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  • "Poor Eliza" on the Border
  • Kirsten Silva Gruesz (bio)

No human is illegal. The slogan, seen on countless protest signs, refutes the nativist rhetoric that turned "illegal" into a noun signifying criminal nonpersonhood. In the figure of the migrant mother, perilously journeying across the border or hiding from immigration officers in a sanctuary church, Stowe's "Poor Eliza" reappears in altered form: a kind of "Pobre Elisa." In the portrait of the teenaged Dreamer with perfect college test scores and aspirations to save the world, we see again the innocent child-protagonist of numerous sentimental fictions. In the melodrama of the undocumented person unaware of their status until the fatal moment when an institution bars them entry, we hear echoes of literary "tragic mulattas" who discover with shock that their blood consigns them to chatteldom. Today, brown-bodied supplicants are marshaled as exemplary cases to persuade the public to stand on their behalf against compassionless forces: nativists, vigilantes, the state itself. Many immigrant defense advocates invoke the abolitionist movement as an inspiration, often without recognizing the moral binaries that problematically undergirded much of it.1

These examples suggest transtemporal similarities in sentimental representation: the visual and narrative strategies that respond to a grotesquely dehumanizing system by soliciting sympathy and outrage on behalf of that system's individual victims. But if sentimental reformism's long history in the United States has taught us anything, it is that reaffirming the basic humanity of the other, while admittedly better than the alternative, sets the bar for ethical response far too low. The workings of sympathetic identification, and their constraint by ideologies of race, gender, and sexuality, have been a central preoccupation of Americanists over the past three decades: coincidentally, the same period during which the population of undocumented US residents, the majority of them Mexican, quadrupled. The field's extensive engagement with the politics of affect, then, invites us to ask how residual habits of identifying or disidentifying with racialized others might influence the moral legibility of noncitizen migrants.2

Despite the obvious differences between the nineteenth-century slave and the contemporary migrant, each was the product of a deep, uneven history of racialization that emerged from the economic necessity [End Page 182] of their labor. The 2016 presidential election empowered an antiimmigrant and nativist component of the political spectrum, expanding an already-existing state apparatus of surveillance, pursuit, capture, detention, and deportation. It reactivated and transformed previously existing strains of racism, including those once used to justify the "removal" of Native peoples, knotting up those strands into a ball of negative public feeling aimed, incoherently, against the perceived stranger-danger of Muslims, South Asians, and Mesoamericans regardless of citizenship status.3 As a result, undocumented people, along with their often mixed-status families, increasingly experience life as actual or potential fugitives. The possibility that private citizens and municipal institutions might be deputized (or economically incentivized) to join in the enforcement of federal immigration law—that doctors or teachers might be compelled to report undocumented users of health or education services, for example—has led many to invoke the Underground Railroad as a resistance model, and not only metaphorically.

Beyond the question of sentimentalism's representational optics, the slave and the undocumented migrant share similar conditions of legal vulnerability as noncitizens. One parallel emerges when the body in question moves into a space where it is not permitted to be: a refugee whose request for asylum has not been approved; a fugitive from the slave regime or from federal immigration authorities. The fugitive and the refugee have more in common than a Latin root, for the latter term has undergone notable semantic shifts. In the nineteenth century, when foreigners entering the United States were labeled as "exiles," "emigrés," or "refugees," those terms invoked a claim to sympathy, though not to any special rights. More commonly, "refugee" was used to cast a sympathetic light on those who were internally displaced, such as Native people driven from their homelands. But it could index Southern whites as well, as exemplified by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, formed during the initial phase of Reconstruction, whose very name instantiated a racial apposition between African...


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