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Documenting the Undocumented: On the Intersections Between Ethnography, Politics and Ethics

I remember the first time I met organizers from the Immigrant Youth Justice League. I was attending a grassroots leadership training when a youth organizer took the floor. The organizer stood up and introduced himself as an undocumented student who could not get his citizenship although he did everything that could be expected of him. When he shared his story in front of the room filled with organizers, it was a powerful moment. ‘We have two options’ he said. ‘Either we can keep on living in the shadows and hide by going back to Mexico or by not going to school … or we can decide that we no longer want to live in the shadows’. And he continued: ‘Just like the immigrant rights movement came looking for me, I come looking for you’. After that everybody locked in arms while people where chanting. This was probably the first time that I experienced the emotional power of coming out first-hand.

Hearing a person’s story made me feel part of a shared struggle, of a collective of people that was organizing themselves to claim their rights. ‘Doing research’ on the ways in which undocumented people learn how to become political was as much as anything else a personal learning experience in how to become political in a context that I was unfamiliar with as a European. By participating in IYJL’s retreats, meetings, workshops, shout-it-outs and coming out rallies, I learned what it takes to become an ally in the undocumented community.

During my tenure as a researcher at IYJL, I was bound to experience feelings of empathy, frustration, empowerment, courage and togetherness on many occasions. I witnessed how IYJL received awards; how they assembled youth from all over the city and how they part-took in political initiatives like the IL DREAM Act. At the same time, I witnessed how IYJL tried to cope with the defeat of the Dream Act in the Senate, how they interacted with other organizations and how they tried to halt people from being deported. ‘Being there’ in the field as a researcher enabled me to get a better insight into what it means to be undocumented and to be political. I consider this blog to be a testimony of my experiences as an ethnographer participating in IYJL for the past two years. However, I believe that these reflections are not merely useful as a way for me to be self-reflexive. Indeed, there are lessons to be learned from my personal experience about what happens in the complex and sometimes messy intersections of sociological research, politics, ethics and activism.

I started participating at IYJL in late August 2010. Back then, the DREAM Act debate was still ongoing in all its vigor and there was a general sense of urgency hanging in the air. The meeting I attended was tellingly titled: ‘Why we can’t wait’. I had talked to organizers from other organizations before about my interest in undocumented activism. Basically, they had all directed me towards IYJL. Hence, I looked up as much information as I could online. I had tried to explain my research project and my intentions to them via emails. When this approach failed, I decided to attend an open meeting. When I arrived, there were already about 40 people in the room. During the introduction of the meeting, an IYJL organizer spoke to those gathered to explain the importance of what was to come. ‘This is the new civil rights movement and I really believe that’ she said. IYJL organizers introduced themselves with ‘My name is … and I’m undocumented’. This organizational ritual of disclosing one’s legal status was at once an invitation for newcomers to do the same as a display of personal strength and openness. What was at stake was how people could organize themselves locally and nationally to gather support for the DREAM Act.

The meeting was chaotic, as people had to have a rather good knowledge of the current political situation in order to be able to contribute in a meaningful way. Hence, I felt a tension between the more experienced organizers who were all in the loop and the newcomers, who slowed down the proceedings by asking basic questions. At the same time, I witnessed then and there what role IYJL organizers played in educating undocumented youth about their rights and in trying to involve them in the political process. When one of the newcomers asked what their discourse would be vis-à-vis the Tea Party movement, an IYJL member said the following: ‘What the Tea Party needs to understand is that I am America and that we therefore need the Dream Act now’. ‘But how can we accomplish this?’ one of the other people asked. ‘Through organizing, I learned to speak things into existence’ she replied.

‘Speaking things into existence’ is indeed much of what IYJL organizers do. They discuss the need to educate undocumented high school students and they organize the first college fair of undocumented youth. They want to create a sense of community and they unite youth organizations across Illinois in Coming Out rallies. They feel the need to respond to political developments and they directly approach elected officials in Springfield. This might seem straightforward for the outside observer, but it is not. That’s where participant observation as a research strategy comes in. It is not possible to start to understand what it means to ‘be political’ and to ‘be undocumented’ if you are on the outside trying to look in. Understanding undocumented activism has to begin by being active yourself. It means becoming a part of not only an organization, but a community, a group of people that support each other in good and in bad times. It means figuring out how you can participate as a researcher without being a disturbing or overpowering presence among undocumented youth. And it also means rethinking the pre-conceived notions you might have about being undocumented and becoming political.

My position as an ‘ally’ in the organization was one that had to be heavily negotiate. I had talked before to an IYJL organizer about my research. He said that the meetings were a ‘safe space’ and that people could only participate in the research on an individual basis. At the next meeting, he was going to bring it up and then they could all vote whether or not I could participate. I remember feeling very nervous about this. So I went and introduced myself at the beginning of the meeting. The non-emotional version of my self-presentation as a PhD student doing this kind of research was immediately rejected. People questioned my intentions and wanted to know why I wanted to do this kind of research. This was the first time that I told the story about how I had attended a church occupation in Belgium in 2008 where the sans-papiers had done a hunger strike. I explained how this experience made me realize how broken our immigration system in Belgium was. At the same time, it made me want to contribute to this cause through my research. I would learn how to improve this story and my personal migration history throughout my participation in shout-it-outs and other organizing efforts later on.

In the end, the vote about my research activities never happened. Instead, I kept on coming and I slowly got to know people better. It was based on my actions that I was being judged, rather than based on my words. In order for me to be accepted in the organization, I had to demonstrate my intentions and earn my place in practice. I drove people around when I could. I helped build the stage for the Coming Out of the shadows rallies. I stood beside other IYJL members wearing my ‘Undocumented Unafraid’ t-shirt at press conferences. I made posters and distributed flyers. I basically tried to do what was expected from other allies in the organization. As one IYJL organizer told me many months later, it had not been until I told her that I was willing to risk being arrested that she starting trusting me. This moment, which took place during the preparations for a potential civil disobedience action, was several months into my fieldwork. What this demonstrates is the fact that social researchers need to respect undocumented immigrants’ space instead of barging in with all sorts of demands.

This brings me to an important issue that I have encountered during my fieldwork, namely social researchers and their approach towards undocumented immigrants as respondents. At several occasion during my ethnographic fieldwork I was able to see how aspiring researchers interacted with IYJL members. At times I was astonished researchers who see it as their right to demand people’s participation in their respective research projects. The way I see it, there is a real problem relating to ethics and best practices concerning research on the undocumented. Since this is a relatively new area of study, there is a lack of awareness among researchers with regards to certain pitfalls and sensitivities that one needs to take into account in this line of research.

This is a list of 5 things you can do as a researcher to avoid some of these pitfalls based on my own experiences:

1. Use the right terminology: Use terms like ‘undocumented’ and refrain from using words like ‘illegals’ or ‘illegal aliens’. All too often, researchers do not critically reflect about the terms they use in their research. Using the latter terms means you are subscribing to processes of ‘illegalization’ that have a dehumanizing and criminalizing effect on undocumented people. Be prepared to point fellow researchers to these effects.

2. Be open and communicative: Try to be open about the specific things you want to research and how you will be using your data to the people you are going to be working with. If you are asking undocumented people to share their story, be aware you are probably not the first one to do so. Be ready to acknowledge that this is an emotionally draining exercise for your research participants. Try to be sensitive and ethically responsible about the ways in which you collect, disseminate and publish people’s stories.

3. Make people involved: Make the undocumented people you are researching as involved as possible in the research process. Their active involvement enriches the research project and gives them an opportunity to affect the way in which they are being portrayed.

4. Do not stand on the side-lines:  It is important to participate and become a part of the undocumented community as a researcher, even if your primary research technique is not necessarily participant observation.  Make yourself as useful as possible to the people you are researching.

5. Make it public: If you are researching undocumented people, be prepared to take a stance in public. Correct people’s misconceptions about being undocumented, share the details of your work in the media and take your responsibility as a researcher in the political debate.

Besides these best practices, I would like to reflect further on two important issues with regards to studying the undocumented community: sampling and representation.

First and foremost, undocumented immigrants who are active in organizations are being over-asked to participate. Almost without exception, IYJL members have participated in interviews with social scientists several times. Typically, these interviews involve sharing very personal information, which might lead to emotional stress when people are approached over and over again. This does not even take into account the parallel way in which journalists hunt for stories of undocumented youth. Thus, I believe that researchers need to think more carefully about how they gather respondents. Approaching undocumented youth through organizations can be a successful strategy if the research object is to investigate their participation and leadership within these organizations. However, if the objective is rather to document undocumented people’s everyday life experiences, researchers need to do a better job of reaching out to those people who do not make into organizations.

What’s more, there is a tendency among researchers to say that by including undocumented immigrants into their research, they are ‘giving them a voice’ in some sort of way. While I am a strong proponent of doing sociological research on topics that have societal and political relevance, we nevertheless need to get rid of the illusion that the undocumented do not have a voice of their own. Indeed, the undocumented people most researchers encounter through organizations have already found their voice; they have learned how to speak up and be heard in the political sphere of life. Rather than trying to ‘speak for’ the undocumented, researchers need to investigate more carefully what the undocumented are trying to say, how they say it, what the conditions are under which they are able to say it and how what they say is being perceived by others. Becoming political is indeed to a large extent a process of ‘speaking things into existence’. Undocumented people speak themselves into existence as political subjects, they speak their allies into existence by sharing their experiences and they speak a wider community of undocumented youth into existence by going to schools, giving testimonies and showing them what is possible.

By learning how to speak and act politically, the undocumented activists that I got to know are constantly trying to redefine the possible. When they get together as IYJL, they debate and argue what is going on in the world around them as to form a shared understanding about what needs to be done and how they can do it. It is precisely this act of getting together and acting as one that constitutes the very core of what a true democratic practice is all about. In a time wherein citizenship is reduced one the hand to the privilege of being born in a particular territory in a particular time and on the other hand to the occasional periodic ritual that has become modern-day voting, these undocumented youth show how a different type of citizenship can become possible.  A citizenship not based on archaic notions of nationality, but on the active participation of people in the political process, on organizing communities regardless of legal status and on a sense of belonging that people feel to the people around them rather than on outdated institutions.

Thomas Swerts, pictured above in a yellow vest at the 2011 National Coming Out of the Shadows Day in Chicago, is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Chicago and an awesome ally. Thomas can be reached at tswerts@uchicago.edu.



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