I am a migrant, though you might not be inclined to identify me as one. Chances are, you are a migrant, too — and a descendent of many millions of migrants. The term can be deceptive, and these deceptions can be dangerous.
I moved for the first time with my family when I was three years old, for a typical reason often described as “economic opportunity.” This meant, in my father’s case, an editorial position at the newspaper in the city where he was born and raised — what is known as “return migration.” We moved from Louisville to Sacramento, a westward journey slightly longer than the trans-European trek from Istanbul to Madrid (crossing seven national borders) and slightly shorter than the path across Asia from Hanoi to Kathmandu (crossing five borders). By the stunning success of U.S. imperial warfare in the nineteenth century — which defeated empires (e.g. Mexican) which had defeated empires (e.g. Spanish) which had defeated empires (e.g. Aztec) which had defeated empires (e.g. Tepanec) — the realization of “Manifest Destiny” meant that this migration crossed nine state lines but not a single nation-state border.
We ended up not far from where the first American Cusick of my genealogy settled in California, having fled the infamous Irish Potato Famine to the east coast of the United States, then voyaged around the Cape Horn in the California Gold Rush. Andrew Cusick was one traveler in a so-called “wave of migration” that led to the founding of Sacramento and the establishment of California as one of the United States of America (by a corrupt political compromise that perpetuated slavery and resolved the status of territory recently seized by armed force from the government of Mexico). The Cusicks, née Cusacks, were Irish by way of Normandy, descendants of the Normans who invaded what is now Great Britain, having emerged ethnically in what is now northern France from the intermixing of Viking settlers and indigenous Franks and Gallo-Romans. My roots are in rootlessness — as are everyone’s, on a long enough timeline.
At the age of eighteen, I migrated on my own for the first time, for a typical reason often described as “educational opportunity,” following that dubious American promise of a college degree and half a lifetime of usurious debt as the foundation for professional success. For people from my inherited middle class background, this unremarkable migration is simply called “going to college.” My father accompanied me on the drive from Sacramento to New York City, traversing a transcontinental route as long as the road from Damascus to Lahore. I migrated again three years later to live and learn in Madrid — though for my social class, this is simply called “foreign exchange” or “study abroad.” Two years after that, I migrated to the coast of Oaxaca, although here again, there’s another word for immigrants of my upbringing: “expats.”
These words don’t merely describe but also inscribe and reinforce racialized and financialized assumptions and stereotypes about movement and belonging. They establish normatively privileged categories of migration without “migration” and forestall critical interrogation of the moral foundations for these social distinctions. Such shorthand foreshortens thought. The carefree “rights” of “expats” to live wherever in the world they so desire remain unquestioned as normal and natural, while the contested “rights” of “migrants,” even for those who support them, become a matter of “humanitarian” and “charitable” concern. Lurking beneath these categories lies the unchallenged validity of the carceral state to determine who has the “right to have rights,” as Hannah Arendt, the famous “stateless refugee,” described it.
Even as media outlets like The New York Times and the Associated Press have moved away from pejorative phrases like “illegal immigrant,” the presently preferred terminology such as “undocumented migrant” still tends to flatten the diverse lived experiences of people into stereotypes supercharged with hidden political notions — for instance, that a “migrant” is an other and an outsider, a wretched object of “surges” and “waves” of migration, that being “documented” by a nation-state is good and right and normal, that essential human identity is founded on the determinations of state structures, and so on. An article from The New York Times “Crossing the Border” series begins with the story of a U.S. border agent who “spotted an undocumented man being chased by the Border Patrol,” eliding the dangerous assumptions within the actual sequence of events: he saw a man being chased by officers, and assumed that he did not have U.S. federal authorization to be precisely where he was — that he was “an undocumented man” — presumably just because he was being chased and had certain typically “Hispanic” phenotypic characteristics. The fact that the author is of “Hispanic” descent, or that the border agent is as well — and in the story’s novel hook, himself lacked valid U.S. citizenship, since his Brownsville birth certificate was actually filed shortly after his birth in Matamoros — complicates, but does not negate the implicit bias and dehumanization reinforced by the simplistic labeling of the article.
The small town of Mazunte where I have mostly resided for over a decade is seemingly designed to disrupt such simple labels and assumptions, presenting a model of what political philosopher Thomas Nail has termed “migrant cosmopolitanism.” Two generations ago, the town did not exist. The notable residents of this tranquil beach surrounded by mangroves were sea turtles, themselves seasonal migrants on transcontinental journeys. On a relatively short historical timeline, no one is from here. Some of the town’s founding elders, who came to hunt the sea turtles, still reside in this rapidly transformed and transforming “ecotourism destination” — as do the migratory turtles, now protected by the state, during their season of mating and egg-laying. About half of Mazunte’s current residents were born far from the Oaxaca coast — in other parts of Mexico, in other parts of the American continent, in other parts of the world. Some of the most recent generation of locally-born residents have parents from two different countries. In a weekly poker game, four languages are commonly spoken, sometimes even by the same person: Dorian, born in Mexico to a Parisian mother on her way into the United States (and so, like the border agent, “documented” with a “false” American birth certificate), then raised in France and Italy, before returning to Mexico in adulthood. The autonomous local library collective that I belong to represents about as many countries as there are volunteer members, with many transcending any single national identity. “De ningún lado del todo,” sings one of our favorite musicians, Jorge Drexler, in his ode to migration. “De todos lados un poco.” (“From nowhere at all, from everywhere a little.”)
Part of Mazunte is always elsewhere. Although this could be said of nearly anywhere else, it is a deeply felt sentiment here. Mazunte evokes what Doreen Massey called a “global sense of place”: a “sense of place which is extroverted, which includes a consciousness of its links with the wider world, which integrates in a positive way the global and the local.” Residents of Mazunte, both local-born and “outsiders,” frequently migrate for work, particularly during the tourist lull of the stormy summer, mostly to the more profitable economies of North America and Europe. Depending on where we were born, some of us find this “circular migration” easier than others. In recent years, I have helped many friends apply for legal work visas to Canada — a remarkably easy process, no more complicated than buying an airplane ticket — as in earlier years, I supplied supporting information for visa applications to the United States — a remarkably difficult process, which has now become all but impossible. I, too, have migrated annually to work in California and New York during Mazunte’s storm season, jetting back and forth across a national border that is for me, by the good fortune of my birthplace and its ignominious imperial conquest, only slightly more inconvenient than crossing a state border. Even still, I have faced my share of border difficulties — denied renewal of my residency visa over an exceedingly uncharitable, pedantic reading of regulations, forced to sleep in my car for days at the southern border upon reentry from Guatemala during protracted, byzantine processes of paperwork, harassed by border agents based on my nationality — though the ultimate effects of such difficulties have been relatively mild.
But I have heard the stories of friends turned away with bureaucratic ruthlessness at the U.S. border — and they are not typical stories that fit the prescribed narratives about “migrants” one might read in The New York Times. Every person’s story is unique. A former music festival producer from Chile — light skin, hazel eyes, something of a cross between Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson — was permanently banned from entry into the United States because he had smoked cannabis in Canada, where it is recreationally legal, before attempting to cross into the state of Washington, where it is recreationally legal. He first told the U.S. border officers that he had not used drugs, before admitting that he had indeed smoked cannabis, which for him — and for the relevant local laws — was no different than coffee or cigarettes, hardly qualifying as “drugs.” He wasn’t “undocumented,” but he was still summarily denied entry, ostensibly for “lying.” The partner of a former roommate of mine in Brooklyn was banned for life from entry into the United States after the couple took a vacation to Niagara Falls and made the mistake of crossing to the Canadian side and back, when U.S. border agents discovered that she had overstayed her visa. Even after the couple married, her reentry denial remained permanent, so my old roommate had to move to Canada to live with his wife in the country where she was born. The brutality of the border can dehumanize and deny anyone, by the whim of the nation-state — and the United States is hardly exceptional in this regard. In Mazunte, friends collect and share stories of hostile border authorities around the world — in Germany, Australia, Canada, and even Mexico itself.
I do not highlight these examples or claim my identity as a “migrant” to suggest some false equivalence with those in marginalized, tenuous, and dangerous circumstances for whom the term is usually reserved. As Massey pointed out, “Different social groups have distinct relationships to this anyway differentiated mobility: some people are more in charge of it than others; some initiate flows and movement, others don’t; some are more on the receiving-end of it than others; some are effectively imprisoned by it.” Still I insist on a common identity to resist the tendency to exoticize and otherize the “figure of the migrant,” as Nail describes, and to upend the notion that this identity is “the exception to the rule of political fixity and citizenship.” Migration is the natural state of humankind, prior to the nation-state and citizenship. We are all bodies moving through space, belonging wherever we are in the world — and we always have been. “No soy de aquí,” sings Jorge Drexler, “pero tú tampoco.” (“I’m not from here, but neither are you.”)
The common phrases of our inherited political discourse deceive us. There is no “border crisis” or “immigration crisis” caused by some “surge” or “wave” of “illegal” migration, that could be swiftly “solved” by some “comprehensive reform.” Movement is made illegal with the arbitrary stroke of a pen, and borders cross people just as surely as people cross borders. The “crisis” is the border itself, all borders everywhere, which define and delineate “national sovereignty” — that monopoly of force which determines who belongs and who is excluded, who has “the right to have rights.” However well-meaning they may be used, terms like “immigrant,” “undocumented,” “refugee,” and “citizen” can work to reify state classification regimes and reinforce unnatural distinctions, and they should be continually questioned, even when they must be invoked for the sake of protection. “No one is illegal,” sure, but also: anyone can be a migrant.
Mat Cusick is a graduate student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program, and a Student Fellow in the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility.