Patrisia Macías-Rojas speaks on immigration and the American “justice” system

Maddie Margioni, Contributing Writer

Professor Patrisia Macías-Rojas has uniquely experienced the U.S.-Mexico border not only as a field researcher and esteemed academic but also as a Mexican-American woman apprehended on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant herself. Macías-Rojas addressed students and faculty of the University at her Jan. 22 lecture on the criminalization of immigration in the United States and the evolution of migration from a social and economic issue to an issue of legality in the current political climate.


Macías-Rojas received both her masters and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and she currently is a Professor of Sociology and Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her recent book, “From Deportation to Prison: The Politics of Immigration Enforcement in Post-Civil Rights America” (New York University Press, 2016), draws on ethnographic research to detail the turn of immigration enforcement towards criminalizing the act of migration and the increasing deportations that migrants face when they are apprehended by border patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border.


Macías-Rojas began her talk with a personal story from the border. As she drove from Mexico back into the United States one night, she got into a serious road accident where her car flipped over, and some of the people involved were injured. The first to arrive on the scene were border patrol agents, not paramedics, and their first order was for everyone involved to squat on the ground. For Macías-Rojas, this command was unacceptable. “I refused to squat. Ignored their orders,” she said. “The painful experience of being forced to squat on the ground before border patrol agents in the dark of the night after a dangerous road crash blurred the lines between migrant apprehension and a criminal arrest.”


“She [Macías-Rojas] reminded me of Rosa Parks with her refusal to accept and follow unjust authority and her knowledge of her own civil rights,” Kassia Schubert ’21 said.


The majority of Macías-Rojas’ talk was dedicated to a timeline of events that led to immigration being criminalized in the United States, a process which she labeled “crimmigration.” She began with how immigration was viewed in the 1890s-1920s as a problem of labor. In the Civil Rights Era, immigration was seen as a civil rights issue, and then the present-day issues of immigration involve mass apprehension and deportation at the border.


In the latter part of her lecture, Macías-Rojas gave her own opinions on the current state of immigration in the United States. When asked about the morality of border patrol agents and what they do at the border, Macías-Rojas commented that when she was at the border doing fieldwork, “agents had a diversity of perspective,” but now “there are a lot more repercussions for speaking out,” she said. Macías-Rojas was also asked about the statistics of illegal immigrants who enter the country legally with a visa and become illegal through overstaying their visa versus the smaller amount who actually cross the border illegally. Her response was that there has been a “47 percent drop in unauthorized migration at the border,” which has not been addressed in the politics of this country, and the proposed border wall is “about a promise to Trump’s voters” and not about a strong barrier to illegal immigration.


Caroline van Dijk ’21 came to the talk with little knowledge of the history of immigration. “The thing that surprised me the most was that non-citizens started to be deported in such large numbers because there was no room for them in the American prisons, and they had to free up bed space,” she said.


When asked about the future of immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, Macías-Rojas said, “Because of grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter and migrant activist groups, there is a contestation that immigration may change again.”


Van Dijk said that she hopes “more people get the chance to hear from speakers like Professor Macías-Rojas and change their understanding of the immigration system.”

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