Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Book Review: Governing Irregular Migration: Bordering Culture, Labour and Security in Spain



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Laura Cleton, PhD candidate at the University of Antwerp. Her project deals with the politics of migration control in the Netherlands and Belgium and focusses on the (discursive) encounters of street-level bureaucrats and irregularized migrants in forced return procedures. She is on Twitter @LauraCleton.

Review of Governing Irregular Migration: Bordering Culture, Labour and Security in Spain by David Moffette (UBC Press 2018)

In recent years, political and scholarly attention has shifted to mobility in the Mediterranean region, to what has been called ‘the world’s deadliest border’. As the UN stated in a 2017 report, the European Union has made migrants’ journeys across the Mediterranean more dangerous and thereby increased the likelihood of dying at sea. A controversial deal with Turkey, which ensured the relocation of irregular migrants ineligible for asylum from the Greek islands to Turkey and alleged support for naval blockages by Libya’s coastguards contributed to these humanitarian tragedies. In Governing Irregular Migration: Bordering Culture, Labour and Security in Spain, David Moffette sets out to understand these developments at Europe’s outer borders by focussing on migration governance in Spain. By combining ethnography, archival research, interviews and an analysis of over 30 years of Spanish policy documents, laws and parliamentary debates, he asks how we can account for the prevalence of restrictive strategies for governing irregular migration, given the seemingly contradictory European political ideology of promoting peace, freedom and prosperity.

Moffette’s conceptual approach to the study of Spanish migration governance draws on the literature on governmentality studies and critical policy analysis. These studies, influenced by the work of Michel Foucault, Nikolas Rose and Carol Bacchi, aim to unravel ‘the art of government’, by focussing on the ways in which governing is not a project limited to the state, but entails a wide range of actors and techniques of control. In the book, Moffette examines how the governing of irregular migrants in Spain came to be, what control techniques are deployed and which actors are involved. His inspiring conceptual approach does not focus on explaining how irregular migration is dealt with in Spanish policy per se, but traces how irregular migration was constructed as a policy problem in need of a solution (p. 8). He sets out to reconstruct the ‘problem of irregular migration’ and clarify which programmes, strategies and tactics were posed as a solution. Moffette highlights how these practices provide specific ways of thinking about irregular migration, which contribute to its very problematization and consequently legitimize restrictive policy actions. As such, a three-tiered methodological approach has been applied in the book. First, Moffette pays attention to the historical shifts in the Spanish immigration agenda (‘policy historiography’), followed by an analysis of the discursive continuities and changes in the framing of irregular migration (‘archaeology of policy rationalities’). Finally, the author focuses on power dynamics, negotiations and policy conclusions among the various actors involved in migration governance (‘genealogy of the policy process’) (p. 11). After introducing this conceptual and methodological approach in chapter 1, chapter 2 begins with the policy historiography. In it, the author argues that if researchers want to unravel how migration governance has shifted over time, we should pay particular attention to the practices of street-level bureaucrats, policy makers and parliamentary representatives. This leads to a better understanding of governing processes than solely examining major milestones in law and order. Moffette embarks on such an inquiry himself by highlighting how irregular migration became a policy problem through studying parliamentary debates from the early 1980’s onwards. He consequently introduces three sets of logics and practices that underlie this problematization, namely culturalization, labouralization and securitization.

Throughout the book, Moffette analytically uses these three well-known, complementary sets of logics and practices in the scholarship on governmentality, borders, immigration, security and race. In chapter 3, culturalization is the central object of analysis, which signals the governing of irregular migrants as cultural subjects through the history of Spanish colonialism. He explains how programmes of regularization for irregular migrants, the process of granting them official residence permits, is rooted in colonialism, the ideal of the ‘Hispanic community’ and fear towards ‘Moors’: Islamic inhabitants of the Spanish peninsula. The chapter also points to the relative neglect of race as a system of meaning in migration governance. This section could have benefited from a more in-depth discussion on the relevance of gender, age and class in problematizing cultural integration (see a special issue in International Migration on the importance of class in international migration policy). The subsequent two chapters focus on labouralization (the attempts to steer labour flows and frame irregular migrants as workers) and securitization (practices aimed at deterring irregular migrants and framing them as threats to national sovereignty) of Spanish immigration policy. Moffette nicely juxtaposes the seeming inclusiveness of labouralization logics with the excluding securitization of migration by highlighting their coexistence in Spanish policy. 

The most fascinating parts of the book are chapters six and seven, where Moffette highlights how the three-abovementioned sets of logics and practices work together in the everyday governance of irregular migrants living in Spain. He summarizes how ‘facilitating entry, policing the streets, regularizing “deserving immigrants”, and deporting “undesirable foreigners” can be considered complementary dimensions of a diffuse and flexible regime for governing migration’ (p. 130), which he calls ‘multiscalar governance’. The specific type of migration management within this form of governance rests upon a long probationary period, during which, according to Moffette, migrants’ desirability can be assessed and regulated using various criteria described throughout the book, such as Spanish language skills, having work contracts or family ties with Spanish nationals. Interestingly, the period of probation, much like De Genova’s ‘apprenticeship in illegality’, functions just like any internship; it serves as a moment of examination where the desirability of migrants is a means to select hard-working, law-abiding for regularization, while others are left in irregular status. Throughout the book, Moffette describes how this assessment of desirability is based upon discretion and is intrinsically intertwined with the logics of culturalization, labouralization and securitization. It is exactly this ‘liminal space and time where irregular migrants in Spain are governed simultaneously through the threat of deportation and the promise of regularization and inclusion’ (p. 164).

Moffette’s final chapter sets out a promising research agenda by pointing to the need for research on ‘governing through probation’. The chapter discusses the rightful importance of temporality in migration governance and considers the ‘slowing down of time’ as an intentional technology of government which needs further research. Scholars working on the connections between precariousness, conditionality, the continuous assessment of desirability and disposability of migrant labour will find Governing Irregular Migration: Bordering Culture, Labour and Security in Spain an inspiring, insightful and practical guide with a broad agenda for further research. Researchers and (advanced) students of governmentality studies from various disciplinary angles will also enjoy reading this volume. Moffette’s book makes an important contribution to socio-legal analyses of migration governance, both by highlighting the Spanish case study and the wider applicability of ‘governing through probation’ in European debates on irregular migration.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Cleton, L. (2019) Book Review: Governing Irregular Migration: Bordering Culture, Labour and Security in Spain. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/06/book-review-0 (Accessed [date])

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