January 18, 2013

Immigration Policy and the Lives of Migrants

IAS Faculty Research Project Proposal

Migration has been a significant force in human development; the world as we know it today is unthinkable without the movements of people across natural, political, or cultural boundaries. Simultaneously, migration within the modern system of nation states has been accompanied by social conflict around issues such as diversity, assimilation, and integration. Communities defined along political, social, cultural, or economic categories develop conflicting or even contradictory understandings of the dynamics and implications of migration. Resulting analyses and attitudes determine the status and experience of migrants, and they also facilitate renegotiations of how communities and individuals define themselves. In many ways, the state becomes the arbiter of ensuing social conflicts and thus acquires a prominent status in the regulation and representation of migration. Additionally, non-state actors including immigrant communities, human rights advocates, NGOs, churches, and scholars make powerful interventions in debates about belonging and legitimate claims for social and political participation. Read more..

As IAS Faculty we share an interest in the movement of people and ideas around the globe. Our collaboration aims to examine the various manifestations of borders and boundaries within and between states, identify factors that lead people to cross these borders, and understand how this movement affects migrants and their hosts. We are interested in the ways in which processes of identity formation affect, and are in turn shaped by, experiences that include exclusion, alienation, assimilation, and integration. We seek to understand the cause and effect relationship between migration, identity, and the state, and how this relationship plays out concretely in migrants’ involvement in, for instance, education, social welfare, politics, and cultural production. Our goal is to go beyond recurring trends of migration studies literature, which in its overwhelming majority is narrow in focus with either a concentration on the personal narrative or the macro-levels of policy and politics. We attempt to bring together both sides, facilitating a dialogue with the goal not only of greater understanding, but also of a more effective and democratic policy.


Our collaborative research project will investigate the relationship between the lived experience of migration and local, national, and transnational policies on migration. Drawing on a distinction between a category of practice and a category of analysis, we are interested in questions such as

-  How do immigrants identify themselves vis-à-vis institutional and scholarly categorizations such as ‘undocumented migrant’, ‘citizen’/ ‘denizen’, ‘foreign born’, ‘guest worker’, ‘foreign national’ etc?

-  How do immigrants make sense of historical connections between their home and host countries, and how does this determine their personal migration experience as well as their treatment by state and non-state institutions?

-  How are experiences of dislocation, displacement, or estrangement represented in different forms of cultural production and how do these depictions reflect, but also shape historically specific political and social conflicts?

- How does the use of modern technologies of data processing, surveillance, visualization, or communication shape migrants’ experiences and policies on immigration or integration?

The complexity of identity formation and identification becomes especially apparent in moments of social change or crisis. The current crisis in the European Union reveals unresolved questions about national, transnational and cultural identity, citizenship, and belonging. Our expertise in different histories and cultures of Europe and non-European societies whose relationship with Europe crucially shaped the geopolitical organization and development of the continent allows us to explore these questions in a comprehensive and multidimensional manner. Furthermore, the existing variations in terms of legal frameworks, histories, identities, and cultural traditions within Europe permit us to draw conclusions applicable to other societies, including the United States, while highlighting important contingencies such as colonial heritages, recent economic and political crises within and outside Europe, as well as efforts of inter- and transnational regulation. The comparative dimension inherent to our approach will also emphasize the varying levels of engagement with crisis and identity, focusing on political, economic, or social frameworks that are expected to resolve ongoing conflicts.

Our initial analysis and project outline is in many ways impacted by the current coincidence of the deep economic and political crisis experienced by the European Union and individual EU members states on one hand, and the so-called Arab Spring resulting in rapid political, economic, and social transformations in several countries on the southern side of the Mediterranean Sea, a natural boundary to the European Union and the European continent, on the other. These two crises converge in the simultaneity of youth protests in the UK and France against often racialized discrimination and harassment and refugees from Libya, Morocco, or Egypt attempting to enter the European Union and their deportation by EU agencies such as FRONTEX. Both instances triggered rapid and forceful political debate and sanctions that present protest and flight as short-term crises and problems. These responses, however, neglect histories of failed integration, anti-immigrant policies, and colonial and postcolonial injustice that have shaped economic disparities and relations between European and African societies in the first place. It is our task to uncover these histories and how they are perceived by the multiple generations of refugees and migrants, ethnic minorities as well as political actors. In this sense, the Mediterranean Sea emerges as the focus of our project in double capacity: as the natural barrier between origins and destinations of migration, and as a symbolic, or imagined, divide between European civilization and non-European cultures (or their imagination).

For more information, please contact Anika Walke.