Mexican Immigration, Labor, and Fathering Beyond Borders: An Interview with Marta Sánchez

Scapegoating migrants is nothing new. Anti-immigrant rhetoric de-humanizes and demonizes a vulnerable section of society. The Trump administration’s war on Mexican immigrants can be seen as a continuation and intensification of a long history of US bias against its southern neighbors. Nevertheless, the Trump Republicans are crafting retrogressive racist policies that are unprecedented in scope.

Toward Freedom speaks to Marta Sánchez, US-born mexicana who has just written Fathering within and beyond the Failures of the State with Imagination, Work and Love: The Case of the Mexican Father. This book looks at Mexican migration from a different light, focusing on fathers supporting families back home.

Ramor Ryan: For Trump, migrants are “bad hombres” who present a “significant threat to national security and public safety.” He persistently makes the connection with illegality and criminality.  Your research, in contrast, focuses on migrant fathers working to support families back in Mexico. Yours is a different narrative, one of undocumented workers struggling to earn to provide. Should they be considered “Good hombres,” then? 

Marta Sánchez: The men I met and who supported the development of my book with their stories and honesty are indeed “good hombres.” Although their main motivation to migrate to the U.S. is to support their children and partners monetarily so that their family might eat, be educated and be happy, they also strive to maintain a close affective relationship with their children. Their 14- to16-hour workdays, their willingness to cross borders and live in the shadows, their text messages to their children, and their remittances are the actions and artifacts that mark them as “good hombres.” They are good because of what they do to be fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, cousins and friends. They are good because they believe they have a human right and a human responsibility to provide for their children, to make good on their debts, and to love through work. For these fathers, work is love.

It is important to add that they are not dupes. They know that their presence here represents a profit boon for the employers that exploit their cheap labor and their absence in their native country creates a safety valve for México—5 million workers that México can ignore, and if you consider that each worker supports on average 3-4 people, that’s almost 10% of the Mexican population that the Mexican government does not have to worry about because they are being taken care of by their immigrant family members. These good hombres contribute to two economies: one of the wealthiest in the world and México’s.

RR: The devastation of families is an often overlooked factor of migration. In a key book chapter Intimate Terrorism: The State as Assassin of Families’ Dreams you write how “this terror separates families, creating social orphans, to satisfy the needs of the market.” How does this terror work and what is the role of the state in this?

MS: Terror creates a visceral, bodily reaction. It is often accompanied by trembling or shaking. When a father and a mother reach the decision that the father must migrate, it is less of a decision and more of a last resort move, one fraught with risk that is palpable to the parents. The father worries about leaving the family without the key male figure, the perceived protector and authority. The mother is concerned about whether her husband will survive the journey and whether the marriage will survive the long separation. The children say goodbye without understanding the full dimension of the changes that are coming, for one, the vast time and space that will separate them from a father who loves them. There is trembling and sorrow, and some hope.

The state knows that this scenario is being reproduced on a daily basis; it is a mineral-rich state with stunning geographies and immense biodiversity. It could easily look to the south and become a financial leader in and for that region but instead chooses to be the proverbial backyard to the U.S. It abandons its sovereignty in exchange for economic integration with its rich northern neighbors, Canada and the U.S., and in spite of a lack of commensurability of its currency with these countries’ currencies, the state assures its elite classes that wealth will be made nonetheless. In capital class unity, the governing classes and elites create another México, one that is leaving behind 40% of the population who live in extreme poverty. The México that is in alignment with the U.S. is fueled by an exploited labor force within México. This labor force is one that has lost labor rights and that faces age discrimination, temporary worker status and revolving door policies at the worksite.

There is no future for fathers in that México. The fathers in the study had already migrated to larger cities within México in search of better work opportunities. All had aged out of the labor market at the age of the 35. Although Mexican labor law prohibits age-based discrimination, companies, including American ones, engage in this practice openly, as evidenced by published want ads. When a father crosses the border, he is in debt to the person who has lent him money for the journey and he must repay that debt as soon as he becomes employed. He himself must live in poverty in the U.S. while the remittances he sends back home represent only modest gains for his family in México. This is intimate terrorism—the hostility of policies and governing classes bearing down on good hombres, mujeres and niños and leaving them with no good options.

RR: These are terrifying times for Mexican immigrants in the US. Trump has pledged to deport two to three million undocumented immigrants, expand ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) exponentially, and build an enormous wall along the southern border. Things have always been difficult for the undocumented in the US, but do you think this represents an intensification of the usual draconian anti-migration policies or a whole new paradigm?

MS: The Trump republicans are engaging in a shameful and shameless display of abusive power. Being undocumented in the United States is the result of U.S. political, economic and military dominance in the region, power that is and has been disruptive to economies, pathways to opportunity, and ways of life of those living south of the Río Bravo. The state knows this. It banks on such human misery to further exploit the brave men, women and children who come to this country who bet on themselves as they search for a better life.

Having said that, migration is first and foremost a human right and is what defines the United States. The Trump republicans want to deny both this history and destiny and are crafting retrogressive racist policies to deny basic human rights.

I would, therefore, say that there is an intensification of the ongoing draconian anti-immigrant and anti-immigration policies that were seen with the application of the immigration code 287g. 287g has been on the books since 1996 but Obama provided funding for it early in his administration and that allowed for county sheriffs to enter into memoranda of agreement with Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE). By having a MOA [Memorandum of Agreement], local sheriffs acted as ICE agents. This created a profit structure for counties; counties were paid for each undocumented immigrant they held in the county jail. Many were held until the county could fill a transport bus, one that would take immigrants to the nearest deportation center, where they were also incarcerated while enough immigrants were rounded up to fill an airplane.

Trump Republicans are accelerating this, and there have been reports in the general media that abandoned prisons are being repurposed as “detention centers” for immigrants. These are not detention centers. They are prisons and people are held here as they wait to be deported. Detention centers are currently operated by private management firms that also operate prisons. In these centers, infants were separated from their mothers and were fully operational under the Obama administration. Trump republicans, however, seemed to have spurred financial interest in the investment sector in this industry. These moves are classic moves that were used during Reconstruction, where former slaves’ were imprisoned for subjectively defined offenses, such as loitering and vagrancy. The U.S. is very comfortable in restricting the freedom and movement through imprisonment of people of color whether they are African American citizens or brown undocumented immigrant children, women and men.

RR: Trump wants us to associate immigrants with criminality. “When Trump paints immigrants as dangerously criminal,” writes Daniel José Camacho, “he is not describing reality but trying to create one.”

MS: Yes, these are dangerous discursive ‘games,’ for lack of a better word. Obama used a security discourse without claiming that it was Mexicans or brown immigrants who were the problem, but rather used “security” as a free-floating signifier for us to fill in its meaning. He has also played discursive games with the word “deportation.” ICE started processing people caught at the border before sending them back to their native countries, a practice not previously done. This increased the number of “deportations.” Either way, US immigration policy has become a spectacle, relying on public shaming and denigration of and overall symbolic and real violence against the immigrant.

I did a textual analysis of immigration coverage in the Greensboro Record, a local paper, and found three narratives: one that responds to what is inscribed on the statue of liberty, this sort of humanitarian disposition toward immigrants and which views them as hardworking; one that responds to neoliberal market logic–we need immigrants to keep America competitive on the world stage, and one that criminalizes the immigrant, positioning him/her as takers, thieves, people who were breaking in to the country. This last narrative has been circulating for a long time and now is being amplified and made normative by this administration.

RR: These migrations tell a story, you write, “about globalization and neoliberalism.” Can you elaborate on the relationship between capitalist neo-liberalism and immigration in this context?   

MS: Capitalist neoliberalism employs three strategies–deregulation, privatization, and marketization–to further concentrate wealth. It guts public coffers through the deviation of funds from public goods and services to private or privatized ones. Capitalist neoliberalism is Colonization 2.0. It is an invading force that brings devastation with it, and in many circumstances, this can only be mitigated by migration. As governments deregulate, workers lose labor rights and their jobs; the environment is exploited to such a degree that farmland can become useless, water supplies toxic, and sacred lands violated through the rapacious extraction of minerals. When public goods and services are privatized, only the rich can access them and enjoy their continuous use. We see in México, for example, that electric service was privatized and families now have to prepay this service. In the U.S., one pays at the end of the month’s use. When these goods and services, after being privatized are then subjected to the logic of the market, governments invariably will find that they have to bail them out because of poor management, such as we see with charter schools in the US, thus using taxpayer monies to save the marketeers, leaving even less money in the public coffers for the development of nation and citizens.

So children suffer. Parents suffer. In order to alleviate suffering, families migrate. One father said to me that everyone has a place on earth, a place of opportunity. He had to find that place. I write that this father, by migrating to a place of opportunity, had outsmarted a trickster god who had placed him in a barren space. Though the fathers are grossly underpaid, they are still able to send money to their families, money they could no longer earn in México.

RR: Let’s talk about the repercussions south of the Rio Grande. Mexican immigrants support the Mexican economy to the tune of some 24 billion dollars a year through remittances. How will the Trump administration’s attack on migration affect the families who depend on the remittances sent home every year, and on a macro level, the Mexican economy?  

MS: Remittances feed and clothe children, cure grandmothers, supplement a mother’s income, and house families. When children are fed, they are more likely to go to school. Remittances represent the father’s presence and the dignity with which the family defends its right to be economically viable and socially mobile. When you multiply this impact in five million families, remittances are like a huge national development program. The Trump administration wants to stop cash flowing back to Mexican children, mothers and grandmothers and grandfathers. His deportation plans will accomplish this.

On a macro level, although México counts with petro- and tourism revenue, it will nonetheless feel the loss of remittances. This is especially true because PEMEX, while not privatized, has concessioned exploration, refineries and other aspects of the petroleum business to private corporations, who are reaping the profits and leaving the country without its main income source.

RR: How can people respond to the current moment? In your experience, what kind of neighborhood-based strategies need to be developed to resist the Trump agenda? For instance, how can people organize practically organize against ICE deportations and raids?

MS: Allies have stepped up to help immigrant families by driving their children to school so that parents can avoid checkpoints. Allies have also committed to videotaping ICE raids, and to physically stand near families that are harassed or are being approached by ICE. Other levels of organizing include helping families plan for the aftermath of a deportation by identifying U.S.-based legal guardians for their children, who may be American citizens or by assisting in the petitioning of either US or Mexican passports for the children. There are “Know your rights” seminars that inform families how to respond in an ICE raid as well as wallet-sized cards that provide this same information. There are also groups that are working with organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, which offers free training to immigration lawyers on defending families in the courts. Still other groups are pooling money to have on reserve for the legal defense of community members caught up in the detention system.

In schools, it is more difficult to see the allies in the K-12 setting, and this certainly varies by region. In higher education, the support extended to students and affirmation of commitment to all students, tends to be Chancellor or Provost driven, and certainly more visible in private institutions.

In public institutions, students are playing a key role in unsettling institutional inertia by insisting on the formation of sanctuary campuses.

RR: Marta, as a mexicana – a person born in the US of Mexican heritage, how does the Trump administration’s attack on Mexican immigrants feel and impact on your life? Also, you have yourself traversed the border since Trump’s inauguration: how did you perceive Mexicans’ responses on the ground in the US, and in Mexico?  

MS: I am a modern day mexica. I am of the lands where I am positioned as an outsider, a taker, a thief of immigrant stock. I am mexicana, a borderless identity, like being a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, or a human. I am a U.S.-born brown woman with papers, yes, with a U.S. birth certificate that gives me privileges that many friends and family do not have because of their  ‘without papers’ immigration status, but I am, nonetheless, embodied transgression because of my piel canela that marks me as a bad mujer. This was all true before Trump and it remains true with Trump. “No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed” was written on signs posted from Texas to Louisiana when my parents migrated to the U.S. Now, Trump and his republicans have brought the policy back but have removed dogs from the ban.

I embrace my bad mujer status, rejecting the idea that there are better or worse immigrants or that I have to prove that I am not a criminal. I know who I am. I know who I am. I know who I am. Soy mexica. Soy mexicana. Soy de aquí. Worry, yes. Rapid palpitations when I hear what Latino/a school children endure, yes. Anger, yes. Going down fighting, yes.

In México, many also worry–much more about Trump’s actions than the horrors their own president has inflicted on them. On both sides of the Río Bravo, reactions are strong, pero somos mexicas, somos mexicanos/as, somos de aquí. Sabemos quien somos, sabemos quien somos, sabemos quien somos. No hay nada que temer.


Marta Sánchez is an Assistant Professor, Social Foundations, Donald R. Watson College of Education, University of North Carolina Wilmington; Faculty Affiliate, Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, Duke University, and author of the book Fathering within and beyond the Failures of the State with Imagination, Work and Love: The Case of the Mexican Father (Sense, 2017).