Israel’s Democratic Backsliding

Written by Gabriela Baghdady, Editor, Foreign Affairs Review

Israel has stood as a unique example of a stable democracy in the Middle East for decades. However, in the last several years, political science scholarship has begun to raise questions as to whether Israeli democracy is under threat. Given the evidence that Israel is experiencing democratic backsliding, in what manner is this occurring, and what implications does it have for the country’s future?

Israel has had a unique history, making its regime trajectory a point of interest for many academics in political science scholarship. Not only is Israel one of the few democracies in the Middle East, it has achieved remarkable economic progress and democratic stability despite the hostility within its geographical location. For most of Israel’s history, it has been involved in violence with many of its neighboring countries—for instance, the first Arab-Israeli War was launched in 1948, just days after Israel declared its independence.[1] Despite involvement in many armed conflicts, Israel has boasted a technologically advanced economy and a robust and competitive electoral democracy for decades. In addition, the state of Israel’s democracy can have direct effects on the dynamics with its Middle Eastern neighbors. An Israel that slips into authoritarianism and foregoes its democratic norms may further destabilize the already volatile region.

Israeli democracy shows indications of backsliding in multiple ways, the first being through the recent decline in civil liberties and political rights. In July 2018, the Nation State Law was enacted in Israel. This law is a “basic law,” which is considered equivalent to a constitutional law in Israel. According to the Nation State Law, “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people;” Hebrew is the official language of Israel while Arabic holds “special status;” and Jewish settlement is a national value.[2] Other legislation passed in 2018 allows the Israeli interior minister to revoke Jerusalem residency for individuals believed to be involved in terrorism or guilty of treason, adding onto an existing law stipulating that non-Jews living in Jerusalem can lose their residency if they left their home for an extended period of time.

Israel also has mechanisms for combating opposition to government policy, another measure that harms democracy. A law in 2016 allows for the removal of Knesset members who incite racism or support armed struggle against Israel—Freedom House notes that this law has been considered to target Arabs in the Knesset. Individuals or groups can also face lawsuits if they support a boycott of Israel or its West Bank settlements under a 2011 law, and in 2017, this became legal grounds for banning access to the country. Similarly, there have been measures both passed and proposed to limit the rights of non-government organizations (NGOs) either supporting boycotts of Israel or relying on foreign funding (a 2016 law increased disclosure requirements for NGOs in the latter situation).[3]

Discrimination is seen in the allocation of government resources as well: “the fact that Arab villages and towns are not designated as development areas and towns and are denied grants, loans, tax exemptions and other privileges to which they are entitled according to objective socio-economic criteria constitutes a further example of discrimination. [Another] example would be the practice of granting child allowances not only to veterans but also to Jews who did not serve in the army, while denying the same allowances to Arab non-veterans.”[4] The stifling of political opposition and the lessening of minority rights in the Israeli democracy show a correlation with authoritarian regimes and represents a symptom of democratic backsliding.

Though Israel’s recent anti-democratic measures are troubling, this does not necessarily mean the country’s democracy will shatter. Israel, however, does show a symptom of what political scholars Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq would term constitutional retrogression, which “involves a simultaneous decay in three institutional predicates of democracy: the quality of elections, speech and associational rights, and the rule of law.”[5] In constitutional retrogression, the democracy faces systematic erosion but not full collapse. Israel is certainly witnessing one aspect of this erosion—the decline of individual rights in legislation that marginalizes Arabs and non-Jews in the country and stifles opposition.

However, despite the evidence of democratic backsliding, the future of Israeli democracy remains yet to be determined for two main reasons: the fact that the Israeli government has remained in a state of limbo since no coalition has been formed since the September 2019 elections, and because what will come of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s indictment is not yet known. Future government policies may show more alignment with democracy, or they may cause even more widespread damage to institutions and rights. Likewise, the Israeli judiciary may uphold democratic rule of law in its proceedings with the indicted Netanyahu, or the exact opposite may occur. These two developments will prove pivotal for the survival of Israeli democracy.


[1] Lesch, David. The Arab-Israeli Conflict. New York, Oxford University Press, 2018.

[2] Halbfinger, David, and Isabel Kershner. “Israeli Law Declares the Country the ‘Nation-State of the Jewish People.’” The New York Times, 19 July 2018, Accessed 10 December 2019.

[3] Freedom House. “Freedom in the World 2019: Israel.” Freedom House, Accessed 10 December 2019.

[4] Neuberger, Benyamin. “Israel’s Democracy and Comparative Politics.” Jewish Political Studies Review, vol. 1, no. 3/4, 1989, pg. 67-75.

[5] Ginsburg, Tom, and Aziz Huq. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” UCLA Law Review 78, 2018, pg. 79-169.

The Loudest Region

Maria Camila Garcia, Johns Hopkins Foreign Affairs Review

There are many factors that contribute to the connection amongst Latin American countries: a similar culture, a strong passion for celebration, a love for soccer, essentially equal religious beliefs and a shared painful history of subjugation. However, in the past year, another aspect of these nations has become even more characteristic: massive movements that embody an enormous feeling of dissatisfaction, fear and anger resulting from inefficient governments and unfair policies.

One of the most broadcasted protests took place in Puerto Rico this past summer. United to demand a resignation from the governor, over 1 million citizens walked the streets San Juan, the capital, carrying signs with evidence of the inappropriate behavior of their public official.[1] Throughout 7 days of manifestations, arguably more, the population argued that the amount of debt due to corruption, the lack of support to the victims of hurricane Maria, and misogynistic, racist, and homophobic comments were only some of the many economic, social and political reasons why a change of leadership was necessary.[2] The outcome of this protest was in a way successful, as the governor resigned and the wishes of the people were met, however, the negative effects of his administration are ongoing. Another protest that, sadly, did not resonate globally, took place in Panama this past October. The main purpose of this movement was to reject constitutional reforms that promote discrimination, facilitate corruption and lessen punitive measures against dishonest government officials.[3] After 2 days of public rallies, the protest ended due to increasing violence from the police and army, who fired several shots at citizens part of the movement.[4] Additionally, the outcome wasn’t favorable for those unsatisfied with the government, as no change was made to the legislation or administration of Panama. Despite the clear differences between these two Latin American movements, one thing is clear; government structures in this region are unable to satisfy the needs of its population, forcing citizens to use different tools to demand and enact change, such as protests and media coverage.

As a matter of fact, in this very moment, 3 other nations are facing similar situations: citizens are collectively fighting for economic, political and social changes within their territories. In Chile, protests have received enormous attention. What sparked the demonstration was a series of actions taken by the government to raise the prices of public transportation and other basic needs such as living and public health.[5] Inequity is worsening and prompt action is necessary for the well-being of thousands, especially those with the lowest monetary incomes.[6] Despite it being an ongoing movement, Chilean protests have already achieved positive outcomes: the Congress and Senate agreed to start the process of making amendments to the constitution, which hasn’t been changed since 1980.[7] The revolution in Bolivia started on the night of October 20th and is still present by the means of peaceful marches, along with other forms of protest. According to the citizens of this nation, the results of the presidential elections that took place that same day were fraudulent and manipulated in favor of Evo Morales, a president whose time in office has surpassed a dozen years.[8] After the first 20 days of enormous protests, the population managed to force the president, Vice President, the president of the Senate, among others, to resign and called for new elections.[9] On another note, Colombia has officially reached the 5th day of its national protest, that began the 21st of November as a way to demonstrate an overall discontent for the president, Ivan Duque, whose measures haven’t been able to target or ameliorate the corruption and inequity that are very present in the country.[10] What started as a peaceful movement has recently turned into a dangerous and violent confrontation between public official and protesters, specially after the tragic death of a young high school student on the hands of the anti-disturbance squadron in Bogota, the capital.[11] Currently, the strike has sent a strong message to government officials, who have started to propose new methods of dealing with important issues and have begun to demonstrate they accept and value public opinion.[12] Still, most citizens believe it is important to continue manifesting their anger and displeasure, as a way to guarantee and achieve long run effects in the State.[13]

Overall, the large trend for public manifestations, protests and strikes, among many other ways to express desires for change, that is currently prevalent among Latin American nations demonstrates that democracies in this region are unable to satisfy the needs and wants of the majority of the population.[14] Therefore, they are essentially incapable of properly carrying out their duty and purpose. I believe that the only way to mitigate this recurring issue is through prompt restructuring of the social, economic and political facets of the individual nations through cooperation between the government and population, which is precisely what many of these mass movements strive for.  Although many of the revolutions have certainly achieved important steps towards improving weak national institutions, further international media coverage is necessary to target leaders able to influence public and private opinion, thus allowing bigger changes to occur. In this manner, the blaring voices of Latin American citizens in need will be heard from all over the world.

[1] Martinez, Gina. “Puerto Rico Protests: Everything You Need to Know.” Time, Time, 22 July 2019,

[2] Ibis

[3] Petersen, German. “Analysis | Latin Americans Are Protesting – and Throwing out – Corrupt Regimes. Why Now?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 June 2018,

[4] Ibis

[5] “’Chile Woke Up’: Dictatorship’s Legacy of Inequality Triggers Mass Protests.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Nov. 2019,

[6] Ibis

[7] Paúl, Fernanda. “Protestas En Chile: 4 Claves Para Entender La Furia y El Estallido Social En El País Sudamericano.” BBC News Mundo, BBC, 23 Oct. 2019,

[8] Miranda, Boris. “Protestas En Bolivia Tras La Cuestionada Victoria De Evo Morales: Cómo Se Radicalizaron Las Manifestaciones y La Violencia En El País.” BBC News Mundo, BBC, 7 Nov. 2019,

[9] Redacción. “Crisis En Bolivia: El ‘Uso Desproporcionado De La Fuerza’ Contra Seguidores De Evo Morales En Bolivia Recibe El Repudio De Organizaciones Internacionales.” BBC News Mundo, BBC, 17 Nov. 2019,

[10] Semana. “¿Qué Hay Detrás Del Paro Nacional Del 21 De Noviembre?” ¿Qué Hay Detrás Del Paro Del 21 De Noviembre De 2019?,, 20 Nov. 2019,

[11] Ibis

[12] Semana. “Se Siguen Sumando Voces Que Convocan a La Marcha Del 21 De Noviembre.” Paro Nacional 21 De Noviembre Convocan En Colombia a Gran Huelga Contra Gobierno De Duque,, 14 Nov. 2019,

[13] Ibis

[14] Dinero. “Protestas En América Latina, ¿Qué Está Pásando?” ¿Por Qué Hay Tantas Protestas En América Latina?,, 4 Nov. 2019,


Steering Forward in Syrian Quagmire

Chris Park, Editor, Foreign Affairs Review

Just as Mitch McConnell said, Jim Mattis’s departure from the Department of Defense more than a year ago was distressing. He was confirmed by a 98-1 vote after gaining a waiver from the National Security Act of 1947 that required a seven year waiting period between a retired military personnel could seek the Secretary of Defense spot. Kirsten Gillibrand was the sole no vote, not on the basis of Mattis’s nomination but on her objection to the waiver–a rare bipartisan support in the contentious confirmation process. The only nominee to get less opposition was former VA Secretary David Shulkin, an Obama-era VA Under Secretary. 

Mattis’s approach to foreign policy was more hawkish compared to that of the Obama administration but pales in comparison to views of Steve Bannon or John Bolton. He deterred the administration from acting on the President’s impulses, like the assassination of Bashar al-Assad or a military strike against North Korea. Trump’s military transgender ban also never came to fruition. While unsuccessful, he opposed the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem and withdrawals from the Iran Deal and the Paris Climate Accord. 

The point of contention between the Defense Secretary and the President at ultimately led to Mattis’s resignation was on pulling troops from Syria. This chism reveals a larger picture about the troubling “America First” doctrine that defies the foreign policy beliefs dating back to the World War II — the rash policies that Mattis thus far kept more-or-less at bay. While Trump ultimately did not withdraw the troops then, he finally did order the withdrawal of ground troops almost a year after Mattis’s departure.

Granted, an argument can be made that the troop withdrawal is part of an overarching foreign policy agenda. Obama’s much-contested withdrawal from Iraq was a fulfillment of a Bush-era agreement with the Iraqi government. However, what truly sets apart “America First” doctrine is not necessarily a shift in policy, though it often is, but the way in which a policy is carried out. In this case, Trump’s abrupt announcement of withdrawal via Twitter combined with the general disregard of geopolitics and long-standing American commitments in the region show the chaotic and irresponsible nature of the Trump policy agenda.

The reality is that withdrawal of troops from Syria was a mistake. 

As delineated in Mattis’s resignation letter, a part of the reason has to do with the need to maintain alliances, like the one with the YPG, the Kurdish militia in Syria. They serve as necessary American allies against ISIS, helping gather useful intelligence and deterring the rising Iranian and Russian influence in the region. Syrian Kurds will likely continue to hold significant sway over Arab geopolitics. The troop withdrawal would surely fracture the relationship, especially as Kurds continue to engage in a protracted armed conflict with Turkey and with Erdogan—to whom Trump reportedly told Syria is “all yours”—hellbent on crushing the Kurdish rebels. 

While immediate Turkish offensive that ensued after the American withdrawal was troubling, the lack of U.S. support for Kurdish allies likely would not invariably lead to a long-term humanitarian crisis, as Congressman-elect Dan Cranshaw posits in his Washington Post opinion piece. The Kurds would likely find another ally to ward off Turkish influence that would predate and likely prevent a large-scale humanitarian disaster–perhaps a figure like Bashar al-Assad of Syria. If humanitarian concerns do not apply, there still is a massive strategic question that needs to be asked: does the United States want a tyrannical Russia-friendly dictator to retain his relevance as a major player in the region?

There also remains the question of ISIS. Despite what the President says, ISIS presence—albeit weakened—remains strong. 2010 Iraqi withdrawal under Obama is what originally brought ISIS to power. Leaving now would only go back on the progress by the United States to stabilize the region since the insurgence of ISIS and give the terrorist group a chance to reorganize. Having an extreme militant group only adds to the instability of the region, jeopardizing global security which, in turn, jeopardizing American national security. 

To question whether U.S. intervention in the Middle East is the right thing with a microscopic view of today’s engagement is not a responsible thing to do. There’s an argument that could be made that previous U.S. intervention in the region—dating back to Desert Storm—that exacerbated its instability. But the clock cannot be turned back. Instead, the question is what is the best course of action as we remain stuck in this quagmire. 

The least damaging way forward is to bolster American commitments to allies and maintain American forces in Syria. Trump’s decision to withdraw is an alarming potential precursor to more damaging foreign policy headed our way in the remaining year of Trump’s first term.


The Populist Challenge

Gabriela Baghdady, Editor, Foreign Affairs Review

“The time of the nation has come.”[i] These are the words of Marine Le Pen, former French presidential candidate, president of the National Rally party in France, and alleged “populist.”  Populism is the international phenomenon that has been sweeping European countries for last decade, prompting a flood of analyses from leading political thinkers. As political scholarship grapples to reach a consensus on populism, populist leaders continue to fight for dominance in European governments. The recent surge of populist movements across Europe has not only transformed mainstream politics but has also posed a challenge to liberal democratic norms, mainly through fostering antipluralism and a rejection of important aspects of democracy.

Is populism an ideology, style, theory, or something else entirely? This has been widely debated among academics. However, analyses have recognized several commonalities in how populists present themselves and their ideas. First, populists usually identify a dichotomy between a “people” and an adversary, usually political and economic elites. In speeches, they rail against the elites for their suppression of the “real” people of the nation. In contrast, the populist often portrays himself or herself as the sole representative of the will of the people and promises dramatic changes to the status quo.[ii] They manufacture a morally charged and inherently exclusionary distinction between a “good” citizenry and an “evil” elite in power, portraying themselves as the hero. However, this hero is often not intent on “saving” every person within a given country—populists have been known to target a certain national or social class that they claim to represent.

In Europe, populists have appeared on both the right and left of the political spectrum. The French National Rally (right-wing) and Podemos in Spain (left-wing) are just two examples. While the policies of these parties are clearly divergent, there are elements of populist rhetoric and tactics found in both. The National Rally (led by Marine Le Pen), has attacked several perceived threats of the French people, including globalism, Muslim immigrants and Islam in general, and the European Union. Le Pen and her party have worked to revive French patriotism and Le Pen portrayed herself as a “candidate of the people” in her presidential campaign.[iii] Left populists like Podemos, though overtly nationalist, have made similar claims about a “people” and advocated for a greater focus on the “nation.” In Spain, the charismatic Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has rallied Spaniards against the corrupt government elites and in favor of rescuing an impoverished middle class, advocating for more economic sovereignty.[iv] While characteristics and ideas vary by leader and across the political spectrum, there are key commonalities: a portrayal of the populist as a champion of a “people” and a rejection of elites and the status quo.

A burning question remains: what does populism mean for democracy? In a number of ways, populism is challenging and even damaging democracy already. Antipluralist rhetoric has fostered a nationalism that has begun to manifest into xenophobia and a rejection of other cultures in France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and other European countries. This poses a threat to civil liberties of immigrants in Europe—liberties that democracy is meant to protect—and far-right populism specifically plays a role. Furthermore, populism also poses a threat to the political party system within many European democracies.[v] The tendency of populists to make distinctions between what is “good” and “evil” creates what Jan Werner Müller calls a “moralization of politics.”[vi] An outright portrayal of political opponents as morally “bad,” coupled with populists’ claim that they are the sole representation of the people, rejects the mediation and compromise that is a cornerstone of party democracy. Additionally, some populists have directed attacks against democratic institutions, including global/internationalist institutions, the media, and the free market. Therefore, while the long-term implications of populism are not well-known, it is possible that populist leaders can have a transformative impact on mainstream European politics for much of the foreseeable future, and could possibly become a “new normal” if strong enough.

There are some reasons to believe, however, that populism has the capacity to strengthen democracy. Populists may be able to bring greater awareness to certain issues for an underrepresented population. The potential populist threat to democracy may also motivate politicians to fight more strongly for democratic values and norms. If not, rampant antipluralism and a negative attitude toward the political status quo may erode representative democracy as it exists today.




[i] Peterson, Matt. “2016: The Year in Quotes.” The Atlantic, Accessed 23 November 2019.

[ii] Mudde, Cas and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2017.

[iii] Nossiter, Adam. “Marine Le Pen Echoes Trump’s Bleak Populism in French Campaign Kickoff.” New York Times, Accessed 13 November 2019.

[iv] Iglesias, Pablo. “Understanding Podemos.” New Left Review, May-Jun. 2015, pg. 7-22.

[v] Urbinati, Nadia. Introduction. Me the People, Harvard University Press, 2019, pp. 1-39.

[vi] Müller, Jan Verner. What is Populism?, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Analysis of Classical Liberal & Socialist Thought

By Julianne Schmidt

Marked by the success of the American Revolution and the turmoil of the French Revolution, the nineteenth century was the setting for the birth of classical liberal thought. Out of these historical events emerged Wilhelm von Humboldt’s On the Limits of State Action and, later, Alexis de Tocqueville’s work, Democracy in America. Both of these works outline the basic principles of liberalism by emphasizing the importance of private initiative over the collective and advocating for the limited role of the state. A second derivative of political thought matured towards the middle of the nineteenth century amidst the height of the Industrial Revolution: socialism. Half a century after Humboldt’s text, Friedrich Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England, a fundamental analysis of the life of the English proletariat as framed by their environment and the consequences thereof. Shortly afterwards, Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto detailed a structure for the proletariat’s shift to the ruling class. In contrast to liberalism, socialism prioritized the collective and embraced the role of the State as a sort of referee promoting the welfare of the commoner. The disparity between liberalism and socialism is rooted in their different levels of analysis—the individual versus the collective proletariat— their contrasting opinions on the role of the state, and their opposing conclusions on the future of European states’ societal and governmental structure.

The core of Humboldt’s text argues for liberalism’s prioritization of the individual over the collective society, and the role of the state to limit its actions to allow for this end. He argues that private initiative should be the foundation on which all states stand. The natural goal of life is to bring forth our individual personality, therefore the goal of the state should be to allow for the expression of each citizen’s individuality. The individual should be able to “enjoy the most absolute freedom of developing himself by his own energies” (Humboldt 20). If states encroach upon the natural evolution of the individual, the result is an underdeveloped citizenry and the encouragement of passivity among the population. An overactive and overextended government will cause uniformity, destroy the vitality and sense of community among citizens, and ultimately undermine the efficiency of the state as a whole (23). Instead, Humboldt argues that the main function of the state should be more limited—it should maintain focus on just the protection of citizens from each other and from foreign invasion. This clearly delineated security function of the state allows freedom for the full development of the individual and provides an environment with a variety of stimuli to challenge people to further develop themselves (16). In this society, competition will exist among community members but this mutual competition will push each to their highest potential. Humboldt equates greater competition with an outcome of increased greatness of the civilization. He argues for the minimization of government and the maximization of freedoms given to the citizenry. This focus on the individual over the state will create a more efficient system comprised of self-motivated citizens that will expend energy on addressing only society’s necessities.

Whereas the liberal thought of Humboldt focuses on the individual himself acting to bring forth his unique personality, Engels specifically argues that the environment in which the individual finds himself is a crucial factor in determining his character, actions, and future potential. He discusses the inhumane living conditions of the working class, who are frequently piled together in overcrowded, unsanitary districts of towns that create an environment ripe for the spread of infectious disease and allow little hope for escape and improvement of condition. He writes that the proletariat lives in a “condition unworthy of human beings” and the entirety of the working class is “exposed to a similar fate without any fault of his own and in spite of every possible effort” (Engels 43). It is important that Engels notes this blamelessness of the working class man—the proletariat is incapable of reaching its “full potential” in liberal terms because the environment in which they find themselves is static and restricting of social mobility. As a result of the depressed living conditions, Engels notes the uptick in theft, prostitution, and drunkenness throughout England in recent decades. Living in squalor, the working men squander their money on alcohol because it offers them a brief respite from the reality of their condition (129). In this way, he notes how immoral actions are derived from the inhumanity that the proletariat finds themselves living in. These actions of the proletariat, being direct products of their condition, can only be improved by the creation and intervention of a collective welfare state.

Engels shows that it is impossible to isolate the individual from the conditions of his life, an analysis that Humboldt does not address. In his focus on each individual’s ability to reach his highest potential self, Humboldt does not confront the realities of the conditions of the lower class. Because he writes before the complete fast-paced onset of the Industrial Revolution, Humboldt’s argument lacks the acknowledgement of the inescapable abject poverty that defines working class life. Engels makes a point in his description of working class conditions to include an excerpt from a contemporary liberal thinker, who is “amazed that it is possible to maintain a reasonable state of health in [the proletariat’s] homes” (Engels 76). The liberal thinker shares in essence the same astonishment at the working class living standards as Engels. In this way, both sides of the political theory acknowledge the destitution of the proletariat as a product of the Industrial Revolution. However, liberals and socialists fundamentally differ in their approach of the role of the state in alleviating these conditions.

For Marx and Engels the purpose of the state is to ensure the welfare of its citizens, departing from Humboldt’s emphasis on the separation of welfare programs from the role of the state. Socialists deny liberal thinkers’ necessary focus on individual development for the good of both the individual and the nation as a whole. Instead, they argue that priority should be placed on the collective, because the best results for all come when you put the good and equality of the whole of society first. In their manifesto, Marx and Engels argue that capitalism destroys the egalitarianism of society by pitting people against each other (Marx and Engels 479). It drives workers to compete with workers, resulting in an unproductive and disjointed society. The cohesive organization of the proletariat into a class is constantly disrupted by this internal competition spurred by capitalist influence (481). It is through class struggle and conflict, however, that the proletariat gains a sense of itself and its potential as a whole unit of society, for, “with the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows” (480). From this accumulating strength comes labor unions, the natural first step in the formation of the collective working class state. Once firmly established, these unions form the basis for the future organization of the proletariat as the ruling class. Empowering the workers as equal leaders of the collective state ensures that systems will be put in place to check competition, since Marx and Engels believe capitalist competition is contrary to human nature. This results in a banding together to protect the collective interests and common welfare. Contrary to liberal thinkers, Marx and Engels believe the pooling together of resources increases efficiency. Therefore, this collective society governed by the proletariat with the interests of the proletariat at heart will resolve the current plight of the working class.

By contrast, Tocqueville argues that democratic governments may naturally further concentrate and expand their powers, but measures must be put in place to ensure that these governments do not turn into benign paternalistic or despotic states. In this way, Tocqueville opposes the socialist favor of a strong central state as the promoter of unity and collective welfare. He argues that the “extreme centralization of political power ultimately enervates society and thus…weakens the government too” (Tocqueville 677). Therefore, states must avoid the expansion of bureaucracies and the destruction of secondary powers while promoting civic engagement and the direct election of government officials. Although these measures of limiting the state’s power contradict socialism, Tocqueville does recognize some pieces of information that Marx and Engels touch upon. He realizes that the “noble has gone down in the social scale, and the commoner gone up”, quasi-relating to the socialists’ perception of the ultimate rise of proletariat power and fall of bourgeoisie influence (11). He acknowledges the fact that the old regime that has dominated France and Europe as a whole for centuries cannot be brought back. However he does not see the future overthrow of the bourgeoisie class by the commoners. Instead, he discusses the concept of the “equality of conditions” or the equal opportunity of individuals to succeed and move upward in society (9). Inextricably tied to this equality of conditions is the “great democratic revolution” that is crossing the Atlantic from America (9). There are two possible outcomes of democracy, one being based on liberty, as in the United States, and the other being based on democratic despotism. In an overly centralized and powerful state, there is a fear of tyranny of the majority and the quiet despotism of a paternalistic government (675). In order to prevent this result, Tocqueville argues for the citizenry to be cautious of an overly expansive government and to support the limited role of the state and the maintenance of individual freedoms.


A link between these liberal and socialist texts can be found in the common discussion of the impact of post-revolutionary America on the political and economic framework of Europe. The influence of the newly democratic America is the foundation of Tocqueville’s work and is also referenced by Engels. For Tocqueville, America is the basis for his argument that freedom, knowledge, and prosperity can result from the equality of conditions in a successful democracy (Tocqueville 705). Engels, however, approaches the state of America through an economic lens. In his discussion of the “Attitude of the Bourgeoisie”, he states that the English capitalists are woefully underestimating the potential of the newly independent nation. For Engels, it is clear that America has a seemingly limitless capacity for economic progress with its “inexhaustible resources…[and] energetic, active population” (Engels 299). The new democracy has a more invigorated population than the beaten down English working class, which could be problematic for England in maintaining its leading position in the global economy. This discussion of American influence shared by the two modes of political thought reflects the different conclusions they derive from common analysis of a working democracy. For Tocqueville, it is America that forms the starting point for the wave of democracy that will inevitably hit Europe (Tocqueville 9). Simultaneously, Engels argues that it is America that poses a threat to the tenuous supremacy of English manufacturing—a threat that could hasten the proletariat’s destruction of the English bourgeoisie because it would potentially ruin the English economy and cause a recession, making the livelihoods of the working class economically unsustainable, thereby inspiring a united uprising (Engels 300). In this way, liberalism and socialism are connected in their acknowledgement of America’s indelible impact on the European continent. For liberals this impact will lead to the establishment of similarly structured democracies built on individual freedoms, free trade, and limited interference of the state. For socialists this impact is evidence of England’s impending economic struggles and is a harbinger of the proletariat revolution that rests on the horizon.

Ultimately, socialist policies differ from those of liberals because the theorists hold contrasting views on the future of the proletariat, societal structure, and the role of government. For Humboldt, the future of human history is centered on the individual and his efforts to attain his full personality. Sharing in this liberal thought, Tocqueville sees human history as being pushed by the current wave of equality of conditions and democracy coming from its origins in the United States. He believes this influence will inevitably envelope Europe as “the nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst” (Tocqueville 705). Humboldt and Tocqueville envision a future rooted in the freedoms of the individual and argue that the state should remain small so as not to disrupt or encroach on these freedoms. Marx and Engels do not see the existence of the “equality of conditions” discussed by liberals. The proletariat is viewed as being currently barred into a destructive capitalist environment whose continual oppression will trigger a revolt against traditional class divisions. Once at this stage, the “proletariat can no longer emancipate itself from the class which exploits and oppresses it without at the same time forever freeing the whole of society from exploitation, oppression, and class struggles” (Marx and Engels 472). The result is the foundation of a collective welfare state that will abolish the roots of inequality and oppression. Therefore, socialist policies differ from those of liberals because they disagree with the ability of man to develop and reach his highest potential of his own accord in the capitalist world. The foundation of liberal thought is in the individual, but for Marx and Engels the cruel environment perpetuated by capitalism has prevented the individual from reaching this stage, and so the future is in the unity of the proletariat and the overturning of capitalism.

Socialist and liberal thought diverge in their prioritization of the collective versus the individual, the welfare role of the state versus the limited role of the state, and in their view of the future of the European state and the proletariat. Humboldt and Tocqueville see the future of democracies as balancing individual freedoms with some centralized state powers. Marx and Engels argue that the future lies with the proletariat as the ruling class, overturning the oppression of capitalism with the establishment of a collective welfare state. Both the socialist and liberal texts look to America as influential in determining aspects of the political and economic future of Europe. For liberals, America is the successful result of democracy. For socialists, America and its rising economic prominence represents a possible trigger of recession resulting in the final overthrow of the English bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels conclude their manifesto with “working men of all countries unite!”. By contrast, Tocqueville and Humboldt’s concluding lines are comprised of more wary warnings of the possibility of either a successful democracy or a despotic one. The aggression of the socialists’ tone is counterbalanced by the liberals’ cautioning one. Despite the impassioned tone of the Communist Manifesto, it is the cautionary tone of the classical liberal works that holds fast on the European continent and in the minds of citizens for decades to come.



Works Cited

de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Harper & Row, 1988.

Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Robert Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (second edition: Norton, 1978).

Von Humboldt, Wilhelm. The Limits of State Action. Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Limits of Realism in Understanding Chinese Land Reclamation

By Joy (Zhiruo) Wang

Written for Prof. Steven David’s Contemporary International Politics class

Prompt: Realism was arguably the dominant approach in international relations during the Cold War. But is it still relevant in today’s world? Select an issue that threatens world stability today (e.g. terrorism, the spread of nuclear weapons, cyber warfare, the rise of China) and discuss how relevant Realism is in understanding that issue. Where Realism falls short, what other approaches would help?


Throughout human history, territory has remained one of the most fought over assets by nations and individuals alike. Indeed, nearly all warfare involves some form of territorial dispute or adjustment. The Thirty Years’ War, a religious war at its core, can also be viewed as a struggle for territorial domination between Protestant and Catholic states; the Cold War, though not a war in the traditional sense, to a large extent consisted of a race for incorporating unaligned territories into established spheres of influence. Thus, given the political significance of territory, it is not surprising that, after China initiated its land reclamation projects in the South China Sea in 2014, the international community reacted with great anxiety and protest. According to the US Department of Defense, between early 2014 and mid-2015 China had reclaimed around 3,000 acres in the South China Sea.1 The large scale of China’s reclamation efforts not only exacerbated existing regional tension, as China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines lay overlapping claims to the islands in this area, but also provoked American objection on grounds of violation of international law.2 Considering the volumes of their GDPs, any conflict between China and the US has the potential to wreak havoc on global economy. In addition, if China engages in territorial wars with its neighbors, particularly the Philippines, the Mutual Defense Treaty may drag the US into war with China; the consequences of such a confrontation would be unimaginable given both countries’ conventional and nuclear capabilities. Therefore, China’s island building activities in the South China Sea pose a great threat to world stability. The following essay seeks to address the situation in a theoretical framework. I shall use realism to analyze the rationale behind China’s recent land reclamation and then offer alternative approaches where realism falls short. I shall conclude that while realism accounts for a large portion of China’s motivations, first and second level analysis, constructivism and feminism help explain the timing, magnitude and issue of alternatives of this event.


Since realism is an important analytical tool in this paper, I shall first introduce the basic tenets and assumptions of realism. Virtually all realists believe that humans live in a bleak world where might equals right—human nature is rotten and morality means little more than hypothetical naivete. According to Mearsheimer, realism has five fundamental assumptions about the international system: (1) the international system is characterized by anarchy (2) all states have some sort of offensive capabilities (3) states can never be sure of each other’s intentions (4) survival is the ultimate goal of states (5) states are rational.3 In a realist world interest is defined in terms of power, so regardless of their leaders, cultures, or internal structures, states facing the same power distribution will react the same way to the same stimulus. Because the international system is anarchic, meaning there is no such thing as a world government to arbitrate injustice, states can only rely on themselves for help, so security always remains their top priority.


Offensive realism sheds light on China’s mentality behind island construction. Offensive realism, as set forth by John Mearsheimer, argues that states will always seek to increase their power because only primacy guarantees security.4 It predicts that states will never cease to expand where expansion is possible since power is a zero-sum game. From an offensive realist perspective, China sees all other countries as potential threats as it can never be sure of their intentions and can only depend on itself. Thus, the best way for China to ensure its survival would be to become the most powerful state on the global stage, thereby both deterring and preempting attacks by hostile states. In this case, China does not pursue a limited regional goal but the ambitious aim of global hegemony. Empirical evidence attests to the validity of the offensive realist view. After the completion of land reclamation in the Spratlys in 2015, China claimed to have ended its island building activities in the South China Sea. However, recent satellite photos of the Tree Island and the North Island, both disputed territories, clearly demonstrate China’s unwillingness to curb its artificial island construction.5 Therefore, despite China’s official rhetoric of having concluded land reclamation three years ago, it still secretly seeks to enlarge its land holdings in the South China Sea and has shown no sign of ending such efforts. In addition, China’s continued expansion southward corresponds to its attempts at increasing its economic influence westward, as symbolized by the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, and at projecting its power in Latin America and Africa through loans and infrastructure building. One can argue that China’s continued push into the South China Sea is simply part of its grand scheme of global domination, which also fits the developmental trajectory prescribed by offensive realism. Thus, offensive realism offers insights into China’s continuous land reclamation by examining its fundamental insecurity in an anarchic world.


Defensive realism shares many of the same beliefs as offensive realism, but believes that excessive power will bring about the fall of the expanding state; the rationale, according to Kenneth Waltz, is that if a state becomes too powerful, other states would feel threatened and would band together to either destroy the aggressor state or restore it to its original power capacity.6 In this case, states do not expand unprovoked, but rather as a response to changing distribution of power since acquiring too much power and thereby upsetting the balance of power would only threaten their security more. Therefore, based on defensive realism, China’s push into the South China Sea was not self-initiated but simply a reaction to escalating security challenges in the region; it will cease expanding once it feels that it has gained enough power to counterbalance the new security threats. Broader historical context of the South China Sea disputes proves defensive realism to be on the side of truth. Contrary to popular assumption, China is in fact the latecomer to the land reclamation game. The Philippines had reclaimed on the Palawan Island and Vietnam has added to Sand Cay and West London Reef 21,000 and 65,000 square meters respectively since 2010.7 Increased territories in the South China Sea means increased military outposts and increased ability to claim more islands in disputed areas, which threatens China’s sovereignty. Therefore, given Vietnam’s island building in the disputed Spratly Islands, China perceived a rise in the relative power of its competitors and had to increase its own power in the region. Defensive realism predicts that China will eventually stop its expansion even though China has yet to slow down land reclamation. This is because as China builds up more capabilities in the region through the construction of airstrips and marine bases on the new artificial islands, so too do its hostile neighbors. Thus, China still feels insecure and will continue to expand until it restores the perceived balance of power to the previous status quo.


Omnibalancing, as developed by Steven David, agrees with realism on the prominence of interest and power, but argues that in a developing country the balance of power occurs not on the international level but on the state level. In the developing world, sometimes the biggest threats to the government are not from other states but rather from domestic dissent and unrest (e.g. military coup d’etat or riots). Therefore, to stay in power, countries leaders may choose foreign policies that are not in the best interest of the state but diffuse domestic tension.8 In the case of China, omnibalancing would contend that China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea is merely a diversion from domestic discontent with the government. China is an authoritarian regime without free election, so the only source of government legitimacy comes from its ability to keep the people satisfied. In a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2015, government corruption tops the list, with 84% respondents considering it a big problem and 44% a very big problem; more than 50% of people believe that air/water pollution, food safety, and income inequality will stay the same or get worse over the next 5 years.9 In 2010 alone, China witnessed 180,000 protests, demonstrations, and riots.10 These data reveal a low level of confidence for the government, so diverting domestic discontent with battling foreign encroachment on sovereignty — that is, the territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines — through island building would allow the Communist leadership to recover its image among the public. A survey in 2013 further confirms the validity of the omnibalancing argument: around 60% of people pay attention to China’s maritime disputes and the majority think that China’s claims are absolutely correct.11


However, despite its immense explanatory power, realism cannot account for the full story of China’s land reclamation. First, it does not explain the timing of the reclamation. Territorial disputes and “island squatting” have existed since the 1970s while Vietnam started land reclamation in 2010, so why did China suddenly decide to build artificial islands in 2014 as opposed to, say, 2011? Second, realism does not fully explain the magnitude of China’s reclamation efforts. Granted, China felt the need to catch up with its competitors, namely Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, in the game of artificial island construction, but the scale of China’s project dwarfed that of all the others combined: 100 acres over 45 years compared to 3,000 acres over 2 years.12 Defensive realism justifies China’s rationale for initiating and continuing land reclamation, but it does not tell us why China perceives such a big threat from its adversaries’ expansion of a mere 100 acres. Third, island building was not the only viable response for China; negotiations, binding treaties, UN arbitration, or international law were all possible alternatives. Admittedly, omnibalancing necessitates the creation of a common enemy, but asserting national sovereignty does not entail escalating tension; victory over the Paracel Islands in an international court would rally as much national sentiment as would through military buildup. Therefore, in the face of land reclamation by hostile states, why did China decide to resort to the traditional tools of power politics instead of the modern norm of peaceful resolution of conflicts? In the following sections, I shall explain how first and second level analysis, constructivism and feminism answer the questions that realism evades.


First level analysis focuses on the natures of individual leaders as the cause for historical events. In this case, it explains the timing of China’s island building activities. In 2013, China witnessed the ascension of Xi Jinping, arguably the most authoritarian and reactionary leader after Mao, to the presidency. Both a “princeling” and a “second-generation red” by birth, Xi Jinping had a very unusual upbringing that greatly shaped his view of China. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was among the first generation of Communist revolutionaries that fought alongside Mao and later became the vice premier of the PRC and secretary general of the State Council. As a result, Xi grew up in the exclusive “Zhongnanhai” with the children of other first-generation Communist leaders and with countless tales of the revolution.13 However, in 1962, Xi Zhongxun was purged on grounds of “acting counterrevolutionary.” At the height of the Cultural Revolution, the charge “counterrevolutionary” was such a taboo that the young Xi Jinping was automatically ostracized by virtue of his lineage. Thus, given his childhood immersion in Maoist ideals and teenage experience with brutal politics, it is not surprising that Xi Jinping later became the most authoritarian president after Mao. Foreign policy under Xi has been markedly more assertive than under previous leaders, especially in regards to Sino-Japanese relations and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.14 Therefore, Xi’s “election” to the presidency in 2013 explains why China suddenly turned to land reclamation, a gesture of increased assertiveness in the region, in early 2014.


Second level analysis posits states at the center of causation, citing states’ internal culture and structure as the reason behind particular outcomes. It addresses the issue of magnitude in both China’s island building activities and its perception of threat. It is true that the construction of artificial islands would strengthen China’s ability to project its military power at sea, thereby thwarting its adversaries’ attempts to occupy more disputed territories, but reclaiming over 3,000 acres of land seems to be somewhat of an overreaction given the comparatively insignificant size of the other countries’ reclamation projects. So, the question is, why did China perceive such a disproportionate threat from the small increase in territory by Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines? China, or in its native language the “Middle Kingdom,” had always been the absolute dominant power in East Asia until the 19th century. For many Chinese people, the memory of humiliation at the hands of foreigners is still fresh and evokes a strong sense of patriotism. A traditionally nationalist society, the Chinese people to this day still mourn the massive land concessions granted to foreign powers under the Qing Dynasty; a survey from 2013 showed that 83% of people in China see the South China Sea disputes as a continuation of the “Century of Humiliation.”15 As one can see, the Chinese people attach a special emotional significance to the concept of sovereignty, making them inflate the value of territory in an age where territory has been rendered less important by the advancement of technology. Thus, even though land reclamation itself may not carry so much strategic value as to be worth risking international condemnation and spending billions of dollars, the historical and cultural importance of upholding sovereignty makes the Chinese government willing to go the extra mile when it comes to territorial integrity.


According to Alexander Wendt, constructivism is an approach to world politics from a social perspective and has two fundamental claims: (1) the structures of international politics are social rather than purely material (2) these structures influence not only states’ behaviors but their identities and interests as well.16 Stripped to its essence, constructivism argues that states with different values and ideologies will perceive, or “socially construct,” the same reality differently and will therefore act differently. This explains why China resorted to land reclamation instead of other more peaceful alternatives when confronted with hostile expansion. China is an authoritarian regime that does not endorse liberal values such as tolerance, rule of law and peaceful resolution of conflicts in its domestic policies; rather, Chinese politics is characterized by purge of dissidents, forceful repression of demonstrations, corruption, abuse of power and ostracization based on lineage or association. The elements of violence, intolerance, distrust, and ruthlessness inherent in Chinese domestic politics shape the lens through which Chinese politicians see the international system, portrayed as a grim world where only old-school Realpolitik provides means of survival. Therefore, the pessimist values fostered by China’s domestic political system translate into its disbelief in modern liberal norms that advocate for international cooperation and resolution of conflicts through negotiation and compromise; the fact that China rejected completely the Hague Tribunal’s ruling on South China Sea disputes testifies the dominance of power politics over liberal international norms in Chinese foreign policy. Thus, given China’s realist ideology, expanding China’s military capability in the region would be the best response to its neighbors’ rise in relative power and land reclamation was deemed a viable option.


International relations is arguably a man’s world, dominated by masculine modes of thinking. This is certainly true given that in the US women had been barred from entry until very recently and sex discrimination still abounds.17 Feminist theory believes that women tend to define power in terms of the ability to cooperate (as opposed to the masculine definition of control over others) and discern more opportunities for toleration and coalition-building in spite of differences; this is because females often rely on persuasion and shared understanding in solving domestic disputes and are therefore socialized into a more contextual, narrative-based mode of analysis.18 As a result, feminists argue that global politics would look much different if women were national leaders. This feminist interpretation explains the magnitude and aggressiveness of China’s land reclamation. Despite its communist egalitarian ideals, China is in fact a deeply sexist society. Structurally, the mandatory retirement age for female government workers, including those employed in state-owned enterprises and public universities, is 50 or 55 while the male equivalent is 60.19 This differential treatment not only impedes women’s ability to achieve high leadership positions as most government officials only reach the highest ranks in their 60s, but also perpetuates the gender stereotype that women are less physically vigorous than men. As of now, there are no women in the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision-making unit in China, and only one woman in the 25-member Politburo, the next rung after the Politburo Standing Committee.20 Therefore, the lack of female contribution to policies can be construed as the reason why China chose to pursue a more militaristic response (island building) instead of seeking cooperation and a larger scale of operation since males tend to perceive more threats than females and to think in terms of sheer strength as opposed to persuasion.


Overall, realism explains a significant part of China’s rationale for land reclamation as relative power and military capability did factor heavily into its calculation. However, first and second level analysis, constructivism and feminism elucidate components that realism fails to incorporate: (1) land reclamation itself as a viable strategy (2) its timing in 2014 and (3) its tremendous scale. This is because realism fails to acknowledge the influence that a state’s culture, structure and history exert on shaping interests and identities and the lenses through which it receives and interprets external realities. Therefore, to fully understand the issue of land reclamation in the South China Sea, a simple look at the balance of power would not suffice; meticulous attention must be paid to the particular circumstances of the countries involved. Peaceful resolution of this conflict depends on an impartial synthesis of different approaches and one day we may hope to see a South China Sea characterized by tranquility and cooperation.




1. Terri Moon Cronk, “Pacom Chief: China,” U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, July 24, 2015, , accessed December 08, 2017.

2. ​Katie Hunt, “Showdown in the South China Sea: How did we get here?” CNN, August 02, 2016, , accessed December 08, 2017.

3. ​John J. Mearsheimer, ​The tragedy of Great Power politics(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 30-32.

4. John J. Mearsheimer, ​The tragedy of Great Power politics(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 21.

5. ​”Land reclamation photos show areas contested by China, Vietnam – Palace,” Cnn, , accessed December 08, 2017.

6. John J. Mearsheimer, ​The tragedy of Great Power politics(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 18-20.

7. Carl Thayer, “No, China Is Not Reclaiming Land in the South China Sea,” The Diplomat, June 09, 2015, accessed December 08, 2017.

8. ​Daniel W. Drezner, “Perspective | Trump, Russia and omnibalancing,” The Washington Post, June 15, 2017, accessed December 08, 2017.

9. ​Richard Wike and Bridget Parker, “Corruption, Pollution, Inequality Are Top Concerns in China,” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, September 24, 2015, accessed December 08, 2017.

10. ​Max Fisher, “How China Stays Stable Despite 500 Protests Every Day,” The Atlantic, January 05, 2012.

11. Andrew Chubb, “Nationalism and Chinese public opinion,” China Policy Institute: Analysis, February 03, 2015, accessed December 08, 2017.

12. Katie Hunt, “Showdown in the South China Sea: How did we get here?” CNN, August 02, 2016, accessed December 08, 2017.

13. Elizabeth Yuan, “Xi Jinping: ‘Princeling’ to China’s president,” CNN, March 14, 2013, accessed December 08, 2017.

14. ​Rush Doshi, “Analysis | Xi Jinping just made it clear where China’s foreign policy is headed,” The Washington Post, October 25, 2017, accessed December 08, 2017.

15. ​Eric Fish, “Why Does China Care So Much About Uninhabited Islands?” The Atlantic, July 11, 2016, accessed December 08, 2017.

16. ​Alexander Wendt, “Constructing International Politics,” ​International Security20, no. 1 (1995): 71-72.

17. Ann Tickner, “Hans Morgenthau’s Principles of Political Realism: A Feminist Reformulation (1988),” International Theory, 1995, 429.

18. Ann Tickner, “Hans Morgenthau’s Principles of Political Realism: A Feminist Reformulation (1988),” International Theory,1995, 432-34.

19. ​Yazhou Sun, “Why China has so few female leaders,” CNN, October 25, 2017, accessed December 08, 2017.

20. ​Cheng Li, “China’s new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee,” Brookings, November 28, 2017, accessed December 08, 2017.

A right to DREAM: The historical role of youth in the immigrant rights movement

Written by Heidi R. Woll

The movement to defend the rights of immigrants, particularly those of Latinx[1] undocumented immigrants, was spearheaded by youth in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of these youth, having arrived in the United States as children, found themselves in a precarious position when entering adulthood, when many of them discovered – either for the first time or not – that they would encounter significant difficulties when seeking employment or going to college, as well as when embarking on simpler tasks such as obtaining driver’s licenses or boarding flights.

Many of these same youth would also experience the childhood trauma of family separation, on account of the deportation of their parents and/or other family members. All of these distinctive issues ultimately led, and continue to lead, to many youth to be particularly conscious of their own “illegality” – especially when paired with the tangible hostility of many Americans, who view their existence on American soil, void of legal citizenship as “a threat to national sovereignty and the rule of law.”[2]

This essay therefore examines how a state of being formed a movement: How, by adopting the name of ‘Dreamers’ and exposing themselves to the country as a unified group, a vast number of undocumented Latinx youth reshaped their sociopolitical identities in the public sphere; from invaders to contributors, from ‘illegal’ to quintessentially American. This story is integral to the political movement to defend the rights of immigrants that underwent significant growth towards the end of the 20th century and is in full effect today. It also raises inherently difficult questions, particularly regarding the need to strike a political balance that accounts both for the economic viability of adopting a more open-border immigration system, and for the moral drive to hold true to the principles expounded by the founders of a country largely built by and for immigrants.

The role of these Latinx youth in the immigrant rights debate is, however, in a certain way, atypical. Walter Nicholls, author of The DREAMers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate, points out that the immigrant rights movement is exceptional to recent scholarship on immigration politics in the United States and Europe, which largely suggests that usually, “hostile environments would encourage undocumented immigrants to turn away from the public sphere of receiving countries.”[3] Following this behavioural trend, we would expect to find that DREAMers – the name often used to describe the undocumented youth referred to in this essay, along with non-Latinx undocumented youth – would become less politically active following Congress’s multiple failures to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. This act would have facilitated the granting of conditional and, meeting certain requirements, permanent residency for undocumented persons brought to the United States as minors; therefore, its failure to pass dealt a major blow to the undocumented youth whose lives it would have improved. Contrary to the hypothesis outlined by Nicholls, however, the DREAMer movement – largely led by the children of Latinx immigrants and supported by non-governmental organizations – appears to have provided a safe environment for youth to ‘come out’ as undocumented in spite of the increased risk of doing so since the declaration of the war on terror.

Illegal immigration through the southern border of the United States accelerated in the mid-1970s and even more in the first half of the 1980s, with “apprehension at the Mexican border ([at the time] 98 percent Mexican nationals), arrests of deportable aliens, deportations, and visa overstays all showing an upward trend.”[4] The number of annually apprehended illegal immigrants first surpassed one million in 1977, and by 1986 it had reached 1,670,000.[5] Still, the actual amount of illegal immigrants during this period, as with any other, is however very difficult to precisely quantify, since the clandestine nature of the illegal alien population makes it extremely difficult to count.[6]

The Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) apprehension and deportation figures and studies of visa abuse “indicated that the Central American countries, particularly El Salvador, [had] become the major source of illegal immigrants after Mexico” by the late 1980s. Moreover, The State Department in 1985 “estimated illegal immigration from El Salvador and Guatemala in 1977 at 25,000 and 15,000 a year respectively; with 350,000 Salvadorans already in the United States illegally by 1980 when civil strife in that country began spurring the outflow.”[7]

In the introduction to Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation’s Fight for their American Dream (2015), Eileen Truax holds that “There are about eleven million undocumented people living in the United States. You can’t tell who they are just by looking at them, but we know they are here […] While it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly who’s undocumented and who’s not by sight, we know one thing with certainty: our daily lives wouldn’t be the same without them.”[8] The book goes on to explore the positive impacts of undocumented immigrants on everything from the American economy to their more personal effect on the lives of everyday Americans – showing that any given American is likely to have a DREAMer as a friend, neighbor, lover, even a fellow student or co-worker.

Philip Kasinitz (2008) went on to argue that “the answer to the question of what large-scale migration will mean for American society […] lies less with the immigrants themselves than with their ambivalently American children. […] This new “second generation” – the children of at least one immigrant parent born in the United States or who arrived by the age of 12 – accounted for one out of six 18- to 32-year-olds in the nation and one out of four of all Americans under 18. In many ways, they will define how today’s immigrant groups become tomorrow’s American ethnic groups.”[9] He explains that

Before 1965, immigrants to the United States were overwhelmingly European. Since then, most have come from other parts of the globe. Given how the United States has historically constructed racial categories, they are not generally regarded as “white.” Yet they are not African Americans either. Since the cleavage between the “white” descendants of immigrants and the “black” descendants of American slaves has so strongly marked big cities, the emergence of a large and rapidly growing group that does not fit easily into either of these categories has enormous potential consequences.”[10]

One of these consequences was the Sanctuary Movement, which began in late 1981 when a small number of churches started sheltering Central American illegal immigrants. The motives of the movement’s proponents were usually of a humanitarian nature. Congregations would give sanctuary to Guatemalans or Salvadorans at risk of being detained and deported by the INS; additionally, movement members would bring Salvadorans and Guatemalans into the US, traveling to Central America to accompany displaced communities, organizing caravans to move Salvadorans and Guatemalans to other parts of the US, and enabling undocumented refugees to testify publicly about their experiences. They lobbied Congress, raised bail bond money for detained Central Americans, and helped detainees file for political asylum.[11] While the sanctuary movement at this time was led both by church congregations and nonprofit legal organizations, it would echo later in the discussion of the current sanctuary movement for Central American migrants.

A New York Times Retro Report video entitled “Safe Haven: The Sanctuary Movement” describes the history of Rev. John Fyfe, who explained how, upon attempting to help undocumented migrants from Guatemala and El Salvador file for asylum, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) attempted to deport them on the grounds that they were economic migrants, rather than fleeing persecution. Seeing clear torture marks on their bodies, Fyfe hid them in the basement of his church. Though Fyfe and the many pastors that were involved in this initial movement were not youths, they displayed an interesting pattern of behavior, including a defiance towards authority that appears youthful in nature. “Afraid he might be arrested,” the report goes on to say, “Fyfe did something unexpected. He went public.” Fyfe goes on to explain, “if we went public with what we were doing, then maybe we would have a base of support.”[12]

The Central American youth that attended churches like Fyfe’s saw a supportive environment there, of a kind they had found nowhere else in the United States. Mario Rivas, for instance, was a young man that had been active in student politics back home in El Salvador. Growing up, he had worked with the local priest, who had organized “a kind of Christian base community for children” that played an integral part of the community in Ilopongo, Mario’s hometown, visiting the sick and elderly on Sundays to help with chores.

In contrast, Mario found that mass in the United States was “a cold place” and that the churches he attended lacked the social action commitment he associated with Christianity. He stopped attending until he found La Placita, a church founded by Fathers Olivares and Kennedy, the latter of which had met John Fyfe during his first assignment as a priest in a small parish in San Diego. Fyfe had asked him if that parish could be part of the Sanctuary network, and he accepted, though the refugee work needed to be kept covert since his superior worried about publicity. Years later, Father Kennedy, together with Father Olivares, formed the Centro Pastoral, which provided Central American refugees attending La Placita with somewhere to stay, medical care, legal services and other previously unmet needs.

For Mario, “the public declaration of sanctuary at La Placita in 1985” was a “historic moment,” since “it was a place where [they] could tell [their] own stories – a place from which [they] could challenge U.S. foreign policy toward Central America.”[13] La Placita also worked closely with the Sanctuary Committee of Southern California Inter-faith Task Force on Central America (SCITCA) to “coordinate speaking engagements by refugees in churches and other locations.”[14] Mario actively partook in the creation of the National Alliance of Sanctuary Committees, which promoted dialogue across the many Sanctuary communities across the U.S., emphasizing the link between the plight of refugees and U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Even more relevant to the role of youth in the Sanctuary movement was the decisive role that university student governments took in creating sanctuary campuses. By the end of 1985, the Sanctuary movement had spread to 10 colleges in California, with the Universities of California Berkeley, Irvine, and Los Angeles, California State University Northridge, and Pitzer and Pomona Colleges in Claremont pledging their support for the movement.

Pitzer and Pomona, as Chinchilla, Hamilton and Loucky note, were interesting cases. Several congregations in the Claremont area had already declared sanctuary beginning in 1982, with fifty Guatemalans and Salvadorans settled by May 1985. But unlike the other colleges, the Pitzer and Pomona student representatives themselves did not decide for the student body; instead, they cast a vote so that the student body could choose whether or not to make the colleges sanctuaries. The result was that more than 80% of the students at each college voted in favour.[15] The students invoked the Geneva Convention, as did the students at several other colleges, to defend their choice – as one Pomona student stated: “What we are doing is neither illegal nor an act of civil disobedience. We are upholding international law. We call upon our government to do the same.”[16] Following much debate, and spurred by the impetus of churchgoers and students all over the area, many cities started to issue resolutions supporting sanctuary: Berkeley issued such a resolution in February 1985, and the City Council of Los Angeles declared LA a sanctuary city on November 27th, 1985.[17]

The Sanctuary Movement was an essential precursor to the broader immigrant rights movement that developed in the 1990s and continues to develop into the 21st century. It helped to educate church congregations, college students and the general public about the plight of refugees, which may have also made them more ready to understand the issues of, for instance, Mexican and Central American migrants coming to the US out of economic necessity rather than immediate danger. This, accompanied with the progression of prior decades away from the heightened nationalism of the World Wars to a more global effort towards international cooperation, based on the prevalent shared socialist ideals of youth during and after the Vietnam War. The impression of a more globalized world, wherein the flow of people from one country to another is less a transgression and more a natural result of both economic and humanitarian necessity is emblematic of this new outlook.

Whereas the Sanctuary movement enabled the safeguarding of the undocumented immigrants and their children, spreading awareness about the injustice of their – and their countries’ – conditions, the immigrant rights movement took it one step further. While the first movement dealt mostly with the immigrants and their children, newcomers first coming to the United States, the 2000s, in particular, began to witness the unique circumstances of youth that had been brought to the United States at a very young age by their parents. As such, they were “undocumented involuntarily” – with no Social Security number, proof of residency or any document to legalize their presence in the country they had grown up in[18]. This situation carries on today for thousands of youth, referred to as the Dreamers – a reference, as previously mentioned, to the DREAM Act, a bill introduced in 2001 to the US Senate that, had it not failed, “would have granted undocumented youth conditional residency status and, after meeting a series of criteria—including graduating from college or serving in the military—[…] would [have made them] eligible for permanent residency.”[19]

A second group that the media has paid more and more attention to in recent years has been the unaccompanied minors arriving into the United States across the border with Mexico. Also undocumented, the treacherous journey north has become a risk that an increasing number of these minors are willing to take for the promise of a life free of violence, particularly at the hands of gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18. But these youth and children are faced with an even higher threat of deportation than other illegal immigrants: As immigration attorney Nick Marritz explained to The Atlantic: “The government is trying to deport them as fast as it can. They’re putting them at the front of the line.”[20] The only legal support for unaccompanied minors is the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status law, or SIJS, which was enacted into law following a 1990 amendment of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

However, in 1997, a U.S. Senator from New Mexico claimed that the law was a “giant loophole,” telling Congress that “every visiting student from overseas can have a petition filed in a state court … declaring that they’re award and in need of foster care.”[21] An amendment was then passed that restricted the use of SIJS only to children that could prove that they were dependent upon the state because of “abuse, abandonment, or neglect.” This, Marritz argued, was not a problem, because most of the cases he dealt with did accurately fit that description. Still, this issue – including the broader debate over the failed passing of the DREAM Act – remains one of the immigrant rights movement’s biggest topics since it puts children with supportive parents or guardians at risk for deportation, although returning to their home country is not in their best interest.

The protests against unjust immigration legislation continued well into the 2000s. The year 2006, in particular, witnessed a number of massive demonstrations, specifically against the Sensenbrenner bill – a piece of legislation that would have criminalized assistance to undocumented immigrants in the U.S. that sought housing, food or medical services. On March 10, 2006, a crowd of over 100,000 protesters, filled Chicago’s downtown Loop with chants of “¡Sí se puede!” (translatable to ‘Yes we can!’ or ‘It can be done!’). Following this, demonstrations “cropped up in more than 140 cities in 39 states,” many of which naturally took place in Southern California. These manifestations also culminated in the May 1st “Day Without Immigrants,” when more than 500,000 rallied in Los Angeles to demand a pathway to citizenship, particularly for the immigrant youth that were in the foundation and the forefront of the movement.[22]

While it may not have prompted immediate legislative action, the 2006 protests triggered a change in the political climate regarding undocumented immigrants, especially among college students and youth who grew up with friends that were directly affected by the issues. Furthermore, many young people who “tasted political power for the first time in 2006” were then inspired “to promote the DREAM Act.” By 2010, regaining the attention of the country, they “mirrored LGBT advocates by broadcasting “coming out” stories about their status.” They also “organized marches, building occupations, and traffic blockades to keep their cause in the public eye.”[23]

All these images, arguments and the protests of undocumented immigrants in the United States point to an underlying notion that is highly convincing to youth in a globalized age: that the American Dream must apply to all. That the laws concerning undocumented immigrants, who often should qualify for asylum in the first place, are either outdated or morally unjust. That Central American and Mexican immigrants, undocumented and documented alike, have already demonstrated astounding contributions to American economy and society because their conditions meant that they needed to work harder to provide for their families.

For undocumented youth, the most important issues involve the constant threat of deportation, especially under the more severe Trump administration, and the barriers they face in obtaining higher education and employment. This past September’s rescission of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy has put further strain on the prospects of Dreamers to be eligible for work permits and to receive deferred action from deportation. This action, in the midst of Donald Trump’s descent into very low public support (with a 38% approval rate in September) prompted further rebuttal from Dreamers and their supporters alike, with Facebook profile pictures changing to include a filter demonstrating support for DACA, and protesters gathering in Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, and in front of Trump Tower in New York.[24] Many colleges continue to offer sanctuary to undocumented students in the age of Trump, yet protesters remain aware that the most vulnerable undocumented youth are those that cannot afford a lawyer to represent them – much less a college degree.

Still, those who document the immigrant rights movement today highlight that the discussion mostly poses the questions of what to do about the undocumented youth – from SIJS to the DREAM Act to DACA – and whether or not the United States has a humanitarian responsibility towards them, particularly due to past US foreign policy in Central America. Furthermore, as undocumented immigrants comprise not just newcomers, but also youth that have been in the country since their early childhood, the immigrant rights movement may be benefiting from the solidarity of not only the institutions that support undocumented migrants but their American peers as well.

While the opposition is undoubtedly vociferous, the undocumented youth that are ‘coming out’ appear to feel secure enough to do so, drawing this sense of security from the peer groups that support them and within the broader movement. They may also feel that coming out constitutes a sense of sacrifice for the movement since through this action, more people will find out how many of their most hard-working employees, closest friends, and nicest neighbors are – in fact – undocumented. This act of bravery on the part of these youth, and the support of their peers will hopefully continue to advance the movement towards better immigration legislation in the United States.



  •         Coutin, Susan Bibler. The Culture of Protest: Religious Activism and the U.S. Sanctuary Movement. Boulder: Westview Press, 1993.
  •         Kasinitz, Philip. Inheriting the City: the Children of Immigrants Come of Age. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008.
  •         Nicholls, Walter. Dreamers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013.
  •         Pallares, Amalia. Family Activism: Immigrant Struggles and the Politics of Noncitizenship. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 2014.
  •         Simcox, David. U.S. Immigration in the 1980s: Reappraisal and Reform. Boulder & London: Westview Press, 1988.
  •         Truax, Eileen. Dreamers: an Immigrant Generation’s Fight for Their American Dream.Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2015.


[1] The use of the term ‘Latinx’ is flush with controversy, sparking discussion about ethnic and gender identity as well as privilege. I utilize it in this essay for the purpose of including more gender identities than the words ‘Latino’ and ‘Latina’ allow – namely, those individuals that identify as being transgender or otherwise outside the gender binary, but who still identify as ethnically Latinx. For more information, read Reyes (2017), in bibliography.

[2] Nicholls, 10

[3] Nicholls, 7-8

[4] Simcox, 23; for original source see “Surge of Illegal Aliens Taxes Southwest Towns’ Resources,” New York Times, March 9. 1986.

[5] Ibid, 24

[6] Ibid, 25

[7] Ibid, 24-25

[8] Truax, 1

[9] Kasinitz, 1

[10] Kasinitz, 3

[11] Coutin, 3

[12] Haberman, 5:05

[13] Chinchilla et al, 113

[14] Ibid, 114

[15] Ibid, 116

[16] Ibid, 117. Originally quoted by Valle (1985).

[17] Ibid, 117.

[18] Truax, 4

[19] Martinez (2015)

[20] Phippen (2015)

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Meghan Keneally (2017)