Undocumented Activism, Citizenship and the Political

Type: Paper
Sponsor Groups: Political Geography Specialty Group, Socialist and Critical Geography Specialty Group, Latin America Specialty Group
Poster #:
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Balcony K, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 4th Floor
Organizers: Walter Nicholls, Thomas Swerts
Chairs: Walter Nicholls


The rise of undocumented activism is a truly global phenomenon (see Laubenthal 2007, Swerts 2014). The illegalization (De Genova 2002) of substantial populations of migrants by national governments has created shadow populations that reach well within the millions across the world. These ‘deportable’ residents are de facto citizens, yet lack the de jure recognition needed to guarantee their right to stay. In response to their precarious legal status (see Goldring and Landolt 2013), undocumented migrants have organized themselves collectively to become visible and gain a voice in hostile political environments.
In this panel, we ask if, how and why the politicization of this group of societal outcasts has made a lasting imprint on society. This puzzle speaks to ongoing theoretical debates on the meaning of citizenship and the political. In recent years, critical scholarship has sought to redefine the way we think about established notions of politics and citizenship by radically turning these notions upside down.

Politics, as authors inspired by the work of Jacques Rancière (2010) contend, should no longer be evoked to refer to the acts of everyday governance that erect and maintain the order of things, but rather to the practices that aim to unsettle it. The challenge to the status quo is mounted from the outside in. The subject of such a politics is identified as the ‘part with no part’ (Rancière 2004), referring to the excluded ‘denizens’ (Hammar 1990) who are forced to live their lives in the margins of society. Politics, then, emerges “in the act of performatively staging equality, a procedure that simultaneously makes visible the ‘wrong’ of the given situation” (Swyngedouw 2011: 374). The staging of equality is a spatial process whereby unrecognized subjects make space to exclaim their political claims where there previously was none (see Dikec 2005, 2015; Swyngedouw 2011, 2014). It relies on a politics that is disruptive and inaugurative in nature, as it “starts or introduces something new and interrupts the established order of things” (Dikec 2017: 50).

In the same vein, advocates of the ‘acts of citizenship’ framework pioneered by Engin Isin (2002, 2008) purposefully distance themselves from commonplace understandings of citizenship as a legal status that grants its bearers rights and privileges. Instead, the term citizenship is re-appropriated to designate the acts whereby unrecognized outsiders citizens “constitute themselves as those with ‘the right to claim rights’” (Isin 2009: 371). These acts of citizenship are seen as “creative breaks” that “rupture or break the given orders, practices and habitus” of what we have come to regard as proper citizenship (Isin 2008: 18, 36). According to this perspective, then, the ‘immanent others’ of a given political community invent new ways of ‘being political’ when they burst into the scene (Isin 2002).

The parallels between both perspectives are striking. Thus, it should not be surprising that authors in both camps readily invoke the struggle of undocumented migrants as the case par excellence to provide empirical ammunition for their theoretical agenda (see McNevin, 2006, 2011, Nyers and Rygiel 2012, Isin and Saward 2013). For example, Nyers argues that undocumented activism in Canada ruptures citizenship from below because it “allows non-status groups to extract themselves from the hegemonic categories by which political identity is normally understood” (2010: 141). In Barbero’s account of undocumented activism in Spain, the incorporation of the undocumented into the order through regularization is regarded as constituting ‘a rupture’ in and of itself (2012). Dikeç (2013) uses the case of the French sans-papiers movement to argue that the sans-papiers “disrupt the established order of things by opening up political spaces” by “demonstrating how the established order ‘wronged’ (…) equality”. By checking whether the messy, lived reality of on-the-ground activism lives up to the lofty ideals and standards set by political theorists, these kinds of analyses potentially enrich the theoretical debate.

However, qualitative scholarship that investigates undocumented activists up close has started to issue warning signs about the danger of romanticizing and sometimes even exaggerating the extent to which the status quo gets disrupted. Recent work on the DREAMers in the US, for example, has demonstrated that the political subjectivities that undocumented youth developed in response to available niche openings reinforce prevailing understandings of ‘good citizenship’, moral worthiness and national identity (see Nicholls 2013, Nicholls et al. 2016). Furthermore, a recent study of the transnational mobilization of undocumented migrants in Europe has shown that the continuing dominance of national political imaginaries hampers the development of a collective identity that reaches beyond borders (Swerts 2017). Similarly, Baron et al. (2016) have argued that the embrace of a ‘worker identity’ by the French sans-papiers facilitated alliance building within the movement and immediate prospects for regularization, but installed unequal opportunities for ‘deserving’ workers and ‘undeserving’ non-workers. All these findings point to the fact that undocumented activists are wedged between gaining recognition as equals to those within the order and demanding a transformation of that very order. By becoming incorporated into the order, previously unrecognized actors can even turn into “an agent of the police order” themselves (Uitermark and Nicholls 2013: 3). McNevin (2013) uses the term ‘ambivalence’ to delineate the tendency of undocumented activism to simultaneously “resist and reinscribe the power relations associated with contemporary hierarchies of mobility”.

The Cambridge dictionary defines disruption as the act of “prevent[ing] something, especially a system, process, or event, from continuing as usual or as expected”. The main question that emerges from the previous discussion, then, becomes whether undocumented activism disrupts, merely interrupts or reinforces the status quo. Related to this question, we might ask: How do we define the status quo in a constantly changing world? What is the temporality and spatiality of disruption? Does disruption imply a lasting transformation of institutions like democracy or citizenship? Or is institutionalization antithetical to the episodic character of disruption? At what point do movements become ‘too incorporated’ to disrupt? How can we conceptualize the ability of the established order to ‘bounce back’ from interruptions? Do undocumented migrants need to be at the forefront of the struggle for this struggle to be disruptive? Or can allies just as well engage in disruptive acts of citizenship?

Exploring these questions in depth requires theoretical reflection backed up by empirical evidence. To this end, this panel aims to bring together scholars who have done research on undocumented activism from all over the world. By comparing findings about the emergence, life course and outcomes of immigrant rights movements across different contexts, we intend to explore whether undocumented activism reconfigures or consolidates the playing field of politics and citizenship as we know it.

Works cited:
Barbero, Iker, “Expanding Acts of Citizenship: The Struggles of Sinpapeles Migrants,” Social & Legal Studies 21, 4 (2012): 529-547.

De Genova, N. 2002. Migrant “Illegality” and Deportability in Everyday Life. In Annual Review of Anthropology 2002 31:1, 419-447.
Dikeç, M . (2005) Space, politics, and the political. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23.2, 171–88.
Dikeç, M. (2013), Beginners and equals: political subjectivity in Arendt and Rancière. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38: 78–90. doi:10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00508.x
Dikeç, M . (2015) Space, politics, and aesthetics. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
Dikeç M (2017) Disruptive politics. Urban Studies 54(1): 49–54.
Goldring, L. and Landolt, P. (2013) Producing and negotiating non-citizenship: precarious legal status in Canada, Buffalo, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Hammar, T. (1990), Democracy and the Nation State: Aliens, Denizens and Citizens in a World of International Migration, (Aldershot: Avebury).
Isin, E.F. (2008) ‘Theorizing acts of citizenship’, in E. Isin and G. Nielsen (eds) Acts of citizenship (pp. 15–43), London: Zed Books.
Isin, E.F. (2009) ‘Citizenship in flux: the figure of the activist citizen’, Subjectivity, 29: 367–388.
Isin, Engin F. and Saward, Michael eds. (2013). Enacting European Citizenship. Cambridge: Cambridge
Laubenthal, B. (2007) ‘The emergence of pro-regularization movements in Western Europe’, International Migration, 45(3): 101–133.
McNevin, A. (2006) ‘Political belonging in a neoliberal era: the struggle of the Sans-Papiers’, Citizenship Studies, 10(2): 135–151.
McNevin, A. (2011) Contesting citizenship: irregular migrants and new frontiers of the political, New York: Columbia University Press.
McNevin, A. (2013) ‘Ambivalence and citizenship: theorising the political claims of irregular migrants’, Millennium, 41(2): 182–200.
Nicholls, Walter J. 2013. The DREAMers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Nicholls, W., Marcel Maussen, Laura Caldas de Mesquita (2016). The Politics of Deservingness: Comparing Youth-Centered Immigrant Mobilizations in the Netherlands and the United States. American Behavioral Scientist Vol 60, Issue 13, pp. 1590 - 1612
Nyers, P. and Rygiel, K. (eds) (2012) Citizenship, migrant activism and the politics of movement, London: Routledge.
Rancière, J. 2004. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Continuum, 2004.
Rancière, Jacques. 2010. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. London: Continuum.
Swerts, T. (2014) ‘Non-citizen citizenship in Canada and the United States.’ in E. Isin and P. Nyers (eds), Routledge handbook of global citizenship studies (pp. 295–303), New York: Routledge.
Swerts, T. 2017. "Marching beyond borders: Non-citizen citizenship and transnational undocumented activism in Europe." In Sigona, N. and Gonzales, R., Within and Beyond Citizenship: Borders, Membership and Belonging. Routledge, Sociological Futures Series: 126-142.
Swyngedouw, E . (2011) Interrogating post-democracy: reclaiming egalitarian political spaces. Political Geography 30.7, 370–80.
Swyngedouw, E . (2014) Where is the political? Insurgent mobilisations and the incipient ‘return of the political'. Space and Polity 18.2, 122–36.
Uitermark, J. and Nicholls, W. (2014), From Politicization to Policing: The Rise and Decline of New Social Movements in Amsterdam and Paris. Antipode, 46: 970–991. doi:10.1111/anti.12025


Type Details Minutes Start Time
Discussant Peter Nyers McMaster University 20 8:00 AM
Presenter Lazaros Karaliotas*, University of Glasgow, “We are here, we are from here”? Illegalized immigrants’ struggles, solidarity-making and subjectification across differences amid the “Greek crisis” 20 8:20 AM
Presenter Thomas Swerts*, University of Antwerp, ‘This is not a struggle’: Exploring disruptive politics through the lens of the Belgian sans-papiers movement. 20 8:40 AM
Presenter Valeria Raimondi*, Gran Sasso Science Institute, Refugees' squats as strategies of resistance. 20 9:00 AM
Presenter Austin Kocher*, , Angela Stuesse, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Undocumented and Unafraid?: An Analysis of Removal Defense Campaigns Under the Obama and Trump Administrations 20 9:20 AM

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