Author Interview: Undocumented Fears

Jamie Longazel, author of Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, is interviewed by CrossTies contributing editor Linda Shopes.
Jamie Longazel. Photograph by Glenna Jennings, courtesy Jamie Longazel.

In 2006, the City Council of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act (IIRA), which threatened to fine those who hire or rent to undocumented immigrants and declared English as the city’s official language. Its passage, fully supported by then mayor and now United States congressman and Senate candidate Lou Barletta, came shortly after the murder of a local white man, allegedly by two undocumented Latino immigrants and likely related to drugs, stirred panic among white Hazletonians. (Charges were eventually dropped against the alleged killers for lack of evidence.)

But deeper forces were also at work. For half a century, Hazleton, located in northeast Pennsylvania, had been buffeted by profound economic and social changes. Anthracite coal mining, the city’s original economic base, had bottomed out by the late 1950s after employing generations of European immigrants and their descendants. While state and local development initiatives brought manufacturing jobs to the community for the next generation, rollbacks in government funding for such initiatives in the 1980s and beyond, coupled with widespread deindustrialization, produced relatively high levels of unemployment.

In response, community leaders offered incentives for new industries, including meatpacking and warehousing, but jobs in these workplaces were typically temporary and poorly paid. Significantly, employers recruited immigrant, primarily Latina/o labor to fill them. As a consequence, Hazleton’s demographics changed rapidly: in 2000, 95 percent of residents identified as white; six years later, 30 percent identified as Latina/o. This volatile mix of long-term economic distress and rapid, racialized demographic change, when combined with the historical memory among local whites—however idealized—of a cohesive working-class culture, set the stage for the frenzy of anti-immigrant activism that resulted in the IIRA. Although the Middle District Court in Scranton declared the act unconstitutional a year after its passage, it received national attention, sparking similar acts in more than one hundred municipalities. Indeed, it signaled underlying tensions over immigration that remain at work in today’s political climate in Hazleton and elsewhere.

Cover design by Levi Dillon, used with permission of Temple University Press.

This then is the context for Jamie Longazel’s Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, published by Temple University Press in 2016. In a compact ninety-six pages, supplemented by appendices and extensive notes, Longazel draws upon sociological theory and concepts of political economy to analyze the intertwined economic, political, and cultural roots underlying passage of the 2006 act. Successive chapters decode the escalating public rhetoric about immigrants following the 2006 murder and the discursive strategies of those promoting IIRA; lay open the maneuvers by which claims of rights and equality underlying opposition to the act became, among its supporters, claims of white aggrievement, innocence, and an averred colorblindness; and suggest how this dominant narrative has constrained subsequent Latina/o activism in Hazleton into a search for acceptance and respectability rather than a sharper critique. Longazel’s sophisticated analysis simultaneously understands the material conditions that can trigger anti-immigrant sentiments and the cultural dynamics that can propel it forward.

Perhaps of particular interest to public humanists, the book suggests the way local history can both normalize economic inequality and provide empowering examples of resistance to it. Since publishing Undocumented Fears, Longazel has cofounded Anthracite Unite, a regional organization that uses the medium of the humanities, including history, literature, and music, to contest dominant images of the region and reimagine a more just future.

This interview with Longazel, associate professor in the department of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, was conducted by MARCH contributing editor Linda Shopes via email. It is one of an occasional series of interviews with authors of recent books on topics of significance to work in public humanities.

1. Undocumented Fears uses social science theory as a way into understanding both the blatant and subtle operations of racism in Hazleton as part of “a broader ideological project designed to divide and conquer poor and working people.” But why have white people identified Latina/os in Hazleton and “others” in general as a threat, in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary? How does a “broader ideological project” gain traction?

I admittedly didn’t see it coming, but Hazleton ended up foreshadowing what the entire nation would experience a decade later. In fact, Lou Barletta was one of the first people to endorse Donald Trump for president, especially his law and order approach to immigration. So in a lot of ways, the answer to this question transcends Hazleton. What we’ve seen since Trump was elected is a debate about whether his supporters were motivated by economic anxiety or racial resentment. But one of the things I say in my book is that this isn’t an either-or question. Race and class don’t exist in a vacuum—they intersect. Many people find the politics of resentment attractive in the face of economic insecurity. Identifying as white in a way that degrades those who are marked as others therefore gains traction insofar as it helps shield the blow of economic dislocation. This is what African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois meant when he referred to the “psychological wage” of whiteness in his 1935 work Black Reconstruction in America. I may not be rich, but at least I’m not “them.”

Keep in mind also that this is very much about identity. How do people see themselves? Whom do they define themselves in relation to? This is why contrary evidence doesn’t do the trick: Identity runs deeper than facts. Plus, this ideological project extends across space and time. There is no doubt that Donald Trump and, in the case of Hazleton, then Mayor Barletta, are instigators, but in many ways divide and conquer politics of this sort form the bedrock of capitalism.

2. Your interviews and focus groups among longtime white residents of Hazleton reveal a pattern typical of so many oral history interviews with residents of white working-class communities: a nostalgic comparison of a stable and harmonious past with an unsettling, insecure present. As you argue, it’s the loss of manufacturing jobs and their replacement by poorly paying, low skilled service jobs that are the cause of instability and community decline. But, following from my first question, why do (white) people have such a hard time understanding the historical and economic roots of their current insecurities and instead blame the other (who have often been recruited for these new service jobs)?

As someone who grew up in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, I was exposed to a decent amount of local history. Even at a very young age, it was clear to me that coal miners had it rough. That they were poor. But it took some self-education to realize why they were poor. And to realize who they were poor in relation to. It might sound simple, but this isn’t an easy lesson to learn. It takes some swimming upstream to get a fresh perspective on this stuff.

The history we’re taught always includes rags to riches stories. Some of them are about how poor people escaped their plight thanks to hard work. Others describe wealthy people climbing up the social ladder and earning every penny of their fortunes. What they don’t teach us is how poverty is endemic to the system. Or about how employers have financial incentives to reduce wages and pit workers against one another.

In the coal region, there are museums dedicated to the coal barons who got rich off of the exploitation of miners. Poverty, disease, death in the mines—you really can’t underestimate how brutal life was for people living and working in the empires that these barons oversaw. A few of these men have entire towns named after them: Pardeesville is named for Ario Pardee; Gowen City, for Franklin B. Gowen. The cultural message, in other words, is unequivocally that these founding fathers of the region ought to be admired. So a history characterized by the brutal exploitation of labor by capitalists gets told narrowly with themes of hard work and perseverance. The coal barons “earned” their fortunes and “built” our towns, while miners endured poverty and eventually worked their way out of it so that their family members could escape it generations later.

Here’s what I’m getting at: It’s not just that people aren’t talking about social class or the economy or even history. They are, especially since 2008. It’s that the dominant narrative provides a very different explanation for economic insecurity than what is actually happening. Applied here, people in Hazleton are well aware that the city is in economic decline, and many have mobilized to remedy that. But within this cultural context, the remedy didn’t take the form of uniting working-class people across racial and ethnic lines to make demands against the local elites and large companies with massive amounts of social, economic, and political power. It took the form of anti-immigrant backlash.

This is what I think a lot of folks are missing when they analyze Donald Trump and the alt-right. We latch on to the ugliness of their racism without also recognizing that much of what they say has a material component too. This was true of the discourse surrounding the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. Lou Barletta wasn’t just advocating exclusion. He was propagating a message that “they” are taking from “us.” He even uses class language, talking about how “illegal immigrants” are harming “American workers.” Why does his rhetoric stick but calls for racial and economic justice don’t? I think it has a lot to do with the stories we tell and with the lens through which we are accustomed to interpreting social problems: Why would we increase the minimum wage when my great-grandfather came here with nothing and worked his way up? Why would we give undocumented folks a path to citizenship instead of encouraging them to follow the law and work hard? No one ever gave me a handout. That these kind of responses come out of a place with such a history of violent exploitation I think speaks to the sheer power of this broader ideological project.

3. One of the most thoughtful discussions in the book is the way you show how an ideology of white innocence actually delimits the nature of the response of Latinas/os and their supporters, shaping an accommodationist rather than a more critical stance. In Hazleton, this has meant that in response to a dominant narrative of Latinas/os as system-milking criminals guilty of promoting reverse racism, pro-immigrant activists, in order to avoid further backlash, adopted a politics of respectable community-minded integration instead of challenging the narrative directly. Interestingly, you draw upon an example from local history—the Lattimer Massacre of 1897, in which at least nineteen striking coal miners protesting new work rules were killed by the local sheriff and his deputies in a town near Hazleton—as an inspiration for breaking out of this discursive bind. How can history work in this way, especially since Lattimer ended with the murderous defeat of the strikers?

Don’t get me wrong, deciding to make concessions isn’t easy. For many, it’s a matter of survival, and I don’t want to take away from that. However, I do think there are times when we concede to the demands of the powerful because we’re not able to imagine what other options might look like. One of the things I really appreciate about history is that it can help expand our sense of what is possible. I quote Howard Zinn on this in my book. He says, “If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future, without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past, when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.” The story of the Lattimer Massacre lets us see how powerful working-class people can be when we come together across lines of division. The strike that precipitated the massacre had successfully shut down every colliery in the region except the one in Lattimer. And it did so because established English-speaking miners had finally agreed to ally with recent Slavic and Italian immigrants. The ending was tragic, yes, but when retelling that story, I always emphasize that the guns came out the day of the massacre because the coal barons felt threatened. I think they knew their power was contingent upon ethnic conflict. Just like the demagogues of today, the coal barons relied on immigrant labor—not only to undercut wages but also to scapegoat.

“Massacre of marching miners by Sheriff Martin and deputies at Lattimer, PA, on September 10, 1897.” From the Brotherhood of Firemen Journal, 1898.

So I think there are social movement strategies in historical events like this that we can apply to today— cautiously, of course, by taking into consideration different circumstances. At the same time, I think a story like this also takes on a mythic quality. Especially at a historical moment in which facts aren’t resonating, we need stories and heroes that folks can deeply identify with to move us to a different kind of action and help us construct a collective identity that isn’t self defeating. As someone from the coal region, I still get goose bumps from the Lattimer story. It connects me profoundly to my ancestors and to the place I come from. I’ve come to see myself as part of what is actually an ongoing struggle. Deep familiarity with this past, in other words, helps me link it to the present. The same cannot be said for empty nostalgia and narratives that speak narrowly of ancestors who “made it” thanks only to hard work.

4. You write that an “insistence on the innocence of whites and a refusal to acknowledge the real, lived experience of Latina/os reinforces the prevailing narrative” of threat. How might the humanities in general—not only history but also literature and the arts—perhaps represent fruitfully that “lived experience” and, in more challenging forms, the lack of white “innocence”?

If we need penetrating stories, the humanities are precisely where to turn. In the conclusion of the book I call for not just remembering history but recovering authenticity, and this, at least in my view, is the essence of the humanities. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed had a big influence on me. He talks about coming to understand the forces that keep us down through both study and action as an experience of becoming alive. Conscientization is the term he uses. This is what I was getting at in talking about Lattimer. We’re asleep when we don’t act and when we uncritically accept empty nostalgia. In sharp contrast, we’re wide awake when we critically reflect and take action. Without discounting some important prior experiences, for me personally the act of doing this research and speaking out about what I found politicized me.

For this reason, since I published the book I’ve turned my focus to public education. I cofounded an organization called Anthracite Unite, which focuses on contesting the politics of divide and conquer in Northeast Pennsylvania. We’ve been using history, storytelling, poetry, music, and direct action to get our message across. We try, for example, to bring untold histories—particularly those involving social class and race—to public attention and to move people with powerful poems and stories, especially from those whose stories typically go untold. Less obviously, we work under the assumption that the process matters as much as the product. We try to include contributors from various backgrounds and with various skill levels with the understanding that doing the research, doing the writing—really, doing the humanities—can be a transformative experience.

5. You write that Undocumented Fears does not proscribe ways of “’deal[ing] with’ undocumented immigration,” but rather attempts to draw out “how dominant ideologies relating to race and social class embedded in immigration politics continue to divide and conquer ordinary people today.” Can you gauge the public impact of the book? Can you discern any shift in local discourse about “the Latino Threat Narrative” as a result of the book? In general, how has it been received locally?

In a lot of ways, the book was received as I’d hoped it’d be. It was heartening to receive compliments from people in Hazleton who said things like “I’ve been thinking this for years; it’s great to hear someone finally come out and say it.” I also did some tours around Pennsylvania, speaking with mostly activist groups, at alternative bookstores, etc. There I got to meet a lot of committed folks, many of whom I’ve stayed in touch with and have since worked with on various political projects.

The timing of the book’s release ended up being interesting. It came out just as our national infatuation with Donald Trump began. In one sense, a lot more people have become politically active, and it’s been good to have the chance to engage with them. On the other hand, a lot of the ugly sentiments that Barletta kicked up during the debates over IIRA re-emerged in Hazleton during and after the Trump campaign. But a lot of us are trying hard to change the narrative. I’d like to think the book contributes to that in some way, but going back to what I said about the size and scope of divide and conquer politics: We still have a lot of work to do.

6. So, what’s the current state of relations between white and Latina/o residents of Hazleton? And if relations are improving, why is there a continuing need for a critical perspective?

This is the question the media ask me most often, and I feel like they ask it because they want me to say: “Well, it was bad, but it’s getting better.” Because that’s the American story, right? We made some mistakes, we endured some hardships, but we figured it out. Or: Today’s immigrants, like those before them, are currently struggling a little, but eventually they’ll be just fine. This isn’t to say things haven’t gotten better. The Hazleton Integration Project, for example, founded by Hazleton native and Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, has, through its programs and projects, done tremendous work in bringing the community together and healing some of these wounds. Nor is this to say that things haven’t gotten worse: There are more Confederate flags waving in town now than I ever remember.

But this is exactly what I’m saying: Notice how quickly this conversation can pivot away from the economic roots of this conflict and away from acknowledging white supremacy. As long as we keep blaming immigrants for poverty, crime, and a host of social ills, these problems are not going to get solved. And even if we see some improved interpersonal relations between whites and Latina/os, the broader context of anti-Latina/o racism cannot be ignored. What I mean is there is this cultural assumption that we can just wait it out as though this were merely a story about two opposing factions who initially struggled to get along. That’s an assumption that problematically ignores powerand that ignores the persistence of poverty—which is precisely the reason we need to continue developing a critical perspective, especially on issues of race and class.

7. As you note, you are from Hazleton, a fact that certainly enhanced your interest in local politics and perhaps gave you a certain entrée, as you pursued your research. So, tell us about your background in Hazleton and how that helped—if it did—your research.

Local bar, corner Broad St. and Diamond Ave., Hazleton, c. 2008. Photograph by Jamie Longazel.

It didn’t help me as much as I thought it would in terms of gaining entrée. I realized pretty quickly that my social networks didn’t extend into the social realms that I was studying. I didn’t know the elites who call the shots on economic policy; I didn’t know most of the newcomers—migration was just beginning to pick up when I moved out in 2001—and a lot of the far-right activists I interviewed were actually from outside the city. Although once I managed to connect with people, I found they were very open to talking with me, be it because they considered me an insider or, in the case of some pro-immigrant activists, because they assumed that, as a sociologist, I understood what they were going through.

Even that was relatively minor, however. I would say the biggest boost I received as a former resident comes from the notion that research is “me-search.” This book was my chance to tell the story of my town, of my people, of my history. My area of academic expertise was in harmony with what was playing out in the place I was born and raised. For that reason, I had a fire burning the entire time I was working on this book. Doing the research never felt like work. I couldn’t put it down. I still can’t put it down. That’s where I benefited.

8. You now live in New Paltz, New York, and work in New York City. So, what sort of relationship do you yourself maintain with the politics of immigration in Hazleton?

I’m very much still in the mix. As I mentioned earlier, I cofounded Anthracite Unite as a vehicle for doing local political education. Our group has also been more directly involved in politics. For example, we started a petition in the summer of 2017 demanding that Congressman Lou Barletta resign from the National Board of Advisors of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which is a Southern Poverty Law Center designated hate group with eugenicist origins. Over twelve hundred people have signed the petition, and it has received a good deal of media coverage. As a result, his affiliation with FAIR has come up on several occasions during his current campaign for U.S. Senate.

I’ve also done a bunch of interviews with media outlets and written a few op-eds about immigration politics in Pennsylvania, but my sense is that the powers-that-be in Hazleton couldn’t be bothered with what I have to say. Which is why I try to spend most of my time on grassroots efforts. For instance, I’m a member of Put People First, Pennsylvania, and am active in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. I devote a lot of time and energy to organizations and campaigns like these because they are driven by a theory of change that aligns quite closely with what I’ve been describing: They are organizing poor and working-class people to press for fundamental social and economic change; they recognize the importance of transcending our differences; and they know the value of history.

Jamie Longazel is associate professor in the department of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. His research focuses on issues of race and political economy within the context of immigration and imprisonment. His website, with contact information, is MARCH welcomes readers’ responses to this interview as well as suggestions for future author interviews.