Q&A with UCLA Alum, Professor Alfonso Gonzales

Q&A with UCLA Alum, Professor Alfonso Gonzales

Professor Alfonso Gonzales. (www.alfonsogonzales.com)

by Cynthia Gomez, Outreach Coordinator, UCLA Latin American Institute

During the 2014 spring quarter, Alfonso Gonzales, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehman College of the City University of New York, discussed his new book, “Reform Without Justice: Latino Migrant Politics and the Homeland Security State,” at an event co-sponsored by the Latin American Institute (LAI), the Chicano Studies Research Center, and the Department of Political Science. The book, already assigned as required reading in several college classrooms, addresses the issue of state violence against migrants in the United States and explores post-9/11 migration control policies through the lens of neo-Gramsican theory.  Professor Gonzales received his Ph.D in Political Science from UCLA in 2008, and majored in Latin American Studies as an undergraduate.

The former Bruin talked to the LAI about his research interests, immigration, and the impact of Latin American Studies on his scholarship.

What motivated you to study Latino/Latin American politics and issues related to migration and immigration?

I have a lifelong fascination with politics. As my mentor Professor Ray Rocco (UCLA, Political Science) used to say “politics is about the struggle for power between groups with competing interests.” My interest in the study of politics, be it of Latinos in the United States or people in Latin America has been motivated by a burning desire to understand the dynamics of struggle at different conjunctures, between the colonizer and the colonized, the haves and have-nots, between the citizen and the denizen. Indeed my motivation for the study of politics is to be found in the dialectic between domination and resistance.

You obtained your Ph.D. in Political Science from UCLA. You also have a master's in Latin American Studies from Stanford. How has your background in Latin American Studies impacted and informed your research and academic interests?

My focus in Latin American Studies in my BA (UCLA) and MA studies helped me grasp that one can no longer artificially separate the study of politics between Latinos in the U.S. and Latin America. My training in the Race, Ethnicity and Politics (REP) program in the Department of Political Science at UCLA however, gave me the theoretical and methodological tools to study both Latino and Latin American Politics in a way that defies the traditional boundaries of the nation-state, Latin American Studies, Latino Studies, and the traditional sub-fields of political science. I think this is what makes my research distinct from much of the work that is traditionally considered Latino Politics, which like the field of American Politics, often studies politics within the boundaries of the nation-state and within the dominant framework of American political science. There is a growing school of thought, emerging from the REP program at UCLA, and other places, that approach the study of Latino politics from a transnational perspective. I consider myself part of this school or generation of scholars, and I advance this perspective in my intellectual work. For instance in my book Reform without Justice (RWJ), I argue that one cannot understand migration without understanding neoliberal restructuring in Latin America and in the United States over the last thirty years.

During your book talk at UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Library, you brought up Latin American social movements and how U.S. based activists and movements can look to them for inspiration. Can you explain? 

Latino migrant activists in the United States are certainly inspired by many popular movements from Latin America. In RWJ I highlight how the contemporary Latino migrant movement in the United States has what I call genealogies of struggle that link it to many popular movements in Latin America. It is not uncommon to find former social movement organizers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico, and other parts of Latin America organizing day laborers, carwash workers, street vendors etc. in the United States. With this said however, I want to emphasize that the Latino migrant movement and its allies also have a direct genealogy that links them to the Chicano and Puerto Rican Movements of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the sanctuary movement of the 1980s among other popular struggles. They have also been inspired and learned tactics and strategies from studying the Black freedom struggle in the United States and in places like South Africa. It is no coincidence that there are immigrant “freedom rides,” and divestment campaigns. All of these strategies and tactics have a distinct genealogy but with a strategic goal rooted in our present day reality.

What are the biggest factors driving migration? Do proposed immigration reform measures address these factors? Should they?

As the Mexican political economist Raul Delgado Wise has written, “It is impossible to disentangle the migration and labor question today without a deep understanding of the nature of contemporary capitalism, namely, neoliberal globalization”. To understand this point, which I try to make clear throughout the book requires us to go beyond simplistic push and pull theories. Rather we must grasp that the reorganization of production and finance on a global scale has led to a transition from a nation-state based system of organizing our economies to a transnational system that has uprooted millions of people throughout the globe since the late 1970s. Since this period countries in the global south, guided by the neoliberal logic, have become service based economies which are most often dependent on remittances. This is most certainly the case for countries in Latin America like Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador and Dominican Republic. All of these countries are dependent on remittances to sustain their economies and in most cases, with the exception of Mexico, remittances are the largest source of hard currency. This is part of a structural transformation taking place at the level of the global capitalist economy. It has its distinct manifestations in the Americas and in other parts of the world as well, like the Philippines. Comprehensive Immigration Reform, as it has been proposed numerous times now in the United States since 1999 will not address these issues. Although it should, it will not given the nature of the debate in Congress, among the dominant parties, and in most sectors of civil society. As long as this remains the case, any CIR bill that passes could at best bring relief from deportation in the form of some type of temporary legal status for sectors of the current undocumented population that qualify, a path to citizenship for a few million, while excluding millions from gaining legal status. Not only will CIR under the best of circumstance exclude millions of undocumented people from gaining legal status, it will reinforce the migration control apparatus of the United States in the form of billions of dollars for enforcement. Indeed, it will do this while ignoring the causes of migration to the detriment of future migrant flows and to the detriment of democracy for all. This is one of the main points of RWJ.

Who has influenced you most in your life?

Although I am greatly influenced by the thinking of Antonio Grasmci, I don’t think I could narrow it down to one thinker or person. My intellectual work has been influenced by many teachings and lessons learned from academics and non-academics in the Latino migrant and non-migrant world from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, Los Angeles, New York City and the border region. This transnational region is more than just “a dangerous place” as one scholar recently suggested, it is also more than an economic set of relations brought about by free trade agreements and remittances, it is a living, breathing region where there are struggles and emergent epistemologies- ways of knowing and confronting the world that borrow from a variety of theoretical approaches ranging from critical theory (broadly defined) but also the new theories from thinkers rooted in our continental reality. So more than any person, I am influenced by the coyuntura of our time in which there are thinkers and doers that are attempting to theorize and fight for a more just society in the face of a precarious neoliberal project.

What research are you working on now?

More than any one publication, I am working to execute my research agenda on the politics of migration control and migrant activism in the Americas through the lens of global political economy and political theory. This will come in the form of a series of articles that take up questions that I raised in the conclusion of RWJ. Some of this work is theoretical focused on the relationship between neoliberalism and what I conceptualize as an authoritarian turn in North America and some of it is comparative and will focus on Latino and Pilipino migrant activism around the Global Forum on Migration and Development. I am also working on a second book, Justice Denied: Mexicans, Salvadorans, and the Geopolitics of U.S. Asylum Law, which will focus on US immigration court practices and the fate of deportees and Latino migrant families. In particular, I want to examine why US immigration courts reject the vast majority of Mexican and Salvadoran asylum claims precisely at a time when human rights conditions in those countries have deteriorated. For instance, even though Mexico and El Salvador have some of the highest homicide rates in the world, only 1.6% of Mexican asylum claims and 6% of Salvadoran asylum claims were granted in 2011. To carry out this research project, I plan on reviewing government data on asylum adjudications and to collect interviews with legal professionals, refugees, and the families of asylum seekers who have lost their cases. It is my hope that these projects will shed light on the chaotic asylum regime in the United States in a way that continues to push the boundaries of what we have traditionally thought to be Latino Politics and Latin American Politics.