Rural Labor and Immigration

Faculty Respondent: Jarvis McInnis, English

Smita Ghosh, JD/History, University of Pennsylvania
“Rural Aspects of Immigration Detention in the 1980s”

This is a perfect time to study immigration detention in rural America. Over the past several years, scholars have begun to analyze the geography of incarceration in America, paying particular attention to the rural communities in which much prison growth has been located. While geographers like Ruth Gilmore and Calvin Beale look at the role of place in incarceration, legal scholars pay closer attention to the immigration enforcement, developing a new focus on “crimmigration.” My paper sits at the intersection of these two fields, analyzing the geographic impact of immigration detention as it grew in the 1970s and ’80s. I look at how immigration incarceration impacted rural communities and, conversely, how perceptions of rural isolation affected legal activism on behalf of detained migrants.

At the heart of the paper is the relationship between immigration, incarceration and rural America. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Immigration Service moved Cuban and Haitian refugees, most of whom entered the country from Florida, to rural facilities across the country. Federal officials searched for short- and eventually long-term housing for immigrant detainees, looking increasingly to rural America for affordable incarceration locations. At times, rural politicians encouraged this federal investment. Other community members, though, resisted it, worrying about how foreign refugees might change community cohesiveness. These negotiations about immigration incarceration reveal a broader conversation about the meaning of rural America in an age of globalization and international migration.

Detention also forced international lawyers to reckon with rural America. Human rights lawyers sued the government on behalf of immigration detainees, alleging that the transfer of these detainees to isolated rural areas interfered with their right to counsel. “You can‘t detain people and then ship them off to the middle of nowhere,” Lucas Guttentag, a lawyer from a Columbia University immigration clinic told the Congressional Quarterly in 1985. While scholars have assessed the impact of these claims on refugee law, no one has interrogated the particular perception of rural America on which they rested. By framing the right to counsel in geographic terms, lawyers like Guttentag presented a picture of rural America as backward, undeveloped and unfriendly to outsiders. My paper analyzes this right-to-counsel litigation alongside the broader conversations about the location of detention centers, presenting a cohesive portrait of the impact of immigration incarceration on rural America.

Tyler Gray Greene, History, Temple
“The Most Wholesome Development Possible: North Carolina’s Rural Industries Movement and the Transformation of the Countryside”

Over the course of the post-World War II era, North Carolina became one of the most industrialized states in the country. In fact, by the early 1980s, the state most famous for its tobacco crops could claim more factory workers per capita than any other state in the nation. Despite this industrial growth, North Carolina remained a rural state, with only one city, Charlotte, exceeding 200,000 in population. Rather than developing in large industrial metropolises, the state’s manufacturing sector consisted primarily of small factories widely dispersed throughout its countryside.

This paper asks how North Carolina industrialized while maintaining its rural complexion and what this development reveals about the political economy of modern rural America. I argue that rural industrialization was an explicit goal of North Carolina’s postwar political leaders and economic planners. As mechanization and federal subsidies upended the world of tenant farmers and small land-owners, North Carolina turned to manufacturing as a key to preventing rural outmigration. Examining advertisements, promotional brochures, and correspondence with local entrepreneurs and out-of-state manufacturers, I show that the state facilitated rural industrialization by promoting its countryside as an ideal place to do business. Improvements in the state highway system and the emergence of a competitive trucking industry figured prominently in this sales pitch. These advancements, North Carolina argued, offered companies what they termed “accessible isolation,” that is, the freedom to locate away from congested metropolitan centers while still retaining access to national markets and local surplus labor.

Political and economic leaders believed that rural industrialization would preserve North Carolina’s rural way of life, even as the state’s economy transitioned from agricultural to industrial. In practice, however, the pursuit of rural industries led to an influx of low-wage, labor-intensive firms. By locating in remote areas like rural North Carolina, manufacturers isolated themselves from the labor-liberalism of the postwar urban North, implementing a political economy defined by low wages, anti-unionism, and limited government oversight.

Vanessa Guzman, American Studies, University of Minnesota
“El Centro Campesino: Organizing in Migrant Camps and Latino Communities in South Central Rural Minnesota”

During the past two decades non-traditional immigrant receiving communities experienced dramatic demographic changes.   In rural Minnesota, a new immigrant destination, the large influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America was largely due to the availability of work in agriculture and the food processing industry.   Rapid changes in historically white communities shaped the experiences of Latinos and illustrate how context and geographic place matter.   In this paper, I will examine the role El Centro Campesino, a worker center, had in organizing Latino communities for immigrant, civil and workers’ rights in light of these demographic changes.  I especially draw upon El Centro Campesino’s role in organizing for childcare in migrant camps in Minnesota.  By examining these histories, I will highlight the lived consequences of anti-migrant sentiment and document the myriad of ways Latino communities contested their marginalization in rural South Central Minnesota.

Daniel Platt, American Studies, Brown University
“Borrowers’ Rights in the Age of Jim Crow, 1900-1920”

Histories of financial capitalism in the United States typically focus on business developments on Wall Street, but as Elizabeth Sanders, Monica Prasad, and others have persuasively argued, the regulatory regimes that structure financial capitalism have been strongly influenced by Americans living in rural communities. This paper examines how the national campaign to eradicate debt peonage in the rural South between 1900 and 1920 influenced the larger movement for borrowers’ rights in the Progressive Era. Drawing on debtors’ letters, Department of Justice case files, lawsuits and legal opinions, and popular press coverage, it explores how indebted African American agricultural workers forged relationships with legal advocates and federal investigators to self-emancipate under the Thirteenth Amendment; how liberal advocates and jurists navigated the substantial roadblocks to emancipation erected by local and national obstructionists; and how the campaign contributed to new understandings of financial citizenship in the United States. By reconstructing the elaborate social networks and juridical channels that brought indebted workers into productive contact with agents of federal authority, this paper proposes to complicate the notion that the early twentieth century witnessed a general retreat, on the part of southern blacks or the federal government, from the promise of national citizenship. By tracing the link between rural indebtedness and the broader movement for borrowers’ rights, which in this period began to drift from a politics of firm restriction of personal lending to a position favoring the regulated entry of more scrupulous lenders into the marketplace, this paper proposes to recenter the history of modern regulatory politics on struggles in the cash-poor periphery rather than the money centers of the Northeast.

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