Waiting for Papers: The Bridled Affiliation of Undocumented Migrants in the United States

Sebastien Chauvin (2009/2014)

Waiting for Papers: The Bridled Affiliation of Irregular Migrants in the United States

Politix English edition, 87(2): 47-69

Original French version published in 2009.
English-language edition in 2014

In the United States as elsewhere, the lack of legal documents plays a key role in irregular migrants’ precarious condition. The characteristics of the American immigration system nevertheless allow the undocumented to enjoy rights that contrast with the more suppressive systems of Western Europe. Illegal immigrants have been incorporated into society, State, and the job market in a way that cannot be fully appreciated merely by pitting formal exclusion, on the one hand, against informal integration or subjective legitimacy, on the other. Their concrete citizenship, while inferior, includes many formal elements, at both local and national levels. This advanced normalization of illegality tends, in turn, to further institutionalize their subordinate condition. Not being reduced to the status of noncitizens, irregular immigrants tend to form a recognized, stabilized stratum of subcitizens, whose self-regulation, bureaucratic stability, and fiscal participation have been maintained by endlessly repeated promises of amnesty, which, since 1986 in the case of Mexicans, have always been deferred. In this context, illegality appears, not as an absolute marker of illegitimacy, but rather as one more obstacle within a continuum of probationary citizenship. The fact that irregular migrants sometimes have to commit more offenses, however, if they wish to benefit from the most formal civic attributes, means that the social meaning of those attributes remains indeterminate, since those who hold them can be represented as “more illegal” as well as “more legal.”