E. Tendayi Achiume –
The designations “illegal” or “economic” immigrant swiftly mark those to whom they are applied as legitimate targets of national exclusion. Public and academic discourse often treats such immigrants as the consummate political strangers, standing outside the political borders of “we the people” or “we the citizens,” whose status as citizens confers a collectively-held, unilateral right to decide who may cross the political and territorial boundaries of the nation-state. In the conventional account, the right to exclude is understood as an incident of nation-state sovereignty, vital for the independent self-determination of all. Within the liberal paradigm, the law of immigration is an exception to this sovereign right to exclude. Political strangers must fit into one or other exceptional category to be granted admission: high-skilled worker, student, tourist. Even refugees are admitted by way of exception, and those who meet the legal definition of a refugee enjoy the strongest, internationally-recognized legal protections against national exclusion. For so-called economic migrants—those understood to move in search of better jobs, better education or just better lives—legal and ethical entitlements to admission and inclusion remain largely at the discretion of the citizens of the receiving state. And so, if Europe wants to exclude African migrants crossing the Mediterranean, it has the right to do so.
In a recent article, Migration as Decolonization, I challenge the dominant accounts of sovereignty and the right to exclude outlined above, arguing that they ignore the theoretical and ethical salience of the political economy of empire. Very loosely, empire can be understood as the extra-territorial projection of political and economic power by one political community over another, on terms that structurally favor the former. Dominant legal and political theory focus on the borders of discrete, autonomous nation-states, but largely ignore the borders of empire. Migration as Decolonization breaks from this conventional mode to recall the colonial history of contemporary border regimes, and to spotlight the manner in which the logics of empire have long shaped the governance of borders, as the articulation of an absolutist conception of sovereignty in the Chinese Exclusion Cases illustrates. My focus is the legal and ethical implications of persisting neocolonial interconnection and subordination, which I argue mean that former European colonial or First World nations have no right to exclude the citizens of formerly colonized or Third World nations. On this account, Western European nations have no right to exclude Africans.