Community, Immigration, Right to the City

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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 who may be facing other serious human rights deprivations – “survival migrants” – are not recognized under the current operating definition. This leaves 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.

One of the key issues faced by humanitarian and development agencies in dealing with migrant populations boils down to the lack of money and resources. 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 wait-lists 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). The operational costs of maintaining camps and limited funding alone may explain why expanding the legal definition poses a practical challenge.

Changing the legal definition may also not be helpful: 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. This notion is clearly expressed in the article, When “Humanitarian” Becomes “Development”: The Politics of International Aid in Syria’s Palestinian Refugee Camps. A mural is painted on the side of a house in Ein el Tal, a Palestinian refugee camp in Northern Syria, depicting controversies over UNRWA’s recent attempt to emphasize “development” in Palestinian refugee camps (Gabiam, 2012, p. 96). While these displaced Palestinians should not be revoked of their “refugee” status as 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 solely rely upon the operating 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, when we do attempt to rationalize the motivations of migrants, our frameworks for developing such an understanding are too conflated by outdated and unrealistic neoclassical economic theories that cannot explain the intricacies and nuances behind such heavily personal decisions.

To meet the present needs of migrants, we need a framework for migration that better responds to the wide spectrum of needs and demands of displaced persons, not just a new definition and new legal parameters for refugees. Besides, there is little to no political will to create a new working definition by international agencies as evidenced by the fact that agencies have been working under the same definition for nearly 70 years.

Some countries have adopted additional national policies that expand upon the existing international definition and legal framework, but these rarely work. Such is the case of  the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention in Africa, which expanded the definition of the term “refugee” and introduced non-refoulement policies, in which refugees or asylum seekers are not forced to return to a country where they would be subjected to persecution. 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, Angola, and South Africa. The most successful case of applying non-refoulement policies was in South Africa, but it had many shortcomings. In the 2000’s and 2010’s, many Zimbabweans fled existential threats from their home country and received protection as refugees in South Africa through country’s asylum legislation, which gave them asylum permits. By March 2011; however, the South Africa national government imposed stringent transit permits and restricted material support for Zimbabwean migrants, which altogether undermined their rights to asylum. So, even in a successful case, non-refoulement is short-lived (Betts, 2013).

The current framework of migration needs to be replaced with alternative frameworks of understanding that will disrupt dominant discourse. Perhaps the most expedient and effective way to care about migration now would be through energy strategies and the interrelationship between climate change and migration. Creating space for policies that are more institutionally responsive to migration and climate change issues in the common political discourse today is extremely challenging. So, instead of targeting 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). With the insurgence of sanctuary cities and the rise of mayoral leadership on migration issues, local government is the perfect place to begin implementing alternative frameworks. Policies and practices in any given place should offer asylum for migrants, including survival migrants, who, on a wide spectrum of 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



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.