Harvard Educational Review
  1. Borders of Belonging

    Struggle and Solidarity in Mixed-Status Immigrant Families

    Heide Castañeda

    Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019. 290 pp. $28 (cloth).

    In Borders of Belonging: Struggle and Solidarity in Mixed-Status Immigrant Families, anthropologist Heide Castañeda carries readers into the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, a hot, parched stretch of land at the southern border of Texas bounded by the river of the same name to the south and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) checkpoints to the north. She explores life in this region for families with differing immigration statuses, attending to how these often fluid statuses shape the quotidian experiences of parents, children, siblings, and extended kin. Throughout, she traces how the lack of secure legal status for one family member impacts the entire family’s access to resources and opportunities, demonstrating the relationship between broader sociopolitical and economic forces and intimate familial relationships. Drawing on five years of fieldwork and more than 250 interviews with members of 100 different families, Castañeda reveals how legal status permeates families, friendships, and neighborhoods with vivid and nuanced depictions of the people whose words and stories provide the foundation of the book.

    Castañeda’s analytic attention to the specific geography of the Rio Grande Valley in mixed-status families’ experiences of belonging and exclusion offers an important addition to scholarship on the intersections of place, legal status, and immigrants’ social, cultural, and economic incorporation (Marrow, 2011; Menjívar, 2014; Schmalzbauer, 2014). In the first chapter, “Belonging in the Borderlands,” she sets the scene, explaining how this rural, isolated region demands our consideration if we are to understand the impact of immigration enforcement on families’ lives. In the Valley, nearly 90 percent of residents identify as Latino, a quarter of those are foreign-born, primarily in Mexico, and over 10 percent of the population is undocumented. Many families are poor, with a good number relying on seasonal labor in the fields. The undocumented members of the families she interviewed desperately want to get jobs “out of the sun,” where the physical labor is less grueling and the pay more secure. For those with papers, watching their kin toil in difficult conditions motivates educational persistence and their desire to provide economic support for their families, even though these financial contributions may leave them with fewer resources to pursue their own achievements and dreams. Castañeda compellingly demonstrates how the lack of legal status prevents mixed-status families from moving out of cyclical poverty, even when one or more members are citizens or have legal status.

    Throughout the book, Castañeda shows how another feature endemic to this specific region is the specter of Border Patrol and the accompanying threat of being revealed as undocumented. On one hand, interactions with Border Patrol become a mundane part of life for her participants, making their presence less frightening. They eat in the same cafés, attend the same schools, and even, in some rare cases, are part of the same families. Yet, with the border so close and agents everywhere, undocumented families become subject to “denounce-ability,” in which threats to turn someone in to immigration are common and powerful. In highlighting the preconditions and effects of denounce-ability, the author builds on the concept of deportability (DeGenova, 2002), the constant threat of deportation even when one’s own status is secure, and offers critical theoretical insights into the relationship between legal structures, communities, and the lived experiences of immigrant families. As Castañeda writes, “denounce-ability functions as a powerful and remarkably efficient technique of governance precisely because everyone knows someone who has experienced it” (p. 80). Denounce-ability, then, is as much a part of the landscape as the hot desert winds.

    Castañeda strikes a productive balance between analysis and evidence, giving ample space to her participants’ narratives of their lives. In each part of the text, readers are introduced to people whose lives have been profoundly organized by being “encerrados” (enclosed or locked in) by the “second river” of ICE checkpoints to the north. This lack of physical freedom has a significant and often multigenerational impact on social mobility, in part because the second river restricts access to educational and economic opportunities and adequate health care. We meet adults who have lived most of their lives within this narrow strip of land, unable to travel to any major cities because they cannot risk being caught and deported at the permanent checkpoints that straddle all routes out of the region. We meet undocumented young people whose college dreams are cut short because they cannot attend universities beyond the checkpoints and their citizen siblings who don’t seek schooling outside the Valley because they cannot or do not want to leave their families behind. Perhaps most heartbreakingly, we learn about an eight-year-old girl, a US citizen, whose mother cannot accompany her when she must leave the Valley to seek treatment for a rare cancer in a more northern city. Instead, she is entrusted to her fourteen-year-old brother.

    But Castañeda helps us see beyond the difficulties that arise from the unique physical and sociopolitical dimensions of this arid landscape, reminding us that these same features also engender opportunities for belonging and inclusion. In Texas, space is bountiful and land is cheap. Immigrant families construct communities for themselves in colonias, small neighborhoods built up in the desert that often lack full access to municipal services like paved roads, streetlights, or adequate sewage. Yet these neighborhoods have allowed immigrants, with or without papers, to own homes, providing security and stability for their families. While this book reveals how stigma management and decisions about when to disclose legal status to friends, romantic partners, colleagues, and teachers are an omniscient part of families’ lives, the high percentage of undocumented people in the region means that many families are grappling with the shared ordeal of life without documents. As Castañeda demonstrates, these shared experiences are the foundation for agency and organizing among mixed-status families in the Valley, from attending protests to “coming out” as undocumented to providing rides and medical assistance to families in need.

    Providing assistance to undocumented family members, though, is not without complication. Indeed, the impact of having an undocumented family member on the roles and relationships between siblings and parents is a major theme throughout the book, and another of its significant contributions. Castañeda is at her strongest when she calls our attention to the effects of differing immigration statuses on sibling relationships. She reveals how younger siblings, who are more likely to be US citizens, take on caregiving roles for their undocumented older siblings. Sometimes this is mundane, such as driving siblings around town. But citizen siblings also take smaller doses of medicine to leave some behind for their undocumented sisters and brothers, who do not have access to Medicaid. In fact, some parents don’t enroll their eligible US-born children for Medicaid or other services at all out of fear of becoming a “public charge” (and thus being unable to adjust their status) or because they worry this institutional exposure will draw attention from the authorities and put them at risk of deportation.

    Siblings with citizenship often also bear the ultimate responsibility of trying to regularize their undocumented parents’ and siblings’ legal status once they become twenty-one, as Castañeda describes in chapter 8, “Fixing Papers: Status Adjustment in Mixed Status Families.” This chapter showcases a unique strength of Castañeda’s ethnographic work: we hear multiple family members’ perspectives on their collective experiences over an extended period of time. As a whole, this methodological approach provides insight into how families are often united in the goal of building stable, connected lives for themselves, despite varying roles and responsibilities. The strain of having different statuses in one family also leads to stress and conflict. Parents and children alike feel pressure to be “hypercitizens” who never break a rule out of fear of drawing attention from ICE. Citizen children feel a heavy responsibility as they wait to turn twenty-one, when they can regularize their parents’ or siblings’ statuses. And when one family member has the security and opportunity that comes with citizenship or other forms of legal status, this can engender a complex web of jealousy and guilt among family members.

    In capturing these dynamics, Castañeda makes clear that feelings of belonging are not experienced individually but, rather, as part of rich networks of kin and community. A US citizen child, for instance, may feel a sense of isolation and disconnect from her country of birth because her family is stigmatized for being undocumented, while an undocumented college student may find freedom and empowerment in connecting with their undocumented peers. For young people living in mixed-status families, being born in America is no guarantee of feeling American. Nor, however, is being undocumented an automatic lever of exclusion.

    Castañeda began her fieldwork in 2012, the year DACA was implemented.1 This allowed her to interrogate the impact of the precarious but still significant protections offered by young people who were eligible for the program. Despite the program’s flaws—reinforcing faulty notions of deserving immigrants, frequent and costly renewals, and no pathway to citizenship—Castañeda documents the fundamental transformations that took place for individuals and families when someone became a DACA recipient. One young man commented, “I just wanted freedom from the cage” (p. 201). With DACA, young people in this study became geographically, educationally, and economically mobile. When the program was initially revoked in 2017, they were faced with the extraordinarily painful possibility of returning to lives of entrapment and surveillance. While this research concurs with other scholarship demonstrating that DACA is not a single-handed cure for the inequalities that pervade undocumented young people’s lives (Gonzales, 2015), Castañeda’s rich ethnographic work provides evidence of how the program has improved mixed-families’ access to social services, increased economic security, and educational opportunities.

    As with any piece of research, Borders of Belonging includes some minor imperfections. The book includes some vivid ethnographic details of life in the Rio Grande Valley. But it would be even more evocative if additional observational evidence had been included to provide readers with a more multidimensional portrait of participants’ lives. While Castañeda grapples with race, showing how whiteness gives her participants a way to evade surveillance and access opportunity, and class, explaining how class background in Mexico gives families resources to circumnavigate the constraints of illegality in the US, her analysis would have been strengthened by attending more carefully to gender. She addresses how gender makes women more vulnerable to partner violence in romantic relationships but could have more fully interrogated how gender and immigration intersect in other dimensions of mixed-status families’ lives.

    At its essence, Castañeda’s endeavor artfully reminds scholars, practitioners, and policy makers to consider how individuals are embedded in families and how families are embedded in particular geographic landscapes. Schools and medical providers cannot consider individual children’s needs without grappling with their positions within mixed-status families. Policy makers must consider how changes in immigration laws and practices impact not only the intended recipients of the policy but the families surrounding them. Researchers across fields and disciplines, Castañeda argues, need to expand their unit of analysis outward beyond individuals, seeking instead to make sense of the ways family expectations, obligations, and care influence individual decision-making and action. And these decisions, she reminds us, are constrained and enabled by the intersections between place and immigration policy.

    In Borders of Belonging, Castañeda shows her participants exerting agency and setting down roots in this patch of desert, even as their lives are circumscribed by legal status. She carefully avoids binaries of deserving and undeserving immigrants and poignantly calls for policies “that steer clear of invoking existing hierarchies of deservingness, or producing new ones” (p. 225). Ultimately, this work illuminates how the exclusion wrought by a lack of legal status magnifies both the struggles and the shared endeavors of mixed-status families as they support, educate, and care for themselves and for each other in this windy, hot, desert borderland.

    Sarah Bruhn

    1 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a policy implemented by President Barack Obama in 2012 to provide some undocumented young people temporary protection from deportation and the ability to apply for a Social Security number. DACA offers no path to citizenship and must be renewed every two years. At this writing, the program’s future remains in limbo. As of September 2017, new applications are no longer being accepted. However, there have been various legal challenges to the Trump administration’s efforts to cancel the program, and renewals remain in place for those already granted DACA protections.

    DeGenova, N. P. (2002). Migrant “illegality” and deportability in everyday life. Annual Review of Anthropology, 31, 419–447. doi:10.2307/4132887

    Gonzales, R. G. (2015). Lives in limbo: undocumented and coming of age in America. Oakland: University of California Press.

    Marrow, H. B. (2011). New destination dreaming: Immigration, race, and legal status in the rural American South. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Menjívar, C. (2014). The “poli-migra”: Multilayered legislation, enforcement practices, and what we can learn about and from today’s approaches. American Behavioral Scientist, 58(13), 1805–1819. doi:10.1177/0002764214537268

    Schmalzbauer, L. (2014). The last best place? Gender, family, and migration in the new West. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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