Political Geography 21 (2002) 971–987 www.politicalgeography.


Geopolitics by another name: immigration and the politics of assimilation
C.R. Nagel
Department of Geography, Loughborough University, Loughborough, Leics LE11 3TU, UK

Abstract In this introduction to the special issue on the geopolitics of migration, I discuss some of the problematic elements of current approaches to migration studies. In particular, I comment on the concept of ‘transnationalism’ as it has been applied to immigrant communities, and argue that claims about immigrant transnationalism resemble contemporary and historical polemics on the non-assimilation of immigrants. I propose that our understanding of the dynamics of immigrant-host society relationships must begin with an understanding of the geopolitical contexts in which migration takes place. I illustrate my argument using the case of Arab Americans in the aftermath of September 11, and I conclude by urging a reconsideration of the concept of assimilation as a ‘politics of sameness’. © 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Immigration; Transnationalism; Geopolitics; Assimilation; Arab Americans

Introduction On the cover published after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC, The Economist proclaimed September 11, 2001, “The Day the World Changed”. It perhaps is more accurate to say that the world—or at least the perception of the world—changed mainly for Americans, whose sense of isolation from ‘foreign’ conflicts and threats was badly shaken by the attacks. Soon after the September 11, it surfaced that the terrorists, abetted by lax immigration control and liberal visa provisions for foreign students, had insinuated themselves into American society with great ease, possibly finding safe harbours in Muslim and Arab American communi-

E-mail address: c.r.nagel@lboro.ac.uk (C.R. Nagel).
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R. The terrorists of the Al Qaeda network appeared to be a new kind of enemy—one to be combated not only in far-off lands. Because transnationalism is fast becoming a new paradigm in migration studies. Thus. and the structuring of social difference within national societies. The papers are very diverse in their approaches and their focus of study. These narratives inform not only the regulation and control of borders. I will suggest. Before introducing these papers in greater detail. involving the formulation of spatial strategies and territorial arrangements to preserve the integrity of borders and to contain perceived external threats (Collinson. 1998). As in many of other fields of study. it has also (re)produced some problematic assumptions about immigrants and their relationship to receiving societies. is not a novel occurrence. but also the treatment of immigrants and minorities within these borders (Tesfahuney. we see in recent discussions of national security and immigration a rehashing of long-running. Islamic fundamentalism. Nagel / Political Geography 21 (2002) 971–987 ties for years. Instead. But each speaks to the linkages between territorial boundaries and the construction of otherness—linkages enacted at different geographical scales through legal categories. the regulation of human mobility. . and so on) in national space through immigration. 1996). While the transnational perspective has provided a much-needed critique of assimilation theory. The aim of this special issue is to unravel some of the connections between the formulation of political–territorial orders.972 C. terrorism. Immigration and geopolitics are usually treated as separate topics of study. but also at ‘home’ through the stricter policing of borders and the closer surveillance of foreigners living within those borders. 1998). The confluence of geopolitical strategising and immigration control. and public discourses of citizenship. racialised narratives on the penetration of external menaces (e. 1999. I wish to explain some of the key theoretical trends in the study of migration. immigration control from the outset became a cornerstone of the ‘war on terrorism’. disease. and they deal with different categories of migrants and different reception contexts. Understanding migration as a geopolitical process. demographic explosions. migration research has been marked by efforts to adopt a more global perspective highlighting transnational networks and flows. labour and asylum laws. and only a few scholars have used the term ‘geopolitics of migration’ (see Sassen. Tesfahuney.g. while very explicit following September 11. which have focused on the integration and assimilation (or lack thereof) of immigrants into national societies. it is critical to examine its shortcomings and to propose new ways forward. But recent events make plain that the regulation of mobility is fundamentally a geopolitical exercise. The new emphasis on transnationalism and globalisation contrasts with traditional sociological approaches. provides a way to evaluate the significance of contemporary migration and the politics surrounding it that avoids some of the pitfalls of the transnational approach. closely linked in public discourse and policy to America’s efforts to protect itself against an array of shadowy menaces. social welfare policies.

The transnationalism literature has presented a plethora of cases describing the border-straddling existence of many immigrants in industrialised states (Ethnic and Racial Studies. contemporary immigrants must adapt to a global system marked by flux and instability in which economic and cultural flows escape the control of nation-states (Appadurai. 1995. rooted in globalisation. Mitchell (1997). Basch. 2001).R. exclusive forms of citizenship (Mandaville. but instead. The combination of these factors has led to the formation of communities whose members claim political membership in more than one state. Earlier generations of immigrants. & Blanc-Szanton. and political links to their homelands—links that are encouraged by the governments of many sending countries. But some migration scholars argue that advocates of the transnationalism perspective have overstated their case. 1992). . 1999. arguing that transnational practices are used just as often to promote the capitalist interests of diasporic groups as to subvert nation–state identities. Specifically. 1991). it has been argued. In contrast. entered bounded national societies in which adherence to national norms was expected and dual citizenship prohibited. and in which new modes of political membership (e. Anthias (1998). 2001). Nagel / Political Geography 21 (2002) 971–987 973 Interrogating transnationalism and the ‘non-assimilation’ thesis The concept of transnationalism highlights the linkages that immigrants maintain with their homelands and with their compatriots in other host societies.1 While I agree with this 1 There are several other critiques of transnationalism and the related concept of ‘diaspora’. globalised context. thanks to improved transport technologies. 1991). 2001). investment capital. construct social fields that cross national borders (Basch. Laguerre. In this fluid. The lack of high-speed transport and communications technology meant that immigrants had no choice but to sever their ties with their homelands and to set down roots in their adopted country. 1992. 1999.C. Glick Schiller. 1999). has criticised the celebratory tone of the transnationalism/diaspora literature. Rouse. Kearney. Lessinger. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. they retain social. Accounts of transnationalism typically start from the premise that contemporary immigrants face a fundamentally different set of circumstances. who view their emigres as important sources of remittances. and votes (Itzigsohn. dual citizenship and denizenship) erode traditional. Glick Schiller. the transnationalism approach contends. and. financial. creating a stark dichotomy between past and present migrations where one is not warranted. contribute to the economies of more than one state. 1994. for instance. 1997). the plentiful existence of low-skilled manufacturing jobs in industrialising societies ensured a level of socio-economic mobility necessary for adaptation to take place (Portes. 1999. than did immigrants of the past. maintain a physical presence in more than one state (Vertovec. argues that the literature on transnationalism and diaspora privileges national identities and does little to uncover differences that exist within immigrant groups in terms of class and gender. At the same time. These critics cite evidence of transnational practices in previous generations of immigrants and argue that transnationalism cannot be spoken of as a novel phenomenon or one that precludes eventual integration (Kivisto. & Blanc-Szanton. Levitt. immigrants do not develop firm ties to their host societies. meanwhile.g. 2001.

1994. For instance. I would suggest that a less obvious but equally problematic issue concerns the way in which some transnational theorists employ and historicise the concept of ‘assimilation’. Likewise. like Portes (1997) and Castles and Davidson (2000) also have spoken of transnationalism as one path of integration that exists alongside traditional paths of assimilation.R. for instance. But in most cases. and that they are less inclined to adopt national norms and values than were previous waves of immigrants. who have expressed their support for the intifada in the West Bank. I would like to draw attention to the curious convergence in academic and popular discourse regarding the attachment (or lack thereof) of immigrants to their host societies. After September 11. they decry the devaluation of citizenship. for a critique. 1994. and so on. In a similar vein. that praises immigrants for maintaining their distinctiveness and their ‘traditional values’ at a time when such values (e. While I do not wish to defend assimilation theory. 2002. patriarchy. entitled ‘The Terrorists Among Us’. . To its advocates.g. Basch. The Social Contract. see Nagel. residential location. the transnational approach represents a repudiation of traditional assimilation models. There is a conservative school of thought. singling out growing acceptance of dual citizenship as facilitating un-American activities and promoting separatist attitudes (Renshon. but they are Palestinians first and foremost’ (Chavez.. But transnationalism advocates do not reject the assimilation model altogether. popular commentators speak of immigrant non-assimilation in relatively positive terms. In particular. many politicians. social commentators. they suggest more or less explicitly that assimilation no longer describes the social trajectories of present-day immigrants.974 C. 1993). In some cases. which posit that immigrants over time tend to lose their distinctiveness and to become more like the ‘mainstream’. and rampant consumerism in the West (Fukuyama. 143). Linda Chavez. ‘These young people may have been born in the US. suggests that multiculturalism has ‘taught that one’s allegiance to one’s ethnic group takes precedence over allegiance to the US or adherence to democratic values’. et al. Chavez contends. Nagel / Political Geography 21 (2002) 971–987 critique. and political pundits assert that today’s immigrants remain bound to their homelands and ethnic identities. Rather. and that assimilation is no longer an appropriate concept for interpreting the lives which are not contained within national borders2 (for instance. 2001). Like scholars of transnationalism. 1999. I do wish to interrogate assumptions about assimilation and non-assimilation found in transnational literature. 2 Some scholars. welfare dependency. the prospect of immigrants identifying with and pledging their allegiance to foreign nations is greeted with alarm. Vertovec and Cohen. entrepreneurialism) are being eroded by feminism. Clifford. 2001). 2002). language use. Arab and otherwise. one contributor to a recent edition of the conservative quarterly. self-sufficiency. p. popular journals and internet forums were replete with commentaries on the alleged nonassimilation of contemporary immigrants. speaks of the ‘utter lack of attachment of immigrants to a destination country’ (Horowitz. former head of the US Civil Rights Commission. Speaking of Palestinian American youths. as measured by rates of intermarriage. most often applied to the US case.

What is interesting about the non-assimilation theme is that it seems to recur every few decades in immigrant–receiving societies. Interestingly. On the one hand. 1991). Nagel / Political Geography 21 (2002) 971–987 975 Thus. we are perhaps witnessing the iteration of a common narrative in Western industrialised societies. 1999. 1997). the functioning of capitalist economies requires the mobility of labour. Germany. opposition to the immigration of Eastern European Jews in the late 19th century was framed in terms of the inability of this group to assimilate. very similar themes are also to be found in the political discourses of Britain. and less directly through the purposeful under3 In Britain. 1998). Spencer. As in the past. labour permit systems. the devaluation of citizenship.C. as well (Anderson. and elsewhere (Sassen. . it was frequently assumed that immigrants of the time owed their allegiance to foreign states and did not value American citizenship. sometimes celebratory) of the erosion of sovereignty. In focusing the debate on whether transnationalism is new or old and whether immigrants assimilate or do not assimilate. Unravelling the geopolitics of migration The perception and treatment of immigrants in Western societies reflect two contradictory impulses within the modern political economy. and the permanence of newcomers’ foreignness. both scholarly and popular accounts of contemporary immigration rest on the assumption of non-assimilation.R. we neglect to explain the complex negotiations of power and identity implicated in the definition of social membership and assimilability across historical and geographical contexts. Indeed. American politicians and academics in the early 20th century. This takes place directly through recruitment programmes. Silverman. and the creation of open labour markets (as in the EU). 1991). And while European immigration history is usually treated as distinctive from that of the settler societies. 1991. Paralleling today’s transnationalism arguments. I would like to suggest in the following section that explaining the dynamics of immigrant inclusion and exclusion does not require a ‘new’ theory of transnationalism as much as it requires an understanding of the geopolitical practices and discourses that underpin the regulation of human mobility. while normative content varies widely. France. the current non-assimilation argument is intertwined with assertions (sometimes fearful. and strove to ‘anglicise’ the newcomers as quickly as possible (see Glasman. political actors and economic interests within nation–states (especially in core states) routinely stimulate the movement of both skilled and unskilled workers across borders. for instance. for instance. The histories of other ‘settler societies’. the permeability of national borders.3 The recurrence of the non-assimilation theme in various guises suggests that rather than reaching a historical turning point in immigrant–host society relations. such as Canada. are replete with these kinds of assimilation debates. there appears to be a general tendency in every era to imagine that the current wave of immigrants is not capable of or willing to assimilate. members of more established Jewish communities in Britain sympathised with these arguments. endlessly debated the suitability of immigrants for membership in the American polity in terms of their assimilability (Jacobson.

yet they also set forth parameters of difference. My point is simply that the capitalist system requires the mobility of labour across borders and creates the conditions necessary for this mobility. but it has not altered the nature of the contradiction itself (for instance. The world outside: assimilation and geopolitics While notions of assimilability reflect the assessment of foreigners within national boundaries. Andreas. Globalisation. to maintain sovereignty over national territory.R.4 On the other hand. people migrate for a variety of reasons. Dwyer & Meyer. 1999). this tension has given rise periodically to panics about ‘floods’ of immigrants and the ‘threats’ they pose to national cohesion and to citizenship. and dominant groups remain the ultimate arbiters of which forms of difference are acceptable and which threaten national coherence. 2001). they just as often appear when national economies are visibly thriving on the labour of newcomers. the nation–state system rests upon the states’ ability to police boundaries. Nagel / Political Geography 21 (2002) 971–987 funding of immigration enforcement agencies. and in recent decades. neo-colonialism. 5 This is true even in states that pursue multiculturalist policies. these notions are based upon particular mappings of the world outside one’s own borders. and other immigrantreceiving contexts. has perhaps set these contradictions in greater relief. 1992). in expanding flows of capital. developed states (see Miles. Europe. In fact. tend to revolve around notions of assimilation and assimilability. 1999. It is not uncommon to hear the advocates of multiculturalism speak of certain cultural identities and values as incompatible with the goals of ‘integration’ and ‘diversity’ (for instance. The process of solidifying political–territorial boundaries is profoundly racialised. and to define and restrict membership in the national society through citizenship and other legal categories (Taylor. there is a very close relationship between a majority society’s attitudes toward immigrants and the way in which members of that society imagine the rest of the world. commodities. 1990.5. Throughout the history of the modern nation–state system. In this respect. Multicultural policies affirm cultural differences. clearly. the control of borders and the restriction of social membership has been treated with ever greater urgency with the establishment of social welfare rights (Klein-Beekman. Sassen. the state’s technical capacity to control borders and flows of people through them has greatly expanded. Contrary to the impression created by the literature on transnationalism. The tension between the drive to secure a mobile labour force and the drive to fix nation–state boundaries is an inherent characteristic of core. While these panics often erupt during times of economic downturn. 1994). 1993. 1995) 4 . Asad. These panics. as I suggested earlier. Samers. resting as it does on the formulation of exclusionary and essentialist notions of national identity and belonging (Anthias & Yuval-Davis. Flows of labour (as well as of capital and commodities) are also instigated by colonialism. conceptions of a group’s ability to assimilate—to adopt the values and characteristics of the nation and thus to share in its destiny—are tightly bound I do not mean to suggest that all migration flows or individual migration decisions are purely economic in nature. 1997). 1996). and workers.976 C. the institutionalisation of neo-liberal economic policies (Skeldon. In the US.

and the mainstream media has suggested.6 much of the rhetoric emanating from the White House. As with all geopolitical discourses. cultural. which posited the ‘Anglo-Saxon stock’ as morally and intellectually superior to a host of inferior. is that the cultural marginality of this group has been fed for decades by the relentless demonisation of mass social movements in the Arab world opposed to US policies (Said. 1992). 1990). and the regulation of national space. The irony of the government’s hasty defence of people of Arab heritage. These admonishments. and issued warnings to those planning revenge attacks against US citizens of Arab and/or Muslim origin. or Dearborn. Michigan. government officials urged the American public to refrain from blaming Muslim. it was not necessary to warn members of the public to refrain from attacking white Christian males after the Oklahoma City bombing. be they in Afghanistan.R. a parade punctuated by a sense of otherness vis-a To avoid the impression that the US is waging a battle against Islam. Following September 11. as a geopolitical discourse through which political actors make sense of ‘our place’ in a wider system of political. such notions reflected widely held beliefs in eugenics and pseudo-scientific racial categories. The ‘othering’ of Arab and Muslim immigrants post-September 11 Events following September 11 are very instructive in revealing the connections between geopolitical discourses and practices. The prevailing attitude was that inferior races (be they in Latin America or in big city ghettos) required heavy handed. Assimilation. Today. and territorial entities (O Tuathail.C. 1998). with overtly racist theories deemed unacceptable in public discourse. public understandings of the assimilability of different immigrant groups. degenerate races populating the rest of the world (Jacobson. while laudable. as intimated above. Discussions of Muslims and Arabs. Despite the White House’s constant assurances that America is not at war with Islam. should be interpreted. and as I will describe subsequently. 6 . 1999). conceptions of inherent difference of ‘outsiders’ and the outside world revolve around ideas of culture and religion. Nagel / Political Geography 21 (2002) 971–987 977 to broader understandings of the relationship between ‘the nation’ and other peoples and places. assessments of the suitability of immigrants. in part. sometime paternalistic. in a sense. the aftermath of the terrorist bombings in the US. are intertwined with racialised notions of national destiny and superiority. 1981). Saudi Arabia. of course. For the past year. have been ` -vis the West. Congress. were very telling of the marginal position of Arabs and Muslims in the popular imagination—certainly. the Rushdie Affair in Britain (Asad. in fact. as evidenced in the headscarf controversy in France (Zolberg & Woon. that the ‘Judeo-Christian West’ has embarked on its own jihad against an illiberal Muslim world. In the late 19th century. the Bush administration added North Korea to the ‘Axis of Evil’. 1997). guidance and control (Slater.and Arab-Americans for the terrorist attacks. Bush also back-pedalled from his initial use of ‘crusader’ terminology in responding to the terrorist attacks.

since well before September 11. The hundreds of thousands of Arab immigrants in America occupy a particularly uneasy place in this geopolitical vision of the world. unsurprisingly. Nagel / Political Geography 21 (2002) 971–987 of experts has appeared on television to uncover the ‘Arab mind’ and to make sense the ‘Muslim world’ and ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. Indeed. and the Gulf War). and community organisations—especially those supporting Palestinian charities—have frequently complained of harassment by law enforcement agencies.R. 2001). 1999). all of which have been treated as unitary objects decipherable through Western analysis. Said. On the contrary. have not typically been labelled as a ‘model minority’. social practices. The language surrounding the Islam/West dichotomy has been very stark: ‘they’ hate ‘our’ values. Recent flows of Arab immigrants. The perennial ‘Middle East experts’. And while George W. the baldest statements regarding the precarious position of Arab Americans have come.8 In the aftermath of September 11. did not alter perceptions of Arabs and Muslims as much as it reaffirmed the suspect status of these groups in the popular imagination. 1981). individual behaviours—has been explained in a most facile manner in terms of the theological positions allegedly set forth by the Islamic faith.and early 20th century.978 C. are believed to be predominantly Muslim. Yet Arab and Muslim Americans. the bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut.g. 2001). however. their position as citizens and/or residents has always appeared tentative in the context of frequent and often bloody conflicts between US and Arab or Muslim interests in the Middle East (e. from right wing journalists. Surveys and census analyses show that people claiming Arab origins have higher incomes than the population at large and are more likely to have an advanced university degree. In this geopolitical map. . 8 Joseph (1999) has provided an interesting account of the ambivalence that greeted Arab immigrants even in the late 19th. Edward Said’s works have also detailed the historical development of the negative meanings attached to Arabness in the US and Europe (for instance. and few attempts to understand the reasons for this ambivalence. September 11.7 for better and for worse. most mainstream political candidates have rebuffed the endorsements and financial support of Arab American political action committees (Joseph. Arab Americans are a relatively prosperous immigrant group. Arab immigrants. they also claim the highest percentage of business owners of any immigrant group (Arab American Institute. a popular figure on cable news talk shows and a self-declared 7 The Arab American population is overwhelmingly Christian. Bush courted Arab American voters (particularly in the swing state of Michigan) in 2000. have consistently represented Islam as a unified religious-cultural entity prone to extremism. owing to earlier waves of Lebanese migration. or ‘white’. in this sense. seemingly vindicated in their Orientalist worldview by the terrorist attacks. the world is either with ‘us’ or with ‘the terrorists’. when federal courts heard several cases to establish whether Arabs were ‘Asian’. and therefore ineligible for citizenship. have been the target of so-called ‘secret evidence’ hearings and security profiling measures. the whole of ‘Muslim society’—political formations. It should be noted that most Muslims in America are not of Arab origin (Arab American Institute. the Iranian Revolution. such as Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes. Debbie Schlussel. the Intifada. there is remarkably little recognition of the ambivalence many people in Arab countries (and elsewhere) feel toward American power.

on those who chose to stand outside it… (Steinlight. contends that America will soon become another France. and violence. John Ashcroft. 2002). Steinlight. Of course such exhortations are timely and necessary. The newest tack in their arguments has been to warn American Jews that more Arab and Muslim migration means a rising incidence of anti-Semitism and decreasing support in Washington for Israel. 2001). numerous Surahs preach hatred and violence and call for ruthless war against unbelievers in the name of Allah. while often geared toward events in the Middle East. of the mantra that “true Islam” does not practice or preach violence and hatred. and that Muslim immigration threatens the country’s security (for instance. she claims. is now a ‘radical Muslim country’ due to apparently unlimited immigration and high fertility rates among Muslim immigrants (Schlussel. But far more questionable have been the continual references by politicians. Schlussel berates Bush for pandering to ‘pro-immigration radical Muslim groups operating in our borders’. outright hostility. He states. …In the wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings. California Republican Darryl Issa. many papers published by CIS are rife with claims that Islam by its very nature is prone to extremism. In this context of ambivalence and. This is not a distortion of Islam. the general thrust of Arab American activism has been to rebut negative portrayals of the Arab world in the media and to transform Arabness (and Muslimness) into a mainstream. for instance.” and the repetition. a short step from the belief that one’s own faith possesses absolute truth to the readiness to inflict violence. But the sentiments expressed in her column can be found in a multitude of more respectable forums. has repeatedly conflated ‘Middle Eastern migration’ with terrorism.R. Steinlight. I think. which. an influential Washington think tank that frequently testifies before Congress.C. While some of the centre’s members take a moderate position on Arab and Muslim immigration. Nagel / Political Geography 21 (2002) 971–987 979 Middle East expert. there have been countless exhortations from public figures…not to scapegoat all American Muslims and to protect them from reprisals. including the Attorney General. As any one even vaguely acquainted with the Koran knows. this is the language of its most sacred text. For many decades. and the self-proclaimed “people of good will” to “our common religious heritage. innocuous ethnic signifier. needless to say. To be sure. And it is but a short step from classic Islamic supremacism and supercessionism to hatred. towards Arabs and Muslims (and immigrants more generally). Material published by Arab American organisations. clergy. The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). has highlighted the all-American credentials of the community. 2001) . even death. does not subject the sacred texts of Christianity and Judaism to such an analysis. a ‘Hezbollah mega-fan’) of ‘making it easier for undesirables to immigrate to this country’. Schlussel and her ilk thrive on inflammatory rhetoric. intolerance. ad nauseum. and accuses Arab American congressional representatives (calling one. are worth quoting at length for the way in which he simultaneously condemns the entire Islamic faith and associates the beliefs and attitudes of all Muslims with the alleged ‘tenets’ of that faith as expressed in the Quran.9 Most disturbing of all are the many unflattering remarks about Muslim and Arabs made publicly by congressional representatives and government officials. portraying Arab immigrants as ordinary folks pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and contributing to American society in every way possible. A good example of this is 9 Steinlight’s remarks. Arab Americans have been at pains to prove their patriotism and to convince the American public that they are loyal citizens. in some quarters.

Meanwhile. Even though the arrests of thousands of men of Arab and Muslim descent that followed September 11 yielded only one indictment. beholden to business interests and eager to court Latino votes.980 C. and business people who claim Arab heritage—the aim being to show that Arabs do not threaten America’s values but contribute to its cultural. 2001). In Detroit. much to the consternation of Republican hardliners. one poll in Detroit revealed that 61% of the Arab American community felt airport profiling to target potential Arab terrorists was justified (Niemic & Windsor. . one site even allowed viewers to play the Star Spangled Banner. But I have tried to show that the single-minded attention to transnationalism in recent years has been problematic. entertainers. has portrayed itself as friendly to immigration. economic. This list has been reproduced on a number of other Arab American websites in the past year. Arab American organisations condemned the terrorists and offered sympathy to the victims. September 11. American flags sprung up in front gardens. at least as far as migration is concerned. has simply reproduced the contradictions embedded in the nation–state system. Yet it must be emphasised that these new policing measures fall well short of actually reducing flows of immigrant workers. Immediately following the attacks. white and blue graphics. as most accounts of transnationalism are highly sensi- 10 The significance of ‘balkanization’ imagery in describing the impact of immigration on urban landscapes is described by Ellis and Wright (1998). the Bush Administration. and political life. more worryingly. It would be very unfair to equate academic approaches to transnationalism with anti-immigrant demagoguery. Since September 11.R. including the restructuring of the INS and the formation of an Office of Homeland Security. sports figures. the hysteria regarding the infiltration of Arab terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists on American soil has led to a flurry of new immigration and national security proposals. policymakers and legislators have rushed to tighten border security and. Nagel / Political Geography 21 (2002) 971–987 a pamphlet published by the Arab American Institute listing the scores of wellknown politicians. as The Economist claims. home to America’s largest Arab community. These measures dovetail with efforts in the past several years to restrict welfare rights of immigrants—efforts targeted at Latino immigrants and promoted by many cultural conservatives fearing ‘cultural balkanisation’10 and ‘the browning of America’ (see Zolberg & Woon. Indeed. 1999). to widen the government’s power to detain and to deport immigrants. community activists have redoubled their efforts in a multitude of ways. Transnational politics or the politics of assimilation? The transnational perspective urges us to focus on the homeland affiliations and border-straddling social networks of contemporary migrants. Far from changing the world. Websites were redesigned with red.

But the concept of assimilation. underestimates and shifts attention away from the tremendous power that host society narratives—however unstable they may be—exert on immigrants. to be included in the ‘mainstream’ (see Kymlicka. I believe. I wish to suggest that the assumption that immigrants are not assimilating and that they remain tied to their homelands requires as much. if not more. having entered the formal boundaries of the state. remains pertinent to our analyses of immigration politics and the politics of immigrants. and have criticised the trendy enthusiasm for transnational practices among liberal academics (e. that it is teleological. But it does not necessarily follow that contemporary immigrants and their children are any less implicated in the politics of assimilation or under any less pressure to conform to dominant conceptions of ‘appropriate’ behaviour. Immigrants. must situate themselves within the social boundaries of the nation. cultural. The construction of political territory. in a sense. The transnational approach. However. The dynamics of assimilation. even as they act to preserve their identities and traditions. appearance. 12 Guarnizo and Smith (1998) go against the grain of much of the literature on transnationalism by arguing that transnationalism does not weaken the nation–state or national identities. The many critiques that have been levelled against assimilation theory—for instance. In focusing on the assimilatory pressures of the host society and the assimilatory aims of immigrants themselves. and/or civilisational differences that inform the host society’s perceptions of and relationships with the world outside of its borders (Miles. I have tried to show. Rouse.g. are set in motion by the geopolitical systems in which contemporary migration takes place.R. but in fact. the spatial enclosure of the nation. and that it essentialises ethnicity—are entirely warranted. Steinlight. the focus of their analysis remains on sending societies. and the containment of external threats (including ‘floods’ and ‘hordes’ of immigrants) are processes laden with ideological conceptions of self and other. Nagel / Political Geography 21 (2002) 971–987 981 tive to the plight of migrants and view transnational practises as a means of coping with marginalisation (e.g. is predicated on their existence. 1993). brings the ‘the foreign’ into the bounds of the nation. that it assumes the existence of a uniform host society. Immigration. 2001). Nevertheless. . scrutiny than actual transnational behaviours. There are undoubtedly many immigrants who continue to be engaged with their sending society—this was certainly the case even when immigrants did not have the benefit of cheap and fast communications technologies.12 it also underestimates the desire among many immigrants. I would like to argue. and immigrants are evaluated according to the wider narratives of racial. there has been a remarkable— and ironic—convergence in academic and popular discourse regarding the erosion of citizenship and the subversion of national identity through transnational identities and activities. beliefs. religious. Assimilation is perhaps best understood as a politics of sameness articulated through the discourses of social membership that circulate in immigrant-receiving contexts. or social practices. 11 Some conservative commentators have noted this convergence.11 In pointing out this convergence. 1991). 2001). and not on the host society.C. I am not advocating a wholesale embrace of traditional assimilation theory.

Migration literature—not to mention popular literature—is rife with assumptions about which immigrants are assimilated and which are not. and that we need to explore what ‘assimilation’ means in substantive terms to immigrants and host societies: how does an immigrant group come to be perceived as indistinguishable from the dominant society? How is the dominant society imagined by those included in and excluded from its boundaries? How do immigrants conceptualise their position in the host society? How do they assert membership and position themselves in dominant spaces and spheres? The ability to answer such questions. not as an uneven and contentious process by which immigrants and host societies negotiate the boundaries of social membership. does not challenge the basic. It was this same aim 13 It would be unfair. begins by understanding assimilation as geopolitics by another name—a politics of sameness bound up with the construction and regulation of political space at multiple scales. have been too hasty to dismiss the contemporary relevance of assimilation when the concept continues to pervade our commonsense understanding of the relationship between immigrants and host societies. and argue that assimilation scholars must focus on understanding the causal dynamics that underlie assimilation. I believe. spoke at length about various ideologies of assimilation that have circulated in American society since the 18th century and their racist overtones. make note of this shortcoming.982 C. but they set into motion actions and interactions that are material and visible in everyday life. in their defence of assimilation theory. however. I believe. societal determinations of whether a group is assimilable or assimilated are eminently ideological. It merely applies traditional conceptions of assimilation to earlier waves of immigration or to specific types of immigrants. we somehow seem to know when a group has become ‘one of us’ and is no longer an interesting topic of study. But his famous multidimensional model does treat assimilation as an ecological process—the result of natural tendencies at work in the interactions between newcomers and host society members. Nagel / Political Geography 21 (2002) 971–987 In sum.R. I am arguing that such common-sense assumptions about sameness and difference require a great deal more interrogation. Alba and Nee (1997). Summary and description of papers I have tried in this brief introduction to present a critical overview of one of the key theoretical frameworks found in migration literature today. The major flaw of assimilation theory is that it has tended to treat assimilation as a natural. 13 The transnational framework. Many migration scholars. as critics often contend. measurable through a standard set of indicators. To become ‘the same’ or ‘one of us’ requires innumerable acts of conformity and accommodation through which immigrants (and other minorities) position themselves in dominant spaces and spheres. while posed as an alternative to assimilation theory. for instance. to say that assimilation theorists have ignored exclusion and the politics of conformity. inevitable process of immigrant adaptation. Gordon (1964). Protestant majority and their simultaneous exclusion from the privileged circles of dominant society. . present a na¨ ıve picture of a homogenous American society. ecological understanding of assimilation set forth by this theory. often in the face of exclusion and marginalisation. He did not. he also spoke of the pressure for immigrants to conform to the norms and values set forth by the Anglo-Saxon.

whether this space facilitates their incorporation or fosters their attachment to homeland identities. political. the theme of which was ‘New Patterns. not only in terms of legal membership. To begin. but also in terms of social membership enacted through political participation. Kofman also addresses the claim that the local and the transnational provide new spaces in which immigrants can participate as political actors. These accounts are rooted in concrete examples that explain the relationship between immigrants and host societies. sense of belonging. arguing that the proliferation of migrant categories and statuses over the past several decades and the bewildering array of legislation on entry. urge a greater degree of caution in making either claim.R. and access to rights. Lynn Staeheli and her colleagues evaluate interrelated debates regarding the impact of new technologies on political participation and the incorporation of contemporary immigrants into the political systems of their host societies. they ask whether the Internet provides a new political space for immigrants. In particular. Their survey of websites suggests that the Internet may be used more to provide information about or for immigrants than to mobilise immigrants themselves to political action. and if so. It has been argued in recent years that formal citizenship has become less significant with the extension of human rights provisions to immigrants in Western host societies. national. is enacted at multiple geo- . and metropolitan. Citizenship. she argues. though tentative. policies and social discourses of nation–states—and the contradictions and ambiguities therein–mediate the experiences of immigrant groups. They are also concerned with the ways in which immigrant incorporation (and marginalisation) takes place at different geographical scales—transnational. that the Internet. that immigrants’ citizenship practices are becoming deterritorialised and cosmopolitan rather than bound to a single nation–state. is radically transforming democracy and second. Kofman challenges this claim. Their findings. and employment has led to highly uneven access to rights among immigrants. New Theories’. than what forum do they use? Are there forums through which immigrants challenge their exclusion and assert their membership in the political community? This research raises some basic questions that are too often neglected in current research: How do immigrant groups conceptualise citizenship and social membership? In what ways do they negotiate their membership in different political communities? How do political claims differ between and within immigrant groups? Eleonore Kofman addresses a different component of current debates on citizenship and political community. revealing the multiple ways in which the institutions. Nagel / Political Geography 21 (2002) 971–987 983 to critically evaluate theoretical approaches in current migration studies that inspired a group of us at the Nottingham Trent University to host a conference on international migration in September 2000. if immigrants do not use the Internet as a forum for political debate. The authors ask. for better or for worse. residence.C. In posing this question. are addressing two sets of claims found in the current literature: first. The conference papers selected for this special issue explore the geopolitical processes implicated in migration and immigrant settlement. All of these papers are concerned with the ways in which the regulation of borders and the creation of national space marginalise immigrants and structure their participation in the economic. and cultural life of host societies. Staeheli et al.

White draws in particular on the growing literature in critical legal studies. they speak normatively of the role that NGOs must take to ensure that exporters and importers of labour protect the rights of migrants. scale. territory. Meanwhile. in part by placing the responsibility for labour conditions entirely on employer and employee. central to—issues that have long concerned political geographers. In their conclusion. in Japan. the destination for many Filipino workers. These papers provide just a glimpse of the exciting work being conducted in the field of migration studies by geographers and others. a major labour exporter. and citizenship. A key point in Kofman’s analysis is that national regimes remain the most important entities in terms of structuring migrants’ rights. and the political construction of ‘community’ and group identity. the Philippines and Japan. they take on substantive form in the local institutions where asylum seekers apply for refugee status and where they seek legal advice. the overlapping spatial scales that mediate immigrants’ experiences.R. Their analysis is particularly valuable in its focus on both the sending country as well as the receiving country—in this case. There are. respectively. and that the contradictory imperatives of nation–states continue to place constraints migrants’ ability to exercise rights and to participate in host society institutions. paralegal advisors) understand legal processes and their relationship to asylum seekers. The result of these different policy orientations has been a lack of state protection emanating from either the Philippines or from Japan for thousands of migrant workers. . Like Kofman. Rochelle Ball and Nicola Piper’s analysis of immigrant rights in East Asia provides a good illustration of these contradictory imperatives and their impact on migrant workers.984 C. Our hope is that these papers show migration to be relevant—and indeed. The end result is a diverse geography of refugee experiences that contrasts with the homogeneous representations of asylum seekers found in dominant societal discourses. Nagel / Political Geography 21 (2002) 971–987 graphical scales. but neither the local nor the transnational scales can be viewed as somehow more democratic or inclusive than the national. community advocates. Ball and Piper’s analysis suggests that international human rights conventions have had only limited effect for many migrants. which examines the ways in which laws and legal systems shape everyday geographies and the way in which access to legal knowledge is spatially differentiated. the aim of public policy has been to limit the stay of migrants and to prevent permanent settlement of those without ethnic ties to Japan. however. Finally. and that the issue of citizenship remains paramount as far as immigrant rights and well being are concerned. Allen White’s article on asylum-seekers in Britain picks up on the themes raised by the other three contributors—the unevenness of immigrants’ access to rights. For the Philippines. The topic of migration has been rather marginal in the subfield of political geography. a key policy aim has been to deregulate the workforce. While asylum laws are promulgated at a national level. important variations in local institutional settings with respect to the ways in which legal workers (solicitors. including geopolitics.

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