Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Status City: Linking Legal Status Tracks and Urban Diversity



Time to read

7 Minutes

Guest post by Fran Meissner, Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute (EUI). Before joining the EUI, Fran was a Doctoral Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, where she worked on her PhD thesis ‘Socialising with diversity.’ Her doctorate was awarded by the University of Sussex. She recently published a paper about superdiversity in Ethnic and Racial Studies.

In our age of extensive human movements, it’s abundantly clear that access to mobility isn’t equally distributed. As the this map shows, disregarding monetary or other constraints, a person holding a German passport embarking on a round-the-world trip will face significantly less paperwork along the way, compared to a globetrotter holding a passport from India. For the former, visa-free entry has been agreed with 172 countries, whereas for the latter, only 52 countries. These ‘paperwork inequalities’ continue and are compounded by different immigration tracks if a person intends to actually stay, work, and make a temporary or long-term home in a foreign country. More often than not, that home will be in an urban area. Yet, when we talk about urban migration-related diversity, we rarely consider that cities are not just sites where people from all over the world live. Cities are also places where people with different migration trajectories meet or at least live in relative proximity. What role this plays in everyday negotiations of difference remains an open question.

The co-presence of people who move and those who don’t is prominent in cities. While some urban youth have never been able to go beyond their neighbourhood, other urban dwellers jet-set from one place to another, flipping in and out of the city. Cities are places of a physical proximity of ever-changing configurations of diversity. Yet, we know little about the social mechanisms that link back to these continuous re-configurations. We’ve made significant advances in understanding how migration policy influences patterns of global migration but―not least because of available data―this often stops at national borders. We’re also aware, however, that the majority of human movement is between and into cities. There’s a plethora of maps showing us where in cities we find migrants, and from which backgrounds, yet the geographies of legal status trajectories remain beyond our grasp.

With my current postdoctoral project Status City, I make the case for paying greater attention to the ‘diversity’ of legal status tracks and to the variable granular differences between foreign-born city dwellers that these tracks produce. To make the notion of a legal status track more graspable, it’s helpful to think about a concrete example. The UK, like most advanced migration regimes, has provisions for the immigration of foreign nationals through different temporary and permanent migration channels including family, humanitarian, and labour migration. Relatively recently, the visa structure was remodelled so that many (but by no means all) immigration tracks are part of a five-tier points-based system. This doesn’t mean that the UK now only has five main immigration tracks; there are a number of sub-categories, which more clearly describe the notion of a particular immigration track. Each has specific conditions of residence attached to it. For example, the ‘Tier 2 (Sportsperson) visa’ track gives its holder the possibility to stay for up to three years (and indicates a particular professional field). A ‘Tier 2 (General) visa’ comprises, in effect, at least four sub-tracks, two permitting a three-year stay (one specifically for ‘shortage-occupations’) and two that can be issued for up to five years and 14 days with the possibility of applying for an extension. The granularity of difference is clearest with reference to the length of permits but it is relevant more broadly and linked to what attributes of visa applicants are considered high scoring. This is also relevant in non-points based systems where different immigration tracks also imply specific demographics and conditions of presence for the cohorts admitted through a particular track. While the ordering paradigm linked to distinguishing foreign nationals would suggest that differentations are clearly stated, we may want to think the notion of granularity further and ask, for example, whether empirically the holders of some tracks or groups of tracks may be more prone than others to becoming deportable. This post details my project by pointing to the importance of examining the urban diversity effects of legal status, and migration trajectories.

Much of the focus on the implications of regulating migration tends to be, for obvious reasons, on practices of admission and expulsion. Using legal status differentiation as a tool in managing migration gets somewhat less attention but by no means none. One ongoing, prominent debate focuses on the stratification of rights and access to social support. Consequently, much of the analysis is focused on the normative question of how to justify differential rights and the associated implications for individuals or groups of migrants. Rarely is the question asked how this stratification (including aspects such as length of visas or occupation specific tracks, less easily framed in normative terms) may be linked to broader everyday social patterns. Why should one? Clearly, in everyday interactions, the question ‘so where are you from’ is posed more frequently between strangers than the question ‘when does your residence permit expire.’ It should be noted, however, that in the right social situation, it’s exactly that latter question which produces closer social ties around the exchange of knowledge about moving through legal statuses, including moving from a regularised to an irregular status, but also in discussing the seemingly mundane possibilities of switching between one track and another.

To understand the diversity effects I explore in this post, it’s important to consider how different mobility patterns, both internationally and in terms of everyday and social practice, may be tied not only to one’s own status but also to those held by the people one knows. This insight, plausible in light of network principles, would suggest that there’s good reason to ask not only about how status tracks differ, but also how and if those differences play out in cities where the mingling of many status track holders produces complex social geographies of status diversity.

Recent research into the question of how many tracks can be identified has shown that numbers aren’t small and differ significantly between countries. The International Migration Policy and Law Analysis (IMPALA) team identified that for those countries of focus, numbers ranged from 40 to 80 distinct tracks. The greatest ‘variety’ of different tracks are concentrated within the labour migration channel. Each track uniquely defines the rules and conditions associated to a person’s presence in the place where they live. One empirical question these numerous tracks raise is whether, as a way of ‘ordering’ migration, status differentiation is used as a policy solution to bridge the gap between popular calls for more restrictive rules about immigration and the economic demand for migrants. With extensive coding efforts underway, we should soon be able to assess such questions.

Whilst the binary distinction between irregular and regular migration is increasingly being challenged, few researchers focus on the full breadth of diversity of difference. Most reduce their purview to distinguishing between migration channels and then choose one, such as family migration, as the focus of their research. Often clear lines of social inequalities can be found through these levels. Yet, it begs asking whether the more granular differentiations within migration channels don’t matter.

Does it count that today we can find young temporary migrants on their ‘OE’ (oversea experience) year, whose visas were obtained through a ‘work and travel scheme,’ potentially working shoulder to shoulder with others who are also temporary workers but less by choice than necessity because no other channel of migration was accessible to them? Does it matter for the social fabric of a city if both the penthouse and the basement flat of a high-rise building are home to new occupants on a regular basis? Here, consider how the penthouse has a high turnover due to the international company owning it shifting its specialist labour from one country to another, surmounting hurdles mostly invisible to those on the move, while the occupants of the basement flat move on exactly because of those hurdles. Does it matter―to follow on with the high-rise analogy―that on the floors in-between other patterns of changeover and continuity of occupancy occur and impact on the possibilities for social encounters? Does it matter that we might expect certain kinds of cities (e.g., creative or financial cities) to attract different types of status migrants and thus unique patterns of when and who moves, and why? Finally, does it matter that cities will also be affected by country specific patterns of admitting more or less migrants through particular channels? This is what I illustrate in Figure 2.

Figure 2
The aim of developing Status City is to take these questions seriously and to devise ways of investigating them in light of a lack of data about the geographies of status differences. A critical consideration of these questions is important not only because it’s possible that every penthouse flat has a corresponding basement flat; indeed, the implied patterns of vertical segregation require more empirical attention. Instead, another pertinent reason for taking legal status diversity seriously is that these patterns are lost in the one-aspect maps we usually use to portray urban migration-related diversity.

In contrast to differences associated to cultural practices or physical distinctiveness, other migration-related differences and thus diversities may be anchored in those stratifications of rights and granular differentiations, which may and may not align with places of origin. These can influence outcomes, not only for those on the move but the generations that follow. If further distinctiveness of tracks is considered as the solution to more effectively ordering international migration, is it time to understand the diversity effects of already existing differences?

Asking such questions also raises risks that have to be seriously considered. In mapping differences, researchers engage in producing them. In highlighting patterns, we draw analytical lines to show those patterns. In asking about different ways of both moving through statuses and through the city in light of one’s immigration track, we may highlight certain aspects that uncover sensitive information which very well might best remain part of the everyday knowledge of those participating in practices of negotiating immigration status differences. As I start this research, I must be alert to these issues. By illuminating the diversity effects of immigration tracks and how they are socially relevant, I’m engaging in understanding a multidimensional urban diversity; thus, mapping status diversity necessitates mapping its complex interlinkages with other migration related aspects. It’s not about reifying categories, but rather about understanding them within relational configurations. This is also one reason why I focus on the variable granularity of differences and under what circumstances this granularity comes to matter within the multiplicity of migration driven differences that infuse the social fabric of a given city or urban neighbourhood. Legal status―whether understood in terms of different migration channels with multiple sub-tracks or as changeable trajectories―can thus move more centrally into focus in researching urban migration-related diversity.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Meissner F (2014) Status City: Linking Legal Status Tracks and Urban Diversity. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/status-city-urban-diversity/ (Accessed [date]).

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