“Illegal” immigrants are universally demonized, but it is exclusionary immigration laws that produce “illegality.”
Illiberal immigration policies and the xenophobic rhetoric that accompanies them are on the rise in the Western world. In Trump’s America, children are being prised away from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, making even the President’s Republican colleagues express discomfort. In the U.K., the unlawful detention and deportation of British-Caribbean citizens – the so-called “Windrush scandal” – has revealed the deeply pernicious consequences of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policy for migrants. In mainland Europe, meanwhile, the anti-immigrant nationalist leader Victor Orban achieved a resounding victory in the Hungarian national election in April, while in Italy the formation of a new coalition government has catapulted the anti-immigrant Lega (League) party into the heart of political power. The appointment of Matteo Salvini, the Lega’s leader, as Interior Minister means that a far-right politician is now in charge of Italy’s border control, its policing, and its immigration policy. This has rightly caused alarm: during the recent election campaign, Salvini pledged to deport hundreds of thousands of “illegal” migrants should his party win, and this rhetoric has continued following the Lega’s positive election results. Just weeks after coming into office, the newly appointed minister left 629 migrants stranded when he refused to allow a rescue ship to dock in Italy.
Politicians such as Salvini and Trump revel in whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment with a dramatic focus on the supposed threats to nation-states’ borders, but as my book Rules, Paper, Status shows, they consistently overlook a crucial part of the immigration picture: “illegal” immigration is actually produced inside borders through the implementation of harsh and exclusionary policies that create the very categories which parties like the Lega then rail against. As migration scholars have consistently pointed out, “illegal” immigrants are not merely comprised of those who arrive on the rickety boats that cross the Mediterranean. In fact, the number of migrants who attempt to arrive in Europe “clandestinely” makes up only a tiny fraction of the continent’s migrant population. Many more arrive “legally” on some kind of visa for tourism, work, study, or family purposes.