Studying Global Ethics in its Lived Contexts: Unauthorized Migration and Global Citizenship

Dr Luis Cabrera

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IMAGE: Migrant rights activists calling attention to the deaths of migrants on the border crossing by bearing signs that say ‘presente’, signifying that those whose lives have been lost are not forgotten.

I started my professional (post-university) career as a journalist in Seattle for The Associated Press, the global newswire service.  Wire service work has a reputation in the trade as a bit of grind, and there were indeed plenty of overnight shifts spent rewriting local newspaper copy for the wire. There were also many exciting assignments, though. The best part of the job was always getting out into the field, interviewing people from all walks, covering forest fires, earthquakes, floods, massive demonstrations and, my favourite, the occasional NBA Seattle SuperSonics game…

I never went on assignment without feeling like I was getting a window into another world. And I missed that once I had taken my first academic job. I had trained as a political theorist, meaning my tasks now mostly involved hours of trying to get to the bottom of often very complex moral argumentation. It was satisfying work, and exactly the kind of intellectual engagement I wanted after being limited to the often very brief wire service journalistic form. But something was definitely missing.

My first academic post was at one of the four Phoenix-area campuses of Arizona State University. Arizona was then, in the early-mid 2000s, at the epicentre of US tensions around unauthorized migration. US Border Patrol strategy had dramatically shifted migrant routes from California to Arizona, and enforcement and civil society efforts – pro and con migrant – had become intense. I was keen to go when colleagues began inviting me along on experiential education trips to the border with their classes. We learned about migration and border politics from those who lived them daily.

I began to see how it might be possible to incorporate some of what I was learning in the desert into the moral arguments I was developing around global justice and human rights. Ultimately, the project became an exploration of global citizenship, with extensive field work along the border and at related sites. Once more, I felt like I was getting that window into others’ worlds.

It was thrilling, and inspiring at times. I spent a great deal of time interviewing members of two groups in particular: No More Deaths and the Minutemen. No More Deaths members were my exemplars of global citizenship. They fit well into a Saving Humans blog entry, since that was the express mission they had taken on. They conducted patrols of many miles through the southern Arizona desert, seeking out migrants who had become lost or left behind by their human smugglers, to bring them food, water and first aid. The group had arisen in the early 2000s, in response to increasing numbers of migrant deaths as the Border Patrol clamped down on the relatively easy urban crossings and sought to use the desert itself as a deterrent to crossing. The death toll is now in the thousands.

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IMAGE: A booth operated by No More Deaths in Nogales, Mexico, on the Mexico-US Border. Volunteers offered first aid and related assistance to migrants who had been apprehended and returned by the US Border Patrol.

On the other side, often literally, were members of the Minuteman Project. They sought to deter crossing themselves by physically standing vigil – often with sidearms holstered — at the border or farther north, on heavily traveled routes, and reporting any suspected unauthorized migrants to the Border Patrol. They were my exemplar enactors of national citizenship, trying, as they would put it, to protect their country from people who had no right to be there.

Migrants themselves, I came to understand, were also acting as global citizens, and perhaps in the most concrete and most important ways. They crossed borders in search of better life opportunities for themselves and their families in much the same way that people within countries move between cities – or as citizens of the European Union often move between member states. They acted as though we already lived in a world where that was broadly possible, though of course where their lack of citizenship entitlements often meant a life in virtual hiding in the host state.

Interviewing and living side by side with unauthorized migrants – very much the norm in Arizona – for several years eventually persuaded me that they were acting as global citizens in a more proactive way. They were, I thought, engaged in something like a ‘global civil disobedience’ movement.  They were crossing borders without permission in order to better secure broad economic rights for themselves and their families. Most nation-state have formally committed to recognizing and working to ensure such rights for all in the binding UN Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Most rich countries, of course, would reject the idea that they have a responsibility to feed the world, provide employment, etc. But here migrants were, claiming such rights through actions that, though covert, could easily be viewed in a frame of principled resistance.

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IMAGE: Migrant men walking to board a train in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico. Like many Central American migrants, they will ride the top of the trains to near the US-Mexico border, where they will try to walk across.

That particular argument has been controversial, and I recently had a chance to revisit it in a critical exchange (they critique, you defend) for an academic journal.  I do think there’s something to it. And, I believe the insight never would have come if I hadn’t been able to get back into the field, speaking to people about their daily struggles, getting that window into their world and, most of all, hearing moral arguments in their lived contexts. The method is still a tough sell with grant funding agencies, but I find it invaluable for enriching the ethical arguments I seek to make.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about more recent field work involving Dalit (former untouchable) human rights activists in India, and democracy activists staging street protests in Istanbul.

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham. 

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