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The Latinx Migrant Dictionary

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Members of the South Central Farm attending the immigrant rights march for amnesty in downtown Los Angeles California on May Day, 2006. The banner, in Spanish, reads ‘No human being is illegal’. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.5).

Contrary to the popular belief that migrants are ill-informed about immigration policies and procedures, migrant testimonies reveal a rich lexicon through which Spanish-speaking migrants document, reflect, and analyse their experiences. Spanish words like ‘la hielera’ are not direct translations of English, they are metaphors in Spanish. These words highlight the ways in which, despite linguistic challenges, migrants have developed their own vocabulary to characterise and critique state power. The terms analysed in this essay are three of the most common keywords among migrants used to capture some of the most significant migration policy changes that have deeply shaped their everyday lives. 


‘La Jaula de Oro’ or ‘cage of gold’ is most associated with the corrido by Los Tigres Del Norte which was released in 1984. The song itself is built on migrant stories, which describe the feelings of entrapment caused by changes in immigration policy developed since the 1980s. Beginning with the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the US has increased funding for surveillance technologies at the US-Mexico border, making it increasingly difficult to cross. In fact, migration scholars have remarked this approach, which was designed as a deterrent for migrants, has had the unintended effect of encouraging settlement. One migrant I spoke with expressed the effects of this policy change in the following statement:

‘Allá en Mexico, ellos piensan que aquí todo es muy bonito, pero ellos no ven cómo uno vive en una jaula de oro, tengo años sin ver a mi mamá’. [‘There in Mexico, they all think that here everything is pretty, but they don’t see how one lives in a cage of gold, it’s been years since I’ve seen my mom.’]


This prison metaphor exposes the frustrations migrants feel as they begin to question, is it worth it? For those migrants escaping violence, the question is mute, but for others, this question stands at the centre. What is the value of higher wages based on a Mexican economy if one is unable to visit loved ones? This sense of isolation is central to the prison metaphors to capture the strain that entrapment places on migrant social networks. 


The metaphor also references an increasing immobility felt at the local scale. The statement of ‘how one lives’ references the ugly and burdensome reality of living in constant fear of immigration enforcement. In addition to the border buildup, enforcement efforts have turned to the interior and expanded into a dragnet of domestic checkpoints, increased neighbourhood and workplace raids, and a growing network of enforcement cooperation between local law enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). The result has been one in which migrants are narrativising a sense of loss of quality of life. For undocumented migrants, life in the US is marred by the efforts required to avoid capture. With such a heightened and overwhelming presence of law and immigration enforcement, migrants resolve to limit their time in public spaces to minimise the possibility of apprehension. The cage, then, as migrants call it, is not just limited to the nation but includes the home as well. The house and country might be beautiful and attractive like gold, but for migrants, these enclosed spaces resemble a cage.


El castigo’ is the colloquial term for the three- and ten-year bars established by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. This provision was aimed to prevent migrants from re-entry by banning them from returning to the US for three or ten years, depending on the time they accrued as undocumented in the US. From migrants' perspective, this ban is retribution for their unauthorised presence in the US, as the colloquial metaphor invokes and can be seen through the bans’ dependence on time accrued without status. Mexican migrants who trigger the provision and are banned from the US await their time in Mexico. This creates an extraordinary hardship for migrants who have spent most of their lives in the US and are unfamiliar with life in their country of origin. This was the case for Nancy Lugo who struggled to adapt in Mexico after she was denied a spousal visa and barred from the US. 


On the one hand, Lugo described the punishment as the complete uprooting of her life in the states that she had spent 22 years crafting, the separation from her family, the loss of employment and wages, and her social life. On the other hand, she must create a new life in Mexico while she waits out the ban. Migrant characterisations of this process as akin to doing time in the country of origin affirm the experience of the bans as a form of punishment. Lugo is cognizant that her denial was rooted in the immigration authorities’ desire to punish her. In her interview, Lugo explained that DREAMer mothers were being punished for having brought their children to the US. In this statement, Lugo simultaneously exposed and condemned the ‘anchor baby’ rhetoric and its connection to immigration policy. The perception of punishment is only further confirmed by the extreme hardship waiver that has been coined by migrants as ‘el perdón’, the pardon. This waiver offers relief to formally undocumented migrants who are relatives of US citizens or Legal Permanent Residents if they can prove the ban would cause extraordinary hardship to the US citizen or Legal Permanent Resident. Together, the relief and ban policies have been renamed by migrants to capture the governing logic – the exertion of state power to punish or provide relief – demonstrating powerful migrant critiques of state power. 

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US Border Patrol agents conduct intake of undocumented border crossers at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, in 2018. Picture by US Customs and Border Protection on Wikimedia Commons (public domain).


In 2018 a five-month-old girl who was detained along with her mother by immigration authorities contracted pneumonia after spending only five days inside a holding cell in California. Her mother, A. Portillo, who was part of the migrant caravan from Central America, described the cells as ‘hieleras’ or iceboxes with freezing temperatures. In an interview, Portillo asserts the conditions she and her daughter experienced were a form of punishment for crossing undocumented, despite her request for asylum. Stories of freezing conditions in holding facilities and detention centres abound. In a report by the Women’s Refugee Commission, almost all 150 women reported they were held ‘for days in freezing cold CBP facilities’. The imagery that a ‘hielera’ conjures is also the dimensions of a box: a small, enclosed space – one that is designed to keep animals or objects, not people. This correlation can also be seen through the term ‘perreras’ or dog kennel, another migrant expression used to describe and critique processing facilities. With these terms, migrants relay their incisive analysis of the inhumane conditions of detention.


More than just colloquial terminology, this critical vocabulary demonstrate the ways Spanish-speaking migrants are theorising key features of undocumented life in the post-1970s United States. They tell of the human impacts of the strangling of circular migration and domestic immobility, the strain on migrant bonds through forced separations, and the physical injuries inflicted on their bodies in spaces of confinement. These terms signal the production of an embodied knowledge about the migrant experience often expressed in testimonies. Their frequent use and broad circulation signal the consistency and systemic nature of these experiences as features of undocumented life and situate migrants as critical social analysts of the migratory experience.


Damián Vergara Bracamontes

Damián Vergara Bracamontes is an assistant professor in the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Vergara Bracamontes is a scholar of Latinx migration studies, critical prison studies, and queer of colour critique, with a focus on the social life of the law. His current project, ‘The Administration of Illegality and Mexican Migrant Life’, traces the formation and consolidation of illegality in a new phase of prolonged social exclusion and control.

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