After Citizenship Or rethinking Citizenship as a technology of control and resistance

After the Home Office ‘go home’ migrant van scandal of the summer (see below) –a great illustration of current forms of ‘state racism’ in action– I revisited some of my work on citizenship as a technology of control and resistance. What follows is an extract from the introduction to a special issue of citizenship studies on ‘immigrant protest’ written by myself and Katazyrna Marcinak which attempts to rethink citizenship through the lens of migrant protest movements –and the powerful claims of groups such as the Sans Papiers in France who ‘ask not for recognition of their status [as French citizens], but for the end of their identity’


After Citizenship?

Extract from ‘Immigrant Protest: An Introduction’

By Imogen Tyler & Katarzyna Marciniak.

The last decade has witnessed an explosion of ‘immigrant protests’, political mobilizations by irregular migrants and pro-migrant activists. Indicative examples include: the rise of the Sans-Papiers movement in France, the spectacular protests of millions of undocumented Latin American workers in the USA in Spring 2006, under the banner ‘A Day Without Immigrants’, events which in turn inspired the ‘A Day Without Us’ marches and strikes in Italy, Greece, Spain and France in 2011. Refugee activism has become a significant political force in its own right, with coalitions of citizens and non-citizens engaging in various forms of advocacy and resistance around the enforced destitution, dispersal, detention and deportation of refugee populations.  The upsurge in immigrant protest is a consequence of the intensification of border security measures across the globe in recent decades, the abjectifiying effects of which have been well documented by scholars and activists. In the face of the incremental militarization of national and regional borders and the emergence of a `lucrative political economy of border policing and immigrant detention’ (De Genova, 2011) immigrant protests constitute critical counter-political voices,  highlighting and protesting deteriorating conditions for irregular migrants and refugees ‘on the ground’, exposing the violence engendered by border controls, and challenging the abstract and fetishized political rhetoric of ‘illegal immigration’.

New media, such as the internet, 3G mobile video phones, weblogs, social media and instant messaging, have inordinately strengthened migrant politics. These technologies are employed to co-ordinate the swarming of bodies on the streets, to capture and upload videos of protests and police violence and to generate publicity for struggles. The advent of these digital communication systems means that protests staged in one physical place are now transmitted across borders so that even smaller scale protests such as riots, fires and hunger strikes by immigration detainees, and individual anti-deportation campaigns have the potential to resonate internationally. International coalitions such as the European NoBorders Network and the No One is Illegal movement have emerged as important horizontal umbrella networks for protesters to connect and coordinate across borders, transforming online spaces into supra-national `common spaces`.

This blog post is extracted from a special issue of the journal citizenship studies on ‘Immigrant Protest’ has emerged in response to this rise in the visibility of immigrant protests. Its aim is to contribute to the growing body of scholarship on migrant resistance movements and to consider the implications of these struggles for critical understandings of citizenship. The eight articles and one photographic essay, which make up this issue, draw on rich case-studies of immigrant protest, ranging from the 2006 uprising by undocumented workers in the USA, a NoBorders camp in Calais, naked protests in immigration detention centers in the UK, art-activism at the borders of Europe and the USA, medical activism in Germany, protest marches by Tamil migrants in Toronto, and the everyday strategies of resistance employed by undocumented workers in Europe, who burn passports and forge documents to cross borders. The majority of case-studies examined in this issue are drawn from protest and resistance movements at Europe and North America borderzones. As such, this issue makes no claim to represent the full global spectrum and diversity of immigrant protests. Despite this partial perspective, this issue offers an insight into what immigrant protests might tell us about the changing meaning and dynamics of citizenship under neoliberal globalism. As Nicholas De Genova notes, the securitization of migration `is inextricable from a concomitant securitization of citizenship itself.’ (De Genova, 2007, p.440).  It is our contention that migrant protests against this securitization of citizenship expose the contradictions and inclusionary/exclusionary dynamics of contemporary modalities of citizenship in instructive ways.

Neoliberal Citizenship

In `Why Citizenship Studies?’, an introductory essay to  the special issue that marked the tenth anniversary issue of the journal citizenship studies in 2007, Peter Nyers notes that:

one criticism in particular that the journal has sought to address is that citizenship is a concept that is derived from a specifically European lineage and so represents a kind of conceptual imperialism that effaces other ways of being political…for all the innovations in how we conceive of citizenship, the concept remains deeply embedded with practices that divide humanity according to race, ethnicity, gender and geography (Nyers, 2007, p. 2).

One of the aims of the special issue that we edited was to revisit this criticism through the lens of the migrant and migrant-allied protests against prevailing regimes and forms of citizenship. To do this, however, it is important to note that citizenship has been dramatically refashioned over the last decade. One of the primary characteristics of the redesign of citizenship in the twenty-first century is the intensification of citizenship as a technology of governance. As I have previously argued, citizenship has become ’a vast and proliferating bureaucracy from which flow categories of people marginalized by, excluded or disqualified from citizenship and the rights which flow from this status’ (Tyler, 2010, p.71). Citizenship has become `the premier instrumentality’ for the subjection `of those whom states “contain” within their juridical and spatial confines’ (De Genova, 2007, p. 440).

A ‘reality gap’ has opened up between normative political rhetorics of `deepening democracy’ through citizenship (including the exporting of ‘liberal democracy’ through the ‘war on terror’), and the abjection of ‘illegal’ populations from the rights and protections of citizenship through the enforcement of often brutal and inhumane immigration controls. This ‘liberal paradox’ is further complicated by the incongruity between the opening up of international borders to flows of capital and the simultaneous ‘damming’ of states and regions to ‘undesirable’ migrants from the Global South: a migratory pull which is paradoxically fuelled by market demands for cheap unregulated migrant labor in the Global North (see de Hass, 2007; Hollifield, 2004).

The securitization of migration takes different national and regional forms but includes the reduction of legal channels for migration, the proliferation of legislation to limit, hierarchize and scale citizenship, the criminalization of ‘undesirable’ migrants, the emergence of a global business in immigrant prisons and the normalization of detention and deportation as instruments of governance. The concern of many activists is that the incremental criminalisation of migrancy has led to the deepening exploitability of irregular and undocumented migrant populations. As de Genova, argues, irregular migrants are `increasingly terrorized by the state’s immigration law enforcement tactics’ but are `all the more enthusiastically desired by employers precisely because they are extraordinarily vulnerable’ (de Genova, 2011).  De Genova describes the precarity experienced by irregular migrant populations as `deportability’: `the fact that the great majority of so-called “illegal” migrants are not deported but instead remain, as labor, under excruciatingly vulnerable socio-political conditions indefinitely’ (De Genova, 2011). Similarly, Sandro Mezzadra suggests that `European policies on migration, despite their rhetoric, do not aim to hermetically seal European borders. Their objective and their effect is the establishment of a system of dams and eventually the production of an active process of inclusion of migrant labor by means of its criminalization (it. clandestinizzazione)’ (Mezzadra, 2004).

In her examination of this ‘active process of inclusion’ in the context of the Australian state, Anne McNevin argues that the militarization of state and regional borders (most visibly evident in the mushrooming of for-profit immigrant prisons) operate as `performances of political closure designed to assuage those made vulnerable by [a] neoliberal economic trajectory’ (McNevin, 2007, p. 611). As McNevin’s analysis suggests, tough border controls function performatively to placate and appease those citizens whose own dreams of ‘the good life’ have become increasingly precarious in the face of the erosion of social democracy and welfare provision (see Berlant, 2011; Plant, 2010). In this context, xenophobia has a specific economic and political function, constituting irregular migrants as scapegoats for deepening inequalities within the borders of neoliberal states.

The neoliberal refashioning of citizenship we are describing has impacted not only on migrants, but upon citizens themselves.  For example, during the last decade the British government, like many other European governments, has instituted a programme of reforms aimed at ‘deepening citizenship’ through legislation, compulsory citizenship education and the introduction of categories of ‘active’ and ‘earned’ citizenship (Goldsmith, 2008; Smith et al. 2008; Tyler, 2010). This `active citizenship agenda’ aims to transform migrant and indigenous populations into productive citizens through policy innovations such as nationalistic education programmes, ‘forced volunteering’, and a `National Citizenship Service. These governmental programs of social citizenship, which emphasize widening participation, social cohesion, social responsibility and belonging, pave the way for the introduction of laws, policies and environmental redesigns which often target disenfranchised young people, but radically curtail the freedoms of all citizens and made them subject to hitherto unimaginable levels of surveillance and policing.

Of course, as Giorgio Agamben claims, citizenship has always been ‘two-faced’, ‘the bearer both of subjection to sovereign power and of individual liberties’ (Agamben, 1998, p. 125). However, the transformation of liberal rights-based notions of citizenship into citizenship as an `active and productive’ mode of neoliberal governance has led some to ask whether the idea of `modern citizenship’ is now defunct (Tyler, 2010, p. 71). Indeed, Yoav Peled has argued that within `liberal democracies’, the toxic combination of neoliberal economics and the erosion of civil and political rights have created `a post-citizenship society’ (Peled, 2007).

The immigrant protests which have erupted across the globe in the last decade are a response to the `exclusions, inequalities, hierarchies, securitizations’ which have been effected by this refashioning of citizenship (Nyers, 2007, p.2). Yet, inevitably, one of the main strategies of migrants and pro-migrant activists is to demand the rights of citizenship, however problematic or precarious this citizenship may have become. Driven by immediate humanitarian considerations, many migrant advocacy movements focus on challenging existing legal and political frameworks in order to gain migrants’ rights and access to legal aid, welfare and education.

The integrationist politics which underpins migrant rights movements are epitomized by the London based `Strangers into Citizens’ campaign founded in 2006 (and now an international movement) which calls for the naturalization of long-term irregular migrants through appeals to a ‘local’ notion of citizenship (as living and belonging to place for a period of time). In the USA the proposed DREAM Act is a programme which would offer ‘a conditional path to citizenship’ for specific categories of `alien minors’ if they graduate from high school and then either serve in the US military for two years or complete a college degree. The merits of these kinds of campaigns for naturalization and their positive impact on the lives of migrants and their children should not be minimized. As well as assisting migrants materially, these campaigns, in very concrete ways, challenge the exclusions of citizenship. However, humanitarian or state-based movements campaigning for the inclusion of migrants within existing legal systems of citizenship also risk colluding with the regimes of illegalization which abjectify migrants and their children in the first place. In other words, whilst these forms of legal and political advocacy are necessary, important and can be effective, they inevitably reproduce the inclusive/exclusive logic of citizenship, which has been designed to fail specific groups and populations.

This brings us to the heart of the paradox which the contributors to our special issue variously engage with: immigrant protests are ‘acts’ against the exclusionary technologies of citizenship, which aim to make visible the violence of citizenship as regimes of control. However, in order to effect material changes, protestors are compelled to make their demands in the idiom of the regime of citizenship they are contesting. As McNevin puts it:

the claims of irregular migrants both challenge and reinscribe existing political identities. On one hand, their assertion of entitlement as rights-bearing subjects despite irregular status contests the exclusivity of citizenship as a measure of political inclusion. Yet their call for legalization simultaneously reinforces the authority of citizenship as the foremost measure of belonging (McNevin, 2007b, p. 670).

One of the enduring lessons of the Sans-Papiers is that they engage in claims for citizenship whilst also critically questioning citizenship as a system of governance and control. The Sans-Papiers movement began as a struggle by undocumented workers in France for papers and regularization, but it became a movement which more radically questioned the neo-colonial function of citizenship itself. As Ababacar Diop, a spokesperson for the Sans-Papiers of St Bernard in Paris notes,  `The struggle of the Sans-Papiers has to go beyond obtaining our papers and must address the underlying questions […] What is the purpose of migration policies? Should frontiers be open? (Diop,1997). Further, as Monika Krause suggests, the Sans-Papiers:

define themselves not by having fled as ‘refugees’, not by having come in as ‘immigrants,’ not even by moving as ‘migrants’ but by the mere fact that they are in France without the required documents for residence and work. […] Their status is purely imposed by the state. They ask not for recognition of their status, but for the end of their identity (Krause, 2008, p. 342).

The Sans-Papier movement has inspired important forms of migrant activism, notably the European NoBoders movement, which calls for an end to all border controls, and a body of theoretical work, the`autonomy of migration’ scholarship, which examines `migratory movements and conflicts in terms that prioritize the subjective practices, the desires, the expectations, and the behaviors of migrants themselves’ (Mezzadra, 2011, p. 121).




Immigrant protests take many forms and involve actors who are very differently positioned in the relation to the state, be they undocumented workers, refugees, detainees, concerned citizens, humanitarian organizations or NGO’s. Multiple factors shape the specificity of immigrant protests, and the political and conceptual language that demands for equality, justice or rights are made in.

Citizenship is a site of struggle within these protests: it is both the goal which many immigrant protesters are striving to achieve and the regime of exclusion which they are protesting against. A consideration of migrant protests and allied movements through the lens of citizenship foregrounds the role of citizenship policies in generating injustice, exclusion and immobility (social and geopolitical), and exposes the limits of state-based notions of citizenship as a category for sustained social and political resistance.

One of central questions is whether the explosion in demands of migrants might be interpreted as part of a counter-political shift from state-based notions of citizenship to ‘insurgent’ acts of `transnational citizenship,’ or `global citizenship’ (Balibar, 2006; Hardt and Negri, 2000), or whether immigrant protests are important because they enable forms of politics that exceed or refuse to be a politics of citizenship at all (De Genova, 2010, p. 105).



Given that the abjecification of migrants is increasingly an effect of the neoliberalisation of citizenship, the question remains to what extent citizenship can or should be mobilized as a productive conceptual framework, or activist vocabulary, for the emancipatory projects of migrants and their allies.

The incommensurability of integrationist and autonomous approaches to migrancy and citizenship, is an important site of critical and theoretical struggle within citizenship studies and migrancy research today. The tensions which arise from these debates are not, we want to argue, problems to be resolved but are rather are indicative of the daily struggles of iregular migrants on the ground as they encounter the structures of sovereignty which abjectify them. Whether we attempt to think citizenship ‘beyond the state’ or reject citizenship as the constitutive ground of the political by highlighting alternative forms of political solidarity, and cultivating alternative vocabularies,  what is clear is that citizenship is historically contingent and subject to disruption, rupture and transformation when its contingency is exposed. In bringing immigrant protests to the heart of debates about citizenship, we hope to have foregrounded the antagonisms which immigrant protests make explicit, namely the punitive realities of border and immigration controls, in ways which further extend debates about the limits and the possibilities of citizenship as a category of control and resistance.

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