Caught in the in-between: Why the legal definition of “refugee” is limiting and why we may not want to change it

The legal definition of a refugee as established by the 1951 Refugee Convention (pictured above) in the aftermath of World War II determines who receives humanitarian assistance from international organizations. Although it was intended for the legal definition to expand over time, multilaterals have been operating under the same working definition for nearly 70 years. Migrants who may not be facing personal persecution from their home governments but that may be facing other serious human rights deprivations – “survival migrants” – are not recognized under the current definition of refugees, leaving them bereft of international assistance from organizations like UNHCR, the multilateral organization guarding countries’ compliance with the legal document. The following explains why expanding the legal definition may not be helpful, and presents potential alternative approaches to making aid more inclusive.

Political incentives and motivations behind why governments and international organizations respond to incoming populations should say a lot about why they react the way they do. From this information we can vilify agencies for their disengagement in certain crises or we can use this information to better understand the key issues facing humanitarian and development agencies in mobilizing resources for migrant populations. For instance, it may be important to note the incredible coordination, effort, and resources necessary to maintain a refugee camp, which is most explicitly expressed and understood from the documentary, After Spring. The documentary follows aid workers fighting to keep the Zaatari refugee camp, the largest refugee camp for Syrian refugees, running. There is only one social worker tending to the needs of thousands of families, and families remain on endless waitlists for essential health-related services. Also, due to the high cost of semi-permanent shelters, many families still reside in tents (Ching and Martinez, 2016). Taking into consideration the operational costs of maintaining camps may explain why changing the legal definition of a refugee may be challenging practically and even why it may not be helpful.

Changing the legal definition of a refugee may also not be helpful because being considered a refugee may not always be in the best interest of some migrants, especially for those who want to maintain the right to return, as expressed in the article, When “Humanitarian” Becomes “Development”: The Politics of International Aid in Syria’s Palestinian Refugee Camps. For example, a mural painted on the side of a house in Ein el Tal, a Palestinian refugee camp in Northern Syria, depicts controversies over UNRWA’s recent attempt to emphasize “development” in Palestinian refugee camps (Gabiam, 2012, p. 96). While “refugee” status should not be taken away from these Palestinians while they remain displaced, it is important to understand the perceived permanence of that status, and how that can be conflated by “development” (i.e. more permanent structures) in humanitarian situations. While refugees may be protected by humanitarian organizations, perceptions regarding their rights and personal freedoms under this status have left them feeling as though their rights are restricted.

The problem is not the definition of a refugee, but that the legal protections migrants receive hinges on the definition of a refugee. It is troubling that international organizations and nation states so readily utilize and rely upon the definition of a refugee as established by the 1951 Refugee Convention when our understanding of why the rest of the world (everyone else) migrates is still so limited, and yet too confounded by outdated and unrealistic neoclassical economic theories of why people migrate that cannot explain the intricacies and nuances behind these heavily personal decisions. If multilateral institutions suddenly decided to get together and update the current definition and legal parameters of the term “refugee” to meet the present needs of migrants, then either political red-tape and bureaucracy needs to improve at the international level to better respond to demands, or we need to dismantle the current framings of migration altogether. The troubling common denominator between both of these alternatives is that neither are highly likely. There is little to no political will to create a new working definition by international agencies (and perhaps for good reason) as evidenced by the fact that agencies have been working with the same definition for nearly 70 years.

Some countries have adopted additional national policies that expand upon the international definition and legal framework, such as the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention in Africa, which expanded the definition of the term “refugee” and introduced non-refoulement. Although well intended, these policies are selectively enforced and rarely invoked into practice, as examined in the book, Survival Migration. The book studies applications of non-refoulement in Kenya, Tanzania, and Angola; however, the most successful case of applying non-refoulement policy was in South Africa, though it had many shortcomings. Many Zimbabweans who fled existential threats received protection as refugees via asylum permits through South Africa’s asylum legislation. By March 2011, however, South Africa imposed stringent transit permits and restricted material support for Zimbabwean migrants. Therefore, even in a successful case, the implementation of non-refoulement policy is short-lived (Betts, 2013).

The current framework of migration needs to be dismantled, but in actionable steps. First we must identify which alternative frameworks of understanding will disrupt dominant discourses and work with those. Perhaps the most expedient and effective way to care about migration now would be through energy strategies, and through changing political discourse around both climate change and migration, particularly their interrelationship. Changing political discourse to create more space for policies that are more institutionally responsive to migration and climate change issues would be extremely challenging. So instead of targeting every politician and every head of state, it may be more important and helpful to understand whether the numbers of those who can be swayed are large enough to change policy (University of Limerick, Ireland, 2016). This shift in political discourse and policy priorities should capture migrants, such as survival migrants, who, on a spectrum between refugees and economic migrants, fall somewhere in between. noun_766494-1



Betts, A. (2013, July 12). Survival Migration: Failed Governance and the Crisis of Displacement. Cornell University Press.

Ching, S. (Producer and Co-Director) & Martinez, E. (Producer and Co-Director). (2016). After Spring [Documentary]. United States: After Spring LLC.

Gabiam, N. (2012). When “Humanitarian” becomes “Development”: The politics of international aid in Syria’s Palestinian Refugee Camps. American Anthropologist, 114(1), 95-107. Retrieved from Link

University of Limerick, Ireland. (2016, April 16). “Public and political discourses of migration international perspectives.” AHHS News. Retrieved on April 26, 2017, from Link

Photo Credit: UNHCR, The 1951 Refugee Convention (n.d.) (also great for further reading about the Convention)


The half-arrival trap: inter-generational impacts government policies have on immigrant integration and assimilation

The opportunities and challenges of integration and assimilation look very different for children of immigrants as it does for their immigrant families. The contemporary experiences of migrants in the process of integration and assimilation are redolent to those of migrants in the past; immigrants today face opportunities and challenges like those that were faced by migrants in the 20th century. The documentary Immigrant Memories: North African Inheritance (Benguigui, 1997) speaks to the experiences of migrants and their families who migrated to France during the country’s reconstruction period from the 1960s to 1970s. The book Arrival City: How the largest migration in history is reshaping our world (Saunders, 2011) explains the opportunities for integration and assimilation presented to educated children of migrants today. Each of these references explains why there is such a disparity of experiences between children of immigrants and their immigrant families, which has more to do with government institutions and programs than migrants themselves.

Around the world, arrival cities are often informal slums or monoethnic minority communities located on the outer fridges of major cities. In the book, Arrival City: How the largest migration in history is reshaping our world, Doug Saunders (2011) describes arrival cities as places where newcomers try to establish new lives by integrating themselves socially and economically into the fabric of the communities in which they move. But for undocumented migrants, the dream to save and invest, and improve one’s economic status by moving out of arrival cities and into cities with greater opportunities for employment in industries that will propel them into the middle class may take years, and even generations. Saunders argues that migrants need not move to seek such opportunities: with proper investment in social services arrival cities can generate a prosperous middle class. However, due to gaps in social service provisions, arrival cities remain a trap for many migrants, especially for immigrant parents and those who are undocumented.

Take for instance the case of Los Angeles, which is a successful arrival city in its own right. Saunders considers Los Angeles the “Great American Arrival City” (Saunders, 2011, p. 76) because migrants living and working in the city send remittances back home at a much larger scale than most any other place in the world. He also examines why demographers consider Los Angeles a “gateway city”: when children of immigrants receive an education in America they move to other neighborhoods, fulfilling the cyclical process of successful arrival cities, which is a continuous process of “arrival, upward mobility, and exodus” (Saunders, 2011, p. 82). Exodus, Saunders explains, serves as an upward social and economic indicator for residents (immigrants and children of migrants), yet is a downward trend for the arrival city (community). In other words, if more children of migrants leave the arrival city than new migrants enter, disequilibrium occurs between the influx of disadvantaged newcomers and the exodus of educated, upwardly mobile residents. Therefore, at continual disequilibrium, this process degenerates the arrival city’s economic status over time.

Exodus of the educated, upwardly mobile children of immigrants is not the issue. Children have every right to seek better opportunities of employment elsewhere, which is especially important for children of migrants trying to break into the middle class and help support their families. Should their immigrant parents not be afforded the same opportunities in their communities as well? Immigrants deserve to escape the plight of half-arrival and attain better integration and socioeconomic equality as well. This means cities such as Los Angeles should provide them with the proper tools and services necessary to escape half-arrival. Often, however, this isn’t the case. Saunders (2011) explains that too often the wrong investments are made in arrival cities:

Rather than getting the tools of ownership, education, security, business creation, and connections to the wider economy, [arrival cities] are too often treated as destitute places that need non-solutions, such as social-workers, public-housing blocks, and urban-planned redevelopments (p. 83).

Disinvestment, or the investment in the wrong types of services necessary for immigrants to thrive is a failure of arrival cities like Los Angeles. This phenomenon leaves the hopes and dreams immigrant parents have of integration, complete-arrival, and breaking into the middle class in the hands of their children, or their children’s children, depending on access to services available. Of course, parents should be able to pass their dreams and legacies onto their children, but it is unfair when improper investments or disinvestments by the government prevent the dream from remaining within their grasp.

The phenomenon of half-arrival that many immigrant families experience in arrival cities today seems to echo the experience of migrants and their families who migrated to France in the 1960s and 1970s, specifically during reconstruction after WWII. The documentary Immigrant memories: North African Inheritance explains that at this time, the French government implemented economic immigration policies in anticipation that migrants brought over to work in manufacturing plants would either eventually integrate or return to their home countries. What ended up happening was that these economic migrants – who were mostly men – remained in the French workforce for years and without access to adequate housing, family reunification, or livable wages. Absent adequate economic policies and provision of social services, migrants could never build a good life, so they remained isolated and impoverished in France. One migrant factory worker from Morocco expressed on camera that he sent remittances back home to his family in hopes that his children would one day succeed: he sacrificed everything, even abandoned his family and culture back home to work in France (Benguigui, 1997).

When the French government switched from economic immigration to systematic immigration, wives and children were finally able to rejoin their husbands and fathers in France. However, family reunification was uncoordinated, and living conditions were horrible: the French government poorly provisioned social housing for migrant families and children were bereft of an education in France because schools were too far away from their residences. Nonetheless, children were growing up in France, and ascribing to French culture. One Algerian woman reported that children of Algerian immigrants growing up in France could not speak Arabic, which was their family’s native language. This meant that they could not communicate with family members back home. Despite how well children fully assimilated into French culture, they were still considered outcasts in France and were denied integration. This suggests that perhaps discursive spaces and symbols, rather than physical borders, separated them from their native counterparts. Additionally, due to uncoordinated policy efforts and poor planning by the French government, Algerian immigrant families and immigrant families of other nationalities remained abysmally trapped in half-arrival for generations (Benguigui, 1997).

Across political boundaries, continents, and time these two examples of failed processes of inter-generational immigrant integration and assimilation exemplify the saying, “Everything that is old is new again.” However, the symbiotic relationship between historical and present government immigration policies does not have to be one characterized by repeating mistakes. The story could be quite different. To change this narrative, however, policymakers would need to focus on developing policies and programs that help undocumented migrants fully integrate and assimilate into new communities. Absent policies for better integration and assimilation, many migrants – with the wildest dream of starting fresh in a new country – once they arrive, currently (as they have historically) must look to their children or their children’s children for hopes for a better life, not to the government institutions that are supposed to facilitate the transition between arrival and full integration and assimilation. The half-arrival trap that millions of immigrants face, especially economic migrants who were encouraged by national governments of receiving countries to come rebuild their economies and labor force only to reject and dehumanize them, is arguably one of the biggest, preventable immigration policy failures of any nation-state and local authority. noun_766494-1



Benguigui, Y. (1997). Immigrant Memories: North African Inheritance [Documentary]. Paris: Canal +

Saunders, D. (2011). Arrival city: How the largest migration in history is reshaping our world. Vintage.

Source image: FirstYear2017


Right to the City

In defense of public space (round 2)

This is so exciting! An updated version of the article published by the Wagner Planner, “In defense of public space,” has officially been published in NYU’s Wagner Review publication. They promoted it on twitter, tagging several authors mentioned in the article…THIS IS HUGE! I am so thrilled by Wagner students’ eagerness to promote the work of fellow students. I belong to a truly great community.

Read the article on the Wagner Review website, or read the text below.

As always, happy reading!


In 1968, the French Marxist philosopher, Henri Lefebvre, stated that the right to the city is “like a cry and a demand,” and Don Mitchell, author of The right to the city: Social justice and the fight for public space, in the aftermath of 9/11 exclaimed that the right to the city is a right born from struggle that must be heard now more than ever and put into practice. Today we turn once again to the right to the city, especially in terms of the right to occupy public space in peaceful protest. Our country finds itself in a political awakening, rallying around deportation, climate change denial, the abortion ban, Islamophobia, and various other social grievances. Public space is required to engage in political protest, although it is important to understand that the idea of public space and its role in urban life has never been guaranteed. Therefore, a new wave of urgency emerges for planners to join in the struggle to help preserve the right to public space for political protest and civic engagement.   

The idea of privacy drastically changed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. While the attacks reinvigorated a sense of nationalism and patriotism amongst the American people, the hastily adopted Patriot Act allowed the government to target American citizens through warrantless surveillance in hopes to intercept acts of terror organized from within the country’s borders. The NSA’s deliberate abuse of privacy was in direct violation of Fourth Amendment rights and remains controversial today not only for its unconstitutionality but for its ineffectiveness. Arguably the Patriot Act let the government exceed its authority over the American people, not effectively combat terrorism.

The idea and use of public space also changed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th. In his book, Mitchell wrote that public space in urban areas was seen as a threat by security experts after 9/11, and there was a massive push to convert public space to ‘defensible space.’ He referenced an article in the New York Times written by David Barstow, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist who interviewed nine security and terrorism experts immediately following 9/11. Due to the attacks, each expert had embraced a “bunker, bomb-camp mindset,” and was willing to make New York City safe at any cost. When asked what it would take to make New York City safe without resource constraints, the experts envisioned a “city transformed,” complete with antiaircraft missiles protecting the Statue of Liberty, converting Times Square into a pedestrian mall to foil truck bombs, installing shatter-resistant film over the windows of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, police regularly patrolling Grand Central with the aid of bomb-sniffing dogs, and beefing up security throughout the city, incorporating previously unpalatable tactics, such as increasing profiling and intrusive random searches and seizures. Mitchell further explained that the experts also unanimously agreed that it was now necessary to close off and secure “the steps to churches, cathedrals, and synagogues, [install] hundreds of surveillance cameras around important public spaces and along ‘vulnerable’ streets, [as well as install] more bomb proof windows, trash cans, and so forth.”

The sentiment to secure public space following the attacks on 9/11 was understandable, however, it further stifled with the publicness of public space, which had already been fortified in an effort to secure the city a generation earlier.According to Mitchell, the purpose of enhancing surveillance in New York City during the nineties was not to protect the city from terrorists, but to protect the public from ‘inappropriate users’ of public space, including the homeless, drug dealers, loitering youth, and, quite deliberately, political activists protesting outside of city hall, marching in the streets, or rallying in parks and squares. Therefore, in an effort to enhance security throughout the city in the nineties, officials also advertently thwarted the public’s means of dissent. Americans in the aftermath of 9/11 were warned to prepare for the elimination of certain civil liberties as well, much like how the right to free speech was undermined during social movements of the 1910s  and 1960s due to “spatial restrictions on where one [could] speak.”

The struggle over human rights and the right to occupy public space in the United States has been a relentless uphill battle for several decades. Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon, tweeted in July that voting is “the most powerful non-violent tool we have.” Yet leading to the 2016 Presidential election, Lewis reminded the American people in an interview with ATTN: of the sacrifices required to win the right to vote: “People struggled to participate in the democratic process. People were shot, murdered.” Lewis proceeded to explain that during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, a group of activists attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery urging for the right of African-Americans to be able to vote; however, the police ordered for the march to cease, and people were brutally beaten and trampled by horses. Nevertheless, the sacrifices of civil rights activists from what became known as Bloody Sunday were not in vain. Finally, by August 6, 1965, African Americans won the right to vote when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

History has proven time and time again that struggle over basic human rights is a necessary precondition to guaranteeing and preserving the rights of American citizens. Necessary, yet oftentimes overlooked, however, is the role of public space in the fight for human rights. Access to expressive topography, or public space as platforms for public dissent, can be just as inequitable as access to the human rights we struggle for. There are several cases in the U.S. in which the privatization of government property has infringed upon access to public space and has negatively affected First Amendment liberties. In Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space, Margaret Kohn examines how the public forum doctrine – a law that categorizes government-owned property by its level of openness to public assembly and expression – enabled the government to prohibit unwanted speech in airports in the case of Lee v. Krishna Consciousness in 1992. Airport terminals are not traditionally designed for public expression; therefore, in the case, the higher standards of constitutional scrutiny established to protect First Amendment rights were unnecessary. The results of the case insist that not all public spaces are equal: political activity is protected in traditional public forums, whereas political activity is unprotected in other government-owned places.

This January, in response to the Trump administration’s executive order preventing travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries from traveling to the U.S., some 80 countries around the world hosted protests lamenting the Muslim Ban. In Denver, Colorado, however, protesters were told by Denver Police Officers to put away their signs inscribing political messages because First Amendment rights were not protected without a permit. According to the airport’s rules and regulations, protest groups needed to apply for permits at least one week in advance. So although the ban was effective immediately, the public’s response was not afforded the same consideration. Their First Amendment rights were not accommodated. The demonstrations in and around airport terminals invoked incredible symbolic meaning as airports serve as the modern ports to the American Dream – for many they are also portals to safety and asylum – and they are precisely where supremely Syrian refugees and nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries were unlawfully turned away. Given the fervor amongst the American people to demonstrate their collective grievances provides all the more reason to protect their right to mobilize in public spaces, even in non-traditional ones. Like the Americans who struggled before us, we shouldn’t have to struggle for our rights, but we should be able to wherever our voices can be most effective and best heard.

Remaking cities in the likeness of openness and justice is more important now than ever as the new administration pushes for security and order. Considering the Administration’s proposed agenda for enhancements in defense spending and recent legislative proposals to limit protest rights, U.S. cities and public spaces are increasingly susceptible to being transfigured into defensible space – as had been done during the Civil Rights Movement and following the attacks on 9/11. As planners, we should do everything in our power to reorient public space to protect the ‘right to the city.’ Cities, as Anthony Vidler wrote in the New York Times, are the center of culture and public spaces define urban culture. From city streets to public parks and transportation, the purpose of public space should be re-prioritized for the present needs of the community, including civic engagement and protest. noun_766494-1

Community, Right to the City

Community, art, and placemaking: The incomplete transformation of The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery

“Give some of the streetscape back to the pedestrians”

– William H. Whyte


In the book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte (1980) foresees the increasing need for cities to seek opportunities for placemaking in small spaces. The Bushwick Collective is an outdoor street gallery that runs mainly along Troutman Street between Wyckoff and Cypress avenues in Bushwick, Brooklyn. If you’ve never been there, it is an extremely small space but it is an exemplary space. The area is fascinating because, despite its crime-ridden past, street art has livened up the old abandoned manufacturing buildings and has helped generate a booming street front, complete with cool bars and restaurants. Even the pizza chain, Artichoke Pizza, has entered the neighborhood on the corner of Wyckoff and Troutman, which is directly across the street from a giant Bushwick Collective mural of cartoon-like skulls reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. However, I would argue that the space is compromised by its appeal because of the Collective’s exclusivity regarding how they select street and graffiti artists, which impacts the types of audiences attracted to the space. I would also argue that the physical design of the space is in need of alteration considering the lack of adequate infrastructure, such as benches and trees, that would attract more members from the community. There are various ways to improve the area’s connection to the community and design.

Even though the area has reached great commercial success, the space is too disconnected from the community who live there. Physical distance from local residents is not the issue. Just a few blocks southeast of the Collective is a local nursing home, and just a few blocks east and west of the Collective are a couple of elementary schools. Although the physical distance between The Bushwick Collective and neighborhood residents is relatively small, the cultural divide is quite vast.

My main contention with the outdoor street gallery is that locals do not participate in co-creating the space. Only world renowned graffiti and street artists have the luxury of creating street art with The Bushwick Collective, if they are lucky. Space is limited and the Collective is very selective. I will say, it is important not to dismiss what The Bushwick Collective has achieved for street and graffiti art due to their expansive popularity. In many places graffiti art is still stigmatized and misunderstood as being associated with gang activity and vandalism, thus it is often widely discouraged and degraded to less than art. The work of The Bushwick Collective helps to reduce these stigmas. Furthermore, the Collective acquires permits for their art, and it is a safe place for artists to show off their talents. Despite all of the good The Bushwick Collective achieves for graffiti and street art and artists, the art has limited meaning to the community who have lived there for perhaps generations (before gentrification). While The Bushwick Collective focuses on garnering national and international talent to produce incredible works of graffiti art, it mainly attracts non-Bushwick natives. Visitors from around the world often go on walking tours to see the murals, and take selfies with the murals along the way. These tourists are often hipsters who also shop at the neighborhood’s overpriced vintage stores. But what about other members of the community? Where are they?

What you see is not always what you get. The overwhelming presence of hipsters at The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery and at the shops and restaurants popping up throughout the area (a token to the Collective’s spillover effects on local commercial businesses and housing prices) successfully masks what inspired Joe Ficalora to create the organization in the first place, which is actually deeply rooted in the neighborhood’s history and culture of violence and poverty. In fact, Ficalora had a rough childhood growing up in Bushwick. In the short documentary published by Tribeca Film called, “Born and Bred: The Bushwick Collective” (Hybenova, 2015), Ficalora talks about his story and why he got into street art:

My father got murdered. I was in eighth grade. He was murdered here in Bushwick, on Starr Street and Wyckoff. I asked some owners for permission to use their buildings for this idea, and they asked me, ‘For what?’ I said, ‘Well I gotta work here every day, I live here, I gotta drive this street every day. So when people come, they got something beautiful to look at.’

It takes a strong person to convert a space that evokes so much pain and suffering into a place that others can enjoy and appreciate; into a place that could fill others with hope and inspiration. What Joe Ficalora did with The Bushwick Collective was, for all intents and purposes, placemaking. But when I last went to The Bushwick Collective along Troutman Street between Wyckoff and Cypress avenues, the connection between the site’s current status and its legacy felt disjointed. Like with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, I was hoping the art would speak to me in some way; I was hoping it would tell a story with pictorial elegance of this place and the people who live here. It’s not that the art isn’t impressive, on the contrary, it is extraordinarily artistic and colorful. It may even have soul, but it does not contain the soul of this neighborhood.

It’s not that the art isn’t impressive, on the contrary, it is extraordinarily artistic and colorful. It may even have soul, but it does not contain the soul of this neighborhood.

Joe Ficalora’s vision for beautifying the Bushwick streetscape and placemaking is incomplete without enhanced community ownership. As noted earlier, street art along The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery is not co-created by the community. Other non-profit organizations with similar missions of beautifying decaying neighborhoods in outer New York City boroughs, such as 7 Train Murals in Queens, have done remarkably well at involving the local community in beautification projects. On their website, 7 Train Murals proudly proclaims in all capital letters, “ALL MURALS 100% PAINTED AND MAINTAINED BY VOLUNTEERS WHO LIVE AND WORK IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD!” (n.d., p. 1).  By contrasting the missions of these two nonprofits it is easy to see the difference in priorities between a community-based mural organization and an outdoor street gallery featuring artists from all over the world.

In the book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte (1980) explains that city streets serve as informal recreation areas. He hinges his analysis on observations he made of the street life on 101st Avenue in East Harlem. On 101st street, the street was the play area – not because children had no other place to play, but because they liked to play on the street (Whyte, 1980, p.10-12). In addition to serving as a play area, a city street is something of an “art area” for children to create and recreate the streetscape. In Bushwick, children often draw colorful figurines and hop scotch games onto sidewalks and streets during the summer. The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery is the perfect place to activate neighborhood children in the arts and harness their creative minds through the co-creation of murals along with professionals and other community members. To avoid mission creep, perhaps The Bushwick Collective could partner with the City, local schools, businesses, non-profits, and/or organizations to co-sponsor this type of artwork. However, the issue of children lacking exposure to art may already be near and dear to Ficalora’s heart because in the short film he mentions not having access to artistic pathways growing up (Hybenova, 2015). Perhaps he would be open to expanding his legacy and impacting the community in this profound way, too. Additionally, to further engage the surrounding community, The Bushwick Collective could partner with other organizations to participate and sponsor in neighborhood networking clean-up events, which is another creative idea developed by 7 Train Murals.

In addition to engaging children and the community in placemaking, expanding the publicness of The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery requires important structural elements, too. In my most recent visit to the space, I noticed there were very few benches to sit on, which were all fixed, shallow and very uncomfortable looking. Few trees lined the sidewalks to shade pedestrians from blazing hot summer days. According to Whyte (1980), the availability of sitting areas impacts the usage of the space. Therefore, more benches may attract the elderly, such as those living in the nearby nursing home, who may wish to admire the art but have nowhere to sit.

More benches may attract the elderly, such as those living in the nearby nursing home, who may wish to admire the art but have nowhere to sit.

A critical juncture to optimizing the publicness of the space would be to permanently close off The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery from cars altogether (particularly along Troutman Avenue, between Wyckoff Avenue and Saint Nicholas Avenue). Closing off the street to cars would make it safer for children to play in the street; it would allow the space to act more as a public plaza, opening up the street for outdoor seating, street vendors, and three dimensional artsy structures. However, a barista informed me during one of my observations of the space that street parking is an issue in the area, and local shop owners and trucks park along the street in the mornings until about one in the afternoon. Still, considering the level to which The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery is already public, and in spirit of Whyte’s plea to “give some of the streetscape back to the pedestrians” (p. 100), a compromise, at the very least, should be considered.

Since I moved to Bushwick in January of 2014, I have admired the The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery, and how frequently the street art changes like the seasons. It’s like I get to experience my neighborhood for the first time all over again each time a new mural goes up. Surely, The Bushwick Collective have helped liven up a neighborhood previously known for high crime rates and abandoned manufacturing buildings, which felt more like streets lined of abandoned dreams. The organization has successfully transformed a space into a place, and involving the community in placemaking and incorporating structural improvements would help complete its transformation. noun_766494-1

UPDATE (3/30/2017): I have contacted Joe, the creator of The Bushwick Collective, to gather more information (that may not be available on the web) regarding whether or not The Bushwick Collective has had the opportunity to partner with local public schools or community-based groups/organizations to create murals in the neighborhood. And if this is something The Bushwick Collective has done in the past, or if this something that the organization is potentially interested in doing in the near future. There may be bottlenecks to such collaborations (particularly with the City) to which I am currently unaware. I really look forward to hearing from him (fingers crossed). Hopefully more to follow on this soon. Thanks for reading!


7 Train Murals. (n.d.). 7 Train Murals [Website home page]. Retrieved on March 27, 2017, from Link

The Bushwick Collective. (2017). The Bushwick Collective: Facebook homepage. Retrieved from Link

Hybenova, K. (2015, June 4). Tribeca Film published a short film about The Bushwick Collective: Just in time for this Saturday’s Bushwick Collective Block Party, Tribeca Film. Bushwick Daily. Retrieved from Link

Whyte, W. H. (1980). The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. New York, NY: Project for Public Spaces.


Less than human: The human costs of socially labeling migrants

This article uses three works: one looking at the theoretical reasons for initial and sustained migration patterns; one qualitatively explaining the North African and Eastern European mass migration to France during the country’s reconstruction period following WWII; and the other body of work is a quantitative study examining residential patterns of French neighborhoods between 1968-2007.

Utilizing the three works combined, I have thread a narrative about the ill-effects of labeling migrants. Whether labels are given based upon the proliferation of migrant laborers in a particular job or industry, or due to the dramatization of ghettoizing migrant communities, each of these social labels – or mislabels – have a human toll.

I highly encourage watching the documentary, Immigrant Memories: North African Inheritance, which is broken up into three segments in order to capture the different migration experiences of fathers, mothers, and children. If you would like to read more on the study or migration theories, please follow the links in the references.

As always, happy reading!

Feature Image: “Over 120,000 immigrants from North Africa, like this man near the Arc de Triomphe de la Place d’Aix, can make Marseille feel like a Sahara on the sea” (NYT).

Image credit: Tomas van Houtryve for The New York Times


There are several parallels between migrant testimonies within the documentary, Immigrant Memories: North African Inheritance, empirical findings from the study, “Forty years of immigrant segregation in France, 1968–2007. How different is the new immigration?” and international migration theories as presented in “Theories of international migration: A review and appraisal.”

When comparing the three works, an important insight comes to mind: there is a difference between the spatial incorporation of migrants and socio-economic and cultural acceptance of migrants in host communities. Evidence in the study discovered that there are high levels of socio-spatial dispersion of immigrants of all origins in France, suggesting, “most non-European immigrants in France have been residentially incorporated” (Shon and Verdugo, 2015, p. 16). However, the study confounds spatial incorporation with true integration of migrants, and it would be a slippery slope to suggest that the characteristics of long-term stay (i.e. lower spatial segregation of migrants) are the same thing as true integration. On the contrary, accounts and experiences of migrant laborers in Immigrant Memories: North African Inheritance portends the social separation of migrant workers from their French native counterparts. One migrant worker from Northern Africa recalled that even after learning French and trying to integrate himself into French culture, the native people still treated him indifferently (Dupuis-Mendel & Benguigui, 1997). Essentially, he and others like him were forever branded as unwanted outsiders.

There is a difference between the spatial incorporation of migrants and socio-economic and cultural acceptance of migrants in host communities.

‘Social labeling’ is an important socioeconomic factor that can potentially be affected by the cumulative manner of international migration (Massey et al., 1993), but it is important to understand the human costs of social labeling. In the Mother’s Experience segment of the documentary, an Algerian woman recalled reading in the paper once that migrant men were not treated as men, they were treated as machines (Dupuis-Mendel & Benguigui, 1997). In other words, when immigrants were recruited by the French into manufacturing occupations in significant numbers, the social meaning of work changed in France due to international migration. Those jobs became culturally labeled as “immigrant jobs,” and thusly less desirable by natives. Moreover, immigrant workers were perceived by natives as mere functions and products. They were socially labeled as less than human. So, when confronted with issues of family reunification, the French government was reluctant to intervene, and even more reluctant to confront the real harms social labeling had done to migrants and migrant communities.

Immigrant workers were perceived by natives as mere functions and products. They were socially labeled as less than human.

Social labels attributed to migrants in receiving areas can be difficult to overcome no matter how long migrants remain in host countries. As indicated in the study, today it would be unreasonable to say that France has ethnically concentrated ghettos like in the U.S. because, contrary to common stereotyping, there are no mono-ethnic communities that could lead to the existence of ghettos in France (Shon and Verdugo, 2015). However, excessive dramatization of immigrant segregation persists in France, thus also perpetuating the importunity of socially mislabeling immigrant communities. The study notes that mischaracterization could stem from natives being unaware of the extent of heterogeneity of their communities. It also notes that the focus of public discourse on the most segregated and deprived communities distorts their pervasiveness (Shon and Verdugo, 2015). Falsely ghettoizing immigrant communities is dangerous for migrants because such labels can potentially perpetuate the social segregation of natives and migrants even in demographically heterogeneous communities.

Falsely ghettoizing immigrant communities is dangerous for migrants because such labels can potentially perpetuate the social segregation of natives and migrants even in demographically heterogeneous communities.

When migrants and migrant communities are spatially incorporated silently over decades, their true character may not be able to drown out the social labels – “immigrant jobs,” “immigrant machines,” or “immigrant ghettos” – of their past. noun_766494-1



Dupuis-Mendel, P. (Producer), & Benguigui, Y. (Director). (1997). Immigrant memories: North African Inheritance [Documentary]. Paris: Canal Plus/Bandits.

Massey, D. S., Arango, J., Hugo, G., Kouaouci, A., Pellegrino, A., and Taylor, J. E. (1993). “Theories of international migration: A review and appraisal.” Population and development review:431-66. Retrieved from Link

Shon, J.-L. P. K. and Verdugo, G. (2015). “Forty years of immigrant segregation in France, 1968–2007. How different is the new immigration?” Urban Studies 52(5): 823-840. Retrieved from Link


Who are immigrant workers?

My first of many pieces in the new category on immigration in the United States. I highly recommend the book, On the Line: Slaughterhouse Lives and the Making of the New South, as well as the study,”The rise and fall of a micro-learning region: Mexican immigrants and construction in center-south Philadelphia” by Natasha Iskander, et al. (link below to study).

This post is not about the right to public space, but about circumventing the disadvantaged positions of immigrant laborers through enhanced access to economic and political resources. I hope this post sheds light on the importance of protecting the rights of marginalized laborers, especially immigrant workers, who are systematically the most exploitable.

As always, happy reading!


The status of immigrant workers in today’s economic environment is extremely unstable. Both the works of Iskander, Lowe, and Riordan and Ribas can help us understand their status considering economic changes today.

First, in “The rise and fall of a micro-learning region: Mexican immigrants and construction in center-south Philadelphia,” Iskander, et al. (2010) convey that Mexican immigrants working in the construction industry in Philadelphia lack access to political and economic institutions necessary to legitimize their innovations and skill-sets offered to the neighborhood construction industry. Mexican immigrant laborers working in construction in south-central Philadelphia played an important role in transforming the area into a learning-region because they created new innovative practices through the social-exchange of tacit knowledge. But without access to political and economic resources to make these skills explicit, the learning culture was vulnerable to economic, organizational, or political shocks. Therefore, the housing market crash in 2008 not only left Mexican immigrant workers unemployed, but also bereft of a craft refined through first-hand experience and social-exchange.

Although the Mexican immigrant workers weren’t the only losers in the study, they were the biggest losers because their losses were deeply felt. For instance, we may never know the extent to which their innovations – those with the potential to be adopted into a broader industry context – may have contributed to productivity gains in the construction industry and construction labor market. Those unrealized gains will never be fully known. However, the short-run consequences associated with unemployment compounded by the lack of protection for their craft are tangible for migrants, and suffered immediately. So, not only were the contributions of these Mexican immigrants taken for granted – not only were they taken for granted – they were forced to start over, even if they managed to continue working in construction: “Unable to demonstrate their new knowledge, the Mexican workers’ status in the construction labor markets that remained was as precarious as if they had never worked in construction at all” (Iskander, et al., 2010, p. 1596). Furthermore, without formal record of their innovations, migrant workers may also face detrimental long-run consequences at the individual and generational level. Unable to protect a decade’s or more worth of reformed construction techniques and learning practices may lead to the deterioration of skill-sets, depress wages, and/or thwart opportunities for upward mobility of current and future immigrants pursuing employment in the same trade.

Second, in On the Line: Slaughterhouse Lives and the Making of the New South, Ribas (2016) conveys her unique approach to immigrant integration, in which she examined how the social and economic incorporation experiences of Latinos (as)/migrants in the contemporary American South is shaped by the social organization of labor. Through her study, she learns that the process of integration for migrants is ongoing and active, and she views “incorporation as a process conditioned by context through which groups struggle to define their place in a stratified system of belonging” (Ribas, 2016, p. 18). For Latino/a immigrant laborers in the American South, the struggle to find and define one’s place in society and in the workplace is compounded by the fact that while they are working to improve their own economic standing, the economic restructuring of the American South and the growth of the agro-industrial industry hinged upon their exploitation.

While they are working to improve their own economic standing, the economic restructuring of the American South and the growth of the agro-industrial industry hinged upon their exploitation.

The works of Iskander, et al. and Ribas elucidate the role of power dynamics in shaping the fate of marginalized groups. Iskander, et al. (2010) suggest that learning regions are not characterized by collaborative relationships but that labor is “constrained and managed…with workers often inserted into innovation and production processes over which they may have very little control” (p. 1600). Whereas Ribas (2016) situates her analysis within the “broader system of racialized stratification characterized by white dominance” in hopes of understanding “who Latinas/os are becoming” (p. 24). Therefore, both works emphasize the need for access to political power in addition to economic resources to circumvent the disadvantaged positions of immigrant laborers.

How we participate in economic systems shapes who we become. Now more than ever undocumented immigrant laborers have diminishing control over who they are becoming as their future in the U.S. becomes less certain.

How we participate in economic systems shapes who we become. Now more than ever undocumented immigrant laborers have diminishing control over who they are becoming as their future in the U.S. becomes less certain. So long as institutions wield the power to exploit them with little to no consequence or backlash, the potential of immigrant laborers – and the potential gains from their productivity and innovation – will continue to be stunted. If Mexican immigrant workers helped create a micro-learning region out of the thirty blocks just south of Philadelphia’s Center City, then imagine the many unknown micro-learning regions migrant communities have helped produce through innovative learning practices that could have been captured in visible structured institutions, but tragically were not. What would happen if immigrants had access to visible structured institutions that protect their knowledge and skills? Would they be encouraged to innovate? How would their innovations be reflective in the productivity of our society’s industries today? Would that be enough to change the plight of immigrant laborers? Would that be enough to prove they are, indeed, American? noun_766494-1


Iskander, N., Lowe, N. and Riordan, C. (2010). The rise and fall of a micro-learning region: Mexican immigrants and construction in center-south Philadelphia. Environment and Planning A 42(7): 1595-612. Retrieved from Link

Ribas, V. (2016). On the line: Slaughterhouse lives and the making of the new South. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Right to the City

Normalizing Dissent in Public Spaces (Part 1)

Not only is this post long overdue (broken ribs are no joke!), but it is incomplete. It is actually a final research paper proposal for my class on Public Space and Urban Identity.

I thought I would go ahead and post the proposal in case any of you are interested in public space and public place law. Keep in mind that when I post the final product, much of the content may change. It will indeed expand, including the existing sections. So if you feel like some information is missing, hang tight!

Also, your feedback is welcome! Especially if you have ideas about how to answer some of the research questions below.

If any of you are in touch with a lawyer (or law student) who is familiar with public place law, time, place and manner restrictions, and/or the classification of public forums that would be extremely helpful as I embark on this journey! They can reach me via email at or through this site on the Contact page.

Thanks for your patience. As always, happy reading!

The above photo shows hundreds of people gathered to voice their dissent in Washington Square Park in January after President Trump ordered the construction of a wall along the U.S./Mexican border, and announced new deportation schemes targeting undocumented immigrants. (Photo credit: Christopher Lee for The New York Times



Hundreds of thousands of Americans have gathered in public spaces throughout the country in response to various social grievances over the course of U.S. history. The most recent upheaval has been regarding Trump’s executive orders on immigration. The executive orders and DHS memos explaining how the orders will be carried out are highly exploitative, which include: the travel ban to 6 Muslim countries; the U.S./Mexico wall; enhanced vetting processes for refugees; more than halving the number of refugees accepted into the U.S. per year; as well as massive deportation efforts of undocumented persons.

In the wake of recent protests, it is imperative to regularize dissent in public places and to eliminate laws that forbid or restrict expressive conduct in public spaces by way of privatization of public land. The categorization of public forums may also need to change in order to better preserve and protect the freedom of speech, urban life, and democracy. The research paper will explore these concepts, but will first explain the following: the importance of the democratic culture of debate and dissent in urban life; why public spaces are important to urban life and democracy; and how the privatization of government property has infringed upon First Amendment liberties under the property rights approach to public space.

The democratic culture of debate and dissent is important to urban life. Cities embody diversity, and are composed of a variety of sexual, religious, racial, gender, and socio-economic identity groups. Because of their diversity and density, cities are hubs of social innovation and knowledge exchange, thus they have a greater capacity to expose citizens to diversity of thought. Diversity of thought is integral to the urban experience and to urban life; it is a critical impetus for the democratic culture of debate between identity groups; and it produces an expressive culture in which people communicate dissent for inequality and injustice. According to Nan D. Hunter of Georgetown University Law Center, “Virtually all of the American civil rights movements since World War II have embodied the harmony between identity and dissent that exists in social practice” (2000, p. 2).

Public spaces are important to urban life and democracy, and serve as important platforms for exercising diversity of thought and First Amendment liberties. In “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,”  Nancy Fraser, the Professor of Political and Social Science and professor of philosophy at The New School in New York City, states that the public sphere is “indispensable to critical social theory and to democratic political practice” (1990, p. 57). There needs to be an adequate supply of material space in order for the public to exercise First Amendment liberties. However, the existence of public space – “expressive topography” – has diminished over the past several decades due to privatization and development (Zick, 2008).

The privatization of government property has infringed upon First Amendment liberties. In the third chapter of Brave New Neighborhoods, The Privatization of Public Space, Margaret Kohn (2004) points out that the laws governing public space can both enrich or inhibit a democratic culture of debate and dissent. For the case of Lee v. Krishna Consciousness in 1992, the public forum doctrine enabled the government to prohibit unwanted speech on its property because airports were not considered traditional public forums; therefore, the higher standards of constitutional scrutiny in place to protect First Amendment rights were not necessary (Kohn, 2004). The results of this case insist that not all public spaces are equal: political activity is protected in traditional public forums, whereas political activity is unprotected in other government-owned places.

We need a different approach to public space. Under the ‘property rights’ approach, public space has been reimagined as private space owned by the government. In “The Public Forum Doctrine,” Margaret Kohn (2004) states that due to this phenomenon, public space “can be regulated in whatever manner the responsible government agency sees fit” (p. 38). As Kohn points out, this same logic applies to the Lee v. Krishna Consciousness case, and this policy gives an enormous amount of discretion to administrative agencies in determining what, if any, political activities are compatible with other, ‘principal’ uses (Kohn, 2004).

Regularizing dissent as a principal behavior – or at least a normative behavior – in public spaces, increasing expressive topography, and eliminating the laws that forbid or restrict expressive conduct in public spaces will help ensure First Amendment rights are preserved and protected. A generous portion of the final paper will be dedicated to how these political fetes can be accomplished, which require further research in order to give full treatment to policy alternatives.  

Research questions for investigation

How can dissent in public spaces be regularized? What would be the normative or legal standards that need to change in order to regularize dissent in public spaces? Would regularizing dissent involve dismantling the hierarchy of ‘principal’ uses of public spaces, or placing First Amendment rights at the fore?

How can the expressive topography be increased and enhanced, especially given the various – and often opposing – interests of government and the public?

How can new approaches to public space be adopted that do not inhibit/forbid/restrict expressive conduct in public spaces (i.e. the ‘private property’ approach to public space)?  

Should the legal framework that categorizes public forums (the public forum doctrine) change to better preserve and protect the freedom of speech, urban life, and democracy? If so, what would an alternative look like? How would that alternative form of regulation be implemented? noun_766494-1


Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy. Social Text, 25(26), 56-80. link

Hunter, N. D. (2000). Expressive Identity: Recuperating Dissent for Equality. Georgetown University Law Center. Retrieved from   

Kohn, M. (2004). Brave New Neighborhoods. The privatization of public space. New York: Routledge, Chapter 3. Retrieved from link 

Zick, T. (2008). Speech Out of Doors: Preserving First Amendment Liberties in Public Places. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Retrieved from link