In February, hundreds more men, women, and children died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, now the world’s deadliest passage for migrants. More still are likely stranded somewhere on a rickety boat, caught between a country in which they can no longer live and another determined to keep them out.
What do the workers, asylum seekers, parents and children, the many ordinary men and women who leave their homes every day imagine when they depart for a new country? For many, migration spells promise—of wealth and opportunity, of shelter and refuge, of freedom and escape. But as we know, not everyone makes it out safely and not everyone is welcome upon arrival.
At the heart of any debate over immigration policy is a simple question: who belongs? And in deciding if someone belongs, what do they deserve? Immigration policies determine who is entitled and who is excluded from the benefits of nation-states; in doing so, they carve up communities into insiders and outsiders. For many immigrants, being on the inside or outside is not a choice. Their political and social alienation is shaped by laws they don’t control, written by people they can’t vote for or against. How should we engage with the conditions of people whose identity is determined by their exclusion from the very political system in which they seek to participate, from the very nations where they hope to build their new lives?
That migrant vessel embodies just what it means to be caught between borders. We hope the pieces in this section further our understanding not only of migration but also of the power of borders—real and imagined—and what they look like from the perspective of those they seek to exclude. In doing so, these pieces expose the instability of national boundaries and cultural identity as much as they assess the often brutal ways in which political and economic forces shape the transnational movement of people.
In “American Orientalism” Vivek Bald draws on both immigration policy and popular culture to simultaneously explore the “denigration and celebration” of South Asians in the United States. He asks why some South Asians have been lauded as exotic and as “model minorities,” while others—often working-class and/or Muslim—have been excluded. In challenging the “terms of acceptability,” Bald calls attention to the politics that dictates the reception not only of this community, but of others. The growing and linked anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment in the West today—exemplified by the far-right Pegida protests in Germany, a rise in anti-Muslim violence across the United States, debates about “Muslim integration” in France following the Charlie Hebdo attacks—raise questions about which communities are considered “worthy” of citizenship, and who decides.
From different angles, E. Tammy Kim’s “Organizing the Unorganizable” and Anjali Kamat’s “The Men in the Middle” explore the conditions of workers in the United Arab Emirates and the United States—nations with some of the largest migrant populations in the world. Kamat analyzes the ruthless process of recruitment of South Asian laborers to work in the Persian Gulf and on U.S. army bases in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. In the United States, Kim explores how worker centers—the grassroots advocacy groups that have sprung up in non-unionized sectors of the economy—have succeeded, to a degree, in “organizing the unorganizable.”
What does success mean, however, for immigrant activists battling conservative forces in Washington, D.C. and around the nation? In “Obama’s Executive Justice” Mae Ngai and Daniel Kanstroom look at the administration’s latest attempt to bring deportation relief to some 5 million undocumented immigrants, largely parents of documented immigrants and U.S.-born children. They argue that Obama’s action is neither illegal nor unprecedented and might lead to a comprehensive immigration bill that would lift the onus of illegality from millions of working people. Of course, right-wing judges and Republican politicians are doing all they can to block it.
But then, movements are made neither in the White House nor in Congress. In a candid interview, two veteran activists describe how the battle for immigrant rights has changed over the past forty years. Alfredo Gutierrez and Marisa Franco discuss the contrast between inside-the-Beltway dealing and day-to-day organizing by grassroots activists in communities of the undocumented. While these migrants have the most to gain or lose from reform, their voices seldom penetrate the legislative chambers of Washington. While liberal think tanks clash with border hawks, what are the implications for activists who spend more time coordinating hunger strikes at detention centers than lobbying their local congressperson?
Gaiutra Bahadur’s portrait of a forgotten migration—that of indentured laborers from colonial India to imperial sugar plantations across the Caribbean in the nineteenth century—not only recovers an erased history, but does so by invoking the perspectives of women, who lay on its very margins. In “Postcards from Empire” Bahadur examines colonial photographs of “coolie” women and asks what imperial power looked like to these female subjects. In doing so, she simultaneously excavates a lost immigrant experience and challenges the politics of how it’s remembered.
Finally, in a vivid photo-essay, Michelle Chen examines how the pseudo-science of eugenics offered a salve to the social anxieties caused by the mass influx of immigrants into the United States in the early twentieth century. While eugenics has long been discredited, echoes of its concepts can still be heard in the rhetoric infusing today’s immigration laws and policies, which continue to position migrants as simultaneously threatening and as less than human.
We tend to think of immigration as a process bookended by departure from home and arrival somewhere else. But immigration doesn’t end with resettlement or the granting of a green card—it is an ongoing process of negotiating one’s personal and political relationship to new territory. And this greater story of migration is best understood through the experiences, choices, and perspectives of migrants themselves.
So as we plot these migrant paths in boats and steamships, over wired fences and across new lands, from choosing to leave to defending the right to remain, let us also consider—as we move through the world, how might we change it?
Kaavya Asoka is an associate editor at Dissent. Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at Dissent and co-host of its Belabored podcast.