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  • Tactical Citizenship: Domestic Workers, the Remainders of Home, and Undocumented Citizen Participation in the Third Space of Mimicry
  • Charles T. Lee (bio)

The sociologist Saskia Sassen has written of the global cities as the concentrated command points and central strategic sites for global capitalist market production. In the midst of the popular phantasmic aspiration for global cities, Sassen points to the grim development of economic polarization where the increasing number of high-income white-collar jobs breeds a great number of low-paying dead-end jobs. Not only does the high-income sector (both residential and commercial) have a huge demand for low-wage service labor (e.g. cleaning, serving, ornamenting), the manufacturing sector is also going through a downgrading process “in which the share of unionized shops declines and wages deteriorate while sweatshops and industrial homework proliferate.”1 It is in these low-wage service and manufacturing sectors with loose labor-protection enforcements in the hyper-capital cities that we encounter the most prominent presence of immigrant workers. Writing in Los Angles, the sociologist Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo asks us to imagine “a day without a Mexican”:

When you arrive at many a Southern California hotel or restaurant, you are likely to be first greeted by a Latino car valet. The janitors, cooks, busboys, painters, carpet cleaners, and landscape workers who keep the office buildings, restaurants, and malls running are also likely to be Mexican or Central American immigrants, as are many of those who work behind the scenes in dry cleaners, convalescent homes, hospitals, resorts, and apartment complexes. . .. Along the boulevards, at car washes promising “100% hand wash” for prices as low as $4.99, teams of Latino workers furiously scrub, wipe, and polish automobiles. Supermarket shelves boast bags of “prewashed” mesclun or baby greens (sometimes labeled “Euro salad”), thanks to the efforts of the Latino immigrants who wash and package the greens.2

Taking out the Latino immigrant workers will shut down an overwhelming proportion of the capitalist operation of Los Angeles and, increasingly, many other metropolitan cities that rely on immigrants’ laboring bodies.

Those who proudly wear the label of “citizens” and who conspicuously benefit from the low-expense arrangement in their everyday life, however, are often incensed at the invasion by the “illegal aliens,” their stealing of “our” jobs, tax dollars and social benefits, and their diluting of “our” cultural heritage. Unaccounted for is the larger globalization process that places these undocumented subjects in a condition where neither secure dwelling nor legitimate traveling is possible. On one hand, neo-liberal policies such as the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) pursued by the U.S.-based financial institutions (i.e. the World Bank and the IMF) through blatant privatization and massive cutting of social subsidies in the Third World regions have collapsed those local economies and shattered their denizens’ sense of secure dwelling, forcing a huge wave of migration outward in search of better job opportunities and a more humane living standard.3 On the other, the system of nation-state citizenship delimits these subjects’ chances of migration through official channels, forcing them to go underground and travel without legitimate documents — whether by overstaying their visas, crossing borders in the desert on foot, or traveling along with smugglers.4

But even such predicament does not readily translate into passive victimization of a mystical “Third World.” Rather, while discrimination and exploitation abound in the globalization of undocumented workers, a resistant agency of the subordinate class also surges forth strongly, courageously, and creatively. Hence, while global cities are the conspicuous sites of flexible capitalist operation that takes advantage of “cheap” and expendable immigrant labor, they are also sites of what social theorist Michel de Certeau calls “secondary production” — a hidden and intricate process bred by the weak in their daily negotiations and struggles against the rich, strong and powerful.5 In the context of globalization, this hidden resistance is often performed by the laboring immigrant workers in both the service sector (e.g. domestics, janitors, hotel maids) and the manufacturing sector (e.g. garment sweatshops), many of who are undocumented and without the official state endowment to act out citizenship. Precisely because these Third World immigrant workers have historically been...

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