Tag: Race


Black Life in Adelanto


Image adapted from Flickr user Alex Proimos.

Jemima Pierre

My first trip to the GEO Group’s Adelanto Detention Center, the privately-run prison facility located deep inland in Southern California’s San Bernardino County, was to meet with a Haitian asylum seeker, Mr. Clement.[1] Mr. Clement had entered the U.S. from Mexico and had been in detention for nine months. Earlier that summer, he participated in a hunger strike that brought together Central American and Haitian asylum seekers demanding better treatment in Adelanto. It was through this strike that he and some of the other detained Haitian men had garnered some attention. And through a series of legal and activist connections—connections stretching from local immigration rights organizers through Florida, Haiti, and back to Los Angeles—I heard of Mr. Clement and faced, for the first time, the travesty of detention for Haitian immigrants and asylum seekers in Southern California.

Haitian immigrants and asylum seekers are a growing population within detention centers all over the U.S. Southwest. Numbers vary, but there are estimates of thousands of noncriminal Haitians incarcerated, with the largest population in Otay Mesa, Arizona. Haitian migration to these parts is relatively new, beginning with a trickle arriving early 2016 to thousands today. (Mr. Clement said that there were about thirty to fifty other Haitian men, as well as a small number of Africans, detained in his jail block. He was not sure of the numbers held in other blocks, or of how many Haitian women are being held in the women’s wing of Adelanto.) This migration is also unusual. It reflects a new pattern for Haitian migrants, who originally traveled the direct route over the Caribbean Sea to the eastern U.S., and settled in metropolitan centers such as Miami and New York, cities with large Caribbean and African immigrant populations. This new pattern of migration means a more than 7,000-mile trek over land from Brazil through South and Central America, into Mexico and, finally, crossing one of the borders into the U.S. Southwest.

Mr. Clement’s journey to the U.S. was not an easy one. But his story is similar to that of other Haitian migrants in Southern California. He left Haiti for the Dominican Republic and later traveled to Brazil. He was in Brazil for eight months, working odd jobs, barely surviving. Life in Brazil was precarious for Mr. Clement as it was for other Haitian men and women. Brazil, already known for its long history of anti-Black racism, was almost unbearable for Haitians, who are perceived as “too” Black, and often suffered racist violence.[2] Many Haitians have decided to leave Brazil, risking their lives to make the treacherous trek to the United States where they have family. Similarly, from Brazil, Mr. Clement traveled by land through Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. The journey took more than three months, interrupted by arrests (for example, Nicaraguan officials arrested Haitians on site and jailed them for days) and a lack of funds. Occasionally, Haitian migrants would claim to be from an African country in order not to be harassed by officials in some Central American states. Mr. Clement spoke of the difficulty of the journey through Central America including having friends and fellow travelers die in the Columbian forests, drowning as they crossed rivers, or being robbed by local bandits. He said Honduras[3] provided something of a reprieve—a small community in Choluteca became one of the first groups to treat the Haitian travelers as family. Tijuana was the only other place in his travels where Mr. Clement felt he was treated with kindness.

He said Honduras provided something of a reprieve—a small community in Choluteca became one of the first groups to treat the Haitian travelers as family. Tijuana was the only other place in his travels where Mr. Clement felt he was treated with kindness.

Mr. Clement spent more than a month in Tijuana, waiting for an appointment date from the Mexican government to cross the border into the U.S.[4] When Mr. Clement finally approached the San Ysidro border crossing he was immediately arrested. He was surprised to find that his initial immigration interview was conducted by a Haitian-American border patrol officer—in Haitian Creole (kreyòl ayisyen). The officer was intimidating, Mr. Clement said. He repeatedly accused Mr. Clement of being a Haitian gang member who was running away from rivals, a claim Mr. Clement denied. After Mr. Clement was processed he was sent to a small holding cell. The cell was not meant for more than three or four people but was packed with at least thirty individuals. The holding cell had no window or bed. Most people slept sitting up while some slept on mats. The prisoners could not shower or brush their teeth. They didn’t know how long migrants were held there, but Mr. Clement believed that it was around five days. (Other Haitian migrants confirmed these facts.) After those five days, they were moved to actual jail cells in another prison—in San Diego (whose name he and the others do not know). After three days there, the migrants and asylum seekers were put in prison jumpsuits, shackled with chains at the waist, wrists, and ankles, and placed on a bus for the more than six-hour drive to the Adelanto Detention Center.

Mr. Clement and his colleagues discussed their treatment in the U.S.—from border guards to prison guards—as condescending and inhumane and they all stated that they were not expecting to be treated like criminals the moment they crossed the border. They described the humiliation of not being able to use the toilet on the long bus trip to Adelanto. Some people urinated on themselves while others asked their fellow prisoners to unzip their pants to remove their penises so they could urinate where they sat.

The men described their months-long stay at Adelanto as torture. The men recounted being kept indoors most of the time, and allowed outdoors once a week but only for a very short period. They were not allowed to sleep more than a few hours at a time. For example, when guards ordered the inmates into their small rooms at 11 p.m., they had to wake up at 1 a.m. for a “head count.” After ordering everyone back to their rooms, the guards woke them up again at 4 or 5 a.m. for breakfast. The lights in the cells were never turned off—which, according to one former Haitian detainee, affected those on the top bunks even more—and the detention center was always freezing cold. In addition, some of the Haitians complained of guards using racial slurs against them, calling them “fucking blacks” and “Haitian trash.”

At Adelanto, Haitians have had larger bond amounts (ranging anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000) placed on them to secure their release than immigrant prisoners elsewhere in the U.S. And until recently, very few Haitians have been able to bond out of Adelanto and few have won their asylum cases. A colleague who currently conducts research at Adelanto suggested that the denial rate for Haitian asylum cases there was almost 100%. At the same time, despite the denial rates, the asylum seekers are forced to serve extended periods in detention before their deportation. Mr. Clement spoke of Adelanto as “sucking us dry.”

I know that this prison is private business, and that this body [he gestures to his chest] is worth $140 per day for Adelanto. So they hold us for as long as they can. They give us high bonds that we cannot pay. They change our asylum hearing dates. They even force those who do not want asylum to claim asylum so they can keep them longer. When they cannot make more money out of us, then they deport us quickly.

Indeed, reporter Kate Morrissey argued that as of November 2016, “detaining Haitians… in immigration holding facilities is costing American taxpayers an estimated $379,380 per day.”[5] That number is greater now. Mr. Clement and some of his friends describe a number of African immigrants and asylum seekers who, having been detained for months without hope, attempted suicide.

Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk interdicts Haitian migrants

The Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk crew interdicts a group of Haitian migrants July 11, 2017, approximately 22 miles south of Great Inagua, Bahamas.

Compared to those coming from Central America and Mexico, the detention of Haitian migrants and asylum seekers in the U.S. Southwest is relatively recent.[6] When Haitian migrants first began in appear at the U.S.-Mexico border in small groups in early 2016,[7] they were allowed into the U.S. through what is called a “humanitarian parole,” given a three-year temporary pass and released to family members. However, by late September 2016, and as the numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers increased exponentially, the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security put new arrivals in “expedited removal proceedings,” which means that they could be—and were—detained in prisons, especially if they have asylum claims.

How did so many Haitian people end up at the U.S.-Mexico border and, ultimately, at the Adelanto Detention Center and other facilities throughout the U.S. Southwest? In the increasing coverage given to this recent wave of Haitian migrants, the story seems simple: Haitians traveled to Brazil under humanitarian visas after the 2010 earthquake, and later were recruited to Brazil as a cheap labor source while the country prepared to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Since then, Brazil has been beset by severe economic retrenchment, forcing many Haitians to leave for the U.S.

Yet there is much more to this. Migrants leave Haiti for economic reasons, but also because of gang-related persecution, political instability, domestic abuse, and extreme homophobia.[8] The country has also suffered from a long history of foreign military interventions, including ten interventions by the U.S. since the end of the nineteenth century. The U.S. also occupied Haiti twice in the twentieth century, the longest being the nineteen-year military occupation from 1915-1934. Most recently, Haiti has been under a militarized foreign occupation since February 2004, when the U.S., Canada, and France sponsored a coup d’état to oust its popularly elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide.[9] The coup d’état led to a short military occupation by U.S. forces, which was later sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council when they approved a “peacekeeping” mission in Haiti.[10] The military wing of the mission was headed by Brazil for more than a decade.[11] The occupation of Haiti has also added to the country’s political instability, undermining Haitian democracy and self-determination and challenging sovereignty. It has also led to massive suffering: Fall 2010, not long after the earthquake January of that year that killed hundreds of thousands of people, Nepalese troops brought cholera to Haiti. It induced an epidemic that has sickened more than a million Haitians and killed between 10,000 and 30,000.[12] Accountability has not been forthcoming. The UN has refused to admit its culpability and the Haitian people have had no avenue for redress.

When we met, Mr. Clement was preparing to present his asylum claim before a U.S. immigration court housed not far from the ICE offices within the Adelanto facility. Immigration proceedings in detention centers are considered “administrative” matters and are less formal than regular court proceedings. The usual rules of evidence do not apply and the presiding judges have substantial leeway in their interpretation of testimony and the assessment of asylum claims. Meanwhile, as U.S. immigration policy dictates, he can only receive legal representation at his own expense; Mr. Clement was forced to represent himself.

Yet despite such terrible circumstances, Mr. Clement is one of the fortunate ones. With the help of a bond fund[13] established for the Adelanto hunger strikers by a local organization, volunteers were able to bond him out of the detention center just before his deportation hearing. A regular immigration judge on the outside—rather than within Adelanto—will now hear his asylum case, and Mr. Clement will now have a more normal set of legal set of proceedings. At the same time, he is stuck within the U.S. criminal justice system. He was bonded out on a $17,000 bond with two ankle bracelets (shackles produced by a subsidiary of the GEO Group)—one for ICE, and one for the bond company. The bond company that collateralized his release requires former detainees to pay a $480 “activation fee” for the ankle monitor, and $420 per month service fee for as long as it takes for his case to be resolved. Yet, as an asylum seeker awaiting trial, Mr. Clement is not allowed to seek employment to cover this non-refundable fee, the ankle monitor fee, or his day-to-day living expenses.

Mr. Clement may be out of detention, but he is certainly not free.



  • With gratitude to Peter James Hudson for his brilliant and generous feedback.

[1] All names of asylum seekers are pseudonyms.

[2] “Haitian Immigrants Victims of Xenophobic Attacks in Brazil,” TeleSur, 9 August 2015, https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Haitian-Immigrants-Victims-of-Xenophobic-Attacks-in-Brazil-20150809-0002.html; “‘It’s not because I’m black, is it?’—As Haitian immigrants head to the south of Brazil, racist tendencies arise as descendants of European immigrants turn their noses up,” Black Women of Brazil, 29 May 2015, https://blackwomenofbrazil.co/2015/05/29/its-not-because-im-black-is-it-as-haitian-immigrants-head-to-the-south-of-brazil-racist-tendencies-arise-as-descendants-of-european-immigrants-turn-their-noses-up/.

[3] Although, with pressure from the United States, Honduras has begun arresting Haitian migrants traveling through the country (http://www.hougansydney.com/whats-happening-in-haiti/more-than-100-haitian-migrants-arrested-in-honduras).

[4] It turns out that the Mexican government does not allow all who want to cross the border to the U.S. Instead, it passes out appointment dates to cross. Most of these dates require the Haitian (and other migrants) to spend at least two weeks in Baja California.

[5] Kate Morrissey, “ Detaining Haitians awaiting deportation to hurricane-ravaged homeland is not inexpensive,” San Diego Union Tribune, 11 November 2016, http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/immigration/sd-me-haitian-cost-20161111-story.html.

[6] Of course, the U.S. has a long history of detaining Haitian asylum seekers and migrants. Two of the more notorious detention centers are Krome Detention Center (http://thepublicarchive.com/?p=3362) and the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay (http://gitmomemory.org/timeline/haitians-and-gtmo/) before it gained more notoriety as a maximum-security prison for purported suspects of the U.S. “War on Terror.” Both of these detention centers have reputations for the cruel treatment of Haitian immigrants.

[7] Daniel González, “Migrants amassed at U.S.-Mexico border unsure what’s next,” azcentral,13 December 2016, http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/border-issues/2016/12/13/thousands-haitian-migrants-amassed-us-mexico-border-unsure-whats-next/94688238/.

[8] There are also new impediments to social life, including the recent Haitian government’s new anti-LGBT posture (http://www.haitilibre.com/en/news-21838-haiti-politics-what-say-the-law-on-reputation-and-good-life-and-morals.html).

[9] Jemima Pierre, “Haiti: The Second Occupation,” The Black Scholar, 14 August 2015, http://www.theblackscholar.org/haiti-the-second-occupation/; Anthony Fenton and Dru Oja Jay, “Ottawa’s “Secret Memo”: Canada’s Role in Haiti’s February 2004 Coup d’Etat,” Global Research, 26 February 2013, https://www.globalresearch.ca/declassifying-canada-in-haiti-canadian-officials-planned-military-intervention-weeks-before-haitian-coup/2225; “When Canada plotted to overthrow Haiti’s government,” 24 January 2014, https://yvesengler.com/tag/ottawa-initiative/.

[10] According to Dady Chery, Haiti’s UN mission is the only UN Chapter 7 force in a country that is not at war. Chapter 7 of the UN Charter gives the UN Security Council the power to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace” and take military and nonmilitary action to “restore international peace and security.” Participating countries have boasted about Haiti being a place where they could test their police methods and military equipment for urban warfare on an unsuspecting population” (“10 Reasons Why UN Occupation of Haiti Must End,” Haïti Liberté, 19 April 2017, https://haitiliberte.com/10-reasons-why-un-occupation-of-haiti-must-end/).

[11] Jemima Pierre, “Brazil’s Haitian Training Ground,” Black Agenda Report, 4 May 2011, https://blackagendareport.com/content/brazil’s-haitian-training-ground.

[12] Gina Athena Ulysse, “30 Thousand Haitian Lives Lost to U.N. Cholera,” HuffPost, 6 June 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-athena-ulysse/30-thousand-haitian-lives_b_10299692.html.

[13] https://cluela.nationbuilder.com/Adelanto.


Jemima Pierre is Associate Professor jointly appointed in the Departments of African American Studies and of Anthropology at UCLA. She is the author of The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race (Chicago). Her research focuses on race, political economy, transnationalism, and the politics of knowledge production.

Copyright: © 2017 Jemima Pierre. 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 Emotional Intelligence

Rosas Figure 1

Ana Elizabeth Rosas

Adelaida Gutierrez wrote “The Eternal Wait” during the Spring 2016 semester. She wrote it to capture the people and moments that framed her immigration history.[1] She identified and described the anxiety she felt over her mother’s U.S. immigration status as an underestimated undocumented experience in the state of California. Gutierrez is among the undergraduate students enrolled in my courses at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) who have developed and applied informed and meaningful dimensions of emotional intelligence as an intellectual priority. She is also among the students at our campus that, irrespective of whether they are U.S. citizens, have met with me to untangle, write, and learn from their own emotive immigration histories. She and her fellow students’ investment in an emotional intelligence that does not underestimate the transformative potential of emotive immigration history has proven to be intellectually generative. For the purpose of this essay, an emotive immigration history is being referred to as a person’s historical account of the underestimated emotional configuration and consequences of navigating particular boundaries—including governmental border enforcement measures and programs—as an immigrant person or a person with an emotional connection to an immigrant person across a diversity of contexts and relationships, and over a range of space and time.

Since the 2015-2016 academic year, UCI undergraduate students have grown in their commitment to recollect, document, write, value, share, and learn from their undocumented emotive immigration histories under my faculty advisement, which has been something they have done together as a critical intellectual response to the tumult of the contemporary moment.[2] Our collective investment in appreciating the relevance and potential of our emotive immigration histories together has emerged as a restorative intellectual investment at our campus because it has laid the foundation for an intellectual imaginary that refuses to settle for emotionally unintelligent approaches to U.S. border enforcement measures and programs.

Learning about their undocumented emotive immigration histories together and having an emotive immigration history in place to turn to when pursuing their undergraduate study has been helpful at UCI. And so had the support provided to each other, with increased importance as students have benefited from the federal government’s administration of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. In 2012, President Barack Obama created this program to grant temporary immigration status to an estimated 742,000 people (about one in three living in California), permitting them legally to work, pursue an education, and continue openly contributing to U.S. society.[3] Every two years, successful DACA program applicants were expected to renew their program participation through their continued fulfillment of program requirements. More than 800,000 immigrants have DACA program temporary status and permits.[4]

It is important to not overlook that DACA recipients are young. In 2014, the largest age group of DACA recipients were individuals younger than 19 years of age.[5] Upon writing this article, an estimated 4,000 students attending University of California campuses are DACA program recipients, and an unrecorded number of students are in the process of applying to this program or else know a student, friend, loved one, or family member pursuing education, employment, marriage, caring for their family, conducting civic engagement and political activism as recipients of this program.[6] Taken collectively this makes President Trump’s 5 September 2017 decision to rescind DACA a devastating social reality for students and faculty like myself who work closely with students participating in this program and who are interested in the future of students at our campus. We worry that if Congress does not pass legislation protecting DACA recipients, an estimated 404,909 of them will have temporary status revoked from permits expiring in 2018.[7] This means that immigrant students, among other undocumented immigrant peoples, would be subject to deportation from the United States.

Such deep-seated concern has inspired UCI students to invest in taking careful inventory of their and their fellow students’ emotive immigration histories to remind themselves of the positive results that occur when they don’t let questions about personal relationships, daily routine, and outlook on their academic, emotional, and financial future intensify or reproduce anxiety and exhaustion over immigration, immigration status, and the future of the DACA program and other border enforcement scenarios. Engaging with fellow students at our campus without intensifying the emotional weight of the many ways that border enforcement measures and programs influence their emotional relationships, wellbeing, and lives became a widely shared (and often undocumented) goal among students at our campus.

Engaging with fellow students at our campus without intensifying the emotional weight of the many ways that border enforcement measures and programs influence their emotional relationships, wellbeing, and lives became a widely shared (and often undocumented) goal among students at our campus.

By focusing on the undocumented and emotionally intelligent intellectual imaginaries, productivity, and community, in response to the uncertainty of our contemporary immigration policy as an instructive undocumented experience, UCI students have forged, developed,  informed, and engaged humane forms of emotional intelligence alongside other undergraduate students. This has been integral to the pursuit of thriving as a community of learners that cares about the emotive consequences and future of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs. Learning from the writing, documentation, and collaborations that UCI students have undertaken as proactive and emotionally intelligent students enrolled in my courses and workshops on immigration history and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies throughout the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic years is integral to enriching a form of scholarship on the intellectual investments and collaborations of students who have prioritized learning from undocumented social realities, emotive relationships, and intellectual choices they have made as undergraduate students facing the uncertainty of immigration policy while being part of the University of California.[8] The present essay aims to showcase that the intellectual act of recollecting, documenting, and learning from undocumented emotive immigration histories together with humanity and with rigorous critical reflection provides a revealing and promising approach to the emotional expanse and consequences of undocumented immigration and immigration policy within and beyond our University of California classrooms. 

Writing Emotive Immigration History

For UCI students investing in the writing of their emotive immigration history was a way of recognizing and learning from the entirety of their family history without underestimating the weight of their feelings. In “The Eternal Wait,” Gutierrez recognized that throughout her childhood her mother’s pursuit of a legalized U.S. immigration status had been formative to her developing an emotional intelligence that would discourage her from underestimating the emotional accountability of being supportive of undocumented immigrant parental figures as they pursued the legalization of their immigration status. She shared the worry that would overcome her whenever she and her older brother accompanied their mother to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) offices to complete forms and conduct interviews. This solidified her support for fellow students and friends applying and benefiting from an immigration status that protects them against deportation from the United States. And this act made it possible for her to confront the silence that sets in when pursuing the legalization of one’s immigration status in the United States.

Elaborating, Gutierrez noted that she was expected to

remain quiet after my mother was called behind the monochromatic cubicles. I anxiously sat in my chair and took in my surroundings. There wasn’t a hint of color to feast my eyes upon, just the decaying noxious spectrum of browns and weird faded yellows.  It was hard to distract my mind from the catastrophic thoughts racing through my head. At our age waiting for my mom to reappear felt like an eternity.[9]

She explained that being “expected to sit still and behave was impossible.”[10] How could she be still? The likelihood of her mother’s INS interview resulting in the permanent separation of their family was real. The emotional weight of waiting was not new for Gutierrez, and she feared that students and friends applying or renewing their DACA program permits to varying degrees and on an everyday basis shouldered the weight of waiting in silence.

Writing about the emotive continuities between her recollections of her emotive immigration history and the feelings students acknowledged and shared as part of our discussions of these histories moved Gutierrez to identify the enduring emotional challenge of being an immigrant and/or a member of a mixed-status immigrant family in the United States. Writing her emotive immigration history fueled her resolve to appropriate an informed emotional intelligence so that she did not risk underestimating the emotional labor and silence that INS forms and interactions entailed. Recollecting her emotive immigration history during this challenging moment in U.S. immigration history informed her acknowledgement of the feelings and silence with which students and friends pursue an undergraduate education, making ends meet, and caring for themselves and their immigrant family relatives and friends.

Writing and sharing their emotive immigration histories with each other also inspired UCI students to recognize the influence of formative people and moments that framed their understanding of the emotive configuration and impact of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs. Allocating time from their packed schedules to write on the emotional conditions, relationships, and weight that informs their understanding of border enforcement led these students to identify their recollecting, writing, and learning from their emotive immigration histories together as an invaluable learning experience, which had been rarely afforded to them (especially in the university), if at all. Embracing an emotive approach together resonated as decisive for many of these students towards their finally acknowledging their personal connection to the emotional intelligence they sought to enhance as an informed and humane response to the emotional grip of U.S. government border enforcement measures and programs.

Throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, UCI students continued to write and share emotive immigration histories that also centered on the destinations and people that most longed for the legal right to pursue an education, and to enjoy employment and a family. These rights were determined for countless immigrant students by the U.S. government. These students’ willingness to forge an emotional intelligence that valued the restorative potential of the diversity of destinations for framing people’s emotive immigration histories together encouraged students to write about their feelings of transnational longing and loss. Mariana Rodriguez was among the students who wrote an emotive immigration history steeped in her longing for Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. In “Gorditas de Nata,” (Patties made out of Cream) she explained the following:

Three weeks ago, when I had gorditas de nata again after 11 years, they tasted like everything that had been snatched away from me. In a few bites, I was reminded of all the memories that could have been mine, but were not. I was reminded that I could not be there for the warmth that vibrated through the music, tight hugs, and fireworks that set the sky on fire. More regrettably, I was not able to hold my uncle’s hand before he passed away.[11]

Rodriguez’s recollections of Tijuana as integral to her emotive immigration history made it possible for she and fellow students to discuss the revealing potential of yearning when developing a capacious emotional intelligence together. Her writing about her yearning for the food, sounds, feelings, celebration, and people that made Tijuana a uniquely invaluable connection to experiences and people that she is unable to enjoy in the U.S. alerted students to the reality of other students and friends shouldering intense transnational longing as part of their maturing into adulthood and navigating the rigors of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs on a daily basis. Rodriguez expanding on what is not possible in the U.S. resonated with students as an important intellectual move toward developing a kind of emotional intelligence that prioritizes recognizing that students cherish, miss, and worry about experiences and people who are not physically in the United States. Her transnational emotive immigration history presented students with the often undocumented social reality that young adults at our campus hold and care about a diversity of destinations, experiences, and people when coming to terms with their emotive immigration history and its influence on their response to U.S. border enforcement operatives.

Diego Hernandez was also among the students who wrote about his emotive ties to people beyond the U.S. when writing his emotive immigration history. Hernandez elaborated on the emotional impact of the transnational absence of his grandmother. In “Memories We Did Not Leave at the Border,” Hernandez focused on his devotion and undying love for her. He shared that upon separating from her in Guatemala to journey to the United States as an undocumented immigrant child in the mid-1990s, he clung to his emotional bond to her to weather his migration and settlement in the U.S. Hernandez identified memories of her love as most influential when implementing an emotional intelligence to face her absence and the social rejection, racial discrimination, and gender violence stemming from punitive and restrictive border enforcement measures. He wrote that his grandmother

was a stern woman, but her love for me melted like paletas de hielo con sabor de tamarindo (tamarind popsicles) in the sun. The sugary extract of her love made us inseparable. She was my first love, and until today at the age of 28, I long to return to her embrace. I long to return to those young days when the softness and creases of her aging skin enveloped me with care and tenderness.[12]

Hernandez also explained that upon separating from his grandmother, he clearly remembers,

That morning we left behind a woman whose love could never be taken from my heart, even by a border wall that separates us. In my recollection of her eyes I found love, and in her laughter I found the comfort of a child’s lullaby.[13]

The intellectual investment in developing a personally meaningful emotional intelligence as a shared priority encouraged Hernandez and fellow students to share emotive immigration histories inclusive of ongoing transnational emotional challenges.

Revisiting Revealing Relationships

By the 2016-2017 academic year, UCI students expanded the writing of their emotive immigration histories to include documentation that captured the influence of formative people and their recollections of their immigration histories developed from conversations, material culture items, and documents that influential family relatives shared with them. Stephanie Palomares excelled as a most committed student when writing her emotive immigration history. She visited her grandmother, Delfina Palomares, five times as she weathered a severe cold and flu to collect and learn from the material of the emotive immigration history they shared.[14]

During her visits Palomares learned that Delfina had been born and raised in Rancho el Rodeo, Jalisco, Mexico. As a young girl, she lived a middle-class lifestyle with loving parents. Enthusiastic in her approach to life, she enjoyed music and dancing; in fact, she met her husband, Efren Palomares, at a dance party in nearby Talpa de Allende, Jalisco. Shortly after having met, they married in 1962 and moved to the village of Yano Grande, Jalisco, to be closer to Efren’s workplace. Upon beginning their life together, Delfina transitioned into a financially precarious family situation. Ten years later (1972), and after the birth of their five children, Delfina and Efren’s employment conditions compelled them to raise their family in the United States.

In 1973, Efren followed Delfina’s advice and departed to the United States to earn the wages necessary for their family to live together. In 1976, Delfina and their children reunited with Efren in Orange County. They worked hard together, and endured the hardships of immigration patiently. Over the years, they dedicated themselves to raising their family in Santa Ana. In 1981, the couple bought their first home in Anaheim, cementing their personal investment in documenting the love and moments—the emotive immigration history—that connected their family together.

Among the material culture items that Palomares’ grandmother shared with her was a gold medallion of the Virgin Mary. Delfina had worn and derived much peace from the religious protection and spiritual energy that this medallion bestowed upon her. Delfina recollected holding on to this medallion tightly while praying in silence for spiritual courage and protection as she shouldered much uncertainty. Photographs of Delfina alongside her five sons, daughter, and Efren as they celebrated her birthday and successful battle with cancer were also part of the documentation that she shared with Stephanie to convey the significant moments that bound them together. Delfina explained to Palomares the importance for the undocumented to personally document meaningful relationships through taking and preserving photographs that bring to life the moments in which being together was a fruitful emotional investment. She insisted on sharing that it was important to create and inherit an emotive history that prioritized documenting the act of living together, smiling together, and reveling in the power of having endured together. These were not to be treated as one of many moments but rather as important moments in the trajectory of their family’s emotive immigration history. Delfina’s words infused into our class’s collective consideration of this history the value of documenting elderly immigrant relatives’ places when confronted with worrisome U.S. governmental approaches and further outlooks on undocumented immigration.

The power of documentation was also evident in Esmeralda Hic’s emotive immigration history. She prioritized sharing how her mother, Juanita Magdalena Garza’s documentation of her coming of age through photographs of her Quinceañera had been formative to her upbringing .[15] Juanita used photographs of this celebration to not lose sight of her life being comprised of moments where she enjoyed herself alongside childhood friends and with a heart full of hope for the future. She explained that this is why forty years later on 27 April 2013 she had persevered to finance the documentation and celebration of Esmeralda’s Quinceañera in a similar fashion. Like her parents, she had invested herself in making sure that Esmeralda had an archive of moments she could turn to as a source from which to derive inner strength when confronted with difficult situations at whatever age and wherever she found herself. The preservation and recollection of the milestones achieved and documented by these women allowed students to travel back and forth through time.

Similarly, by the end of the 2016-2017 academic year the interest of my students and myself led us to encourage as many other UCI students as possible to consider the productive qualities of developing an emotional intelligence as an intellectual priority together. This resulted in a workshop collaboration at our campus, called “Revisiting Immigration History.” This workshop served as a productive intellectual space and community from which to learn from each other as a community of learners. Our forging an emotional intelligence together through this workshop made it easier for students to understand and cope with their feelings on undocumented immigration and immigration history.

Each student participating in the workshop submitted a photograph that captured an undocumented emotive dimension of immigration history and/or the undocumented immigrant experience that they welcomed discussing as part of this workshop. This approach to coming together allowed students to use their presentation of their photograph submission as a way of introducing themselves and their intellectual imaginaries to students that they were often meeting for the first time without augmenting their emotional exhaustion. The presentation of these photographs allowed students to consider undocumented immigration as an expansive, continuous, and diverse process and experience. Developing and applying this intellectual sensibility together made it accessible for reflecting on how we each are impacted by and invested in the future of undocumented immigration with documentation that students generated on their own and for the sake of us learning from each other and together with our humanity front and center. This workshop experience resulted in a careful consideration of the modalities that came into focus and grew in value because of the influential absence or decline in emotional intelligence evident in the U.S. government’s attitude towards immigration, undocumented immigrants, and immigration policy in the form of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs.

Participating in this workshop energized Andres Oceguera Pinedo to share a family photograph that his mother, Mercedes Pinedo, had shared with him.[16] Oceguera Pinedo explained that in the midst of fellow students working tirelessly to contribute to the emotional and financial welfare of their mixed status immigrant families, as they pursued their undergraduate education at our campus, his mother’s rationale for taking and sharing this photograph with him resonated differently. He explained that his mother’s photograph featured her surrounded by his older sisters. It was taken by a family friend, so that his mother documented being able to labor and care for his sisters during the summer of 1975 as an agricultural laborer at the John Pryor Farms in Soledad. His mother shared that this photograph captured what people in our contemporary moment rarely dare to acknowledge or document with care: the emotional intelligence of immigrants. Ocegueda Pinedo elaborated that his mother cherished this photograph, because it did not allow her to forget the hard earned privilege of being in one place together and as a family as she labored to ensure that they had the right to do so as an immigrant family in the United States. Like herself, Andres’s mother wanted him to understand and appreciate their family photograph as her documentation of the undocumented value immigrants place on doing everything possible to derive strength from simply being still and together after a hard week’s work. Such words and documentation and discussing them together paved the way for students to learn from Ocegueda Pinedo the importance of pausing regularly to take inventory and to document in ways that we deem comforting and humane—the hard earned privilege and value of being still and alongside those we care about and love.

Marleni Flores was also among the students who shared that the current uncertainty undocumented immigrant families face in the United States had deepened the appreciation of her mother, Jesuita Sanchez, for a family photograph taken of her alongside her family in 1974 by a fellow town resident as they came of age and enjoyed town life in Tzicatlan, Puebla together.[17] Flores described this family photograph featuring her mother’s cousin, siblings, and herself as among the few times in their lives in which they were able to enjoy time together as a family, in the same location, and in a situation in which they could afford to take a photograph.  Preserving this trace of a moment in which they were not pressured to migrate within and beyond Mexico continuously or worry about U.S. border enforcement measures had proven emotionally helpful to both her mother and Flores. She shared that it had prevented her mother from losing sight of the entirety of her family’s history, most specifically unforgettably joyful moments.

Upon concluding this workshop, students shared that it had been restorative to consider and discuss how the people we care about have preserved and discussed their emotive immigration histories. It resonated as a generative approach to considering the undocumented dimensions of immigration, the immigrant experience, and immigration history together and at our campus. Our focusing on the documentation and rationales behind emotive immigration histories resonated as productive vantage points towards identifying how a diversity of generations of immigrants with varying immigration statuses and perspectives on immigration have responded to the US government’s enforcement of its borders. Discussing the forethought, care, and resourcefulness with which their own immigrant family relatives and friends had invested in documenting and learning from their emotional intelligence for their and their family’s sake allowed students to not lose sight of the attentiveness and dedication with which older generations of immigrants had faced the pressures of US border enforcement measures and programs. Such sensibility deepened students’ appreciation for having invested in enriching their emotional intelligence together via this workshop. Moreover, I hope that it serves as an example of what we can achieve and share when we embrace emotive immigration history as a seminal pathway towards facing our feelings concerning immigration, most especially US border enforcement measures and programs within and beyond California together.


[1] Writing assignment submitted to the author by Adelaida Gutierrez, University of California, Irvine, June 2016. “Adelaida Gutierrez” is a pseudonym I gave the student to protect she and her family’s confidentiality.

[2] The author will reflect on student course assignments and discussions undertaken in her course offerings, exhibition project, and workshop on immigration history and the Chicana/o-Latina/o experience at UC Irvine during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic years.

[3]  Priya Krishnakumar, Joe Fox, and Ally Levine, “What’s next for DACA and the nearly 800,000 people protected by it,” Los Angeles Times, 6 September 2017, http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-na-pol-daca-future/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Teresa Watanabe, “UC President Janet Napolitano blasts Trump’s DACA decision,” Los Angeles Times, 5 September 2017, http://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-essential-education-updates-southern-uc-president-napolitano-blasts-trump-s-1504627146-htmlstory.html.

[7] Krishnakumar, Fox, and Levine, “What’s Next for DACA.”

[8] This article is informed by and attempts to build on the scholarship of Roberto G. Gonzalez, Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).

[9] Adelaida Gutierrez.

[10] Ibid.

[11] This quote is a part of “Gorditas de Nata,” a writing assignment submitted to the author by Mariana Rodriguez, University of California, Irvine, June 2016. “Mariana Rodriguez” is a pseudonym I gave the student to protect the student and her family’s confidentiality.

[12] This quote is a part of “Memories We Did Not Leave at the Border,” a writing assignment submitted to the author by Diego Hernandez, at the University of California, Irvine, June 2016. “Diego Hernandez” is a pseudonym I gave the student to protect the student and his family’s confidentiality.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Information about Delfina Palomares’ emotive immigration history and thoughts about the promise of The Material of Memory were collected and provided as part of conversations with and a course assignment submitted to the author by Stephanie Palomares, University of California, Irvine, December 2016.

[15] Information about Juanita Magdalena Garza’s emotive immigration history and thoughts about the promise of The Material of Memory were collected and provided as part of conversations with and a course assignment submitted to the author by Esmeralda Hic, University of California, Irvine, December 2016.

[16] Information about Mercedes Pinedo’s emotive immigration history were submitted and provided as part of the Revisiting Immigration History workshop group by Andres Oceguera Pinedo to the author, University of California, Irvine, March 2017.

[17] Information about Jesuita Sanchez emotive immigration history were submitted and provided as part of the Revisiting Immigration History workshop group by Marleni Flores to the author, University of California, Irvine, March 2017.


Ana Elizabeth Rosas is an associate professor of history and Chicano/Latino Studies at UC Irvine. She is the author of Abrazando El Espiritu: Bracero Families Confront the US-Mexico Border (UC Press, 2014), which received the Immigration and Ethnic History Society’s Theodore Soloutos Memorial Book Award for the best book on immigration history.


Copyright: © 2017 Ana Marie Rosas. 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/


The Américas: Chapter the Fourth


David Kipen

“Last week,” he began, sleep forgotten, warming to the story as if from memory, growing more loquacious the while, “for all anybody knew I could’ve been dead a year. A year ago I was traveling with Frémont’s army, supposedly writing a profile of him for the Tribune.

Boy, that man knew how to treat a reporter. I wasn’t in any hurry to finish. I guess I took too long, because Mr. Greeley sent word I was to file immediately or not bother coming back.

I was mulling the choice when I heard a story from an old Miwok woman about gold in the foothills of the Sierra. So I stuffed my Frémont notes into my saddlebag, waited till lights-out, lammed out of that man’s army and made for the mountains. If I didn’t get rich, at least I’d get a better story. Maybe I’d get both.

So I knocked around California for a few months, chasing down one rumor after another. I rode south almost to Placerita to check out the gold strike from ’42, but it was pretty well played out.

All the time I kept hearing about this fellow Sutter, a Swiss colonel who’d gone up the Americano from Yerba Buena and set himself up king of the Sacramento.

Last month I figured I’d go and see for myself. On my way, I met a talkative Mexican—begging your pardon—who’d heard that there was gold up below Tahoe, but that Sutter’s marshal hadn’t got around to checking it out yet.

Once we pulled in, who do I see but Jim Marshall, the best carpenter in Frémont’s army. He was on his way up the trail as foreman to a pack of Mormons, aiming to build Sutter his first sawmill that wouldn’t fall over if you pissed on it.

Well, Jim remembered me. He’s a good guy—a little soft, maybe, but honest. So I made him a deal. He wouldn’t have to lie, I was very specific about that. But I’d work for him at half-wages if he’d keep it off the books. He assumed I was on a fresh story, and so I was.

All the while, I sought out whatever news came to hand. The war—call it Mexican, call it American, or call it what they all are, a Real Estate War—the war was over, but the peace talks in Mexico City were taking forever. Typical diplomats. Every Sabbath an announcement was expected, and every Sabbath, none came.

Lately, though, the negotiators at the Guadalupe-Hidalgo villa looked to be putting on steam again. If they didn’t sign something, the war might flare back up. If that happened, the Washington delegation might get recalled home in a hurry,— where the winds were colder, their wives closer, and a good mole nowhere in evidence.

Anyway, Marshall and a bunch of us traipsed up into the foothills, with all our equipment banging and clanging off the wagon like a jug band. He picked out a riverbank for the mill,— a pretty place, well-forested and sheltered from the wind. Next day we went to work.

I kept my eyes open the whole time. Every chance I got, which wasn’t often, I wandered off with a fishpole, creel and a dipper hanging off my belt, ransacking the terrain for a sparkle. Mormons probably thought I had a wench up there.

Those Mormons worked pretty fast once the Miwoks taught ’em upstream from down. Young Charley Bennett finally figured out which end of a saw was which, and Scotty the carpenter was almost ready to start in on the mill wheel.

And then the sky opened. It rained for a week, let up for a day and rained some more. I borrowed an oilcloth slicker from the cook and took to squelching around the foothills.

At first there was nothing. I trudged through the mud and underbrush in circles. By the second day, I could go a full hour without getting lost. But my creel stayed empty, with nary a nugget or even a trout to weigh it down.

On the night of the full moon, I resolved to stay out after dark. Either it’d be bright enough to shine up a nugget, or dark enough to stumble across a bear,— by this time, I didn’t much care which.

Once the sun dropped behind the ridgeline, I made out a mossy cliff nearby, just starting to glisten in the moon. Halfway up the side, a jagged spot showed itself, darker than the cliff around it. I tear-assed over to the riprap under it and looked back up.

Just as I’d thought, it was a cavern. I scrabbled up the scree toward it. With every step, a tiny gravel avalanche slid me back almost as far. Finally I gained a purchase at the very top of the pile and chinned myself over the lip.

There in the cave, dim in the infiltrating starshine, I saw a hoard of gold beyond counting.”

“How much?” I interjected, stirring as if from a trance.

“Didn’t I just say it was beyond counting?”

“About how much?”

“Am I telling this story or you?”

“I thought you were sleepy.”

“Second wind.”

“Windier by the minute, to my ear. Monsieur Vignes always says to avoid ten-dollar words. He says they’re just showing off.”

Navarre looked pained, as if from an old wound.

“Ten-dollar words. Kee-rist. Just because you don’t have ten dollars for one of my words doesn’t mean the whole world is broke.”

“If your word is ten dollars and mine is five, where are most customers going to shop?”

He considered.

“Look, kid. If this shed caught fire, which book would you save?”

“That’s easy. Monsieur Vignes bought me the whole Martin Chuzzlewit, bound in buckram. With deckle edges.”

“How much did it cost?”

“I don’t know. A lot, I bet.”

“Is that why you’d save it from a fire?  Because it cost a lot?”

“Partly. Partly I just like it.”

“Pretty big book for a little kid like you.”

“Who’s little?”

“You understand every word in it?”

“Most of ’em. I look up the rest.”

“He looks up the rest. What in?”

“Monsieur Vignes gave me a Webster’s. It’s a library all by itself.”

“Webster’s, eh?” Navarre smiled. “I were you, I’d hang on to that one. Let Vignes hang onto his Dickens til the fire burns out. May I continue?”

I let him, and kept any further interruptions to a minimum. That may have been a mistake. By degrees, his telling grew purple as a hanged man’s tongue.



This is part four of five from a new short story. See also part one, part two, part three, and part five.

Artwork by Jacquelyn Campaña.


David Kipen is the founder of the nonprofit Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, a lecturer on the UCLA faculty, and a Critic-at-Large of the LA Times. His Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters will be published Fall 2018 by Modern Library. The Américas will be his first novel, and he welcomes your kibitzing at kipend@gmail.com.

Copyright: © 2017 David Kipen. 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/


The Américas: Chapter the Third


David Kipen

“What’s your name, kid?” the sodden wayfarer asked.

“Francisco P. Ramirez.”

“What’s the P. stand for?”

“Not Pancho.”

“Not Pancho. Fair enough.”

“What’s your name?”

“That’s complicated.”

“Your name is complicated?”

“I’ve had a few.”

“Pick one.”

“We don’t have much time.”

I had plenty of time.

“Why do you need La Jefa?” I asked.

“I need to get a message to la capital.

“Racing homers only fly one way. Monsieur Vigne has had La Jefa for years. He had a sweetheart once in Mexico City, yet he never sent her a message for fear no one would bring La Jefa back. La Jefa is for an emergency only, and love isn’t an emergency.”

“Shit, you are twelve.”

“What’s the message?”

“Do you know about the Mexican War?”

“Fourteen-year-olds must be very stupid where you come from. I know from the newspapers.”

“Newspapers. What good are newspapers in the West? By the time you read about war, there’s peace. By the time you read about peace, there’s war. You might as well study ancient history. At least Gibbon gets the dates right. The daily press is just fast enough to be wrong.”

“So why are you a journalist?”

“I ask myself the same thing every day. All right, what does the press tell you about the Mexican War?”

“Depends on the paper. The Mexican ones call it the American War.”

“A war doesn’t care what you call it. What’s the last newspaper you read about this ‘American War’?”

“Someone left a Santa Fe New Mexican from Christmas on the Friday stage. The driver saves them for me. He brought me one from New Year’s the week before. It gets confusing sometimes. But the New Year’s one said the treaty talks in la capital broke down. What’s the last you read?”

“It’s all out of date,” he sighed. “All of it. That’s why I need your Jefe. I know something about Mexico that even Mexico doesn’t know.”

“Something that fits around the leg of a pigeon?”

“Could be.”

“Is that what you had in your hand? When you tried to free La Jefa?”

“Hijo, enough with the questions. Do I get the bird or don’t I? I haven’t slept two hours together for three nights straight.”

“Then you’d better tell me the story while you’re still awake.”

“You’d better let me sleep or you’ll never get the story.”

I thought fast.

“Tell me the story or I’ll throttle the bird myself, and then where will you be?”

“You’ve been reading more than just newspapers, haven’t you? Put some coffee on. Have they heard of John Sutter’s Fort down here? Oh, and call me Navarre.”



This is part three of five from a new short story. See also part one, part two, part four, and part five.

Artwork by Jacquelyn Campaña.


David Kipen is the founder of the nonprofit Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, a lecturer on the UCLA faculty, and a Critic-at-Large of the LA Times. His Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters will be published Fall 2018 by Modern Library. The Américas will be his first novel, and he welcomes your kibitzing at kipend@gmail.com.

Copyright: © 2017 David Kipen. 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/


The Américas: Chapter the Second


David Kipen

Before the hulking stranger on the floor of the pigeon shed recovered his wits, I got my first good look at him. He must have had to bend almost double to cross the doorsill, so tall he seemed. He looked Californian—black-haired, brown at the hands, red in the face, and badly sun-burnt around his thick, sugared beard. If I wanted to pursue newspapering, M. Vignes had said, I had better learn to notice details.

The man opened his eyes with a ready, well-worn smile, then groaned and sank back as his situation rushed in upon him. His eyes never left me.

The voice was raw, but he spoke English like an Englishman. “What are you,” he asked, “fourteen? Twelve?”

“I thought you were a burro,” I said. When interviewing, M. Vignes had also counseled, you ask the questions.

“Not a burro,” he said, “but close. I’m a reporter.”

“A reporter? Have I read anything of yours? Who do you work for?” I tried unsuccessfully to conceal my excitement. “The Californian? Noticioso de Ambos Mundos?” I paused in awe. “Reuters?”

“I’ve been fired from all of them. Twice by the same editor at Ambos Mundos. Now I’m with El Clamor Publico out of Madrid…?”

“We only get the papers that come through on the stage,” I admitted. “I don’t know that one.”

“I get that a lot. Madrid and I haven’t heard from each other in a while, anyway. But if I’ve been fired, nobody told me about it.”

“Are you here on a story?”

The journalist closed his eyes with an expression of great weariness, then opened them wide and looked over at La Jefa.

“I need to borrow your bird.”

“La Jefa? She’s not mine to borrow. Besides, nobody borrows a racing homer. Turn this one loose, she’ll make straight for Mexico City and never look back.”

Thoughtfully, not expecting much, the journalist reached for his hip. He barely registered his disappointment.

“It’s in a safe place,” I said.

“I need your bird,” he repeated. “I’ll bring her back if I have to walk both ways.”

“But Paul Reuter gave her to Monsieur Vignes himself!”

The journalist closed his eyes again. He looked tired of thinking. Then he reached into the other pocket.

“If that bastard Reuter were here,” he said, “he’d offer you this.”

Of a sudden, the palm of his outstretched hand brimmed with yellow dust. He poured it onto the deal table between us. It formed a small cone there. What remained of the candle made the pile glint, and his eyes with it.

“Is that—”


“How do you know?”

“I passed through Georgia in the thirties. I know.”

“Where did you get it?”

“Do you want some or don’t you?”

I loved M. Vignes, but my father owed him a fortune. Now it was my turn to think.

“I want something better,” I said at length.

“Oh, no,” he said

“I want to hear the story.”



This is part two of five from a new short story. See also part one, part three, part four, and part five.

Artwork by Jacquelyn Campaña.

David Kipen
is the founder of the nonprofit Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, a lecturer on the UCLA faculty, and a Critic-at-Large of the LA Times. His Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters will be published Fall 2018 by Modern Library. The Américas will be his first novel, and he welcomes your kibitzing at kipend@gmail.com.

Copyright: © 2017 David Kipen. 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/


The Américas: Chapter the First


David Kipen

A note to the reader: Only the most improbable parts of this story are true. Yes, for nine days in 1848, between the discovery of gold on the south fork of the American River and the signing in Mexico City of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico was the richest country in the world and didn’t know it. Yes, gold was discovered twice in California, once in the Sierra Nevada in 1848, but once six years before that in Placerita Canyon, near Santa Clarita. And yes, in the 1850s, the best journalist in Los Angeles was a teenager named Francisco P. Ramirez, in whose ink-blackened hands I leave you now…

…we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
— Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Los Angeles, late January, 1848

If I hadn’t burned a second candle to work on my newspaper that night, California might still belong to Mexico.

Under its glow, on the quadrille sheets that M. Vignes had vouchsafed me for the purpose, I traced out the titles of “ P-U-B-L-I-S-H-E-R,” “E-D-I-T-O-R-S” AND “S-T-A-F-F.” Across the page, modestly, I printed “F-R-A-N-C-I-S-C-O P-. R-A-M-I-R-E-Z” but once.

Months into my journalistic career, I still hadn’t decided for good whether to publish my newspaper in Spanish, as I’d been doing; in English, as I could do just as easily; in French, as M. Vignes might have liked; or all three, which would certainly fill up each number in a hurry. Ornate as I could make it, in my best freehand approximation of blackletter script, I had sketched in the most versatile placeholder I could think of: The Américas.

Now came the hard part. El Pueblo de los Angeles in those days didn’t have much news, except for all the murders. Hardly a week-end went by without a white man shot. If nobody was shooting any white men this week, someone was surely getting lynched for shooting one last week. Where was the news in that?

If they couldn’t find a white man’s killer to hang, even a Californian’s murderer would do. Next thing you know, there’d be necktie parties just for shooting an Indian. Pretty soon, it’d be news if a week went by without somebody kilt or strung up for it.


And that’s how I got the idea. Carefully, with one large capital letter centered in each quartet of squares, I roughed out a headline: “NOBODY DIES IN BLOODY AFFRAY THIS WEEK.” A little long, but I could fix that later. I wasn’t altogether sure what an “AFFRAY” was, but I liked how it went with “BLOODY.”

It wasn’t literally true. Mr. Temple had challenged Sr. Sepulveda to an affair of honor just the day before. At the hour of truth, however, Temple repented his choice to shoot such a good customer, and so contented himself with killing Sepulveda’s second instead. Sepulveda insisted on satisfaction, but Temple’s own second ran away before it could be obtained.

So my best headline yet, “NOBODY DIES IN BLOODY AFFRAY THIS WEEK,” was also my first published lie. M. Vignes says every writer needs an editor to keep him honest, but I couldn’t afford one on my allowance. The question now was what to do next. That first lie opened up so many possibilities.

My candle hissed and flickered. Outside, the river whispered through the alders. The rio and the pueblo, the Sierra Madres to the north,— except for the snoring of a thousand souls and the occasional gunshot, all was quiet. With the moon gone, the night sky shone bright enough to read by.

Behind me, plump and fussy, each of M. Vignes’s famous pigeons dozed or burbled in their ranked cages, pecking greedily after some last leftover grains from dinner.

And then, outside the window, I heard it: a scraping sound, like an animal rooting among the grapevines. This had happened before. Last year a burro had escaped the corral and ripped out six of Father’s rows before we finally got him untangled. I knew I should go investigate, but I had few enough choreless hours for my newspaper without having to police vineyards for runaway livestock. It was probably just a covey of quail, come down to the river to drink.

My pen was thirsty too. I applied myself to my page.

No sooner had I re-dipped the quill than I heard it again, closer now. It was definitely a burro, probably the same one. My father should long since have sold the brute to M. Vignes, whose farmhands knew how to tie a knot that would hold, but Father could give a burro lessons in stubbornness.

I stepped outside and felt the cool breeze off the river. The burro was nowhere to be seen. In the distance, a lonesome coyote howled. A fish jumped, and I did too.

Neck prickling, I decided to make one quick circuit of the pigeon shed and return to my labors. I walked halfway round the shed to the small window in the back wall, opposite the door. Framed right there, I saw him, already inside—tall as a giant, wet black hair dripping down between desperate eyes, candleshadows from the taper on the table dancing wildly at his back. Then I watched dumbly as, with the same key I had idly left in the keyhole, he locked me out.

I wanted to run, to wake M. Vignes or even my father, but there was too much of value in the shed to turn my back on. Not only the next issue of The Américas, scarcely begun, but my first seven issues as well, still sitting unprinted under the desk, awaiting typesetting as soon as M. Vignes’s old Ramage press returned from its statewide rounds. Even more important were his prized racing homer pigeons, fluttering in consternation as, even now, the drenched figure drew himself up as if to loose them. From the pocket of his long duster, he withdrew a scrap of cigarette paper.

The pigeoncote took up most of a wall, four cages high and four across. Each bore the name of a different destination: the small, overworked birds for San Pedro, San Gabriel and San Fernando; the larger ones for settlements south as far as Loreto; one muy fuerte for Albuquerque; and, for La Ciudad de Mexico, proudest of all, La Jefa.

Most pigeons are even more moronic when they’re scared, but La Jefa now looked as intelligent as I’d ever seen her. She shrank from the man’s approach as he reached straight for her padlock and yanked.

The hasp held. Implacable, the man replaced the scrap of paper in his pocket and drew a revolver from his sideholster, ready to hammer the lock free. Squawking, audible even from this side of the window, La Jefa squeezed herself against the mesh at the back of her cage.

As if remorseful for contemplating violence against such a defenseless creature, the man paused. Then, slowly as an automaton in a belltower clock, he turned his weapon toward me.

Our eyes met. The man indicated the padlock and gestured meaningfully at me with the revolver.

Not knowing how else to pantomime it, I tapped my forehead.

I could see in his staring eyes that my import was clear: He had the key to the shed, but only I knew where to find the key to the cage. It was a standoff.

Maybe here I might mention that I hate standoffs. Playing at pistolero, I’ve always found them silly. If you could shoot me and I could shoot you, we should shoot each other instanter, not hesitate like two Frenchmen approaching the same threshold.

My adversary in the pigeon shed must have hated standoffs, too. He lowered his weapon, unlocked the door and motioned for me to come around. Then, he fainted.


This is part one of a five part short story. See also part two, part three, part four, and part five.

Artwork by Jacquelyn Campaña.

David Kipen
is the founder of the nonprofit Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, a lecturer on the UCLA faculty, and a Critic-at-Large of the LA Times. His Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters will be published Fall 2018 by Modern Library. The Américas will be his first novel, and he welcomes your kibitzing at kipend@gmail.com.

Copyright: © 2017 David Kipen. 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/


Linking the Future of Dreamers to California’s Future

3_Oakley_taken at the LBC College childcare center when he was president_ he'd visit students and ask them what they wanted to be

Taken at LBC College childcare center when Oakley was president. He’d visit students and ask them what they wanted to be.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley

Growing up in the Florence-Firestone area of South Los Angeles in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, I didn’t hear a lot of talk about Dreamers or undocumented students. In a community that was 86 percent Latino and 13 percent African-American, and where less than 2.5 percent of residents had earned a bachelor’s degree, most of the focus was on running from Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies, la Migra, or a gang fight. Everyone just did their best to survive. There was talk about who had a green card or who was a “wetback,” but no one really cared. Everyone was family, except, of course, the Sheriff or la Migra. My family was typical. My dad was a U.S. citizen from Texas who was schooled in Mexico, and my mom immigrated from Mexico with her three sisters. I had uncles and family friends who ran the gamut when it came to immigration status. The one thing that everyone had in common, in addition looking for any excuse to hold a barbeque, was that they all came to California to make a better life for their children and loved ones. Although the Florence-Firestone neighborhood was hardly Mayberry, it was better than what everyone had left behind. It was California.

It wasn’t until the days of Governor Pete Wilson that I ever felt uncomfortable about being a Mexican-American, or growing up with family and friends who were suddenly considered “aliens” bad for California. It was a confusing time, and it forced many children of immigrants like myself to reconcile what it meant to be the son of an immigrant with being a native Californian. Ironically, as a member of the University of California Board of Regents, I visit that past every time I walk into a board meeting and think about how one former regent who served in the 1990s helped shape a negative attitude toward students who shared my heritage. That past, in fact, shapes my service as a Regent today.

Although California survived that period, there remains haunting shadows of that past which are clearly visible in this new Trump era, an era in which a growing number of anti-immigration sentiment, much of which is based not on facts but on emotion, is taking hold. Sadly, such sentiment ignores the facts—that our undocumented immigrants are critical to our economy, are serving in our military to protect our freedoms, and are working hard to become our future leaders. They are hardly a drain on society. In California alone, the state’s estimated 2.7 million undocumented immigrants are paying an estimated $3 billion in taxes each year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.[1]

According to the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, those who have been accepted into the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program are an average age of 22 and are employed. Most are still in school. Nearly 1 in 5 are seeking an advanced degree. And in California, the number of DACA recipients enrolled in colleges and universities stands at more than 72,000, which means that nearly one-third of all DACA recipients in the state are in the process of earning a college degree or certificate.[2]

What’s more, because they are better educated and are among our most productive workers, deporting the estimated 750,000 DACA recipients nationwide would cost the federal government $60 billion, along with $280 billion in losses to the U.S. economy over 10 years.

The memories of my experiences with anti-immigrant rhetoric remind me every day of the importance to make clear to the undocumented students in the California Community Colleges system that they are welcomed and valued. They need to know that just as California survived Propositions 187 and 209, they will survive the nonsense of “the wall.” The Dreamers in our colleges today are hungry to give back, to make our state even greater, and to raise their families in the light of the California Dream. Our colleges give first, second, and third chances to all Californians, and because of the struggles of all our students, including Dreamers, our communities are better places to live.

Human potential is everywhere throughout our state. Potential does not recognize residency or legal status. For many, coming to California was not a choice they themselves made. And capturing their potential is key to our future. Within our communities resides the next scientist who will find a cure for cancer, the next transformational artist, the next Steve Jobs, or the next governor of California. Why wouldn’t we educate and cultivate the potential of every resident in California?

I am privileged to serve in a system of higher education that believes in this potential and that proudly proclaims that we serve the top 100 percent of students in California regardless or immigration status, skin color, religion, or how or whom they love. California community colleges are the gateway to a higher education for the majority of people in our state and serve as the state’s engine of economic mobility. That is why our colleges are so important to the future of all Californians and why the future of California is so closely tied to our ability to capture the potential of all our students.



[1] “State and Local Tax Contributions of Undocumented Californians: County-by- County Data,” 24 April 2017, https://itep.org/state-and-local-tax-contributions-of-undocumented-californians-county-by–county-data/#.WQdqr4grKJA

[2] Ike Brannon and Logan Albright, “The Economic and Fiscal Impact of Repealing DACA,” Cato at Liberty, 18 January 2017, https://www.cato.org/blog/economic-fiscal-impact-repealing-daca.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley has served as Chancellor for the California Community Colleges since 19 December 2016. Before this, he served as the Superintendent-President of the Long Beach Community College District from 2007, where he led one of the most diverse community colleges in the nation and provided statewide and national leadership on the issue of improving the education outcomes of historically underrepresented students. For his efforts, the James Irvine Foundation recognized him with their 2014 Leadership Award. In 2014, Governor Brown appointed Oakley to the University of California Board of Regents and in November 2016, President Obama recognized him as a White House Champion of Change for his work promoting and supporting the national college promise movement.

Copyright: © 2017 Eloy Ortiz Oakley. 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 Dreaming? The Integration of Immigrants into American Society

vignette edit-1

Kevin R. Johnson

Immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are unquestionably members of our communities across the United States. Currently, roughly eleven million undocumented immigrants live and work in this country.[1] Employers demand their labor, and immigrants want the work. Nonetheless, the people of United States have long been ambivalent about immigrants. Even in California, now viewed as a pro-immigrant bastion, more attention historically was given to reduce the immigrant population rather than to facilitate the integration of immigrants into American social life.

Consider one stunning example. California voters in 1994 by a 2-1 margin passed an immigration milestone, Proposition 187,[2] known by its supporters as the “Save our State” initiative. The initiative would have banned undocumented students from public schools, required police to report undocumented immigrants to federal authorities, and denied undocumented immigrants access to nearly every state public benefit programs. The California legislature subsequently passed a series of laws of the same ilk, including a particularly noxious one that prohibited the issuance of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants (even though there was no evidence of any safety or security problems with the state’s long history of licensing—and safety-testing—undocumented drivers).

With its widely publicized Proposition 187, California unfortunately proved to be a trendsetter for the nation. Following the initiative’s lead, Congress’ 1996 welfare reform legislation stripped many legal immigrants of federal public benefits.[3] More than a decade later, a number of other states, including Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, and South Carolina, passed tough immigration enforcement laws that were, in important respects, similar to Proposition 187.[4]

As Bob Dylan famously said: the times, they are a changing’. Indeed, we are witnessing nothing less than a sea change in state and local policy directed at immigrants in the United States and California again is at the forefront. However, the current trajectory in sub-federal immigration policy—pro-immigrant integration, not pro-immigration enforcement—is dramatically different than it was in the heyday of Proposition 187. Ironically enough, the nation has President Donald Trump, an immigration hawk like no other, to thank.

California’s Changed Responses to Immigrants

Responding to Trump: California Seeks to Promote Immigrant Integration

As promised in the 2016 campaign, President Trump from his first days in office pursued aggressive immigration enforcement measures, ranging from executive orders banning travel from predominantly Muslim nations to mass deportations to announcing steps toward building a wall along the U.S./Mexico border and threats of even greater enforcement efforts. Those steps provoked an immediate and inspired response from many state and local governments—and especially from California. Governor Jerry Brown, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and Senate President pro Tem Kevin de Leon, led the opposition to the Trump administration’s call for ever-greater immigration enforcement. The resistance has been fueled in no small part by the growing awareness among California lawmakers of the need for increased legal protections for immigrants, among the state’s most vulnerable residents, from the Trump immigration onslaught. The reaction is rooted in notions of fundamental fairness and the firm belief that the aggressive immigration enforcement agenda embraced by the Trump administration threatens to tear families apart, harm communities, and sow widespread human misery, all in the name of “enforcing the law.”


The reaction is rooted in notions of fundamental fairness and the firm belief that the aggressive immigration enforcement agenda embraced by the Trump administration threatens to tear families apart, harm communities, and sow widespread human misery, all in the name of “enforcing the law.”

Abandoning the punitive approach toward immigrants exemplified by Proposition 187, California for more than a decade has been at the forefront of taking steps to more fully integrate undocumented immigrant residents into the social fabric. Consider just a few contemporary examples. In 2001, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill (AB) 540, a path-breaking law that allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state fees at California community colleges and universities.[5] This law, which represents a meaningful step toward greater educational access for all residents, commenced a trend among the states. Several years later, the legislature went further and passed the California DREAM Act, which made undocumented college students eligible for state scholarships to help them pay for their education.[6]

Not limiting its efforts to higher education, the California legislature took a number of other steps to promote the integration of the state’s immigrant population. Seeking to facilitate the trust of immigrants in local police officers (who, in turn, need the cooperation of immigrants, and all members of the community, to most effectively protect the public safety), the legislature in 2013 passed the TRUST Act,[7] which restricts state and local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement authorities. Among other things, it prohibits the detention of immigrants longer than required by law so that federal officers can, if they so desire, take the noncitizens into custody. The TRUST Act represented a response to the U.S. government’s hyper-aggressive Secure Communities program,[8] which greatly expanded the criminal justice removal pipeline for immigrants who had minor (as well serious) brushes with the law and directly resulted in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people a year. In addition, after considerable debate and years of grassroots activism, the California legislature restored driver’s license eligibility for undocumented immigrants,[9] a significant practical step toward allowing undocumented immigrants to participate more fully in economic and social life, reducing fears of removal due to something as mundane and ordinary as operating a motor vehicle. Showing just how far the state had come from the dark days of Proposition 187, the California Supreme Court in 2014 ruled that a California law allowed undocumented immigrants to be licensed to practice law.[10]

In response to the Trump administration’s strident immigration enforcement agenda, the California legislature is active about taking steps to restrict state and local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. Indeed, the legislature sought nothing less than to declare California to be a “sanctuary state,” a bill (SB 54) that Governor Jerry Brown signed 5 October 2017, which takes effect January 2018.[11]

Other state and local efforts to facilitate the integration of immigrants into civil society, which are wholly consistent with federal law, might include, but are not limited to the following:

  1. Pursuing additional policies that encourage the cooperation of immigrants with criminal law enforcement authorities;
  2. Ensuring adequate access to English-as-second-language programs so that immigrants are better able to acquire English language skills and better assimilate into U.S. society;
  3. Providing that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are generally eligible for state and local licenses necessary to engage in certain professions and occupations (from building contractors to hair dressers) and more fully participate in the American economy; and
  4. Making noncitizens eligible for public benefits programs that are part of the economic safety net for other residents.

Recent years have seen the emergence of tensions between the federal, state, and local governments about immigration enforcement and immigration policy. While state and local governments increasingly seek to protect their immigrant residents, President Trump has disparaged many of those state and local efforts as “sanctuary” policies that undermine the enforcement of U.S. immigration law. His administration has gone so far as to threaten to eliminate federal funding to “sanctuary cities.”

We should not forget that state and local governments play important roles in ensuring the inclusion of all residents, including immigrants. Such efforts include steps by state and local governments to promote immigrant integration. State and local measures that move us toward a society in which immigrants are full members of the community, not marginalized peoples living in the shadows, deserve support and encouragement. The Trump administration unfortunately attacks, disparages, and derides those laws and policies.


Why California’s Immigration Turnaround?—The Response to Proposition 187

One might wonder on the issue of immigration policy from 1994 to 2017 what explains the stark political turnaround in California. The short answer is that Proposition 187 changed everything.

First of all, passage of the anti-immigrant milestone spurred a generation of engaged political activism. In Proposition 187’s wake, naturalization rates for immigrants spiked and hundreds of thousands of immigrants became newly-minted U.S. citizens (and part of the electorate). In turn, increasing numbers of Latina/o citizens voted, including recently naturalized ones. Not surprisingly, the number of Latina/o elected to the California legislature grew significantly and Republican legislators slowly but surely dwindled in numbers. The legislature’s racial and political composition changed with the election of increasing numbers of Latina/os and Democrats came to dominate the legislature. In fact, California Pete Wilson, who won re-election largely due to his ardent support for Proposition 187, was later effectively exiled, as it were, from California politics, having forever alienated the growing Latina/o electorate.

When all was said and done Proposition 187 dramatically changed the trajectory of California law and policy toward immigrants, as well as the state’s entire political landscape. One can only wonder whether President Trump’s immigration enforcement priorities might ultimately result in a similar political reaction on a national scale.

Providing Counsel to Immigrants Facing Removal

The specter of greatly increased removal efforts by the Trump administration has provoked great fear in immigrant communities. The “Trump effect” has led states and local governments to adopt laws and policies that protect immigrant members of communities and promote their integration. Some state and local governments have looked to provide the most fundamental protection for immigrants resisting removal—ensuring access to legal representation.

Having campaigned on a platform that included tough immigration enforcement, Donald Trump did not surprise most Americans when soon after his inauguration he announced aggressive immigration enforcement measures, including four executive orders on immigration in his first three months in office. States have taken a number of measures intended to moderate the adverse impacts of those tough policies. More are under consideration, including proposals to provide greater access to counsel to immigrants facing removal from the United States.

Unlike the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel to criminal defendants, the U.S immigration laws fail to ensure that immigrants, legal and undocumented, have an attorney in removal proceedings, which are classified as civil in nature.[12] Similar to the movement in the twentieth century to ensure that indigent criminal defendants are provided with attorneys, an organized movement has emerged to ensure legal representation for all immigrants facing removal from the United States.

Guaranteed representation for immigrants facing removal is only fair. As the Supreme Court has emphasized, a deportation hearing can “result in the loss of all that makes life worth living.”[13] That alone suggests the great need for guaranteed representation for immigrants facing deportation. Moreover, the nature of the U.S. immigration laws, which are rivaled for complexity only by the Internal Revenue Code, makes an attorney essential. In addition, the vast majority of immigrants, due to language and culture differences, cannot reasonably be expected to fully comprehend the many nuances, legal and otherwise, of the removal process.

The bottom line is that, absent legal representation, an immigrant facing removal faces nearly insurmountable odds in staving off deportation. Not surprisingly, the available evidence in fact demonstrates that represented immigrants successfully resist removal at much higher rates than unrepresented immigrants.[14]

Scholars for years have argued for guaranteeing counsel to immigrants facing removal from the United States.[15] In direct response to the Trump administration’s tough immigration stances, state and local governments in growing numbers are beginning to allocate funds for attorneys to represent immigrants facing removal.[16] For example, the California budget approved in 2017 provides $15 million to help secure counsel for immigrants facing deportation.[17]


One Model: The University of California’s Immigrant Legal Services Center

For several years running, the Obama administration set records by removing some 400,000 immigrants a year. Young undocumented immigrants were among the immigrants caught in the crossfire.

To begin addressing pressing immigrant student needs, the University of California (UC) in 2015 created a form of student services never before seen in higher education.[18] In establishing the UC Undocumented Legal Services Center (later renamed the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center),[19] the University demonstrated how it can serve all students—including immigrants—and the greater community of the state of California.

Created by UC President Janet Napolitano, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security who was responsible for enforcement of the U.S. immigration laws, the Immigrant Legal Services Center serves the unique legal needs of undocumented students and their parents. Housed at the UC Davis School of Law, home of a well-established Immigration Law Clinic[20] as well as a group of influential immigration law scholars, the Center provides legal services to undocumented students and their families on the UC campuses at Irvine, Merced, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz. (The only other UC campus, UC Berkeley, has its own legal assistance program for immigrants.)

One critically important feature of the center’s representation warrants explanation. The idea behind extending services to the parents of undocumented UC students involves a well-researched common sense phenomenon: students are in a significantly better position to succeed academically if they do not fear that their parents are at risk of removal.

The Center has plenty of potential clients, with more coming in with every new entering class. Several hundred undocumented students are enrolled at each of the campuses of the University of California system. Many of them are from Mexico or Central America. However, the University has undocumented students literally from around the world, including Asia, Africa, and Europe.

The efforts of the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center immeasurably benefit undocumented students and their families. Many of the students are eligible for relief under the U.S. immigration laws that stabilize their daily lives and, as a result, help to improve their academic success.

At the time that the Center was founded, attorneys expected to focus on assisting students with applications for relief under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was originally created in 2012 and dismantled by President Trump in 2017.[21] However, the legal work proved to be much more varied than initially anticipated. Some students and their family members are eligible for immigrant visas as well as citizenship. They need legal help to identify the potential ways of regularizing their immigration status and to navigate the complex, and often lengthy, bureaucratic process. Many students understandably want to regularize their immigration status so they are able to come and go from the United States and thus can participate in study abroad programs just like many other college students do. Some students are eligible for various forms of relief from removal under the U.S. immigration laws but need legal assistance to identify and collect the information necessary to make their case.

The Quest for Justice for All (Including Immigrants)

As with the efforts to provide legal representation, state and local governments must focus on how to best address the needs of all residents, including immigrants, and strive to ensure that immigrants are treated as full members of society. One important way to do so is provide attorneys to represent immigrants facing removal from the United States. As has been discussed, state and local governments are making efforts to do so. California has been at the forefront of the movement but the state of New York and many cities, including Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C., as well as Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, have already taken steps to assisting immigrant residents secure representation.

Through measures to help ensure counsel for all immigrants facing deportation, we see public support for a more procedurally fair and legitimate system—and one consistent with the ideal of “justice for all.” Through providing legal representation and taking other measures to protect immigrant residents, state and local governments are pursuing their proper role of facilitating the integration of immigrants into civil society. In the past, popular immigration enforcement laws, such as Proposition 187 and Arizona’s infamous SB 1070 that the Supreme Court invalidated in large part,[22] which made state and local police central to immigrant enforcement, had the opposite effect. Far from promoting immigrant integration, these laws have de-stabilized immigrant communities and marginalized, not integrated, significant numbers of state and local residents.

Through measures to help ensure counsel for all immigrants facing deportation, we see public support for a more procedurally fair and legitimate system—and one consistent with the ideal of “justice for all.”

Lawyers unquestionably can help to protect the rights of immigrants. Other state and local immigrant integration measures can as well. In pursuing such measures, California hopefully can provide guidance to the nation and encourage other state and local governments to pursue immigrant integration strategies.

In the long run, however, state and local governments can only do so much to reduce the harsh impacts of the U.S. immigration laws on immigrants. Fundamental change to those laws is necessary to bring full justice to immigrants. To that end, Congress at some point must overhaul the antiquated Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which was forged at the height of the Cold War and is not well-suited to addressing the nation’s 21st century immigration needs. In such comprehensive reform efforts, the labor needs of the United States and the precarious status of undocumented immigrants living here will need to be addressed.



[1] Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “Overall Number of U.S. Unauthorized Immigrants Holds Steady Since 2009,” Pew Research Center, 20 September 2016, available at http://www.pewhispanic.org/2016/09/20/overall-number-of-u-s-unauthorized-immigrants-holds-steady-since-2009/.

[2] California Proposition 187, Illegal Aliens Ineligible for Public Benefits (1994), Ballotpedia, available at https://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_187,Illegal_Aliens_Ineligible_for_Public_Benefits(1994).

[3] Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-193, 110 Stat. 2105.

[4] The immigration enforcement laws of these other states suffered the same fate as Proposition 187: the courts struck them down. See, for example Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. 387 (2012); United States v. South Carolina, 720 F.3d 518 (4th Cir. 2013); United States v. Alabama, 691 F.3d 1269 (11th Cir. 2012); Georgia Latino Alliance v. Human Rights v. Deal, 691 F.3d 1250 (11th Cir. 2012).

[5] California Assembly Bill 540, Cal. Legis. 2000-01 (codified at Cal. Ed. Code § 68130.5).

[6] California Assembly Bills 130, 131, Cal. Legis. 2010-11.

[7] California Assembly Bill 4, 2013 Cal. Stat 4650 (codified at Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 7282-7282.5).

[8] Due to state and local resistance to the impacts of Secure Communities, President Obama discontinued that program in November 2014; President Trump, however, reactivated it in January 2017. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Secure Communities, available http://www.ice.gov/secure-communities.

[9] AB-60 Driver’s License in California, DMV.ORG, available at https://perma.cc/U9VN-9JMR.

[10] In re Garcia, 58 Cal. 4th 440 (2014).

[11] Jasmine Ulloa, “California becomes ‘sanctuary state’ in rebuke of Trump immigration policy,” Los Angeles Times, 5 October 2017, http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-brown-california-sanctuary-state-bill-20171005-story.html.

[12] Immigration and Nationality Act § 292, 8 U.S.C. § 1362 (providing that noncitizens can be represented in removal proceedings “at no expense to the Government”).

[13] Bridges v. Wixon, 326 U.S. 135, 147 (1945) (citation omitted) (emphasis added).

[14] Ingrid V. Eagly and Steven Shafer, “A National Study of Access to Counsel in Immigration Court,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 164 (2015): 1.

[15] See, for example, Kevin R. Johnson, “An Immigration Gideon for Lawful Permanent Residents,” Yale Law Journal 122 (2013): 2394; Mark Nofieri, “Cascading Constitutional Deprivation: The Right to Be Appointed Counsel for Mandatorily Detained Immigrants Pending Removal Proceedings,” Michigan Journal of Race and Law 18 (2012): 63

[16] Jennifer M. Chacón, “Privatized Immigration Enforcement,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 52 (2017): 1, 6 (noting that “some states and localities with large numbers of noncitizen residents have begun to provide funding for immigrant representation”).

[17] Katy Murphy, “California Budget Deal Includes Deportation Defense Fund for Undocumented Immigrants,” San Jose Mercury, 16 June 2017, http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/06/16/california-budget-deal-includes-deportation-defense-for-undocumented-immigrants/.

[18] Kevin R. Johnson, “New UC Center Serves a Most Vulnerable Student Population: A New Trend in Higher Education?” Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, 14 December 2015, p. 24.

[19] UC Immigrant Legal Services Center, available at https://law.ucdavis.edu/ucimm/.

[20] For a discussion of the creation of the clinic and its pedagogical and social justice goals, see Kevin R. Johnson and Amagda Pérez, “Clinical Legal Education and the U.C. Davis Immigration Law Clinic: Putting Theory into Practice and Practice into Theory,” SMU Law Review 51(1998): 1423.

[21] U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), available at https://www.usic.gov/humanitarian/consideration-deferred-action-childhood-arrivals-daca.

[22] Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. 387 (2012).

Kevin R. Johnson
is Dean and Mabie-Apallas Professor of Public Interest, Law and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Davis School of Law. Quoted regularly by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other national and international news outlets, he studied at Harvard Law School where he served as an editor of the Harvard Law Review. His book, Immigration Law and the US-Mexico Border (2011), received the Latino Literacy Now’s International Latino Book Awards award for Best Reference Book, and he blogs at ImmigrationProf and as a regular contributor on immigration on SCOTUSblog.

Copyright: © 2017 Kevin R. Johnson. 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/