Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Book Review: Borders of Belonging: Struggle and Solidarity in Mixed-Status Immigrant Families



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Elsemieke van Osch, PhD-Researcher in Social and Cultural Anthropology at KU Leuven, Interculturalism, Migration and Minorities Research Centre (IMMRC). She studies families’ trajectories through the asylum regime in Belgium and the Netherlands. Her research analyses how families experience struggles over in/exclusion in the various phases of their asylum procedure, paying particular attention to the ways in which normative understandings of the family become entangled in these struggles.

Review of Borders of Belonging: Struggle and Solidarity in Mixed-Status Immigrant Families, by Heide Castañeda (Stanford University Press, 2019).

Borders of Belonging starts with a powerful description of Michelle Martinez (pseudonym), a Mexican mother who has been living undocumented in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas since she was four years old. She navigates the bureaucracy of obtaining a birth certificate for her now three-year-old daughter. On countless occasions throughout this bureaucratic itinerary, Michelle’s legal status jeopardizes her ability to obtain the required documents and complete this otherwise simple, administrative procedure. Eventually, her boyfriend, a U.S. citizen, requests the birth certificate acting “under contract for the registrant” rather than in “his rightful capacity as the child’s father” (p.4). This introductory vignette is exemplary in demonstrating how the disenfranchised legal position of one undocumented person scars the entire family unit, thereby causing legal precarity, even for those who hold formal citizenship.

In the United States more than 16.7 million people are part of mixed-status families, living with at least one undocumented family member in the same household, a number that has sharply increased over the past two decades as a result of tightened migration control. Yet, the experiences of these families often remain invisible in both academic and public debates. In this powerful ethnography, Castañeda provides detailed insight into the everyday lives of mixed-status families in the Rio Grande Valley. The book paints their struggles, worries and coping mechanisms, while situating these in the exceptional socio-political, legal and topological features of the South Texas borderlands. She argues that the “construction of ‘illegality’ for some members in a family influences opportunities and resources for all, including legal residents and U.S. citizens” (p.5). In doing so, it creates complex power hierarchies within the family unit that interfere with and complicate gendered, intergenerational and sibling relationships.

The thematically organised chapters (e.g. family relationships, education, health care, deportation) provide “thick descriptions” of the struggles, pain and pressure that families go through in multiple realms of their everyday lives. Yet, Castañeda also argues for taking seriously the ways in which they are resiliently drawn together and engage coping mechanisms to ensure the stability and integrity of their families. The book adequately tracks down multiple forms of agency family members collectively mobilise to mitigate the harmful consequences of migration law and practice.

Borders of Belonging enriches theorizations of borders through a dialectic approach that conceptualizes borders as simultaneously interiorized and located “everywhere”, and as a harsh, physical frontier that crystalizes in actual geographical spaces. Through this first perspective Castañeda builds on conceptualizations of borders as produced through surveillance, always and everywhere, functioning through disciplining and self-policing of migrants with precarious legal statuses (and their family members, as Castañeda persuasively argues). At the same time, the book pays strong attention to the specific socio-political, legal and topographical features that produce actual spaces in which the border is hyper-present. While this dialectic focus on borders runs like a thread through the entire book, it is most prominently dealt with in Chapter 4 (“Estamos Encerrados: Im/mobility in the Borderlands”), where Castañeda elaborates on the intense presence of permanent border check-points along all mayor highways up to 100-miles from the international border. The interview fragments provide testimony of how these checkpoints manifest themselves as actual borders that make both undocumented persons and their family members experience a particular “stuckness” within this borderland.

I consider the book’s most important contribution to be its methodological and empirical foundation. The book is based on five years of longitudinal, ethnographic fieldwork with over 100 families in the Rio Grande Valley. Its methodological approach is original for two reasons. Firstly, Castañeda includes interviews with various members of the same family, which grasps the experiences of individuals that are differently positioned (based on gender or generation) within the same social unit. For example, in the chapter entitled “United yet Divided, Mixed-status Family Dynamics” both mother Evelyn and her son Manuel interrogate how Manuel’s undocumented status contrasts with his younger, U.S. citizen brother Eric’s in myriad, crucial aspects of their daily lives. Their narratives show how the construction of “illegality” produced not only differential access to resources – such as health care or educational opportunities – but also manifested itself throughout interpersonal family relations. Secondly, through its longitudinal set-up, the book describes families’ life-stories as they evolve over time. Through vignettes and interview fragments, the reader witnesses important family milestones – such as the joys of marriage, “fixing papers” and graduation ceremonies, and the struggles and pains of rejection, including the deportation of loved ones. The chapter dissects the experiences of living in a mixed-status family throughout various life stages.

This sound, empirical foundation confirms and validates various insights previously established in scholarly literature, such as Enriquez’s descriptions of the experiences of U.S. citizen children of undocumented parents as “multigenerational punishment”, and work by Gonzales that conceptualizes the transition into adulthood as a process of “learning to be illegal”. She enriches these debates by illuminating the tensions and struggles between siblings with differential legal statuses – an understudied area in scholarly literature – and how they unfold in the Rio Grande Valley, where being undocumented or having undocumented family members is common.

Nevertheless, the author let some opportunities slip to critically engage useful theoretical frameworks. An example here are the book’s references to the concept of “deportability” as elaborated by Peutz and De Genova and increasingly employed by scholars within the social sciences. According to Castañeda, deportability not only functions on those deemed deportable, it also produces the possibility of having family members deported. While various “thick” empirical narratives describe the detrimental impact the mere possibility of deportation has – like the psychosocial harm done to various family members described in Chapter 7 (“Family Separation. Deportation, Removal and Return”) – the book does not undertake further theoretical analysis.

Overall, Borders of Belonging is a policy-relevant and accessible piece of work that provides extremely significant insight in the spill-over effects of tightened border control and draconian migration policies. Through vivid descriptions of the harmful consequences of these policies, the book attests to the ways in which family members become the “collateral damages” of these politics of migration. I appreciate Heide Castañeda’s commitment to bringing to life the daily reality of mixed-status families as they navigate borders, belonging and family-life.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

van Osch, Ε. (2021). Book Review: Borders of Belonging: Struggle and Solidarity in Mixed-Status Immigrant Families. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/05/book-review [date]

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