Migration and International Dialogue TIG

By James Phillips

The Topical Interest Group on Migration (Migration and International Dialogue) of the Society for Applied Anthropology is concerned with the politicization of migrants, immigrants, and refugees, and the institutions that deal with migration. Politicization is a serious concern not only for applied anthropologists who engage in migration issues and situations, but also for the larger field of applied anthropology.

Politicization involves turning the migrant, the immigrant, the asylum seeker into a resource, an object, or a commodity to be used for political gain rather than a subject, a self-acting agent. Politicization ignores, trivializes, or uses the migrant’s own agenda to objectify the migrant and the act of migration for a political purpose. Politicization imposes definitions and identities on migrants, and may impute fictitious or distorted motives, characteristics, and powers to migrants.

Governments, NGOs, international organizations, social institutions, and even migrants themselves can engage in politicization. When migrants engage in politicization, it is often in response to the actions of governments or institutions that define migrants in certain ways. 

Politicization manipulates migrant identities and the age-old dualities of seeing the immigrant as either a victim or a threat, and immigration as either a matter of human rights and humanitarian concern or as a matter of geopolitical gain or loss.

Politicization is not a new phenomenon, but its character has changed somewhat in recent decades to the present. Although humans have always migrated, the rise of empires as sociopolitical entities and models of human organization has been, especially in modern times, a major source of migrations, voluntary and forced, and of the politicization of migration. Central to this process has been the othering of the migrant, achieved through regimes of racial differentiation, ethnic identity, class distinctions, health status, religion, gender, or the use of legal constructions such as citizenship. An array of both legitimate and fictional concerns have been employed to sort those considered worthy from those seen as unworthy. In particular, the criminalization of migrants (as lawbreakers) is a widespread tactic that often begins in the migrants homeland and continues through every successive step of the migrant’s journey.

The history of settler societies such as the United States has long harbored an array of fears, concerns, and prejudices that have fueled popular attitudes toward newly arriving immigrant groups, while also acknowledging the ideal of providing a hope or a refuge for those in danger or need—a contradictory set of attitudes and beliefs that has created a highly polarized context for modern immigration. The rise of the United States as an imperial power has also created conditions that have actually provoked periodic waves of emigration from various countries, especially in Latin America. European empires created similar situations in Africa, South and East Asia, and parts of the Caribbean. 

In recent decades, the world has seen a “colonization in reverse,” in which people from former colonies emigrate to the centers of empire seeking relief from oppressive conditions at home (underdevelopment, dependency, repression). Today, immigration policy in the United States and other countries is shaped by the investment needs of the corporate world and the labor market, by a foreign policy that rewards allies and punishes or embarrasses adversaries, and by national and personal political aspirations and needs. It is not shaped to any significant degree by strictly humanitarian concerns that would highlight the humanity of migrants and disregard or downplay other considerations. This gives rise to political policies that deeply affect immigration and asylum regimes. 

Labels such as “illegal” are broadly applied to rationalize what are often political purposes, with disregard for the legal status or humanity that inheres in those seeking asylum. Countries whose governments are implicated in corruption and serious violations of human rights are certified to receive foreign aid because they are deemed important political allies, even as emigration from these countries grows because of inhuman conditions. Conversely, economic sanctions regimes are applied to countries that are deemed adversaries, resulting in weakening economic conditions and massive emigration. These and other policies result in a “crisis at the border,” that becomes material for those seeking political power to wield as a weapon of fear and urgency, promising to solve this crisis by any means, including militarizing borders and ignoring or changing immigration laws and policies.

Reducing or eliminating the politicization of immigration is a complex and difficult task, but is much needed on humanitarian, legal, and ethical grounds. It is exactly the kind of task for which anthropology is suited. Since applied anthropologists who engage directly with immigrants or work in other parts of the immigration and asylum system must function within this context, they must also begin to engage openly and critically with the damaging problem of extreme politicization. How does a widespread and apparently intensifying context of politicization affect the daily work of applied anthropologists who research and/or engage with immigrant populations? What can applied anthropologists do together to mitigate or change such politicization? How can we begin to discuss, confer, and work together to confront this inhumane situation, both locally and systemically?

We share this as both a public critique and warning of the situation and an invitation to applied anthropologists and others to join together in condemning the ways in which the politicization of migration damages and creates misery, and in working to change this as we can.

©Society for Applied Anthropology 

P.O. Box 2436 • Oklahoma City, OK 73101 • 405.843.5113 • info@appliedanthro.org