The Politics of Immigration and Membership

By Urbinati, Nadia | Dissent, October 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Immigration and Membership


Urbinati, Nadia, Dissent


The Politics of Immigration and Membership THE RIGHTS OF OTHERS: ALIENS, RESIDENTS AND CITIZENS by Seyla Benhabib Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004 251 pp $65 cloth $23.99 paper

"We are like travelers navigating an unknown terrain with the help of old maps, drawn at a different time and in response to different needs," Seyla Benhabib writes in her new book, The Rights of Others. Transnational migrations and global interdependence are the unknown terrain, state sovereignty and patrolled frontiers the old maps. Contemporary migrations are not an isolated phenomenon explicable in terms of a free choice that immigrants make when they leave their countries of origin and host states make when they receive them. These are epochal transformations that are literally changing the face of entire continents, the social conventions of millions of people. The friction between this new terrain and the old conceptual maps has potentially explosive effects when a continent such as Europe, which aspires to become the beacon of cosmopolitan morality, patrols its borders to defend its civilization or manufacture its Europeanness. Europe's new enemies, the only enemies against which she is willing to mobilize her troops, are neither bellicose states nor expansionist empires, but boat people, disperati, who seek to escape poverty and hunger, even though no international code accords them the status of refugees. The problem is that liberal democratic states do not regard economic destitution as a form of persecution, while their minimalist definition of democracy is blind to de facto undemocratic regimes. So transnational migration produces blatant contradictions between universal human rights and the extant set of naturalization, immigration, refugee, and asylum policies.

Is the international community-the UN or supranational authorities such as the European Union-strong enough to induce nation-states to comply with norms of humanity and justice? Can political membership become a cornerstone of the theory of international justice and change the meaning of citizenship and the practice of integration? The juridical processes of state integration that began in 1948 with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would appear to answer these questions in the affirmative. Yet few political theorists have ventured to make political membership a central issue of the theory of global justice. Seyla Benhabib seeks to change that. "I want to argue that transnational migrations, and the constitutional as well as policy issues suggested by the movement of people across state borders, are central to interstate relations and therefore to a normative theory of global justice." In the five chapters of her book, drawn from the Seeley Lectures at Cambridge University, Benhabib discusses concepts of political membership, cosmopolitan rights, and international justice (in the context of the works of Immanuel Kant, Hannah Arendt, and John Rawls); she studies empirical cases of membership transformation (the European politics of citizenship and integration); and she analyzes examples of integration policies (the "scarf affair" in France and Germany).

Historically, the right to exit has been synonymous with individual freedom. Dictatorial regimes commonly follow up on successful coups by closing their borders and revoking passports. But the right to enter is not similarly synonymous. Whereas forbidding exit to citizens has always been a sign of tyranny, forbidding entry to foreigners has never been so stigmatized. The asymmetry between these two rights is the sign of state power over territorial borders. In medieval Europe, exit and entry were non-issues because there were no territorial states. This was also the case in the Roman Empire, whose word for "boundaries" was limes, a term that denotes communication rather than closure in that its dual meaning is both "street" and "limit," "frontier" and "avenue." Limes were both porous and mobile. …

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