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Contemporary Migratory Movements: Between their Incorrigible Force, the Production of their Illegality, and the Spectacle of Border Control. A Dialogue with Nicholas De Genova

Nicholas De Genova (Ph.D. in anthropology, University of Chicago, 1999) is one of the most prominent thinkers in migration studies today. His research focuses on the intersection between racialization processes, labor domination in the context of immigration and citizenship policies, as well as on securitization of human mobility and diverse experiences of labor migration and migrant struggles at a global level.

He is currently the chair of the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Houston. Previously, he held the permanent position as professor-researcher in the Department of Geography and as director of the research group on Spatial Politics at King's College, London. He has been professor or researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London; Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies at the University of Amsterdam; Institut für Sozialanthropolgie at the University of Bern; Columbia University, and Stanford University.

In collaboration with Sandro Mezzadra, political theorist at the University of Bologna, De Genova initiated a multi-disciplinary research network entitled: “The ‘European’ Question: Postcolonial Perspectives on Migration, Nation, and Race.” The first publication to emerge from this network appeared in the journal Cultural Studies (2015): “New Keywords: Migration and Borders” (a collective writing project involving 17 co-authors). The second publication of the New Keywords project entitled: “Europe / Crisis: New Keywords of ‘the Crisis’ in and of ‘Europe’” (a collective writing project involving 15 co-authors) was published in 2016 (Near Futures Online). Professor De Genova has also served as an expert witness for the Tribunal 12 (Stockholm, May 2012) devoted to a critical public examination of systematic abuses in the migratory context and of asylum applications in Europe.

De Genova is the author of Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and "Illegality" in Mexican Chicago (Duke University Press, 2005); co-author of Latino Crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the Politics of Race and Citizenship (with Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas, Routledge, 2003); editor of Racial Transformations: Latinos and Asians Remaking the United States (Duke University Press, 2006); co-editor of The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement (with Nathalie Peutz; Duke University Press, 2010); and editor of The Borders of "Europe": Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering (Duke University Press, 2017).

SOLEDAD ÁLVAREZ VELASCO: One of the contributions that you have made to the field of critical studies in migration is your argument about the "legal production of illegality." Could you talk about this argument, and about its relevance today?

NICHOLAS DE GENOVA: My engagement, my political but also ethnographic engagement with Mexican/migrant workers, forced me to pay attention to the inherent contradictions and tensions between what, in a classically Marxian language, we could call “concrete labor” and “abstract labor.” It implies a critique of the politics of “class” that in a sense embraces uncritically the notion of abstract labor as the appropriate way in which to understand who a worker is, what is a worker, and so on. I think that what is at stake here is a deeper, more fundamental critique, of objectivist or structural Marxist perspectives, in favor of an interest in subjectivity. I think that it’s politically indispensable if we want to imagine the possibility of another world that we create a conception of subjectivity that is not reducible to the forms of subjection that operate within the existing regimes of domination and hierarchy, although, we inevitably have to engage with the historical specificity of those.

What my political engagements and ethnographic encounters led me toward was a deep sensitivity to questions of the politics of difference, particularly the politics of race, but furthermore the politics of difference in its multiple registers, and in a way —as I like to say — an orientation toward the political in “political economy.” Frequently, the notion of “political economy” gets used as a kind of euphemism for Marxism, within academic work, but is also often treated in a way that reductively equates it with an economistic or structural and objectivist notion. However, I’ve been consistently interested in what constitutes the political in political economy.

This is directly related to a question concerning the variety of ways in which subjectivity gets coded politically. Hence, my work has focused on the historically specific sociopolitical productions of migrants as migrants; the juridical regimes and the political and social relations that produce migrants as migrants became a central concern of my work. What was the historical specificity for the people with whom I was engaged, both politically and ethnographically —as “Mexicans,” as “migrants,” as “illegal” migrants, etc.— brings us back around the question of the historically specific socio-political and juridical production of particular kinds of subjection.

These are very empirical historical, ethnographic and socio-legal questions. Thus, my conception of the legal production of migrant “illegality” was first and foremost an argument that I elaborated on the basis of a legal history through which I inquired into the precise juridical status and social conditions of Mexican migrant labor over time, within the context of the U.S. nation-state. I found that there was never anything natural or self-evident about the “illegality” of these migrations — that their “illegality” was not reducible to any simple transgression of a border or any mere violation of “The Law.” Instead, a long history of more or less deliberate and calculated interventions within the field of immigration law-making and border enforcement practices had actively and often directly contributed to generating the conditions of possibility for the illegalization of specific migrations and migrants, with of course pronouncedly deleterious and discriminatory ramifications for Mexicans in particular, and for Latin Americans more generally. Hence, the legal production of migrant “illegality” in disproportionate ways for Mexicans, in particular, became inseparable from an account of the historical specificity of their racial subjugation.

SAV: Like other critical authors in migration studies, you have used the concept of "border regime" to understand how borders, far from being fixed or homogeneous, are in permanent re-configuration, internalized, externalized, since they are spaces of dispute among multiple actors. How does the concept of “border regime” help us understand contemporary migratory dynamics?

NDG: borders are not inert, fixed, or coherent “things.” Rather, as in Marx’s analysis of capital, borders are better seen as socio-political relations. What is at stake in these relations, which are indeed relations of struggle, is the rendering of borders into seemingly fixed and stable thing-like realities with a semblance of objectivity, durability, and intrinsic power. Thus, the agonistic coherence and ostensible fixity of borders —their thing-like qualities— only emerge as the effect of active processes by which borders must be made to appear thing-like. In other words, they must be continuously objectified through repetitive practices and discourses. This very process of transposing what is in fact always an unresolved social relation into the semblance of a durable objective reality, however, implies that the objectification of borders is inherently fraught and antagonistic. That is to say, borders are in fact the always-contingent determinations of indeterminate relations of struggle. The struggles at and around borders are struggles over the open-ended process of continuously objectifying borders (the process of making borders into objects, or objective facts), and thereby lending them the fetishized quality of unquestionable realities with a power unto themselves.

The objectification and fetishization of borders, therefore, may be best apprehended if we appreciate that bordering is indeed a verb, and signals processes of border-making. Simply put, bordering —border-making activity— takes work: itis productive activity. Rather than see borders as the cumulative effect of the diverse acts of bordering (such as passport checks, policing, fences, etc.)— instead of seeing “the border” as the product of all this work, in other words— we are induced to see all these heterogeneous human activities as merely subsidiary or derivative features that emanate from the apparently already-existing reality and objectivity of borders as such. Like what Marx describes as the fetishism of the commodity, then, we confront the fetishism of “the border.”

Much like the active processes of illegalization that I was just describing, however, bordering involves a long history of more or less deliberate and calculated interventions within the field of struggle, driven first and foremost by the autonomy and subjectivity of human mobility, which only in the retrospective context of its being bordered, we come to know as border-crossing, and hence, as “migration.” In other words, if there were no borders, there would be no migration as such (at least, inasmuch as we have come to understand the term in the predominant idiom through which we now tend to reserve the notion of “migration” to movements across state borders)— there would be no “migration,” only mobility. It is by being subjected to these diverse processes of bordering that migration and migrants emerge as such.

Now, having said this, we can begin to appreciate that instead of borders being merely the apparently objective outer perimeters of the space of a territorially defined (“national”) state, and thus, instead of borders taken to be the more or less self-evident sociopolitical and juridical and jurisdictional boundaries of sovereign power, borders can be better understood at flexible and mobile formations of power in which there are a multiplicity of activities and actors engaged in struggle. This is where the concept of a “border regime”—understood as a heterogeneous assemblage of discrepant state and non-state actors, beginning first of all with the diverse formations of human mobility that we come to know as migrant or refugee movements, which states and capital seek to subordinate and discipline in various ways — may help to illuminate what is effectively a global politico-juridical order of state powers that mediate social relations, and also are mediated in relation to one another, through borders as the complex and composite effects of these struggles.

SAV: In the media and political agendas across the globe, there is the idea of a growing "migration crisis" or "refugee crisis" that is affecting a number of countries, particularly in Europe. What is this so-called crisis about? Is it in a strict sense a migratory crisis? How should we understand it? What role does the American continent play in this supposed scenario of crisis?

NDG: Border regimes, and migration regimes, signify precisely the politicization of the elemental human freedom of movement by subjecting human mobilities to state power. But human mobility always comes first. Much like the subjective (creative, productive) force of labor necessarily always precedes its objectification as capital, this primacy of the autonomy and subjectivity of the human freedom of movement is a recalcitrant and obstreperous force that precedes and exceeds any border authority’s capacities for comprehensive regimentation and control. Thus, when we hear alarmist proclamations regarding a purported “migration crisis” or “refugee crisis,” we are in fact in the presence of nothing more than a crisis of control, a moment of governmental impasse instigated by the sheer incorrigibility of the autonomy and subjectivity of human mobility. The language of “crisis” is deployed to serve, above all, to authorize “emergency” measures or “exceptional” powers.

We can understand these discourses and practices of “crisis” as precisely managerial interventions, which, of course, rely upon the production of a spectacle of borders depicted as “out of control,” and associated with the discourses and images of “invasions” or “floods” of migrants and/or refugees.

SAV: In the global and regional media, images of violence and death linked to migration circulate daily. It would seem that we “normalize” forms of violence towards migrants in an accelerated way, particularly irregular migrants from poor regions of the world. In this complex scenario, what is the political logic behind studying migratory movements?

NDG: The more extravagant and violent border policing becomes, the more in fact it participates in what I have called the “border spectacle” --persistently and repetitively implicating the materiality of border enforcement practices in the symbolic and ideological production of a brightly lit scene of “exclusion” that is always inseparable from an obscene fact of subordinate (illegalized) inclusion that transpires in its shadows. Of course, it is important and necessary to denounce the vicious violence of border regimes that compel migrants and refugees more and more to risk their lives in order to realize their mobility projects. Nevertheless, in our efforts, as critical scholars or radical activists, to denounce the extremities and severities of plainly cruel modes of exclusion, we risk forfeiting the critical responsibility to also detect how regulatory regimes produce regularities. Indeed, we risk failing to see that migrant “irregularity” is itself a very regular and predictable feature of the routine and systematic functioning of border and immigration enforcement regimes. Thus, too much one-sided emphasis on border violence and migrant deaths tends to reinforce the one-dimensional and ultimately false representation of borders as purely exclusionary. My whole discussion of the production of migrant “illegality” is in fact about the more fundamental fact of illegalized inclusion (especially as a form of labor subordination).

Rather than collude with this spectacle of border violence, we also have the responsibility to expose a larger systematicity of border regimes that require that some migrants must die so that many others survive, but only by being subjected to these death-defying obstacle courses and endurance tests that finally are merely the beginning of what, for most, is a protracted apprenticeship in “illegality” and thus vulnerability to the recriminations of the law. It is, consequently, a life-long career of subordination to the mandates of exploitation and precarity

SAV: Recently you have suggested that from the point of view an "anthropology of migration," one can study the paradox of emerging nationalisms and "nativisms"—as you name them— in a globalized world. What is this "anthropology of migration"? And from that theoretical vantage point, how should we understand the tension between national states and population movements?

NDG: This brings us back to the more elementary point I’ve been making about borders. If bordering —border-making activity— involves productive activity, then we have to ask what, on a global scale, borders produce? Indeed, borders can be seen to be enduringly productive. Borders, in this sense, may be considered to be a kind of means of production -- for the production of space, or indeed, the production of difference in space, the production of spatial difference. As enactments in and upon space, like any means of production, as I have just suggested, borders must themselves be produced and continuously re-produced: they are themselves products of heterogeneous activities and diverse types of work. Yet, as means of production, they are generative of larger spaces, differentiated through the relations that borders organize and regiment, facilitate or obstruct. Customarily, we have perhaps been inclined to conceive of these spatial differences as the differentiation of nation-state spaces, but as the convulsive supra-national space of the European Union, for instance, or the historical spaces of empire readily confirm, territorially-defined spaces of state formation have always been historically specific, contingent, and heterogeneous. Nonetheless, the differences that borders appear to naturalize --between “us” and “them,” between “here” and “there” -- are in fact generated precisely by the real incapacity of borders to ever sustain and enforce any rigid and reliable separations. Thus, we see the proliferation of nativism, by which I understand the promotion of the priority of the “native” on no other grounds than being “native.” In short, this is the premier identity politics of any nationalism, against which every figure of “foreignness” may be arrayed as one or another spectral menace. Witness, to take only one of the most familiar and obnoxious examples, the Trump phenomenon, whereby a flagrant anti-Mexican and anti-Latino racism has been a central and constitutive force for the propagation of a reactionary populist politics of nativism and nationalism. Again —and in spite of preposterous injunctions to “build a wall”— the escalation in hostility toward migrant and refugee “foreigners” is never simply about their ostensible “exclusion” so much as it productively serves the ends of their (commonly racialized) stigmatization, marginalization, precarization, securitization, and subordination.

With respect specifically to the anthropology of migration, I have developed this critique of the politics of nativism —the politics of hostility to immigrants or foreigners— simultaneously as a critique of the conventional anthropological article of faith that ethnographic research should somehow represent what is famously known (since Malinowski) as “the native’s point of view.” Of course, this verbiage is itself an effect of the colonial context of anthropology as a discipline, whereby the anthropologist (ordinarily white and male) was presumed customarily to go out to a faraway and exotic place —generally speaking, a place in the colonies— to study “the natives.” With the anthropology of migration, however, we ordinarily have the anthropologist engaged in research among people who are themselves the “outsiders,” who have migrated from elsewhere to live and work and be socio-politically produced as “foreigners” or “immigrants” in the place where it is the anthropologist who is the “native.” No critical anthropology of migration can neglect to interrogate the very conditions of possibility by which the anthropologist is socio-politically produced as “citizen,” and hence as “native,” and consequently, it becomes necessary and vital for the critical scholar of migration to repudiate the point of view of “the native,” which is to say, the point of view of nativism. Even in its more liberal and sympathetic guise, this uncritical perspective is posited from the standpoint of the citizen, who authorizes him/herself to contemplate the questions of migration, in effect, from the standpoint of the state. In contrast, any valid anthropology of migration has to formulate its perspective from the critical standpoint of the subjectivity of migration.

SAV: What impact do you think the government of Donald Trump can have on the dynamics of migration in the Americas?

NDG: Literally, from the very outset of his bid for the presidency, Trump’s political strategy depended on castigating Mexican/migrant “illegality” and excoriating the phantasm of a purportedly “open” U.S.-Mexico border as pivotal elements in his rather crass mobilization of anti-Mexican racism, in particular, and anti-immigrant nativism, more generally. Notably, the call to refortify the U.S.-Mexico border was simultaneously affiliated with anti-Muslim racism by implicitly raising the securitarian spectacle of “terrorism” and invoking the specter of a porous border with Mexico that can be readily exploited by “enemies” from the Middle East. Trump’s forlorn litany of how the United States has become, as he put it, the “dumping ground for everybody else’s problems” — particularly as embodied in the proverbial hordes of “unwanted” migrants — was conjoined (in the same speech where he officially announced his candidacy) to the portentous contention that the United States is “becoming a third world country.” Furthermore, what is particularly striking is that the racialized figures of Mexican “rapists,” drug smugglers, disease, and criminality, generally, were amplified in Trump’s discourse to encompass all of Latin America. Thus, the mobility of Latino migrants itself is implicated in the spectacular discourse that conjures an image of migration as a destabilizing “unwelcome” intrusion and simultaneously a corrosive “unwanted” presence. After all, much as the U.S.-Mexico border has long been conventionally understood to be the place where Latin America begins, so also was it ideologically figured as the place where the Third World begins. Hence, Trump’s bombastic project of “making America great again” has been inextricable from the injunction to “build a wall” that promises, however implausibly, to insulate the United States from Latin America and keep the contagion of Latino migrants out.

This means that, with Trump’s political ascendancy, there is indisputably an intensification of anti-Latino racism underway in the United States. However, as I have been suggesting, this overtly and emphatically exclusionary rhetoric of the Border Spectacle is never so simply about outright exclusion, so much as the recalibration and refinement of the forms and terms of subordinate inclusion. The mass illegalization of Latin American migrations in the United States has been repeatedly consolidated since the 1960s. Moreover, the U.S.-Mexico border has long been a premier site for the deployment of increasingly militarized tactics and technologies of enforcement, including of course physical barricades. When Trump incites his supporters with the utterly implausible notion of “building a wall,” it is little more than a hyperbolic expression of what has otherwise been a rather routine fixture of U.S. immigration policy. The ceaseless fortification of the U.S.-Mexico border —that infamous partition that was always supposed to be where “Latin America” began— presents the epitome of what I have depicted as a spectacle of “exclusion” that mystifies its own obscene secret: the permanent subordinate “inclusion” of illegalized (predominantly Latin American) migration.

Like the man himself, there is woefully little in Trump’s political rhetoric that is, in any sense, original or creative. Indeed, there is virtually nothing in Trump’s anti-Mexican/ anti-Latino racism that is new in any way. It is perhaps more brazen in its nativist vulgarity and more unabashed and unapologetic in its racism than what has become customary during the Obama administration, and for this very reason, more appalling and repugnant to many who may have been comforted by the avowed (if disingenuous) post-racialism of the Obama-era. But Obama presided over far more deportations than any other president in U.S. history —there were more than 2.5 million migrants deported under Obama— indeed, that’s more than the sum of all deportations under all of the U.S. presidents of the 20th century, combined! Hence, when Trump promises mass deportations, it is little more than a characteristically bombastic commitment to honor the legacy of Obama, however disingenuously.

Thus, it means that the current moment of intense anti-immigrant reaction, of which the election of Donald Trump is a kind of crescendo and culmination, must be understood in a somewhat longer historical context encompassing the period in which Barack Obama was a remarkably duplicitous overseer for the U.S. deportation regime. This period actually began as a reactionary backlash against the utterly unprecedented mass protest mobilizations of literally millions of migrants and their children in 2006, and so cannot be understood to be reducible to particular politicians or presidential administrations, so much as a protracted systemic convulsion against the sheer force and incorrigibility of migrant labor’s insurgency.

SAV: The current context is marked by difficult forms of violence and open forms of racism and xenophobia against migrants, particularly irregular migrants and refugees. What does this juncture imply for critical migration studies? What would you say are the emerging issues that have arisen and that may arise in the field of migration studies and what are their theoretical-methodological challenges?

NDG: The current conjuncture, so marred by the escalation of nativism, anti-immigrant racism, and violence, situates research on migration and refugee movements at the vital intersections of several critical questions. Among these intersections, I would include:

  1. The inextricability of migration and refugee studies from the study of race and racism, which is really to say, the study of the ongoing processes of racialization by which sociopolitical inequalities and differences are infused with racial meanings, whereby “race” is understood to be no mere legacy of the past but rather continues to be reproduced in the present;
  2. The inseparability of migration and refugee studies from a critical interrogation of the inequalities built into any regime of citizenship, such that the juridical subordination and subjection of migrants or refugees is always recognized to belong within a continuum of invidious distinctions and divisions that encompass citizens alongside non-citizens (here, then, we more readily make the connections between inequalities of citizenship and those of race, class, gender, sexuality, and so forth);
  3. The inevitable interconnection of the study of migrant or refugee sociopolitical conditions and juridical statuses located within the “interior” of the space of a state with borders and the processes of bordering that appear to demarcate the outer limits of those state spaces and their jurisdictions, and vice versa, such that questions of migrants and refugees should never be reducible to minoritizing problems of “acculturation” or “assimilation”; and
  4. The necessary correspondence between various expressions of nationalism and nativism, on the one hand, and the veritably global relations of capital and labor that are mediated by state borders and migration regimes that are dedicated to the subordination of such transnational cross-border mobilities.

In short, there can be no adequate study of migration without a deliberate and conscientious repudiation of the tendency to parochialize migration or refugee movements within the narrow academic specializations of migration or refugee studies, as if these were “minority” questions of a derivative, subordinate, and “minor” significance. Instead, we must see these human mobilities as elementary manifestations of an elemental human freedom and a vital human power, which make them constitutive dynamics in the ongoing struggle to remake the world in which we live.

SAV: The Latin American states, particularly those that have been described as "post-neoliberal," have positioned themselves antagonistically to this violent regime of securitization and global deportation. In practice, however, this is not completely true. How can we interpret this seeming contradiction?

NDG: Briefly, and provisionally, it seems to me that we can only approach this question by evaluating empirically and objectively what are the real effects of these policies and, in spite of their rhetoric or explicit claims about their intentions, examining and critically interrogating what they actually producen —and this task of course must be approached not only within methodologically nationalist parameters but through a global/postcolonial lens that simultaneously sees what is happening locally, on a national scale, within the larger dynamics of transnational, inter-continental human mobility and a global regime of neoliberal capital accumulation. My suspicion is that despite various “post-neoliberal” gestures, there is a larger and more systemic way in which these state practices may nonetheless be enhancing the greater efficiency of the global border/migration/deportation regime.

In short, there can be no adequate study of migration without a deliberate and conscientious repudiation of the tendency to parochialize migration or refugee movements within the narrow academic specializations of migration or refugee studies, as if these were “minority” questions of a derivative, subordinate, and “minor” significance. Instead, we must see these human mobilities as elementary manifestations of an elemental human freedom and a vital human power, which make them constitutive dynamics in the ongoing struggle to remake the world in which we live.

SAV: How do you imagine a leftist government addressing the complexity of contemporary migration?

NDG: This is a complex and equivocal question because it begs a whole series of other discussions about how we understand what is “the left” and what might be its proper relationship to “government,” indeed to state power. It should perhaps be the basis for a completely different dialogue. A short answer is that we can best think through this problem by starting not from the perspective of state power, and thus not from the perspective of any prospective government, and instead by starting from the perspective of the human freedom of movement as an elementary power and constitutive force by which we make the world.

SAV: What does the autonomist perspective on questions of migration propose, and what are the political implications for taking this theoretical-methodological position in the study of migration?

NDG: To be brief but to the point, building on what I have already said, an autonomist perspective on migration compels us to confront what is ultimately at stake: the question of the relation between the human species and the space of the planet, and therefore the question of whether we dare to imagine that a different world —a world without borders— is possible.

*A Spanish version of this interview was published in Íconos. Revista de Ciencias Sociales, 58, (mayo 2017):153-164.


Soledad Álvarez Velasco is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at King’s College, London. Her dissertation is entitled: "Trespassing the Visible: The Production of Ecuador as a Global Space of Transit for Irregularised Migrants Moving Towards the U.S.-Mexico Corridor".