United States since the 1950s) dedicated $150 billion to infrastructure, and designers were asked to envision a new legacy of publicly supported infrastructure—projects that would explore the value of infrastructure not only as an engineering endeavor but also as a robust design opportunity for strengthening communities and revitalizing cities.[3] Our entry, Borderwall as Infrastructure, sought to integrate water, renewable energy, and urban social infrastructure into the design for the borderwall and to challenge the very existence of the wall in its conception, function, and future. At that time, the design proposals suggested an intervention. Since the wall was well on its way to being constructed on a massive scale, the attempt was made to demand wall builders to be more concerned with the landscapes that were about to be divided by the wall, and we made that pitch to lawmakers in Washington D.C. with the proposals. The project was the catalyst for the book, Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary; however, this book no longer seeks to intervene in the wall’s construction but instead seeks to consider its transformation—an expanded study on rethinking the existing wall by redesigning it into something that would exceed its sole purpose as a security infrastructure and ameliorate the wall’s negative impacts and, perhaps through intervention, make positive contributions to the lives and landscapes impacted by the borderlands.

The work compiled in Borderwall as Architecture continues the exploration through a collection of anecdotes, essays, models, drawings, stories, and speculations. In addition, short reactions are offered by border scholars that present intimate and diverse perspectives of the wall. Thus, it also protests against the wall—a protest that employs the tools of the discipline of architecture manifest as a series of designs that challenge the intrinsic architectural element of a wall charged by its political context. The wall is a spatial device that has been inserted into the landscape, but with complete disregard for the richness, diversity, and complexities of the areas in which it was built and proposed. This book advocates for a reconsideration of the existing wall, both through design proposals inspired by people living along the border who see the wall as something to respond to in positive ways and through proposals that are hyperboles of actual scenarios that have taken and continue to take place as a consequence of the wall.


These propositions presume the somewhat ridiculous reality of nearly 800 miles of border fortification while suggesting that within this enormously expensive and extremely low-tech piece of security infrastructure lie opportunities for the residents of this landscape to intellectually, physically, and culturally transcend the wall through their creativity and resilience. The work is meant to be at once illuminating, serious, and satirical in order to expose the absurdity and the irony of a wall meant to divide but that has brought people and landscapes together in remarkable ways.

Untitled-1The work is meant to be at once illuminating, serious, and satirical in order to expose the absurdity and the irony of a wall meant to divide but that has brought people and landscapes together in remarkable ways.


Since the publication of the book we find ourselves immersed in a kind of borderwall zeitgeist. The wall is increasingly in the public consciousness with the assistance of president Donald Trump. During his campaign he loudly proclaimed that he would build a wall, and audiences cheered as if finally someone had arrived who would build the wall, albeit ignorant of the 650 miles of already existing walls that divide private property, public lands, Native American heritage sites, wilderness areas, and cities. In this new era of calls for wall building, the wall is no longer simply a political symbol of security. It has emerged as a cultural object. Steven Colbert raised the question: “America no longer has the world’s tallest building, but could our planned Mexican borderwall be the world’s longest building?” The wall is the manifestation of our morals, our desires, and our artistic and social pursuits. It appears in beer commercials, such as the Tecate beer commercial that transformed the wall into a bar joining the two countries together; or a Hardee’s commercial, where scantily clad beach volleyball players play a bi-national game of “wall y ball”, as has been played for decades along the border to celebrate a bi-national heritage, but in this case to decide if the latest hamburger is more “Tex,” or more “Mex.”

Because of the questionable functionality of the wall, artists and designers see its shortcomings as doorways into questioning the wall, smuggling creativity into the borderlands demonstrating that creativity is an important component of resistance. For example, Ana Teresa Fernandez, a Mexican artist from Tampico, Mexico, participates in erasing the wall wielding a paintbrush. By selecting paint the color of the sky, Fernandez subverts the prison-like solidity of the rusty steel of the borderwall with a thick coat of blue paint so that the columns become one with the gaps between them, creating a visual illusion—and perhaps for some, a premonition—that the wall is no longer there. Residents of Tijuana have taken much pride in this installation, protecting it from others painting over it or removing it. In many ways, they consider it a kind of monument—albeit an invisible monument. The irony is that if the wall is ever dismantled, Fernandez’s invisible wall might remain.

Just two weeks ago the prototypes for Trump’s borderwall were unveiled near San Diego. One of Trump’s hopes for the wall, in addition to being “big” and “fat,” is that it would also be “beautiful.” One of the 30’ x 30’ prototypes, which cost $406,318 to construct, is painted sky blue, and I can’t help wonder if borderwall activism has come full circle, with ELTA North America, the construction company who built this wall, co-opting Ana Teresa’s invisible wall to meet the demands of the call for proposals which required the wall to be “aesthetically pleasing.” There are seven other prototypes constructed to demonstrate Trump’s ambitions for borderland security, most at a cost approaching half a million dollars.[4] While it is uncertain what is to become of these prototypes, what is certain is that, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “every wall is a door,” and in this case, each of these walls are doorways to a continued interrogation by artists and designers whose creativity has the ability dismantle the desires for division.


Image courtesy of Ana Teresa Fernández and Gallery Wendi Norris.


[1] A revolving door in Spanish is puerta revolvente. Revolvente might easily be misinterpreted as a cognate for revolting, because the Spanish reflexive verb revolver also can refer to an upset (turning) stomach.

[2] An expanded text on Prada Marfa can be found in Dominique Molon, Ronald Rael, Michael Elmgreen, and Ingar Dragest, Prada Marfa (Berlin: Walther König, 2007).

[3] For more information about WPA 2.0, see About WPA 2.0, University of California, Los Angeles, http://wpa2.aud.ucla.edu/info/index.php?/about/about/.

[4] Jennifer Medina, Josh Haner, Josh Williams, and Quoctrung Bui, “Eight Ways to Build a Border Wall,” The New York Times, 8 November 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/08/upshot/eight-ways-to-build-a-border-wall-prototypes-mexico.html.   


Ronald Rael is Associate Professor in the departments of Architecture and Art Practice at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Earth Architecture, a history of building with earth in the modern era that exemplifies new, creative uses of the oldest building material on the planet, and earlier this year, Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary, together with Marcello Di Cintio, Norma Iglesias-Prieto, and Michael Dear. The Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum have recognized Rael’s work, and in 2014 his creative practice, Rael San Fratello, was named an Emerging Voice by the Architectural League of New York.

Copyright: © 2017 Ronald Rael. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/





Juan Felipe Herrera

listen to the voice of the people install the voice of the people paste the voice of the people paint the voice of the people on all of your public spaces day and night and notice what change is all about and notice what Democracy is all about Listen to the voice of the people install the voice of the people paste the voice of the people paint and Listen to the voice of the people install the voice of the people paste the voice of the people paint the voice of the people on all of your public spaces day and night and notice what change is all about and notice what Democracy is all about

—not tomorrow                                today




escucha la voz del pueblo aplica la voz del pueblo engoma la voz del pueblo, pinta la voz del pueblo de día y de noche en todos tus sitios públicos y date cuenta de que se trata la Democracia Escucha la voz del pueblo aplica la voz del pueblo engoma la voz del pueblo pinta y Escucha la voz del pueblo aplica la voz del pueblo engoma la voz del pueblo pinta la voz del pueblo en todos tus sitios públicos y date cuenta de que se trata el cambio y date cuenta de que se trata la Democracia

—no mañana                                       hoy



Juan Felipe Herrera
is the son of migrant farm workers and has held positions at Fresno State University and UC Riverside. He served both as Poet Laureate of the United States (2015-2017) and was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2012 to serve as California’s Poet Laureate. He is the author of several collections including 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross The Border (City Lights, 2007), Undocuments 1971-2007 (City Lights, 2007), Half the World in Light (University of Arizona Press, 2008), and Notes on the Assemblage (City Lights, 2015). “People” is a new poem (translated here into Spanish by Gabriella Ruelas and Omar Chavez) and will be published in the forthcoming collection, I am Talkin’ to You.

Copyright: © 2017 Juan Felipe Herrera. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/





Undocumented Californians and the Future of the Golden State


Manuel Pastor

It’s probably no exaggeration to say that the U.S. has just been through its Prop 187 moment.

Like today, the turmoil California experienced in 1994 was triggered by broad demographic change, with a special target placed on the backs of “illegal immigrants.” It was accompanied by a broad sense of economic anxiety—nearly half of the nation’s net job losses in the early 1990s were experienced in the Golden State as cutbacks in defense spending shredded our manufacturing sector. The simmering social and economic unease was exacerbated by a politician running behind in the polls and looking for a way to make his mark.[1]

While it may all sound familiar, the point is not to rerun the tape and point to historical precedents. More useful is asking where California is nearly twenty-five years later, and how it got there. After all, the state that once sought to deny unauthorized immigrants access to a broad range of services—including non-emergency health care and even education for children—has figured out how to extend drivers’ licenses to those without legal status and provide state-financed health care to all undocumented youth.

The story of the state’s changing attitudes and policies has a lot to do with the vibrant immigrant rights’ advocacy that changed the state’s political calculus—reflected in part in the accession of Kevin De León (an organizer who cut his teeth organizing against Prop 187) to the leadership of the state Senate. Having written about that advocacy elsewhere, my focus here is on some structural factors: the passage of time, the changing nature of the undocumented community, and the increasing “normality” of unauthorized immigrants in multiple aspects of California life.[2]

Indeed, part of what has happened in California is the sheer ubiquity of a population once considered a bit exotic and different. While numbers are hard to come by—people don’t generally offer up their status, particularly with a presidential administration hell-bent on deportation—most estimates put the number of those without legal status in California at somewhere under 3 million. That’s about a fourth of all the undocumented individuals in the nation and about seven percent of the total state population.


It may be easy to think of that sizeable population in a way more in tune to the past—that is, when the immigration flows from Mexico and Central American were surging in the 1980s and 1990s. In that era, the vast majority of the undocumented were border-crossers fleeing economic crises and civil wars. The largest share were single males who soon showed up as workers in the fields, operatives working in factories, and day laborers posted in front of the local hardware store.

But a lot has happened since a massive uptick in unauthorized migration prompted the furor that resulted in Proposition 187.

Most important is that the era of mass migration from Mexico is probably over. The reason is partly demographic: fertility rates have fallen dramatically in what has traditionally been the largest sending country to the U.S., and this is now echoing generationally in a way that has reduced a key factor pushing people northward. Meanwhile, the disruptions caused by Mexico’s embrace of free trade in the 1990s have mostly worked their way through the system and the nation’s economic growth. While not stellar by, say, Chinese standards, this has been sufficient to cause would-be migrants to rethink the opportunity structure they face.

While advocates are less likely to acknowledge this, increased border enforcement and more effective workplace verification in recent years has also played a role: it’s simply more difficult and expensive to cross and increasingly harder to secure employment once here. And while Central American migration remains a key factor—now driven partly by the gang violence that immigrants brought back from their stays in urban California—net migration from Mexico is negative and has been for several years.[3]

As a result, several characteristics of the population have shifted. First, the undocumented population in the U.S. has declined since its peak in 2007 and has been stable since about 2009. Second, it is now likely that the bulk of the new undocumented are people who overstayed visas rather than scrambled across the Rio Grande. Third, and perhaps most significant: while about sixty percent of undocumented immigrants had been in the country for less than ten years in the mid-2000s, almost two-thirds now have lived in the U.S. for more than a decade.[4]

As usual, these national trends are reflected strongly in the Golden State. After all, California has the nation’s most settled immigrant population in general—and it also has the highest share of state residents without legal status. Given high rates of labor force participation (and the fact that the undocumented are overwhelmingly adults), that share swells to about nine percent of the labor force. These workers are deeply embedded in key parts of the labor market, comprising a vital workforce for agriculture, retail, and low-skill service industries.

Another matter of great significance is the fact of mixed-status families: fully eight percent of all Californians live with a family member that is not documented, the highest figure for the nation.  Even more dramatic: roughly seventeen to eighteen percent of children in the state have at least one undocumented parent. In Los Angeles County, adding up the undocumented and their immediate family members amounts to about a fifth of the total county population.

Put it all together—length of time in the country, key roles in the economy, the share of the state’s children, and the percent of the population touched directly and indirectly by the precarious nature of immigration status—and a simple conclusion is inescapable: these are not illegal immigrants but undocumented Californians.

Undocumented Californians are our neighbors, relatives, friends, classmates, and co-workers. They help to grow our food and take care of our elders and our kids—and they are also our class valedictorians and future professionals. And because they are increasingly unlikely to go anywhere, the state’s future depends on their progress and the progress of their children.

As a result, the state’s central task is now immigrant integration and that includes those who lack legal status. There are many reasons why this is true, including the size and stability of the population, but one of them is political: while comprehensive immigration reform seems a long way off in the era of Trump, reform with a path to legalization is all but inevitable.

After all, demography continues to march forward, something that will be recorded by the 2020 Census and reflected in the elections of that year as well. It is those 2020 elections—which will be a presidential contest in which minorities, immigrants, and the young are more likely to participate—that will, along with the Census, determine the shape of electoral boundaries for the decade to come.

So just like the Tea Party uprising of 2010 helped to shift the nation to the right (partly because of the gerrymandering it made possible), 2020 could set the nation in a different direction. And a Congress elected in those circumstances is much more likely to finally accept the basic principles of the 2013 Senate bill: tighter enforcement, higher future flows, and a path to citizenship.

Given that, the choice for California is clear: preparing our population for that future or squandering the opportunity to be ready. The state has been taking the right steps in terms of key policies, like extending in-state tuition to undocumented students, granting the right to drivers’ licenses, and generally refusing to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Political scientists Karthik Ramakrishnan and Allan Colbern have described this as a sort of “California package” that provided de facto state citizenship.[5]


The state has been taking the right steps in terms of key policies, like extending in-state tuition to undocumented students, granting the right to drivers’ licenses, and generally refusing to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

It’s a start, but investing in the future—particularly with an eye toward future legalization—will require stepping up California’s game. Determining new ways to cultivate the habits of citizenship—perhaps by allowing non-citizen to vote in local school elections—could be important. Expanding job opportunities to stabilize parental income—perhaps by dramatically increasing English classes and providing community-based skill building that would be open to all—could be productive. Creating new avenues to earn a living without being formal employees—such as worker individual entrepreneurs and even worker collectives organized as limited liability corporations—is another part of a more innovative approach.[6]

A defensive reaction is also in order. Because of the ways in which undocumented Californians are deeply rooted in the state’s social and economic fabric, any deportation or threatened revocation of DACA status is far more likely than in years past to disrupt a family, damage a business, or scar a community. The good news: California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, seems eager to go after federal overreach, suing to prevent the administration from denying funds to so-called “sanctuary cities.”[7] The better news: the State Assembly and Senate passed a bill called the “California Values Act” that has further codified the state’s decision to limit cooperation with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.[8]

It is incumbent on California to get this right. Just as we presaged the nation with our collective melt-down about immigrants, we can hopefully show the good that happens when we combine head and heart, joining fact-based reason about the new realities of immigration with a compassionate attitude to our fellow Californians. If the demographers are right—in this case, about immigrants fanning out from the traditional gateways—what the state offers up in the way of reaction, resistance, and reform will set the tone for a country that will soon need a new and more welcoming approach.


[1] Manuel Pastor, State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future (New York: The New Press, 2018).

[2] Manuel Pastor, “How Immigrant Activists Changed L.A.,” Dissent, 2015, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/how-immigrant-activists-changed-los-angeles.

[3] Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, “More Mexicans Leaving Than Coming to the U.S.,” Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, 19 November 2015, http://www.pewhispanic.org/2015/11/19/more-mexicans-leaving-than-coming-to-the-u-s/.

[4] Jens Manuel Krogstad, Jeffrey S. Passel, and D’Vera Cohn, “5 Facts about Illegal Immigration in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, 27 April 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/27/5-facts-about-illegal-immigration-in-the-u-s/.

[5] S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Allan Colbern, “The California Package: Immigrant Integration and the Evolving Nature of State Citizenship,” Policy Matters 6 (2015): 1–19.

[6] Cindy Carcamo, “Immigrants Lacking Papers Work Legally—as Their Own Bosses,” Los Angeles Times, 14 September 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2013/sep/14/nation/la-na-ff-immigration-business-20130915; Kaelyn Forde, “Undocumented NYC Domestic Workers Clean up with Collective,” 12 May 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/5/12/undocumented-workerscollectivenyc.html.

[7] Josh Gerstein, “California Files Suit over Trump Sanctuary City Policy,” POLITICO, 15 August 2017, http://politi.co/2wJsmnD.

[8] Jazmine Ulloa, “California Lawmakers Approve Landmark ‘Sanctuary State’ Bill to Expand Protections for Immigrants,” Los Angeles Times, 16 September 2017, http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-california-sanctuary-state-bill-20170916-story.html.

Manuel Pastor
 is Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California (USC) where he directs the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) and the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII). He is the Turpanjian Chair in Civil Society and Social Change, and holds an economics Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He writes and speaks widely on issues including demographic change, economic inequality, and community empowerment. Pastor’s current research culminates in the release of his forthcoming book, State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Means for America’s Future, April 2018.

Copyright: © 2017 Manuel Pastor. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/