Migration and Institutional Innovation at the Edge of the State

The movement of people in and out of national spaces should challenge societies to think continually about how these spaces are organized. I want to propose two ideas that offer alternatives to the way polities are organized across the globe. One idea is to establish an international regime for multiple citizenship. Another is to allow migrants to pass through national borders anonymously.

Protester, "Immigrant Rights Are Civil Rights"

"There is opportunity for stronger support for a far more just and humanly secure multi-scalar approach to presence," writes Latham. Credit: Creative Commons/Toban Black.

We might start by pointing out that people understand and relate to their state and society through a diversity of geographical scales, from local to global. Some, in this multi-scalar context, are anchored mostly in the local and provincial. I write “mostly” because they very likely have relatives who move about even across national borders and they certainly rely of foreign goods and the capital and labor that produce them. Other people have direct translocal links to places like France, the Caribbean, or South Asia. They remain connected, and thought of as part of a diaspora, for various reasons, including work, business, and education.

If even seemingly sedentary individuals can have various types of ties and relations beyond their borders, and those ties can be viewed as a good, then does that mean they should facilitate multiple forms of presence in and connection to their country? Certainly multiple forms are already enabled, from tourist to citizen. However, exclusive, single nation citizenship remains the frame against which all other forms of status are understood as exceptions, including dual or multiple citizenship. In this context many of these other forms have profound insecurities associated with them, as experienced by, for example, foreign students, temporary workers, and refugee claimants. The implication, therefore, is that there is opportunity for stronger support for a far more just and humanly secure multi-scalar approach to presence.

Multiple Citizenship

A first step toward this more just and secure approach would be to move away from the single-nation citizenship model toward a multiple-citizenship model, where multiple citizenship becomes the primary frame against which all other forms of status are understood. A multiple citizen should have citizenship in one or more territorial states and secure status in any state she or he resides. While this view of citizenship may be jarring to our ears, which are so accustomed to the hard, exclusive citizenship associated with nation-states, it should not be overlooked that more fluid, overlapping forms of membership existed in empires both ancient (Roman) and modern (British). Now that human rights-based, non-imperial trans-territorial forms of belonging and membership are possible (with contemporary developments in global norms, rights, institutions, communications, and travel), why should these forms be labeled as unfeasible by states and publics protective of their exclusive forms of belonging?

On what basis would I ask that multiple citizenship be established as the primary frame for citizenship when most people have single citizenship (and many of this majority are troubled by alternative framings)? The easiest answers are probably the least compelling: that stronger support for multiple citizenship can enrich us all by making multi-scalar lives easier; and single citizenship can be viewed as but one type of status among many, even if it is predominant on a national basis. Beyond these two answers are other notable reasons. One is that single citizens, or their children and families, are potential multiple citizens. So, creating an environment where multiple citizenship is taken to be the norm strengthens the possibility of that option for those with single citizenship. Another reason is that a commitment to multiple citizenship can expand the meaning of any national civic identity where there has been an historic identification as a country advancing multiculturalism and accepting high levels of immigration (such as the U.S.).

Border wall decoration

Mounted on the U.S.-Mexico border wall, this sculpture by Alberto Morackis and Guadalupe Serrano depicts people moving across the border and what they bring with them. Credit: Creative Commons/Steev Hise.

Finally, probably the most important reason is that normalizing multiple citizenship potentially can open the way to a more secure status for those individuals mentioned above with precarious status. That is, since everyone, regardless of their status, can be thought of as multiple citizens—given that they already have citizenship from somewhere and are potential citizens of the place they are present in or might go to—then it suggests that secure status should be extended to fellow multiple citizens, even if they are currently present with precarious status (and even if they do not take up citizenship in the place they migrated to). We all share status as multiple citizens even if granted by different governments. This extension of secure status can take various forms, from an amnesty to the redefinition of forms of secure status short of permanent residence or full citizenship. The ultimate possibility of receiving citizenship can be seen as final step flowing from the multiple-citizenship framework.

Ultimately, the establishment of norms of multiple citizenship requires international protections and commitments to multiple citizenship worldwide. That is, to make multiple citizenship work in the way described above, an international regime for multiple-citizenship needs to emerge. Such a regime could establish the parameters for one state extending citizenship to the citizens of another state, articulate protections and rights for citizens of one country who are present and residing in another country without citizenship or permanent residence in that country, and strengthen the channels and rights for interstate protection of citizens who are detained in other countries—even if they are citizens of the country detaining them—beyond those derived from the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

An international regime for multiple citizenship could help place understandings and developments of citizenship within the context of the multi-scalar connections between societies and peoples and thereby potentially take it out of the frame of exclusive, state formation. It could also help contend with notions of exclusive loyalties by institutionalizing the possibility of multi-allegiances.

Toward a Mediated Passage

"This is Planet Earth" by Favianna Rodriguez

"This is Planet Earth" by Favianna Rodriguez. "This image is about people working together...caring for our Mother Earth," says the artist.

While we already have some precedent in international instruments (such as the 1997 European Convention on Citizenship), I am not suggesting that the construction of this regime will be easy. In fact, it will take considerable leadership, and this is an ideal opportunity for states like the U.S. or Canada. Difficult issues include how to contend with competing claims by individuals and governments across jurisdictions, prevent states from using the regime as a basis for establishing even greater control over borders and human movement, and determine the effects the regime should have on the openness of borders.

The last two issues I find especially troubling in that modern history from the French Revolution onward is full of noble aims leading to repressive outcomes. So the construction of such a regime should be accompanied by ways to protect openness and rights to movement. I suggest civil society organizations could provide to migrants what I term mediated passage, establishing the bone fide movement of migrants across the border in ways that protect against the state’s unmediated relationship to migrants. Civil society organizations would verify and vouch for the legal identity of the migrant and negotiate with the state as to what the minimum criteria are for admission. This might include things such as the absence of a history of commitments to violent action. The state must remain blind to this process; all there is to know is that the migrant is vouched for by a trusted organization. Civil society organizations would establish their meaningful reputation with migrants and states based on the extent to which they successfully mediate passage.

On the other side of this intersection, the migrant should control how much information is given out about him or her. Only a minimum of information might be needed if she or he is only visiting or travelling through a territory. Alternatively, a far more extensive range of information would be passed along via mediation if she or he plans to remain and build a life in a place and needs to access a range of services, from health care to education.

At the least mediated passage could potentially expand the range of possible ways of being at the border (e.g., anonymous versus identified) beyond the basic distinctions offered by the powerful state that monopolizes passage. We already have aspects of this mediation in the legal defense of and advocacy for migrants around refugee claims or migration status. But in law the terms of mediation are established by the state and highly circumscribed. Relatedly, some civil society organizations already have mediational power outside and inside of the border. They provide legal aid and information, facilitate enrollment in private and public programs and services, and in general advocate on behalf of migrant rights.

In many instances the state is willing not just to tolerate civil society organizations providing aid and advocacy but also to work through and with organizations in so-called partnerships to provide services. There are very important issues at stake here about whether this sort of contract work is undermining public sector commitments. However, the logic of collaboration and dependence on government that guides these state-civil society relations is very different from the establishment of autonomous mediatory power for civil society organizations that I am suggesting and is called for in mediated passage. That is, civil society organizations are dependent on the state for defining and setting limits on their activities. In order to make mediated passage work, civil society organizations need to be autonomous from the state and, of course, corporations. They require independent legal status. Very importantly, migrants need to be able to control their relationship with organizations by being able to chose which organization will mediate their passage and on what terms (how much and when information is represented to whom in states or elsewhere).

Enacting mediated passage opens up the possibility of changes in specific practices and relations around the border. These include altering the nature of the artifacts of mobility such as passports and visas to reflect the democratization of mobility entailed by mediated passage; or reframing the notions of security and policing at the border away from militarization in order to reflect something closer to community policing, where the agency of individuals and their needs and life contexts are given priority.

Man looks over the border wall

In this painting, “Families Apart” by Chris Faltis, three figures lean on a border wall, longing to rejoin their families on the other side.

The logic of mediated passage resembles models associated with what is called user-centric digital identity that have been advanced by web-activist organizations like Identity Commons (idcommons.org). User-centric digital identity refers to the attempt to establish nonprofit organizations that can be chosen by individuals to house and organize their digital identity in forms and to degrees fully up to the discretion of the individual. In other words, individuals take control of their digital presence on the web and in databases, using civil society organizations as trusted mediators to achieve this. Individuals choose what information is made available to whom, when, and in what form. The stakes in this are not just the protection of privacy but the facilitation of meaningful mobility and agency across the web, and ultimately more robust forms of democratic collaboration. So far, however, it is corporations like Facebook and Google that are trying to take control of digital identity management which has been profoundly limited and impoverished. Recent revelations about NSA spying underscore how high the stakes are in this area.

Recent critiques of civil society organizations raise the question of how mediated passage might contend with the production of forms of power by civil society organizations that are abusive, constraining, and sympathetic to neoliberal agendas of states and capital—or even dedicated to preventing migration, harming migrants, or pushing the state toward greater restriction. Even if mediated passage might open up to migrants options and the possibilities of mobilizations not otherwise available, the question remains whether civil society organizations would reproduce the injustices states famously produce at the border. Would mediated passage displace security to the realm of civil society? If the logic of the threatening alien remains pervasive across states and societies, does this mean it is likely that civil society organizations will just reproduce the operative logics of fear? Is there something in mediated passage that overcomes these logics?

In my view these questions can begin to be addressed by considering the more far-reaching change associated with mediated passage mentioned above: altering the status of civil society organizations so that they obtain autonomous mediatory power. Achieving this sort of autonomy will require more than forms of authority stemming from executive orders or legislation since these imply continued dependence on states (and thus corporations).

I believe it will ultimately require amending the Constitution to grant autonomy and fiscal power to civil society so that these organizations in effect become public. As such, they would potentially be moved from under the shadow of state and corporate agendas and subjected to scrutiny by civilians and public interest groups (rather than only boards of directors). In this case civil society organizations would reshape and become a meaningful part of the public sector and sphere (as it now stands despite the rhetoric in liberal democracy extoling civil society organizations the latter are weakly and conditionally constituted).

If a society is apathetic about security issues or even embraces hyper-security measures, this new autonomous sector at least stands as a potential—public—alternative force to challenge policies that deepen surveillance and restriction and engage (joining with independent media) the wider society in a debate about the stakes for justice, rights, and freedoms of such policies. That is because the new public sector would in part be constituted to represent newcomers, the mobile, and multiple citizens whatever their class and background.

Rather than treat such questions—and those raised about multiple-citizenship—as roadblocks against innovation, they ought to spur us—the way migrants do—to avoid taking for granted how our political world is currently organized.

(This web-only article is part of a special series on immigration associated with Tikkun’s Summer 2013 print issue, Away With All Borders: Embracing Immigration and Ending Deportation. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/immigration to read the other articles published so far in this series—we will continue to update that page as new articles come out.)


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