ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 11, Number 3 (August, 2014)


Simulacrum and Latin Illegal Immigration in the United States

Max Vazquez Dominguez
(Doctoral Student, School of Education, The University of Georgia)

I. Introduction
Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra and the hyperreal help us to elucidate the problems of immigration law in the United States and its implementation which fails to follow a true law in regards to illegal immigrants; in other words, this immigration law is an illusion, a simulation. It is not that the officers from the Department of Homeland Security are not deporting undocumented immigrants, but they are enforcing an illusion of a law depending on particular interests that will be discussed here using multiple examples of immigration cases in the United States. In addition, I include the notion of hyperreal to analyze the ongoing debate about the immigration policy in the U.S. that often highlights the disadvantages of illegal immigration by portraying undocumented people as criminals, low academic achievers, and low skilled workers (Guyll et. al., 2012)]. In contrast, counter-examples confront this negative image of undocumented immigration and the laws by using an approach where undocumented people are seen as an advantage to the United States. As part of this analysis, I will be reviewing several newspaper articles and recent literature on Latin immigration in order to describe the political distinctions in terms of who is considered to be an illegal-suitable-to-be-expulsed and, on the other hand, who is considered to be a superior-illegal who will not be expelled from the country but has not acquired the level of a citizen.

II. A brief history of Mexican migration to the United States
Since the early twentieth century Mexican immigrants have been present in the United States, but it was not until the United States entered the World War I that the first significant wave of Mexican workers arrived as a result of the demand for contract laborers. Then, a series of bilateral agreements were formalized between the United States and Mexico, first in 1942, and continuing through the 1960s (Heisler, 2008). The Bracero program was the first to emere as temporary labor recruitment for low-skilled workers in areas such as construction, services occupations, transportation, and mining during the World War II (Brick, et. al., 2011). According to Heisler, following the Wartime Emergency Farm Labor Service program that ended in 1947, a new bilateral agreement went into effect in 1952 in which the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the Border Patrol allowed illegal immigrants to be certified as braceros. This situation not only encouraged undocumented migration, but also undermined the relation between the two countries by disturbing the Mexican government’s control over its citizens. Then, Operation Wetback, a repatriation program by the INS, took place in 1954, during which time, the INS apprehended and deported close to one million illegal workers. Nevertheless, there was a constant need of low-cost workers, and U.S. employers played a crucial role in accelerating the waves of both legal and illegal immigration to the U.S.: “the number of legal immigrants rose from 38,000 in 1964 to 67, 000 in 1986, while the gross number of undocumented grew from 87,000 to 3.8 million entries in the same period” (Heisler, 2008: 70). Hansen (2009: 8) adds three more factors to this migration equation: the Mexican economic crisis and corresponding devaluation of the Peso, high population growth in Mexico, and the lack of adequate border control. 

In 1986, when the United States Congress attempted to exert greater control over illegal immigration by passing the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) by approving a mixture of sanctions on companies hiring illegal immigrants along with a massive “legalization of 2.7 million unauthorized migrants in the U.S., 75% of them Mexican” (Hansen, 2009). In order to boost the Mexican economy and reduce migration to the U.S., the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed between Mexico, United States, and Canada during the 1990s. However, the combination of NAFTA’s failure to improve working rural conditions in Mexico and Mexico’s economic crisis in 1995 resulted in the exacerbation, rather than the reduction, of immigration to the U.S. during the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st Century.  Trade between the U.S. and Mexico increased along with the migration process: “the estimated number of unauthorized Mexicans in the United States rose from 2.5 million in 1995 to 4.5 million in 2000” (Martin, 2005), and then to 11 million in 2005 (Passel, 2005).

According to Alden (2012), it was in the mid 1990s when the first expansion of armed U.S. agents took place on the border with Mexico with operations “Gatekeeper” and “Hold the Line” in San Diego and El Paso, respectively. Then, the 9/11 attacks created a major shift in the immigration debate, as illegal immigrants were exposed to international and U.S. media scrutiny, since the 9/11 hijackers had violated the terms of their visas (Ibid.). And Alden adds, “The attacks transformed border control from what had been essentially a public order issue into a national security issue. […] The creation of DHS [Department of Homeland Security] institutionalized the link between border security and terrorism” (Ibid.: 111). This repositioning of immigration issues had the consequence of a hardening of both the U.S. borders and the processes of granting permission to enter the country.

New studies have shown that illegal immigration from Latin America has indeed decreased, and this is not only as a result of the 700 miles of fenced border with Mexico and reinforced Border Patrol presence. This decreased immigration is also a result of a weakened U.S. economy that is no longer flush with jobs, a precipitous decrease in the Mexican birthrate, and the increased cost and danger of the trip most illegal immigrants have to face in order to arrive to the U.S., related to the activities of the criminal cartels that control smuggling (Cave, 2013: A8).

Still, in the aftermath of the results of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the migration process remains a current and controversial issue in the U.S., and how it is handled can determine the future of the nation: from the economic situation to the international and national climate and relations.  Through all these years, and shifting contexts and conditions, Mexicans, as well as people from other Latin American countries, have impacted American institutions in such a way that they continue to be the focus of immigration reformers on both the political left and right.

III. Immigration Policy in the United States in the 21st Century
The subject of illegal immigration has reached a point where political forces have now modified their agendas; increasing numbers of monthly deportations have played an important role in the United States immigration policy since Barak Obama was elected president in 2008. On the one hand, there are some immigration specialists such as Carl Bon Tempo, Bill Hing, Mae M. Ngai, and Mark Krikorian who claim that there was a significant increase in deportations during Obama’s first term as president; on the other hand, the reporter Louis Jacobson (2012) argued that while the deportation numbers indeed increased, this increase was not as dramatic as portrayed by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. Objective data seem to indicate that the monthly averages of deportations have indeed been higher during the Obama presidency (32,886 deportations per month) than that during that of his predecessor, George W. Bush: (20, 964 deportations per month).

The actions driving these deportation figures are grounded in the interpretation that illegal immigration is a crime because it goes against the law, and the deportations themselves provide a unique opportunity to prove the necessity of obeying the law. How often have public figures (e. g. Joseph “Joe” Arpaio, the Maricopa County Sheriff) stated that the problem with illegal immigrants is that they are not following the law? In order to theorize the depth of what is happening with this issue it is important to turn now to Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacra and the hyperreal. Both are especially prescient for the analysis of Latin illegal immigration in the United States in the XXI century.

IV. Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Hyperreal
Baudrillard maintains that Western culture through the means of mass media technology has created a new order of the simulacrum, which he called the hyperreal. Baudrillard’s earlier work (The system of objects, and Consumer society) prolonged his Marxist critique against capitalism switching from critiquing the modes of production to critiquing the means of consumption (see Baudrillard in Poster, 1988). Here, I rely on his later work in which he gradually abandoned Marxist theories as he developed a new relationship with postmodern theorists. For the purpose of this paper I will not explain how these changes happened throughout Baudrillard’s writings but it is always interesting to read and compare his early writings to the his later ones. It is in Simulacra and Simulations (1981) when Baudrillard fully develops his hyperreality argument that is formed by self-referential signs (Ibid.). There has been some confusion with Baudrillard’s use of the terms simulacrum (singular form) and simulacra (plural form), as some readers may think of the word’s Latin derivation “simulare” which means to “make like”, “feign”, “pretend” or simulate comprising issues of falsity, deceit, and untruth.  According to Poster (1988), this tradition of granting falsity to the simulacrum comes from Plato who opposed the ideal world to the material one. Baudrillard rejects this Platonic understanding of the simulacrum by using Nietzsche’s criticisms against absolute Truth and fact. In this sense, Baudrillard’s simulacrum is not false, nor a mere counterfeit, but is that which hides the truth’s non-existence, or in other words, it creates “the illusion of truth” (Baudrillard, 1979 in Poster 1988) and it is precisely because truth does not exist that the simulacrum is real.

Translated into immigration law this notion of simulacrum means that what we hold as a law is not based on any real or true laws. According to Baudrillard, all there is now is a mere illusion, a simulacrum of law. But, how does a simulacrum work? Baudrillard’s taxonomy ([1976] 1988: 123-148) is based on three orders of simulation: 1) The counterfeit is the dominant scheme of the “classical” epoch, from the Renaissance to the industrial revolution; 2) Production is the dominant scheme of the industrial era, and 3) Simulation is the dominant scheme of the present phase of history, governed by the code. Let us explore the orders of simulation using some examples.

Michelangelo’s the Pietà is a masterpiece of sculpture that has several replicas around the world. The first order of simulation is characterized by the necessary existence between an original and the copies of that original, along with the ability to differentiate them. The second order of simulation, characterized by the industrial revolution, is when the original and the copies are exactly the same; in other words, there is no way of differentiation between them. An example of this second order would be how a model of car is produced in which the first car for a specific model and year (e.g. say Nissan Sentra, 1988) and the last car in that production are the same. Now, the third order of simulation is when the copy does not need an original, and that is only possible through the media production and reproduction (e.g. the TV, newspapers, radio, internet, among others). According to Baudrillard, the Gulf War, as experienced in the West, did not take place, for example since it was a media creation presenting brutality in real time; it was not a war, it was a “shameful and pointless hoax” (Baudrillard, 1995: 72), a mere propaganda from the point of view of the West. Just to be clear, Baudrillard did not say that the war did not have an effect – thousands dead, tens of thousands made homeless, etc., rather, he was critiquing how media masqueraded a barbarity.

By stating this classification of the orders of simulation, Baudrillard ([1976] 1988: 123-148) sets up an opposition between simulation and representation. Representation is based on the principle that the sign and the real have an equivalent relationship even if it is considered to be an idealistic one. On the other hand, simulation comes from Utopia, “from the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference” (Baudrillard ([1981] 1988). Thus, simulation comes from this kingdom that no longer needs a reference because it has covered and supplanted the real and its representation. Even further, simulation has embraced the need for reality and overcome its own possibilities (reflection, perversion, and absence) by over feeding a surplus in form of pure simulacrum as part of the last phase of the image.

Baudrillard proposes another related concept that deals with the real/reality, and the simulacra, and that is the hyperreal. Before using the notion of hyperreality, we must return to Saussure’s categorization of the sign (Saussure, [1916] 1959) that takes the form of a triad: the signifier, the signified, and the referent. The problem lies in the placement of the real as representation and that would mean that it must either be inside or outside the sign.  According to Gane (2010: 95) we have to be aware that Baudrillard is nor referring to the symbolic order (in which there is no referent), but to a particular stage in which the sign, conditioned by the mass media and the entertainment industry, is increasingly postulating its own non-reality. And Gane adds, “this negation is absorbed by the sign itself” (Ibid.). The hyperreal was born when the mass media was triggered by the cultural development localized in the transition from “the bourgeois culture of drama and the spectacle to that of a mass culture mediated by television and computers” (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2012).

Current immigration policies make a distinction about to whom they apply and to whom they do not. Does this create a problem? I believe it does since a law is represented in the real. In other words, the law has its basis in reality but this is understood as a fixed notion, as a permanent meaning, while postmodern theorists have shown there is not such a thing as this fixed reality. However, policy makers, legislators, school superintendents, governors, etc., create a halo of rigidity, formality and severity around laws that makes it hard to see these laws as illusions. Nevertheless, they are simulations in the Baudrillardian sense. This sets up an impossibility of providing a solution within reality for the illegal immigration laws that are simulations. If the problem were solved, then the law would be completely disapproved. On the other hand, the simulation of the law is a source of endless possibilities, as Obama has shown by approving the youth non-deportation proposal. Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, released the memorandum on June 15, 2012, in which young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children will no longer be subject to deportation and may be eligible to receive deferred action for a period of two years. According to the memorandum released by Napolitano (Ibid.), these immigrants have to demonstrate the following criteria: They came to the United States under the age of sixteen; have continuously resided in the United States on the date of this memorandum; are currently in school, has graduated from high school, has obtained a general education development certificate, or is an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States; have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise poses a threat to national security or public safety; and are not above the age of thirty.

In 2001 there was a similar version called “the Immigrant Children’s Educational Advancement and Dropout Prevention Act of 2001” and, according to Barron, from that moment nearly every year a similar act has been proposed in the U.S. Congress but none had obtained enough support. It took more than 10 years to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) act and the path to pass this bill was not an easy one. Although some states provided illegal immigrant students with support for in-state tuition (e.g. California in 2001), there were several states that took the opposite direction by prohibiting illegal immigrants from enrolling at their public colleges and universities (e.g. Alabama and South Carolina) and some others by prohibiting them from receiving in-state tuition (e.g. Arizona, Georgia and Colorado) (Whaley, 2013: 625-43. However, there was an exceptional case in which a university not only allowed an illegal immigrant to pursue a higher education in the U.S., but also provided him with legal support after the police found his illegal status.

In this extraordinary case, an undocumented student attending Harvard was allowed to stay in the US “indefinitely” in June of 2010 because he was considered to be a star in cancer research (Kramer, 2010). His academic record was contrasted with his illegal condition as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, resulting in his deportation being deferred “indefinitely.” Thus, his academic profile was found to be more important than his immigrant status, clearly demonstrating the illusion of the law for one small part of the undocumented community and the rigidity of the law for the majority of that community.

This case proves that laws are always produced without an original referent; reality is operational and demonstrates a political agenda.  The immigration problem leads us to pose some questions about immigrants in the U.S.: How has the Latin illegal immigrant ‘s body been consumed by capitalist and neoliberal agendas? What kind of exchanges, experiences or spaces are Latin illegal immigrants going through as part of this new immigration non-deportation proposal?  What kind of social assemblages are needed to trigger the change of a law?

V. Conclusion
In this paper I have analyzed Latin illegal immigration into the United States in the XXI century from a postmodern point of view arguing that immigration laws are im-possible in reality. In the case of the Harvard student, “We’re just now in process of trying to figure out’’ how to obtain permanent legal status for him “in the long run and secure his future,’’ said one of his pro bono lawyers, Deborah Anker, director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program at the university’s law school. “It’s not a permanent solution,” she concluded (Ibid.).  Also, I wanted to show how the possibility of a fixed illusion is similarly problematic. For example, in 2009, Microsoft’s Fred Humphries, Managing Director of U.S. Government Affairs wrote: “High skilled immigration reform is absolutely critical to American economic recovery, and to the success of any comprehensive reform effort. It will take those on all sides of this issue to work together to fix the system” (Ibid.).

Moreover, cases like Heydi Mejia, a senior high school student who faced a deportation because immigration officials raided her family’s apartment, shows the nonsense and brutality of the law. She graduated from Meadowbrook High School in Virginia on Friday, June 15th, 2012, and according to Saslow (2012: 6) was scheduled to be deported to Guatemala after graduation. Is there any difference between this student and the undocumented student at Harvard? Yes, there are several, but one is playing a major role: one student was deported and the other remained in the country proving the illusion of the law. Saslow raises an interesting question: “What should the United States do with illegal immigrants who come to the country as children, grow up here, break no laws and want to remain?” (Ibid.). This question places the responsibility on the United States as a country, which means that regardless of legal status, political preferences, religion and gender, we all need to participate in how the immigration law is produced, consumed and changed in these hyperreal times.

Hyperreality shows how there is no need for a prior model to be represented in the social media. It creates a new reality that, in the case of immigration in the U.S., impacts the perception of the audience that is constantly bombarded by this union between reality and fiction. Nevertheless, and as I have proven here, there are flaws in this hyperreal project of illegal immigration that contradict the immigration law that has devastating consequences on the social composition where Latino families and students play an important role. Moreover, these flaws in the immigration law help us make more educated decisions about our political participation and to promote and fight for better policies for the community.

Max Vazquez Dominguez research interests include education, immigration, and postmodern philosophy and the way these three intersect in the United States and Mexico. He is currently working with the local Latino community in Athens, Georgia in bilingual and science educational programs for middle and elementary school students and their families.


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