Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper looks critically and comparatively at the subjectification of Salvadoran unauthorized migrants in the contemporary U.S. The analysis juxtaposes the ways such processes unfold under the logics of neoliberal capitalist production (based on fieldwork among Arkansas-based poultry workers from 2006-2008), with the subjectification of asylum seekers under the logics of immigration law & courts (based on current fieldwork beginning in 2017).
Caught in a vexed dialectic of hyper-visibility and invisibility, such migrants are compelled to hyper-perform virtuous selves for audiences who are often utterly ignorant of the long entangled history of El Salvador and the United States, and the complex reasons for the displacement of the Salvadoran diaspora over the turn of the 21st century. In these performances, the expressive range and available forms of transborder migrants’ experiences and personhood are constrained by dominant logics of “work ethic” and “innocent victimhood.” The personhood of Salvadoran migrants is not simply the “product” of their subjectification to legal regimes; rather, Salvadorans construct creative identities that also draw on historical memory and a rich tradition of resistance.
Nonetheless, these system-supportive subjectivities—be they centered on hard work or centered on victimhood—are not only strategic performances, but have become constitutive elements of emergent moral logics of personhood within Salvadoran transborder communities. Such performances of worthiness, while demonstrating impressive agency and resilience on the part of migrants, nonetheless works in concert with the racialized logic of social death and de facto status criminalization (Cacho 2012) that renders migrants deportable and subject to exploitation.