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A perennial question for scholars interested in social justice is how politically and socially marginalized groups can become full members of society. Jennifer Lee provides an important contribution to the literature addressing this issue. Building on insights from the social movement literature on strategic framing, Lee contends that strategic mainstreaming offers an opportunity for marginalized groups to obtain immediate benefits. Lee focuses on unauthorized immigrant workers and views strategic mainstreaming as a tool to successfully litigate workplace violations, petition for immigration status, and obtain desired public policy reforms.

Much has been written within the social science social movement literature about the role of frames and framing strategy in bringing about legal reform. Frames serve as tools for organizing and understanding information. Because of the relationship between cultural norms and law, framing offers a useful strategy for legal reform advocates. As Lee notes, “law is neither objective nor fixed but rather dependent on the relationship law shares with the dominant cultural and social patterns of society.” (P. 1068.) Consequently social movements seeking legal reform “are more powerful when the messages of the movement align with the values of mainstream culture.” (P. 1069.) Lee focuses on one type of framing strategy—mainstreaming. This is the process by which “interpretive frames correlated to dominant cultural values” are used “to create connections to mainstream society.” (P. 1064.) Through mainstreaming advocates seek to demonstrate common ground between those seeking reform and dominant cultural values.

Two interpretive frames have dominated the immigrant worker rights movement: the universality of being a worker frame and “immigrant workers as victims of criminal employers who fail to obey the rule of law” frame. (P. 1070.) Within the first frame immigrant workers are presented as “individuals who, like anyone else in the workforce, are seeking the same things out of life through the dignity of their work—the ability to survive independently and provide a better future for their children.” (P. 1069.) Immigrant workers are first and foremost workers. Average Americans are able to identify with immigrant workers through their common experience as workers. This frame also builds on the view of the United States as a place where anyone can accomplish the American Dream through hard work. The second predominant frame has been immigrant workers as victims of criminal employers. Within this frame immigrant workers are hard workers who have done what is expected of them and employers are criminals who steal wages and misclassify workers in order to reduce pay and benefits. This frame makes immigrant worker rights issues easy to address by creating a clear good actor (immigrant worker) and a clear bad actor (employer). This frame also resonates with an American tendency to criminalize social challenges. Lee demonstrates the effectiveness of these frames in the work of public interest lawyers and immigrant workers that address workplace violations in litigation, petitioning for immigration status, seeking public policy reform, and obtaining legal redress through direct action.

Lee does not simply advocate the use of mainstreaming by immigrant worker advocates, she argues for the use of strategic mainstreaming. Strategic mainstreaming builds on insights from the public interest lawyering literature. This literature has documented the various ways in which public interest lawyers contribute to the disempowerment of their clients by ignoring their voices. Lee seeks to avoid such disempowerment by requiring the participation of immigrant workers in the development and deployment of the cultural narratives used to draw connections between immigrant workers and mainstream cultural values.

Lee contends that strategic mainstreaming is an effective option for promoting not only the legal rights of immigrant workers, but also their broader inclusion in American society. Yet she acknowledges an important limitation of this approach to legal reform. Strategic mainstreaming does not attempt to transform dominant cultural values. Rather this strategy seeks to move immigrant workers from the margins of society by demonstrating their similarity to mainstream America. Yet relying on dominant cultural values may further entrench the justifications for the limited legal rights and protections for immigrant workers and other marginalized groups. For example, the immigrant workers as victims frame reinforces the idea that traditional civil law violations should be treated as criminal violations. While this frame may be useful for responding to wage theft and misclassifications, it also makes unauthorized immigrant workers vulnerable to claims that they are criminals due to their civil immigration violations. Furthermore it supports the idea that criminal law strategies should be used to address unauthorized migration. Lee acknowledges this as a challenge to using strategic mainstreaming. She notes that in the immigrant worker context use of this strategy can mean “disfavoring immigrant workers who do not fit the role of the ‘good immigrant’—the iconic hard worker or victim.” (P. 1066.) Despite this challenge, Lee concludes that strategic mainstreaming is worth pursuing because it results in “immediate benefits for real people, whether it is the receipt of monetary compensation, immigration status, or workplace reform.” (P. 1101.) She also views strategic mainstreaming as having the benefit of leading to personal empowerment when workers “own their own narratives.” It can also offer a way to develop alliances and coalitions based on broader identities such as the new working poor. (Pp. 1102-03.)

Lee offers a pragmatic approach for responding to the immediate needs of unauthorized immigrant workers. Her article thoughtfully utilizes the insights from the social science literature on social movements to change the perception of immigrant workers within the American imagination. This strategy can be successful in obtaining monetary compensation for wage theft, lawful immigration status, and specific workplace reforms. However, these achievements may come at the cost of reinforcing dominant conceptions of worthy immigrants.

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Cite as: Angela Banks, Cultural Narratives and Legal Rights, JOTWELL (September 9, 2015) (reviewing Jennifer J. Lee, Outsiders Looking In: Advancing the Immigrant Worker Movement Through Strategic Mainstreaming, 2014 Utah L. Rev. 1063 (2015)), http://lex.jotwell.com/cultural-narratives-and-legal-rights/.