Migration as a Social Movement



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Lynn C. Jones and Nancy A. Wonders, Professors in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Jones’ research and publications focus on gender, victimization, and justice policy, with particular emphasis on those most vulnerable in society, as well as cause lawyers, social movements, and social change. Dr. Wonders has published extensively on the criminology of borders and mobility; the relationship between social inequality, difference, and justice; and the development of effective strategies to create sustainable and just communities. This is the second installment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on Transforming Borders From Below organised by Marie Segrave and Nancy A. Wonders. The series includes short posts written by international scholars who discuss and develop ideas contained in articles published in a special issue of Theoretical Criminology on Transforming Borders From Below: Theory and Research from across the Globe.

The UN’s International Migration Organization estimates that there are 244 million migrants worldwide, with global displacement at a record high. While global elites move across borders with relative freedom, many Western nations continue to respond to migration by utilizing rhetorical and punitive policy strategies aimed at deterring some kinds of human mobility, particularly the mobility of those from poorer regions of the world. Governments throughout the West frequently draw on the rhetoric of deterrence and propose punitive border enforcement measures to dramatize claims that these border crossers pose a national security threat and are responsible for increased crime and violence. For instance, the Trump administration has sought to deter migration at the U.S.-Mexico border with proposals to build a wall, separate migrating parents from their children, and most recently to deny bail to asylum seekers. Scholars have long drawn attention to the popularity among lawmakers of deterrence-based policies, while also gathering strong evidence that deterrence approaches rarely achieve desired goals and are often harmful (for e.g. Gammeltoft-Hansen and Tan; Weber and Pickering). So, what explains the fact that migrants continue to cross borders in spite of heightened efforts to criminalize, control, and punish migrants?  Our recent article ‘Doing and Undoing Borders: The Multiplication of Citizenship, Citizenship Performances, and Migration as Social Movement’ argues that considering much contemporary migration through a social movement lens offers powerful tools for analyzing the persistence of migration and border crossing around the world. 


Like a growing number of border criminologists, our research examines borders from the perspective of those who cross them. This vantage point requires that we problematize the global inequalities and political processes that lead nations to define some persons as unworthy of rights in the first place and to limit and criminalize their mobility. Our research emphasizes that the border practices and policies of nation-states often produce migration, harm, and violence. National bordering practices are often designed to limit the potential for meaningful expansions of rights and protections for border crossers who are increasingly among the world’s most vulnerable populations. Despite the barriers to entry and rights acquisition that exist in many border zones, people around the world continue to cross national borders. Analyzing the collective behavior and contentious politics of ‘irregular’ migrants leads us to the viewpoint that border crossers are participating in one of most important social movements of our time.

Framing irregular migration as a social movement draws attention to the many ways that irregular border crossing is creating significant social change. The decision to cross a national border without permission challenges the historic partitioning of the world into those who ‘have’ —simply because of the place of their birth—and those who do not. Irregular migration also questions the legitimacy of government officials to serve as the sole decision-makers about which people are rights worthy in a globalized world.  Importantly, resistance to the social exclusion of irregular migrants and punitive enforcement practices is occurring every day in many local communities where border crossers ‘live, love and work’ (Fernandez and Olson). Even as some nations formally limit the rights and access to citizenship of border crossers, community members, political activists, and migrants are engaging politically ‘from below’ in ways that claim and redefine access to rights and citizenship. Such border struggles are happening around the globe (see, for example, Barker; Fernández-Bessa), as individuals act as if they are citizens, often ignoring or directly challenging the assumption that belonging can come only through formal legal status.  Over time, these ‘acts of citizenship’ or ‘citizenship performances’ by border crossers and their allies challenge, protest, and expand the borders of belonging and rights.

We are not alone in arguing that migration can be conceived of as a social movement. Ataç, Rygiel and Stierl suggest that much ‘irregular’ migration today exhibits social movement dynamics, including the transformative potential of localized political struggles and varying degrees of solidarity. Similarly, Prieto applies theoretical concepts from the social movement literature and the value of shifting away from a focus on how ‘illegal’ migrants are controlled and punished as ‘other’ to focus instead on what immigrants do in response to their marginalization.  Interestingly, it is often the rhetoric surrounding the securitization of the border and migrants as threat that leads to collective mobilization by creating a shared sense of grievance and identity among migrants. For instance, efforts to criminalize migrants via the label ‘illegal’ have been frequently contested by border crossers which further intensifies their solidarity (Coutin). Using insights from social movement theory helps to reveal how migrants become embedded within repertoires of collective action, drawing strength from migrant networks and transnational political strategies. The collective behavior of irregular migrants also serves the purpose of creating meanings and making sense of experiences— often leading to new interpretations of migration, bordering, citizenship, and irregularity.

Placing the lived and shared experiences of border crossers at the center of analysis is crucial for understanding the collective behavior, mobilization strategies, and the cultural diffusion of migration as a social movement. Irregular migration as a form of resistance involves more than resistance to the law; border crossing is also a powerful form of cultural resistance that challenges the ‘othering’ associated with the ‘migrant’ as a socially constructed identity. Here, we can see clear parallels between the contentious politics surrounding migrant rights and other movements of marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ struggles for rights around the world. In drawing these linkages, it becomes evident how continued global migration — even in the face of harsh deterrence measures ­­— operates to heighten public attention and create ongoing political pressure to change the structural conditions that produce borders and border crossers. By conceptualizing migration as a social movement for political and social change, we reveal the power of ordinary people to challenge bordering and redefine the meaning of belonging in a globalized world.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Jones, L. C. and Wonders, N. A. (2019) Migration as a Social Movement. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/05/migration-social (Accessed [date])

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