The Bits of a New Immigration Reality: A Bad Fit with Current Policy
Published on: Jul 28, 2006

Saskia Sassen is Ralph Lewis Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and Centennial Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. She has written extensively on immigration, cities, global capitalism and electronic markets. Her most recent book is Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press 2006).

When Mexico’s (former) President Fox met with undocumented Mexican immigrants during his visit to the US this past May, his actions amounted to the making of a new informal jurisdiction. His actions did not fit into existing legal forms that give sovereign states specific types of extraterritorial authority. Nonetheless, his actions were not seen as particularly objectionable; indeed, they were hardly noticed. Yet these were, after all, unauthorized immigrants subject to deportation if detected, in a country that is now spending almost 2 billion dollars a year to militarize border control. But no INS or other police came to arrest the undocumented thus exposed, and the media barely reacted.

On July 10, over 50 leaders from countries sending and receiving immigrants into the EU met in Rabat. This was a historic first. Sending countries all over the world have for decades resisted the idea of meeting with receiving countries around the question of immigration; their basic position has been to disregard the fact of emigration from their countries. Also notable is that one of the reasons for the meeting was a recognition by EU receiving countries that current policy aimed almost exclusively at border control on the EU perimeter was not helping anyone. Finally, also notable was that there was considerable specificity in the meeting: the focus was largely on migrations from Western Sub-Saharan African countries, involving the governments of 27 African and 30 European countries. It was not a global event. It was a working session with a reasonable agenda.

Both instances are bits of a multi-bit reality in the making which is unsettling the basic alignments on which immigration policy rests. Some of these bits, such as Fox’s meeting in the US with undocumented Mexicans and the Rabat meeting, are historic firsts. Others are old, even when they may assume new meanings in the current period.

This emergent multi-bit reality does not fit neatly under transnationalism nor under post-nationalism. And even in cases where it might fit, we lose something when we explain it in those terms. Perhaps it is more helpful to see this reality as a variety of micro-processes inside the nation-state that are beginning to denationalize the national as historically constructed. They are not confined to immigration, even though this is the focus here. Their partial and fragmented character means these processes can coexist with a renationalizing of policy and of political discourse in multiple domains, including immigration.

The partial denationalizing of the national is to be distinguished from transnationalism and from post-nationalism because it does not happen beyond the realm of the national or in more than one country. Its distinctive character is that it happens deep inside the thicket of the national. It may at times intersect with or be one moment in a larger transnational dynamic. In that sense, identifying this denationalizing multi-bit reality adds to, rather than replaces, the types of processes identified in the rich literatures on transnationalism and post-nationalism.

I next examine a variety of these instances and then proceed to discuss how they fit or not into key features of current immigration policy in the US and Europe.

When Bits of the National Get Denationalized

Even as the US government seeks to further weaponize the border with Mexico to control undocumented immigration, the bits of this new immigration reality multiply. The emergent multi-bit immigration reality functions within specific settings insofar as migration flows are far more geographically structured than is often assumed.1

The border itself is a good case in point. There is a strong contrast, and possibly contradiction, between the project of militarizing border control and the reality of the border zone. In 2004, the latest year for which we have comprehensive figures on all the following variables,  175,000 legal immigrants entered the US from Mexico, along with 3.8 million visitors for pleasure, 433,000 visitors for business, 118,000 temporary workers and dependents, 25,000 intra-company transferees and dependents, 21,000 students and dependents, 8,400 exchange visitors and dependents, and 6,200 traders and investors.2 On the other hand, 1 million Americans live in Mexico, 19 million travel there each year as visitors, US foreign direct investment in Mexico now totals $62 billion annually, and trade with Mexico grew by a factor of eight from 1986 to the present. More difficult to measure, but still very real, are the multiple crossborder networks connecting people from both sides of the border, which go beyond physical border crossings. This includes the variety of transnational processes described in other texts on this website, as well as digital transactions that begin to constitute a crossborder electronic space.

Thus the reality of the border is not quite a line that divides but a partly denationalized fuzzy zone. It binds as much as it divides, and perhaps more so. Thereby it enters in tension with the explicit aims of US immigration policy.

There are more elusive bits in the new immigration reality.

The large demonstrations on the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles and other US cities in March and April of last year included many self-declared undocumented immigrants claiming the right to have citizens’ rights. Whether some of these may have been actually legal immigrants or citizens is beside the point. We do know that many were indeed unauthorized. At a time that our Congress was discussing legislation to criminalize illegal immigrants, these undocumented responded by going in public on the streets. Their faces were deployed on hundreds of front pages and television screens, but none were arrested—again, against a backdrop of militarized borders and a clear apprehension policy.

Beyond the fact of no arrests of undocumented immigrants, these events point to a second, perhaps more significant bit of a reality in the making. There were signs that the claim-making was more about the right to have rights than about the desire to become American citizens per se. American citizenship would function then as  the channel for acquiring rights to a far more universal condition. There are multiple instances, also in other countries, of an emerging claim for a sort of denationalized citizenship.