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Reform Without JusticeLatino Migrant Politics and the Homeland Security State$

Alfonso Gonzales

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199973392

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199973392.001.0001

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(p.175) Appendix Toward a Neo-Gramscian Approach to Latino Politics Research

(p.175) Appendix Toward a Neo-Gramscian Approach to Latino Politics Research

Theory and Methods

Reform Without Justice
Oxford University Press

The questions pursued in this book require an alternative to conventional theories and methodologies used in traditional American political science and its subfield of Latino politics. I say “methods” because the research questions pursued here cannot be reduced to a single methodology such as a large-n study where the researcher relies on a data set based on a survey such as the Latino National Survey.1

As even MIT professor Stephen Van Evera, a leading methodologist in traditional political science, noted, “Methodology classes cover large-n methods (or large n and rational choice) as if these were all there is...but political science should embrace the task of historical explanation among its missions.”2 He also wrote, “Political science field culture has avoided the application of theory to solve policy problems and answer historical questions.”3 Although I occasionally draw on such data to illustrate certain points, I rely on a unique theoretical framework, methods, and research design that is problem-oriented on the relations of force between the homeland security state, the anti-migrant bloc, and pro-migrant forces.

This historical problem requires theory and methods of political inquiry that can capture how power is exercised from above and resisted from below. To capture these multiple levels of analysis, I adopt a neo-Gramscian theoretical framework and variety of method such as critical discourse analysis and critical ethnography. First I will discuss my reasons for drawing on neo-Gramscian theory, describe my methods that stem from this framework, and finally discuss how this approach could enrich our understanding of the politics of migration control and Latino politics.

(p.176) Neo-Gramscian Theory

The argument advanced in this book rests on a particular Gramscian and neo-Gramscian understanding of the state, intellectuals, and relations of force in concrete historical conjunctures that was discussed in the introduction, and upon which my research design and methods are predicated.

The ideas of the twentieth-century political thinker Antonio Gramsci and the interpretation of his life works by neo-Gramscian scholars such as Stuart Hall, Nicos Poulantzas, and others can be used to illuminate Latino migrant politics in particular and Latino politics in general. Moreover, at a time when some scholars have proclaimed that Gramsci’s ideas are no longer useful for understanding contemporary social movements, it is important to raise why I draw upon Gramsci and interpretations of his work for understanding the relations of force between Latino migrant activism and what I have referred to as the homeland security state.4

Neo-Gramscian scholars have used Gramsci’s theoretical insights to understand the struggles between social movements and states in distinct conjunctures across the globe.5 Although they are admittedly complex, Gramsci’s conceptual insights have much to offer those who seek to gain greater clarity on the barriers facing Latino migrant activists and the migrant rights movement as they struggle for sustainable and transformative justice in the context of the homeland security state and global capitalism.

Although it is common for North American scholars to refer to Gramsci’s use of the concept of hegemony, his writings offer far more complex tools and concepts for the study of conjunctures, including a methodology and philosophy of social science in which social, historical, and political research is conducted to inform practical social change.6 In fact, Gramsci wrote, “The most important observation to be made about any concrete analysis of the relations of force is the following: that such analyses cannot and must not be ends in themselves, but acquire significance only if they serve to justify a particular practical activity, an initiative of will.”7

Gramsci was a committed revolutionary who wanted to understand what went wrong with the Italian Left in a moment similar to the one facing Latino migrant activists and the broader migrant rights movement in 2006, when immediately after the mega-marches the movement seemingly was at the height of its power, only to see the expansion of the homeland security state and the deportation of millions people thereafter. Gramsci wanted to understand how the Fascists in Italy were able to win consent for their reactionary project under the conditions of liberal democracy, even among some socialists, in the aftermath of the Italian factory workers’ movement in the early 1920s, when over 500,000 workers took over factories and the Left seemed to be in its ascendancy. I recognize (p.177) that there are important differences between Italian Fascism of the 1920s and 1930s and the fascistic elements of twenty-first-century state practices in the United States today, such as the degree of violence employed by both regimes, the nature of global capitalism, and the character of contemporary race relations. Nonetheless, I use a series of interrelated Gramscian concepts to understand why, despite intensified Latino migrant activism between 2001 and 2012, we have an ever more powerful and efficient homeland security state while receiving only relatively modest concessions and symbolic gestures toward Latino migrant activists and other people of color.


Neo-Gramscian theory, with its focus on power and resistance, requires methods that capture both these dynamics. To capture how power is exerted from above, from state actors and civil society organizations that comprise what I have termed the anti-migrant bloc, I employ discourse analysis. There are many forms of discourse analysis. In this case, I adopt a broad method known as critical discourse analysis for studying the relationship between language and power. Indeed, the leading social scientist who popularized critical discourse analysis, Teun A. Van Dijik, stated, “Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is a type of discourse analytical research that primarily studies the way social power abuse, dominance, and inequality are enacted, reproduced, and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context.”8 My approach to critical discourse analysis should be distinguished from formal approaches to the study of language coming out of contemporary linguistics that often focus on the structure of language such as the syntax or more quantifiable forms of content analysis. Rather, my approach highlights how language is deployed and consumed in the state–civil society nexus between micro actors and macro social and political structures. I use this method to illustrate how elite actors’ discourse, whether written or spoken, is circulated in the context of the homeland security state and Latino migrant activism.

The discourse analysis is primarily of state documents related to migration control but also includes the speeches and documents of nativist think tanks and intellectuals who lobby to influence immigration policy at multiple levels of governance. Such methods are necessary when attempting to access elite actors, especially those located within the anti-migrant bloc, because elite actors most often make their political decisions behind closed doors and because they have the power to determine to whom they grant interviews. One advantage of studying elite actors in the deliberative institutions of the state is that they leave readily available public documents in the form of government press releases, (p.178) transcripts of governmental proceedings, printed speeches, and other documents that can be found on governmental websites and that are often quoted in public media outlets. Thus, throughout this study I apply discourse analysis methods to the language of political elites in various sites of state power such as Congress, municipal government, foreign policy institutions, and so on. I also study the discourse of political elites in think tanks, media, and academic institutions, among other sites of knowledge production.

In a situation in which dominant groups are using the state and other institutions of power to police, detain, and deport subordinate groups, one must use alternative methods to reach those who resist this power from below. To get to these sources I draw upon critical ethnography rather than drawing upon a traditional data set. Critical ethnography is a method of study that draws its inspiration from critical theory and seeks to contribute to human liberation. Critical ethnographers recognize that the act of doing research is in itself a political act and attempt to identify their own positionality in the research. Soyini D. Madison noted, “The critical ethnographer also takes us beneath surface appearances, disrupts the status quo, and unsettles both neutrality and taken-for-granted assumptions by bringing to light underlying and obscure operations of power and control.”9

This critical ethnography is based on over sixty interviews and participant observation with a range of Latino migrant activists, policy makers, and deportees in the US, El Salvador and Mexico. The interviews were done with activists, established community organizers, and labor leaders in Greater Los Angeles and New York City and with leading policy makers and advocates who are firmly rooted in Washington, D.C., immigration policy circles. To supplement these interviews, I also draw upon own participant observations drawn from hundreds of hours of meetings, protests, marches, and events organized by Latino migrant activists in Southern California, New York City, and Washington, D.C., from 2001 to 2012.

Researchers are never outside of the politics of the topics that they study. I gained access to the migrant leaders interviewed for this study based on long-established relationships that I built with Latino migrant activists in Southern California starting in the early 1990s, when I first became a participant in the Latino migrant movement as a high school student. Moreover, because many of these leaders were connected to national and transnational migrant activist networks, I was able to gain further access to these organizations and political operatives in Washington, D.C., New York City, Mexico, and El Salvador.

During the initial stages of research program I used to use my positionality as a Chicano doctoral student at the University of California at Los Angeles to study the discourse and actions of the anti-migrant bloc in the United States and the Latino migrant movement in Southern California. Starting in the summer of 2008, as an assistant professor living and teaching in New York City, I began to build relationships and gain access to migrant activist networks in my new home. (p.179) I also drew on my own migration experience from Tijuana, Mexico, as a child and my relationships working with leading Latino migrant activists over the years to gain access to the various sectors of the migrant rights movement across the country and with deportees and policy makers in El Salvador. As a reflection of the racial, class, and geopolitical asymmetries that penetrate social and political research in any social formation, I was not able to gain access to many of the dominant sectors of the anti-migrant bloc in the United States, but I was able to gain access to many Latino political elites in the United States and in El Salvador.

It is also important to clarify that while the majority of people whom I interviewed are Latinos, Latino migrant activism does not occur in a vacuum but rather in the context of a multiethnic and multisector global migrant rights movement. Thus I also interview Asian, South Asian, African, and West Indian migrant activists and their Euro-American allies to understand the conjuncture in its complexity. Acknowledging this diversity, however, I focus on Latinos in the migrant rights movement because they are the largest and most visible group within the movement and because they are disproportionately the targets of vitriol and state violence in the United States and in the transnational spaces that they traverse in the conjuncture under study.

Implications for the Literature

The major challenge of writing this book is that the literature on migration control and Latino politics does not provide us with the theoretical and conceptual resources to develop the type of analysis needed to answer the questions pursued herein. While there are several books that cover parts and aspects of the themes and issues discussed here, there is no one book that tackles the admittedly large questions that I engage.

Most of the available literature is too narrowly focused on either aspects of migration control or Latino political behavior. The body of social science research on migration control, while certainly revealing much about the dynamics and evolution of state efforts to regulate migrants, most often assumes that Latino communities are passive victims or are otherwise powerless in shaping the policies that directly impact their lives.10 Moreover, this literature is often focused on just one aspect of migration enforcement. For instance, the works of Wayne Cornelius and Joseph Nevins, among others, tend to focus on border enforcement.11 Others such as Monica Varsanyi focus on local and state immigration policy, and Lina Newton focuses on congressional immigration policy.12 A recent notable study, by sociologist Tanya Maria Golash-Boza, discusses DHS as the twenty-first-century enforcement regime but does not provide a theoretical foundation for conceptualizing DHS as part of a more complex and (p.180) differentiated state apparatus. In other words, she limits her analysis to DHS, its agencies, and actions and provides scant discussion on the nature of the state or on Latino migrant activists’ labor to counter such actions.13 Scholars of migration control have produced insightful but atomized studies that focus on aspects of the matter, but few have developed theoretical or empirical work concerned with the dialectic between migration control and migrant resistance per se.14 Yet for the millions of people like Bernardo, whose experience was discussed in the introduction and conclusion, migration control is infused with state power at multiple levels and is resisted almost every step of the way.

The difficulty with using the established research on Latino politics to answer the questions pursued in this study is almost the reverse of the literature on migration control. Latino politics research primarily focuses on political behavior, such as voting, naturalization, public opinion, and political incorporation, without taking into account the structural context for such behavior.15 This research helps us understand with great precision certain aspects of Latino political life in the United States on a micro and individual level to be sure. Yet with few exceptions, the field of Latino politics has yet to develop a theory of the state, when almost everything that we study, from voter participation, transnationalism, identity formation, migrant activism, and so on takes place within the orbit of the state. One important exception to this work is that of Rodney Hero, who developed a theory of two-tiered pluralism to illustrate how despite the formal existence and recognition of democracy and equality in the American political system, there is only marginal inclusion of Latinos and other racial minorities within the polity.16 Although Hero uses empirical data to effectively challenge the axiom of liberalism that all people have a relatively equal chance to affect the political system, he still works within a modified version of pluralism. The difficulty with the pluralist approach more generally is that it assumes that there is a functional separation of powers, a separation of the state and economy, and it assumes that the state has a transhistorical character. Yet as political theorist Raymond Rocco reminds us, Latino politics is taking place in the context of profound processes of neoliberal restructuring that limit the possibility of choice and justice afforded to Latino communities.17

As noted by Lisa García Bedolla, there is a tension between the study of structure and agency in Latino politics research.18 Indeed, this brief review of the literature on migration control and Latino politics raises the question: how do we make sense of contemporary Latino political struggles, which include voting, running for office, the processes of voter preferences, forging congressional coalitions, and social movements, in the context of the marco-structural transformations taking place such as neoliberal globalization, the rise of a transnational civil society, and supranational institutions and regional trading blocs such as the NAFTA, the Dominican Republic–Central American Free Trade (p.181) Agreement (DR-CAFTA), and the United States–Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement? These realities require that we develop a theoretical approach to the study of migration control and Latino politics more broadly that could account for both the micro and macro levels of analysis.

Scholars working outside of what is traditionally considered Latino politics have recently begun to call for a different approach to understanding the politics of migration control and migrant activism as part of holistic problem facing democracy. One notable and recent example of this comes from political theorist Kathleen R. Arnold, in American Immigration after 1996: The Shifting Ground for Inclusion.19 In this important book Arnold draws upon the theories of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben to examine the militarization of US immigration policies after 1996. She argues that contrary to the idea that states are becoming weaker under neoliberal globalization, the United States is reasserting its sovereignty over borders and migrant flows. Unlike most researchers on the topic, she is concerned with the interactions between the efforts of groups in civil society and migration control. She argues that civil society groups on the Right such as Minutemen, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and Save our State, although positioning themselves as critical “patriots” who are “doing what the government has failed to do,” are supporting what she calls prerogative power, the legal suspension of constitutional and human rights norms in times of emergency in the name of anti-immigration and antiterrorism. Moreover, Arnold argues that demands from the “pro-immigrant” camp often reduce the undocumented to guest workers. In the final analysis, according to Arnold, demands from anti-migrant and pro-migrant groups are “mutually reinforcing” notions that migrants are either a threat to national security or a source of cheap labor.

Two other important books that speak to the issues addressed here are not coming from political scientists but from anthropologists, such as Nicholas De Genova and Leo Chavez. In the introduction to the edited volume The Deportation Regime (co-authored with Natalie Peutz) and in other writings, De Genova correctly argue that any effort to understand the politics of migration control and migrant rights activism must start with the state. In fact, I expand upon his notion of the homeland security state throughout this book. In The Latino Threat, Leo Chavez argues that there is a dominant narrative that portrays Latinos as a threat to the United States that can be found in the media and in the medical field, among other sites.20 Moreover, Chavez writes about the spectacle of border enforcement and discusses how the 2006 marches were a form of performance politics in which Latinos were demanding full citizenship.

In this study, I attempt to build on the strengths of Chavez, De Genova and Peutz, and Arnold, while avoiding some of their conceptual pitfalls. The Latino Threat focuses almost entirely on civil society. Chavez does not provide an (p.182) analysis of the state in the production of violence against migrants. Thus, he gives his concept of “the Latino threat” an agency of its own without providing a coherent explanation of the forces involved in producing the narrative and their relationship to the state. In The Deportation Regime and in other writings, De Genova’s work correctly calls for studies of migration control to account for the state.21 Moreover, he elucidates what he calls the securitization of citizenship and the emergence of the homeland security state.22 However, De Genova attributes agency to the state and to immigration law themselves and does not reveal the structures and actors behind state migration control. Arnold, while giving one of the most penetrating analyses on this issue to date, homogenizes what she calls “pro-immigrant” groups and fails account for oppositional migrant organizations that consciously resist the urge to reduce migrants to bare life in order to win short term policy demands.

Reform Without Justice takes a different approach and endeavors to theorize state migration control in multiple spaces of governance through a neo-Gramscian framework. From this perspective, the state can be seen as an integral racial state rooted in civil society and shaped by concrete civil-society actors, similar to the way that Arnold accounts for nonstate actors. This approach complements De Genova’s in that it accounts for the centrality of the state in migration control. However, unlike De Genova’s approach, it also accounts for the ways that groups in civil society win consent for building the homeland security state not just among the general public, but also among immigration reformers. Approaching the state from the perspective of Gramsci’s integral state, in which intellectual power is central to winning consent for state coercion, will allow us not only to decipher the interstices of the homeland security state—its juridical, legislative, intellectual, and ideological aspects—but also to name some of the concrete actors sustaining and resisting the homeland security state.

This book is part of a growing body of research that combines the insights from political theory and Latino studies to shed light on contemporary political issues for a transdisciplinary audience.23 Indeed, I join the scholarship of my colleague Cristina Beltrán, who uses political theory to question the celebration of Latino political power and the insightful work of Kathleen R. Arnold.24 However, my work should be distinguished from these authors, for it fuses neo-Gramscian theory with critical ethnography and discourse analysis from transdisciplinary approaches to anthropology and Latino studies. This allows me to ground my theoretical approach to Latino migrant politics and the homeland security state right down to meetings, protests, and on the streets where the rights of migrants, and democracy are violated and contested in the context of neoliberal globalization and post–civil rights racism.


(1.) I do not wish to suggest that data from the Latino National Survey cannot be used to highlight, sustain, and perhaps even challenge certain aspects of Latino political life. It provides an important set of data, but it is limited for understanding the politics of the homeland security state and of Latino migrant activism to a certain extent.

(2.) Stephen Van Evera, Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 4–5.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Richard J.F. Day, Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements (London: Pluto Press, 2005).

(5.) For discussions of Gramsci and social movements, see Stuart Hall Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, and Brian Roberts, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, The State and Law and Order (London: McMillan, 1978); David Morton, Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy (London: Pluto Press, 2007); and William I. Robinson, “Gramsci and Globalization: From Nation-State to Transnational Hegemony,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy8, no. 4 (2005): 1–16. For a Gramscian analysis of Afro-Brazilian social movements, see Michael G. Hanchard, Orpheus and Power: The “Movimento Negro” of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil, 1945–1988 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994). For more on the uses of Gramsci by movements in Latin America, see Raúl Burgos, “The Gramscian Intervention in the Theoretical and Political Production of the Latin American Left,” trans. Carlos Pérez, Latin American Perspectives29, no. 1 (2002): 9–37.

(6.) A wider set of conceptual tools such as “historic bloc,” “integral state,” “organic intellectuals,” “common sense,” and “passive revolution” are among his most important contributions.

(7.) Forgacs, ed., The Gramsci Reader, 209.

(8.) Teun A. Van Dijk, “Critical Discourse Analysis,” in The Handbook of Discourse Analysis, ed. Deborah Schiffrin, Deborah Tannen, and Heidi E. Hamilton (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 352–371. Emphasis in the original.

(9.) Soyini D. Madison, Critical Ethnography, Method, Ethics, and Performance (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2005), 1–16.

(10.) Douglas S. Massey, Jorge Durand, and Nolan Malone, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002); Wayne Cornelius, “Death at the Border: Efficacy and Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Control Policy,” Population and Development Review27, no. 4 (2001): 661–685; Timothy Dunn, Militarization of the US–Mexico Border: Low Intensity Conflict Doctrine Comes Home (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996); and Joseph Nevins, Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal” Alien and the Making of the US–Mexico Boundary (London: Routledge, 2002).

(11.) Cornelius, “Death at the Border”; and Nevins, Operation Gatekeeper.

(12.) Varsanyi, Taking Local Control (see chap. 1, n. 14); also see Lina Newton, Illegal, Alien, or Immigrant: The Politics of Immigration Reform (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

(13.) Tanya Maria Golash-Boza, Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions, and Deportations in Post-9/11 America (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2012).

(14.) For an important exception to this see: Arnold, Immigration Politics after 1996.

(15.) For an example, see Fraga et al., Making It Home; and Rodolfo Espino, David Leal, and Kenneth Meier, eds., Latino Politics: Identity, Mobilization, and Representation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008).

(16.) Rodney E. Hero, Latinos and the US Political System: Two-Tiered Pluralism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 190.

(17.) Rocco, “The Structuring of Latino Politics.”

(18.) Lisa García Bedolla, Introduction to Latino Politics in the US (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009).

(19.) Arnold, American Immigration after 1996.

(20.) Leo Chavez, The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

(21.) See Nicholas De Genova and Nathalie Peutz, eds., The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); and Nicholas De Genova, “The Legal Production of Mexican/Migrant ‘Illegality,’” Latino Studies, no. 2 (2004): 160–185.

(22.) Also see De Genova, “The Production of Culprits” (see chap. 1, n. 3).

(23.) For more on this approach, see Paul Apostolidis, Breaks in the Chain: What Immigrant Workers Can Teach America about Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Cristina Beltrán, The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Edwina Barvosa, Wealth of Selves: Multiple Identities, Mestiza Consciousness, and the Subject of Politics (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008); and Victor M. Valle and Rodolfo D. Torres, Latino Metropolis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

(24.) Beltrán, The Trouble with Unity.