- Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States
Monisha Das Gupta's Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism, and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States is a rich ethnography detailing the innovative practices of seven progressive South Asian American organizations. Opening new analytical ground, Unruly Immigrants makes an important intervention into how immigrant rights in the United States have been conceived and studied. Challenging the dominant framework in which the demand for rights by immigrants is seen as part of the march toward full citizenship, Das Gupta highlights the ways that the seven organizations she profiles "claim rights as immigrants, not as citizens, in order to challenge the various forms of exploitation unleashed in this current phase of globalization" (4).
Central to Das Gupta's project is the transnational complex of rights "in which rights are mobile rather than rooted in national membership" (4). In this configuration, activists do "contend with the nation-state as a central actor in determining migrant rights [and] utilize nation-based guarantees." However, the rights claimed are those that are not depended on citizenship such as minimum wage protections. In utilizing national right claims in this manner, the transnational complex of rights "enables rights claims beyond citizenship." This complex also "brings together local, state, national and international laws, protocols and conventions" utilizing various scales and recognizes that "migrants want rights to mobility rather than to rootedness and citizenship" (18–19). This complex of rights speaks to two foundational beliefs of citizenship. The first is the belief that the nation-state is the guarantor of rights. The second is the notion of the universal subject of citizenship, which the complex challenges through recognition of located positions and experiences in the granting of rights and protections.
The first three chapters of Unruly Immigrants, "Terms of Belonging," "Contests over Culture," and "Law and Oppression," examine the struggle over race, culture, and law in the construction of immigrant rights in the United States. These chapters lay the historical and community background for the final three [End Page 118] chapters, "'Owning Our Lives': Women's Organizations," "Subverting Seductions: Queer Organizations," and "'Know Your Place in History': Labor Organizations," which document the work of the seven progressive groups in New York, New Jersey, and Boston that form the core of Das Gupta's ethnography.
The first two chapters deftly set up the contrast in strategy and positioning between the conservative "place-taking" organizations that practice accommodationist politics and the progressive "space-making" ones that practice trans-formative politics, a central comparison in Unruly Immigrants. The book begins with an incisive rereading of the lobbying efforts by the Association of Indians in America [AIA] in the late 1970s to institute a separate category for immigrants of Indian descent on the 1980 census. Framing it as an act in the production of "good" citizenship, Das Gupta recasts the often attributed opportunism in this event and argues that "the AIA [was] attempting to articulate the post-1965 immigrants as racialized Americans in need of full citizenship with the promise of equality that came with that role" (53). The following chapter examines the contest over cultural authenticity in both place-taking and space-making organizations. This is one of the most impressive chapters in the book, as Das Gupta (and the space-making organizations) veers away from countering claims of cultural authenticity by deconstructing the very notion of culture and authenticity, to an analysis that foregrounds the ways in which "authenticity can also be employed to build alternative cultures" (61). For instance, countering the narratives of "meritocracy, a fair and open system, and individual endeavor . . . [which] discredit working-class South Asians" (76) espoused by place-taking groups, South Asian labor organizations center the lived histories and "institutional patterns of exploitation" to "rewrite the hegemonic story of success and failure" (80) that is part and parcel of the model minority myth.
The second part of Unruly Immigrants is "devoted to the...