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Undocumented Immigrant Activism and the Political: Disrupting the Order or Reproducing the Status Quo?

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Abstract

Scholarly interest in undocumented migrants’ struggles over citizenship has surged in recent years. Critical, theoretically inspired scholarship on the political has embraced these struggles as evidence that the current order can be disrupted. However, empirical studies of undocumented activism in the United States and Europe have revealed that pressures to conform to dominant norms and discourses, representational oligarchies and categorical fragmentation can lead activists to reproduce rather than disrupt the order. The papers in this symposium aim to advance this discussion by comparing the findings of case studies of undocumented immigrant struggles around the world. In this introduction to the symposium, we argue that disruption and reproduction constitute two logics of collective action that continually express themselves in immigrant rights mobilisations. We present a framework that outlines how undocumented activists navigate both logics in their ongoing quest to construct subjects, acts and spaces capable of disrupting the status quo.
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... Externally assigned categories and exclusive identities can provide opportunities for oppressed groups, including migrants with precarious legal status, to mobilize collectively and to disrupt some aspects of the status quo (Monforte, 2021;Polletta & Jasper, 2001;Steinhilper, 2021). If regulatory frameworks, such as the system through which the state classifies migrants and assigns them legal status categories, can produce niche-openings for mobilizing (Nicholls, 2014), these very frameworks may also be disrupted by the mobilization that they set in motion (Bourdieu, 1984;Swerts & Nicholls, 2021) The classification struggle in which migrants engage is fundamental as classificatory systems constitute the basis for their exclusion and their lack of access to rights. I argue that by collectively interpreting the structural forms of oppression they are subject to, migrants mobilize under the label of 'refugee' not only for strategic reasons but also because of their shared beliefs regarding the exclusionary connotation and unfairness of the asylum system. ...
... Legal status categories often result in the fragmentation of migrant mobilizations as groups of migrants with different legal statuses may formulate divergent claims, follow different strategies, or give rise to dynamics of distinction among groups Swerts & Nicholls, 2021). In Berlin, for example, different legal statuses produced divisions in the mobilization associated with the protest camp that was established by migrant activists in Oranienplatz between 2012 and 2014 (Ataç & Steinhilper, 2020;Fontanari, 2017;Fontanari & Ambrosini, 2018;Steinhilper, 2021;Stierl, 2019). ...
... Indeed, legal status categories do not fully determine the identity, strategy, and trajectories of grassroots migrant mobilization. Migrant activists, together with their allies, engage in classification struggles; while migrants operate in a political field that is not entirely of their own choosing, their collective action can interrupt and disrupt the status quo (Bourdieu, 1984;Swerts & Nicholls, 2021). ...
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Migrant activists with precarious legal status mobilize against border regimes in Berlin under the label of ‘refugees’. They engage in a classification struggle through which they disrupt the legal notion of refugee by reappropriating an externally assigned category. Their struggle is crucial because legal status categories produce an exclusionary system in which only some migrants can obtain residence rights as well as other rights. I contend that migrants, in the context of their mobilization, collectively interpret their structural position vis-a-vis border regimes, characterized by oppression and exclusion. This collective interpretation is associated with the emergence of a refugee* collective identity that disrupts the legal notion of refugee. I argue that migrants mobilize under the label of ‘refugee’ not only for strategic reasons but also because of their shared beliefs regarding the unfairness of the asylum system. The refugee* collective identity not only disrupts exclusionary legal status categories but also interrupts some of the divisions among migrants that border regimes produce. This article contributes to showing that while migrant activism takes place in a political field that is not chosen by migrants, it has an impact on the regulatory framework that characterizes that political field. Moreover, my findings emphasize the importance of the connections between structural forms of oppression, including regulatory frameworks and classificatory systems, and collective identity processes emerging in the mobilization of subaltern groups.
... Theoretically, one could, for instance, nuance the idea that claims and acts by irregular migrants cause a rupture of the social order. As, for instance, Swerts and Nicholls (2020) put it, the critical scholarship on the political and acts of citizenship "presumes rather than explains the disruptive qualities of undocumented activism" (Swerts & Nicholls, 2020:3, emphasis in the original). Moreover, these theories can also be nuanced on a more practical and empirical level by considering the specific constraints that irregularity imposes on political mobilisation. ...
... Theoretically, one could, for instance, nuance the idea that claims and acts by irregular migrants cause a rupture of the social order. As, for instance, Swerts and Nicholls (2020) put it, the critical scholarship on the political and acts of citizenship "presumes rather than explains the disruptive qualities of undocumented activism" (Swerts & Nicholls, 2020:3, emphasis in the original). Moreover, these theories can also be nuanced on a more practical and empirical level by considering the specific constraints that irregularity imposes on political mobilisation. ...
... Theoretically, one could, for instance, nuance the idea that claims and acts by irregular migrants cause a rupture of the social order. As, for instance, Swerts and Nicholls (2020) put it, the critical scholarship on the political and acts of citizenship "presumes rather than explains the disruptive qualities of undocumented activism" (Swerts & Nicholls, 2020:3, emphasis in the original). Moreover, these theories can also be nuanced on a more practical and empirical level by considering the specific constraints that irregularity imposes on political mobilisation. ...
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The literature on irregular migration often deals with migration policies and the role of states. A smaller body of literature focuses on the role that irregular migrants themselves have, or can have. This chapter will explore the agency that irregular migrants have to influence their own migration trajectory. Moreover, it will discuss how irregular migrants can use their agency to become incorporated into the societies in which they reside despite their irregular status. By using a broad notion of citizenship, we will consider how irregular migrants can use their agency to obtain forms of inclusion, other than through regularisations, and how they can have the capacity to trigger political and social change despite their irregular status. This chapter will elaborate on social movements of irregular migrants.
... While Nicholls (2016) argues that civil society facilitates politicization of irregular migrants' interests (Nicholls, 2016), Lambert and Swerts (2019) discuss that involvement of civil society may increase the risk of depoliticizing the rights and precariousness of irregular migrants unless they constantly negotiate the conditions of social and exclusion with the local governments (Lambert & Swerts, 2019). That is why, when civil society engaged with the public actors, it should be cautious because of the risk of reproducing the status quo of exclusion (Swerts & Nicholls, 2021). ...
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This article scrutinizes how local responses to irregular migrants vary across European cities. Existing literature shows that cities develop inclusive policies and practices for irregular migrants as a response to the restrictive asylum and migration policies of welfare states. This article goes beyond this monolithic understanding of cities by unpacking city actors into local governments and local civil society organizations, as well as exploring various dynamics between them. This benchmarking study builds an overarching urban solidarity typology based on an empirical analysis of policies and practices in 13 European cities between 2015 and 2019, inclusive. Binary coding of collected data leads to an inductively built descriptive typology that consists of analytical categories of urban solidarity (top-down; bottom-up; hybrid; limited). These four different categories reveal that urban solidarity is not one-size-fits-all. It emerges as a spectrum of transformative practices of various actors, as well as a constellation of displays of diverse sets of contentions, solidarity repertoires, compromises, negotiations, and consensus as well as their various combinations over a long period.
... This organizational bricolage is understood as a way for migrants to display their structural vulnerable condition (Holmes, 2011) and, at the same time, fight against it claiming for regularization and full access to labour and social rights. Second, the purpose is to evaluate the pandemic as a shock that let the door open for a reaction from migrant organizations that can be understood as a creative break (Isin & Nielsen, 2008) and an act of disruption (Swerts & Nicholls, 2021) within the consolidated practices and habits of migrant political activism in Spain. Besides, the article investigates the crucial role of care relationships in generating alternative forms of migrant organizations seeking political transformation (Stock, 2019). ...
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During the COVID-19 pandemic in Spain, the lockdowns brought about the loss of labour and social rights for many migrant women working in highly informal employment sectors. Drawing on digital ethnography, this article examines the role of migrant women in political mobilization within migrant associations during 2020 in Spain, when online interactions assumed primary importance. First, it shows how migrant organizations create bricolage by combining economic, social, cultural and political resources to organize migrants in Spain during COVID-19 within the digital space. Second, the article highlights how the reactions of the migrant population to the pandemic in Spain represent an act of disruption led mainly by women, within the dynamics of social conflict and political activism that characterize migratory processes. This analysis displays as well the crucial role played by care relationships in these contexts of crises.
... According to UNHRC, 79.5 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide from their home in 2019 and many of them find themselves without status or rendered illegal by national political regimes and global economic bordering forces. 63 As stated by Swerts and Nicholls, "this illegalisation of migrants by national governments has created shadow populations … [that] lack the de jure recognition needed to guarantee their right to stay." 64 Derrida decries the different statuses created by the conflated political and economic interest of the nation-state as "mean" and restrictive. 65 For Derrida, "this distinction between the economic and political is not only abstract and inconsistent; it becomes hypocritical and perverse. ...
Chapter
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Presenting itself as a ‘model city’ of diversity and progressive politics, the City of Toronto adopted a ‘sanctuary policy’ in 2013. However, municipal governments and urban planners have yet to fully address the ‘local turn’ of migration politics at a time when they are increasingly confronted with anti-austerity, anti-racism, and anti-colonial movements. Urban planners have been complicit in neglecting particular populations through the production of uneven urban environments. This chapter presents an examination of how non-status people negotiate municipal governance and planning politics in Toronto – in the current moment of COVID-19 pandemic and anti-racism mobilizations. For non-status migrants and precarious status citizens, everyday violence has intensified through state/planning practices of dispossession and racial capitalism, offering an opportunity to expand solidarity in the face of neoliberal competition or devolution of resources. Our normative inquiry aims to recenter the limits and possibilities of creating an urban fabric where different sectors and service providers within and beyond the state may resist “irregularity” to “circumvent non-juridical status” and where illegalized migrants are increasingly included and afforded housing, labor, and mobility justice. Reclaiming the collective project of planning for migrant solidarity may activate new openings to disrupt exclusionary discontinuities in access to services and infrastructure.
Article
In contrast to the increasingly repressive migration policies at national and supranational scales, new pro-migrant policies, networks, and practices of support have been initiated at the local scale. In numerous European municipalities, political visions and concrete experiences of inclusive approaches in the field of migration have emerged in recent years that combine questions of the right to global freedom of movement and social rights. While numerous studies have examined these “politics of scale” and scale-making at the local level in different places, this forum aims to further these debates by reflecting the entanglement of social movements and civil society organisations with the local municipalities across Europe and by bringing the analyses and experiences of diverse initiatives into discussion. We therefore examine practices, relations and institutions of local migration politics that re-negotiate and bypass national and supranational borders at local scales, but also create new borders and boundaries in these processes. With this multidisciplinary forum, we aim at advancing empirical analysis as well as theoretical debates in the wider field of migration and geopolitics. Each contribution deals with a concrete empirical case of local politics and the challenges that emerge in these contexts – focusing on European “host societies” in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, and Germany – as well as with analytical concepts that are key to understanding these cases and to linking them to broader societal structures and dynamics.
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In many regions around the world, the governance of migration increasingly involves local authorities and actors. This edited volume introduces theoretical contributions that, departing from the 'local turn' in migration studies, highlight the distinct role that legal processes, debates, and instruments play in driving this development. Drawing on historical and contemporary case studies, it demonstrates how paying closer analytical attention to legal questions reveals the inherent tensions and contradictions of migration governance. By investigating socio-legal phenomena such as sanctuary jurisdictions, it further explores how the law structures ongoing processes of (re)scaling in this domain. Beyond offering conceptual and empirical discussions of local migration governance, this volume also directly confronts the pressing normative questions that follow from the growing involvement of local authorities and actors. This title is also available as Open Access on Cambridge Core.
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Justice and fairness have become key considerations in sustainability pathways and nature-based solutions (NBS), following activists and critical scholars who have long argued that the urban environment is an inherently political space that requires an analysis of benefits and burdens associated with its existence, use, and access. However, what justice means and how it is expressed, recognized, or achieved is often implicit in the literature on NBS, even though underlying notions of justice shape the analysis done and actions proposed. This paper starts from the premise that justice knows many different interpretations, therefore warranting scholars and practitioners working on NBS to carefully consider the differences and frictions between competing meanings of justice. Drawing from the history of social and environmental justice theory, we give an account of some key justice dilemmas and discuss their tenets as it relates to the end, means, and participants in the making of justice. From this, we draw out questions and commitments academics and practitioners in the NBS space should grapple with more explicitly. We argue that the emergent tension between pragmatic policy approaches and critical theoretical engagement is hindering a version of NBS that goes beyond a reflection of the justice implications of NBS to ensuring that NBS contributes to the furthering of justice. We advocate for the inclusion of critical social sciences and humanities perspectives and approaches beyond tokenism to instead encourage ontological, epistemological, and political reflection of the work academics and practitioners do in the NBS space.
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Rejected asylum seekers do often not return to their countries of origin and face precarious living conditions in destination countries. Taking Germany as a strategic case, we investigate whether labor‐related regularization, or “laborization,” may serve as a solution for such migrants. We analyze the factors determining access to such regularization, and how labor‐related regularization relates to migrants’ needs and aspirations. Based on extensive desk research and interviews with stakeholders, including (rejected) asylum seekers in Stuttgart, we find that laborization provides resourceful and “deserving” individuals with valuable opportunities to realize their aspirations, but it is insufficient to fully address non‐deportability.
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In this afterword to the special issue on processes of politicization of activist struggles of undocumented migrants and their allies, I first briefly enumerate a number of key commonalities that run through the special issue. I subsequently explore some of the wider theoretical and practical lessons to be drawn from the arguments advanced in the special issue, and suggest a number of key themes and concerns to be explored further. In particular, the paper suggests some possible avenues to both think through the limits of and tensions within forms of undocumented migrant activism, and chart theoretical and practical trajectories to move from the limitations of ‘the political event’ to the possibilities of ‘a political sequence’ that may actually change the instituted order.
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Since 2004, the United States has seen a flurry of state and local laws dealing with unauthorized immigrants. Though initially restrictionist, these laws have recently undergone a dramatic shift toward promoting integration. How are we to make sense of this new immigration federalism? What are its causes? And what are its consequences for the federal-state balance of power? In The New Immigration Federalism, Professors Pratheepan Gulasekaram and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan provide answers to these questions using a mix of quantitative, historical, and doctrinal legal analysis. In so doing they refute the popular 'demographic necessity' argument put forward by anti-immigrant activists and politicians. Instead, they posit that immigration federalism is rooted in a political process that connects both federal and subfederal actors: the Polarized Change Model. Their model captures not only the spread of restrictionist legislation but also its abrupt turnaround in 2012, projecting valuable insights for the future.
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Undocumented immigrants are removable from the nation at any time and their participation in political activism heightens this risk. Yet, undocumented organisers have been at the forefront of the immigrant rights movement. This article demonstrates how through their use of civil disobedience tactics, undocumented activists are in fact working to re‐conceptualise citizenship to include those who are not legally present in the country. Drawing on three years of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Chicago, IL, we develop a three‐part framework—double vulnerability, extending/expanding risk, and including the excluded—to analyse the role of civil disobedience in the contemporary US immigrant rights movement. We then compare the use of civil disobedience in the US immigrant rights movement with the US Civil Rights and Indian Independence movements. In our analysis of civil disobedience, we demonstrate that activists can simultaneously be complicit with and directly challenge mainstream depictions of deservingness for citizenship.
Book
This book investigates the role of irregular migrants in the transformation of citizenship, and argues that irregular status is an immanent (rather than aberrant) condition of global capitalism, one that is formed by the fast-tracked processes of globalization. It describes how irregular migrants complicate the boundaries of citizenship and stretch the parameters of political belonging. It explains that this group is comprised of refugees, asylum seekers, “illegal” labor migrants, and stateless persons, and argues that they occupy new sovereign spaces that generate new subjectivities. The book casts irregular migrants as more than mere victims of sovereign power, shuttled from one location to the next. Incorporating examples from the United States, Australia, and France, it shows how migrants reject their position as “illegal” outsiders and make claims on the communities in which they live and work. It says that, for these migrants, outsider status operates as both a mode of subjectification and as a site of active resistance, forcing observers to rethink the enactment of citizenship. The book connects irregular migrant activism to the complex rescaling of the neoliberal state. Mapping the broad dynamics of political belonging in a neoliberal era, the book provides an insight into the social and spatial transformation of citizenship, sovereignty, and power.
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Undocumented immigrants in the United States who take part in social movement activism do so at great risk: the threat of deportation. Despite this risk, undocumented immigrant youth have been at the forefront of the national movement for immigrant rights. In their activism these youth have leveraged their identities as immigrants but also as queer individuals, people of color, and women. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork and in-depth interviews with Asian undocumented, undocumented and queer (undocuqueer), and formerly undocumented activists, Organizing While Undocumented examines these activists’ cultivation of and strategic use of an intersectional movement identity. Through the development of the Identity Mobilization Model, the book highlights three critical strategies that undocumented immigrant youth have utilized when deploying an intersectional movement identity. Ultimately, this book argues that undocumented immigrant youth have challenged the notion that their immigration status wholly defines their lived experiences and, in the process, emphasized the importance of their multiple social identities. This emphasis has in turn allowed undocumented activists to connect their struggle to a broader set of social justice struggles taking place in the world today.
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This paper examines the uneven geographies of politicisation through the case of the undocumented immigrant youth movement in the United States, known as the Dreamers. Engaging the “urban political” literature, the paper maintains that politicisation involves the constitution of a subject that disrupts the order through claims for equality. The paper identifies the process of transforming highly marginalised and repressed people into an actual disruptive political subject. It suggests a three‐stage, spatially mediated process. First, “free spaces” are frontline sites that allow marginalised and risk‐averse groups like undocumented immigrants to meet with others, forge emotional bonds, and construct transgressive collective identities. Second, the potential of free spaces to politicise marginalised groups varies by geographical setting. Geographical settings, like large central cities, with high levels of organisational density and some ideological support facilitate politicisation more than settings with low organisational density and high hostility. Third, the uneven geographies of politicisation results in a political subject that is constituted and divided by core–periphery relations.