The 21st Humanities on the Edge speaker, Cristina Rodríguez, concluded this academic year’s focus on “States of Exception” with a talk on “Immigration Reform and the Political Value of Manufactured Crisis.” Rodríguez is Leighton Homer Surbeck Professor of Law at Yale Law School, where she is the school’s first tenured Latina law professor. Her April 16 presentation was co-sponsored by UNL’s Institute of Ethnic Studies as part of their annual Spring Celebration.
Rodríguez’s overall argument was that “crisis rhetoric” is deployed by skeptics of immigration reform as well as advocates for it, and that while such rhetoric has some strategic value in the short term, in the end it is detrimental to creating longer-term policy solutions to systemic problems. Her tightly-argued presentation modeled the kind of logical, practical, and historically-informed contributions that theoretical legal studies can make to public policy debates about contentious issues like immigration. In other words, her talk demonstrated how theory can clarify complex topics and help us perceive new possibilities for thinking and acting.
Rodríguez began by defining a “crisis” as a “discrete emergency” and then “crisis rhetoric” as a style of argument that foregrounds the sense of urgency resulting from an emergency. Crisis rhetoric is “maximalist” in the sense that it raises the stakes, resulting in debates framed in terms of “peril” or “promise.” In U.S. debates about immigration, Rodríguez explained, crisis rhetoric can be traced back the Chinese Exclusion Act and other exclusion cases of the 19th century; over time, crisis rhetoric has portrayed immigration as alternately a threat to the nation or a necessity for its future.
Drawing on statements made by presidential candidates as well as party platforms, Rodríguez presented a rhetorical analysis of the “border” trope in discourse about immigration. The southern border of the U.S. is a real place that has taken on metaphorical and symbolic power, and Rodríguez argued that for those people and groups that aim to protect the U.S. from the threat of immigration, the border stands in for the idea that the threat is cultural. In other words, despite crisis rhetoric around the topics of public safety or the economy, the border trope is at base a way to signify a threat to the nation’s cultural identity from those immigrants who do or will resist assimilation.
Humanitarians and advocates of immigration policy reform also use crisis rhetoric to describe what they see as a “broken system,” one responsible for “deaths in the desert” and the separation of families, and therefore a crisis of human rights. The urgency here is moral. For instance, Rodríguez mentioned the DREAMers youth movement’s slogan of “not one more deportation” not only for its immediacy but also for how it may suggest a position challenging any and all deportations, questioning government authority for immigration enforcement.
Following the same approach of cost-benefit analysis she believes could be productively applied by government agencies to the question of immigration reform, Rodríguez acknowledged the beneficial strategic power of crisis rhetoric to garner public attention and support, set a policy agenda, and thereby catalyze political change. For example, she pointed out how historically “meaningful social legislation” has resulted from disasters that required response; more recently, advocates of immigration reform have used crisis rhetoric to garner time and funding as well as policy change. Crisis rhetoric “forces us to grapple with concerns that must be engaged,” she said, and can both “crystallize” and “galvanize” debates and social movements in positive ways.
However, she argued that the costs of crisis rhetoric outweigh its benefits when it comes to the possibility of such rhetoric to lead to the social construction of deep or lasting change on immigration policy. When crisis rhetoric leads to the expansion of government power (especially in the executive branch), it does so at the expense of legislative, judicial, and public debate. In this way crisis rhetoric is unfortunately “ultimately destructive”: closing down openings for conversation and compromise, narrowing ideological positions and worldviews, and covering up questions of responsibility and accountability. For instance, Rodríguez described how the framing of immigration as a crisis that happens to the U.S. from outside conceals the U.S.’s participation through foreign policy as well as domestic labor policy in systems (past and present) that contribute to the structural conditions influencing immigration.
Rodríguez elaborated on this point during the later question-and-answer session. She explained that the ability of the U.S. to perceive and address any “root causes” of problems with immigration requires more global knowledge of “hemispheric dynamics” as well as the willingness—historically lacking in much of U.S. politics—to “imagine the U.S. as part of the larger world” (as opposed to uniquely distinct from or hierarchically above it). Drawing on the insights of ethnic studies scholars as well as movements toward trans-national approaches, she brilliantly rephrased the series’ focus on states of exception into a critique of the “U.S. state of exceptionalism.”
If crisis rhetoric, for better or worse, emphasizes the temporal aspect of public communication—building moral and political urgency, strategically speeding up talk and action, amplifying the fear that we will run “out of time” to fix a problem—it interesting to notice how Rodríguez countered with an emphasis on space. Her suggestions about what else might be done, for instance, involve the production or alteration of some kind of space: individual, institutional, social, political, etc. For example, she advised the necessity of a “default skepticism” toward the use of crisis rhetoric, suggesting that this could be accomplished through the teaching and learning of “critical thinking skills.” Educational spaces are here conceived of opportunities for students to gain a sense of critical distance, allowing them to step back in their analysis of close or immediate anecdotal experiences. Rodríguez also described alternative ways to design policies (like putting “sunsets” or expiration dates into crisis-driven laws) and design institutions to create a more “insular” civil service that informs and makes space for “discussions of first principles.”
Rodríguez answered a final question about what her own preferences for first principles might be by envisioning a U.S. immigration policy that (as I understand it) reflects a more global approach, taking into consideration the effects of the U.S.’s participation in international systems and considering how international migrations might be influenced by U.S. domestic labor law. As she spoke, I recalled the conclusion of communications scholar Sarah Sharma’s book In the Meantime: “My final argument, my very last remark, is that we need a radical politics of time and space that hinges upon temporalizing the spatial categories of democracy. The public is a place in which to start the ongoing project of a radical revising” (142). Sharma’s work, which includes labor ethnographies of urban immigrant taxi drivers, analyzes how speed is unevenly distributed in our seemingly faster and more urgent world. Her call for a politics of temporality might be a useful theoretical complement to Rodríguez’s call for the political creation of space, or perhaps it challenges such a move; in a chapter critiquing those in our culture who seek “slow space,” Sharma provocatively claims, “More space is not the solution to the problem of time” (111).
I left this event with feelings of energy and inquiry, and like the other members of the Watershed collective, I look forward to next year’s Humanities on the Edge series of speakers on post-humanism.
-Aubrey Streit Krug
Sharma, Sarah. In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke UP, 2014. Print.