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How Migration Challenges Our Assumptions About Community, Belonging, and Citizenship


At Public Books, sociologist David Cook-Martín shows how migration forces us to rethink conventional understandings of community and belonging. As Cook-Martín notes, these understandings have been shaped by the modern nation-state and the legal apparatus that defines who counts as a “citizen” and who doesn’t. But mass migrations today are exposing the inhumane limitations of this form of belonging, and should challenge us to develop new, more generous forms. Check out an excerpt from the article below.

There are, however, other ways to think of belonging, and some of them predate and coexist with the modern nation-state. In ancient times, seeking refuge in a city, participating in its social and economic exchanges, and being willing to defend it were means of becoming part of the community—if only in some respects. Hebrew scriptures state, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34, NIV). In the Middle East, there is a tradition of hospitality toward the stranger, echoes of which make attitudes toward refugees today different than in the West. As anthropologist Dawn Chatty has shown, the relationship between newcomers and host communities is strong and marked by mutual acceptance. Even today the idea of ius domicilii —the right linked to residence in a place—is a basis of belonging in the West. Living in some European cities gives residents the right to vote, regardless of nationality or legal status. The ties that come from a common life—however unequal—are a long-standing way of defining membership and belonging.

The unauthorized have been part of the communities in which they live for years, often decades. To make this point, Ana Raquel Minian has traced the long-standing tradition of people moving back and forth between the United States and Mexico, extending ties to communities on both side of the border. The intervention of the US government to regulate this movement by means of the Bracero Program (1942–64) altered the circular flows that had existed until that time and created conditions for future illegality. The enforcement of rules related to the program—recall Operation Wetback—disrupted ties between communities on both sides of the border.

Image via Public Books.