Mobilizing Non-citizens: Issues, Challenges, and Prospects

By Thomas Swerts

The activism of migrants who lack citizenship rights poses a real challenge for social movement studies, which often assume the legal status of its primary research subjects. Even for migrants that have full citizenship, substantial obstacles to effective mobilization prevail related to factors such as race, discrimination, poverty, religion, language and cultural capital. On top of these factors, non-citizens like the undocumented, who constitute substantial ‘shadow populations’ in many Western democracies, face the daunting task of having to fend for basic rights in a society wherein they are deemed legally ineligible and/or morally unworthy to claim such rights. This exclusion from basic citizenship rights not only bars them from traditional forms of political representation, but also severely limits their access to material and immaterial resources as well as the networks wherein these resources circulate. Political opportunities for these populations are scarce to say the least, thereby simultaneously constraining the potential resonance of their claims for inclusion. Mainstream ‘frames’ on undocumented immigrants tend to systematically criminalize, dehumanize and stigmatize them as a group by portraying them as lawbreakers, threats to social security, disintegrators of value systems and unwanted competitors on the lower tiers of the job market. Living a life ‘in the shadows’ and in fear of deportation moreover installs emotional and mental barriers to public engagement at the level of undocumented immigrants’ consciousness. All in all, it is thus fair to say that the undocumented are fairly unlikely candidates for activism according to what standard social movement theories would have us believe.

The recent rise of undocumented activism in North American and European cities constitutes an open invitation for social movement scholars to rethink the way wherein seemingly un-mobilizable, deprived and precarious populations can gain political agency. Researching the dynamics of contemporary non-citizen mobilizations therefore harbors tremendous potential to generate new insights that could advance social movement scholarship as a whole. In my own work, I have found scholars who focus on the role that culture, narrative, embodiment and emotions play in mobilization processes to be particularly helpful to grasp what it means for undocumented immigrants to venture into activism. In part, this has to do with the fact that the political arena wherein undocumented activism is played out is a relatively new one, whose rules of the game neither fit the identity politics of multiculturalism nor the class politics of immigrant worker struggles. Indeed, the claims for recognition and inclusion put forward by unrecognized, excluded and illegalized subjects force the state to fundamentally question and/or defend the very basis upon which citizenship rights and privileges are granted. Whereas some Western nation-states have responded by trying to work out solutions to irregular migration that stay safely within the framework of citizenship-as-we-know-it, like one-shot regularizations and artificially enforced migration ‘stops’, phenomena like the current refugee ‘crisis’ are living proof of the fact that such solutions are inadequate.

It is precisely because undocumented activists do not have a ready-made assigned place from where they can speak within Western democracies that they are forced to make ‘space for citizenship’ themselves. The ethnographic research I did with activists in the US and in Europe learned me that crafting a political voice is a struggle in itself for undocumented immigrants. Many civil society actors are professionally active in the field of immigrant rights. Based on their expertise, they tend to make policy recommendations and engage in lobbying efforts on behalf of ‘voiceless’ groups such as the undocumented. Yet there are serious objections to be made in terms of the transparency and legitimacy of how such organizations represent their – largely imagined – constituencies. Direct representation by the affected populations is often virtually absent within these circles, which means that the grievances of the undocumented as they are communicated by professionals more often tend to reflect organizational goals than anything else. Ironically, a first hurdle that undocumented immigrants therefore need to take is creating spaces for representation within the very social movements that are supposed to defend their rights. Retaining the right to self-organization and autonomy are key in this respect. In my experience, the most crucial task that allied organizations can perform here is to provide undocumented activists with the logistical means to make such self-organization possible. In practice, this meant for example that larger immigrant rights organizations, schools, churches, community neighborhood centers and squatters offered undocumented activists ‘backrooms’ where they could prepare their actions while remaining relatively invisible from the authorities. An interesting field of further research could thus focus on the politics of allyship that are involved in building not only inter-organizational, but also cross-status alliances.

What undocumented activists come up with in terms of political expression is highly contingent upon the social context wherein they operate. In the US, the DREAM movement has successfully crafted a political voice around the image of hard-working students whose aspirations are blocked by their lack of citizenship. These DREAMers, who grew up in the United States and who are drenched in the stories of the civil, Chicano and gay rights movements, creatively borrowed tactics and strategies from the political repertoires that surround them. Hence, when these undocumented youth organize Freedom bus rides, get arrested in civil disobedience actions or come out as undocumented during theatrical episodes of storytelling, they are essentially inventing a new style of political expression that is explicitly reminiscent of, yet also fundamentally different from past American protest traditions. In the same vein, the ‘sans-papiers’ movement in Europe heavily relies on political repertoires that reach back all the way to the workers’ and suffragettes’ movements. The ideas of (hunger) strikes and marching in great numbers particularly operate as guiding political imaginaries for undocumented activists in Europe. Such actions are complemented by public stagings of citizenship as volunteer work and public service. In this respect, the sans-papiers’ most recent symbolic engagements to aid refugees in the ‘jungle’ of Calais or prepare food on a daily basis at the Brusselian Maximilian Park in the absence of a concerted state response to the arrival of refugee families, are telling examples of their active citizenship. Contrary to conceptual stereotyping of the undocumented as resource-deprived actors in need of mediated representation, I have therefore argued elsewhere that non-citizens should be seen as political innovators who defy structural constraints by creatively using culture, narrative, embodiment and emotion to their advantage.

Of course, important questions remain such as to what extent undocumented activism is actually challenging or reinforcing existing citizenship regimes. This is directly related to the issue of movement goals. Is the goal of undocumented activism simply to get papers? Or is their claim to inclusion in itself radical enough to transform citizenship as an institution? And does their strategic reliance on prevailing national understandings of citizenship undermine their capacity to spark social change? In my view, non-citizen mobilizations are at the forefront of a more fundamental, ongoing transformation that is revealing contemporary citizenship to be an exclusive institution guarded by nation-states that are grappling to safeguard the privileges of the few in the face of rising demands from the many. The nationalist backlash we are currently experiencing in response to the global refugee ‘crisis’ is nothing more than an anachronistic and misplaced pledge of faith of political elites under pressure to the century-old idea of the Westphalian nation-state, which already signals how brittle and weak the foundations of liberal citizenship have become in the more privileged parts of the world. As a strand of research that is inherently fascinated by the dynamics of social change, social movement studies should therefore pay close attention to the citizenship imaginaries that undocumented activists enact, perform and propagate since they might very well offer a looking glass into the not-too-distant future of contestation in Europe and North America.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Immigrants and Refugees

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