We Are All Migrants
Political Action and the Ubiquitous Condition of Migrant-hood
Gregory Feldman



Migrations Without Migrants and Migrants Without Migrations

Archaeologists estimate that at least a hundred thousand years ago anatomically modern humans began migrating out of what we now call Africa. They traveled through today’s Sinai Peninsula and Horn of Africa, into the Middle East, and then throughout the Eurasian landmass. Their journeys would have involved the pursuit of game, pressures from rival bands, climatic and environmental changes, or a combination thereof. If these journeys transpired over centuries or millennia, then perhaps they would not have even recognized them as migrations. We can reasonably assume that each generation encountered only slight shifts in location rather than an epic trek “out of Africa,” as we might see it today. If significant parts of the journey transpired over a few generations, then it could have played a central role in collective memory. A sense of estrangement might have characterized the lore that was narrated to children. These people might have felt nostalgia for lost kin and for the familiar landscapes they once effortlessly navigated. The old deities, dwelling in the grasses, trees, and shrubs, who could help or hinder the daily goings-on, would have become the stuff of legends, and new ones would have been encountered. The new game they hunted might have ranged in less predictable circuits. Rather than ally with neighboring clans that were easily located in their cosmologies, they would now have negotiated naïvely with strangers, or perhaps, gone to war with them. This sense of loss would suggest that these migrating hominids did not simply live in places faraway from where they now stood, but were of those places, which they themselves made. Through worldly artifices of their own making, they directly manipulated resources and imbued the surrounding landscape with meaning so as to render the strange familiar. Yet while the worlds they left now lay beyond the horizon, it is equally reasonable to assume that these hominids constituted new worlds as they and their descendants moved in new directions. Thus, while people in the prehistoric world likely experienced broken connections to people and place, alienation was not the sine qua non of daily life. The reason was certainly not that the worlds they built lasted forever after they moved on. Rather, they built for themselves the worlds they inhabited, even as they moved from place to place. In other words, to inhabit a place is to directly constitute it as such with others. Absent systemic alienation from persons and place, these hominids cannot be referred to as migrants even though we describe their journey “out of Africa” as a migration.

In contrast to the prehistoric case of migrations without migrants, modernity presents us with an opposing situation: migrants without migrations. While most contemporary migration involves movement, we would be deceived to think that movement is the migrant’s definitive quality. The case of ethnic Russians born in Estonia and Latvia during the Soviet era illustrates the point’s central importance. By 1991, the Estonian and Latvian movements for political autonomy within the Soviet Union ended up fully restoring the independence of the pre-Soviet republics. These movements’ leadership did not declare independence for the first time because each country had already been a sovereign nation-state with membership in the League of Nations. That (re)independence leaders could legitimately hold this position depended upon their ability to legally demonstrate what was already common knowledge: neither country had willfully joined the USSR in 1940. They found their evidence in the secret protocols of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact named for the Soviet and German foreign ministers who negotiated the agreement. With the pact, Stalin agreed to leave western Poland in Hitler’s sphere of influence in exchange for Hitler leaving to Stalin eastern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. Shortly after its signing, Stalin forced Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into joining the Soviet Union. Neither Winston Churchill nor Franklin Roosevelt recognized the Baltic republics as constituent members of the Soviet Union, but rather denounced the accession as an illegitimate and forced annexation. Many other Western governments followed suit. Hence, Estonian and Latvian (and also Lithuanian) leaders in the late 1980s could argue on internationally accepted legal and political grounds that they were restoring, rather than establishing, national sovereignty. This crucial distinction enabled the democratically elected leadership of these restored nation-states to control citizenship policy as it occurs in any other sovereign state. Estonia and Latvia restored their pre-Soviet nationality laws, thus restoring citizenship to anyone who had held it prior to the 1940 Soviet annexation and to anyone who descended from such a citizen, according to jus sanguinis (right of blood). This law included a modest number of ethnic Russians and their descendants who lived in these countries prior to World War II. At the same time, it produced migrants out of well over a million people, mostly ethnic Russians, who either arrived soon after World War II to rebuild their lives or were simply born in these republics. Denied citizenship in the restored republics, they were immediately rendered stateless. They could acquire citizenship only through EU-accepted naturalization procedures, which included passing national language and civics exams and accumulating the necessary years of legal residence in the sovereign post-Soviet republics. (Their years accumulated during the Soviet era did not count because the Soviet Union illegally held Estonian and Latvian national sovereignty in abeyance.) This outcome, given its consistency with the logic of state sovereignty, satisfied the Western diplomatic community. From the perspective of the new stateless, however, they had never crossed an international border when moving to Estonia or Latvia, because they had remained within the Soviet Union. They did not regard themselves as migrants. They had established their roots and had no place to which they could return in the new Russian Federation, even if they wished. Russia was not their home. They became migrants without migrations because the Soviet border literally swept eastward under their feet with the reestablishment of Estonian and Latvian independence. They had not moved an inch when their world was reconstituted for them.

To compare migrations without migrants to migrants without migrations is to raise an urgent question. What is it, precisely, that has moved when someone in today’s world is called a migrant? Is it simply the person who steps over an international border with or without official travel documents? I will argue not only that this peculiar act is not what distinguishes the migrant and the citizen, but that these two characters are fundamentally indistinguishable. What renders people “migrants” is their lack of possibility to constitute (and reconstitute) the places they inhabit in direct negotiation with others inhabiting those same places. This unfortunate condition—the condition of migrant-hood—detaches people from each other, rendering them migrants, unmoored in a shifting sea of other migrants. Migrant-hood does not capture the experience of the migrating hunter-gatherer band, yet it fundamentally conditions the lives of both the modern “citizen” and the “migrant.” It would not be accurate to assert that “we are all citizens” if that status is supposed to embody the quintessence of modern political empowerment. Even citizens of liberal democracies, to say nothing of the migrants in them, feel far removed from the mass party politics that govern their national societies. The term “global citizen” (an oxymoron) seems more like a cynical joke to keep people traveling in worldwide labor circuits or venturing abroad to consume cultural experiences, a vital part of the global economy. By default, we are all migrants.

We must look beyond the legal differences between a citizen and a migrant so that we may understand how, contrary to expectations, the lives of both are similarly conditioned. Both are subject to the ebbs and flows of their labor markets; both experience separations from family and friends; both can find their familiar surroundings strangely unfamiliar when development marches rampantly onward; both lack substantial control over the technocratic decisions that condition their lives; and both may find that reaching out for help from someone within arm’s length feels like a futile stretch across a canyon. Can we not therefore remove the veil of citizenship to get a clearer view of who the migrant really is? The point of this exercise is not to foolishly claim that migrants would receive more respect if only they were treated like citizens. Rather, it is to argue that the sense of protection and permanence that citizenship seems to offer can deaden the citizen’s own sensitivity to the political disempowerment of which the migrant is more likely to be aware.

This book aims to bridge the gap between the academy and the broader public. However, it strives to do this without watering down the intellectual content, which would render it useless for the academic’s pursuit of knowledge, and condescending to the interested reader within a wider audience. To avoid this pitfall, the book must ask readers in either camp to modify, but not minimize, their expectations. To the academic reader, it asks that we not recognize knowledge production solely as the result of the expert pushing ever further into unchartered corners of specialization. The limits of this singular conception of knowledge production are flagged by the remarkably short shelf life of the vast majority of the products of our labor (journal articles, monographs, and increasingly video documentaries). This book takes a different tack. It is not a piece of specialized research, but rather an effort to redeploy existing, critical concepts in new ways for the sake of better understanding migrant-hood and political action in the present world. This project is analogous to the paleontologist who seeks new discoveries not mainly through field excavations, but also by considering how known fossils sitting on the laboratory shelves could be reassembled to reveal an unidentified species. Knowledge can be produced on either path.

To any other reader, I hope that the argument shows the merit of a different perspective on migration, citizenship, and political action, one that is not commonly expressed but is directly relevant. Despite not being a standard research monograph, the book still asks that the reader neither assume a mainstream perspective nor dismiss unfamiliar concepts as academic elitism. If concepts used in this argument are unintelligible, then the problem lies either with the limits of my own powers of explanation or with readers’ reluctance to leave their comfort zones. To keep up my end of the bargain, I have tried to avoid technical jargon, which is merely shorthand that, if used well, allows experts to carry out their own internal discussions more efficiently. This is especially the case when one concept presupposes another. (Imagine if physicists had to reiterate Newton’s Principia Mathematica every time they wished to discuss motion.) Any interested individual can follow the train of thought if the shorthand is elaborated in shared language. I can think of no better public role for the academic than one that articulates counterintuitive perspectives on the world “out there” of which others may be intuitively aware but lack the time or opportunity to fully explore and discuss with others. To be sure, political action requires first a clear formulation of that which oppresses us and how it does so. Our capacity to understand these matters can only help us devise new ways to rectify what we agree to be injustices.