The New School’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility hosted a conference on April 12, 2019 to mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World, a seminal book on refugee studies co-authored by Aristide Zolberg, Astri Suhrke, and Sergio Aguayo. Scholars from around the world joined New School faculty to discuss developments in migration theory, practical approaches to forced migration, and refugee empowerment in localized and international politics. The conference was a timely and necessary reorientation in light of current discourse flowing from both Washington D.C. and the southern U.S. border. It affirmed a central claim made thirty years ago in Escape from Violence: refugee crises must be studied as political consequences rather than merely as humanitarian concerns.

Zolberg, Suhrke, and Aguayo’s analysis is centered around the question who is recognized as a refugee — still a contested issue in today’s public discourse, as people arriving at the southern U.S. border are alternatively categorized as “refugees” or “economic migrants.” Although the majority of migrants at the southern border are asylum seekers fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle, media reports and Trump administration pronouncements routinely generalize incoming migrants as seeking better economic prospects. Zolberg, Suhrke, and Aguayon identified this dichotomy of refugees and economic migrants:

Most discussions of what makes refugees distinctive have focused on a combination of two different characteristics of their movement. It is involuntary, as opposed to voluntary, and is occasioned by political, as opposed to economic, causes. In practice, these two are considered equivalent: We thus get a couplet, “voluntary economic=migrants” and “involuntary political=refugees.”

Refugee status rests on a philosophical framework of individual agency and a moral system of claims and duties. In regard to the former, the common view differentiates between migrants and refugees by virtue of their ability to exercise agency: the movement of economic migrants is always rooted in their rational choice, whereas the movement of refugees is forced. Thus, refugees cannot be held responsible for their movement. Indeed, the involuntary aspect of this movement sets the grounds for their claim to protection by admission into another country. Economic migrants, on the other hand, are viewed to have a less legitimate claim to be admitted by another country, as their movement is considered voluntary.

Linked to the ability to choose, the common view distinguishes between the root causes of movement for economic migrants and refugees. Whereas economic migrants move because of inadequate or even dire economic prospects in their home countries, refugees move because of political persecution, state dysfunction, or both. In this understanding, economic conditions are divorced from the political circumstances. Zolberg, Suhrke, and Aguayo write that this differentiation emerges from how we define violence. Unfavorable economic prospects are not viewed as purposefully inflicted, so economic migrants are not believed to suffer from violence. On the other hand, refugees are the objects — either directly or indirectly — of deliberate harm, and thus are the victims of violence. Again, it is by virtue of this victimhood that refugees can make a claim for protection.

Because many who arrive at the southern U.S. border have been moving in cooperatively in so-called “migrant caravans,” they are seen as making a rational decision to move. Hence, they are considered economic migrants instead of refugees. Yet the dire economic conditions and longstanding political turmoil in the Northern Triangle countries present insurmountable difficulty in distinguishing the discrete causes for migration. Thus, there can be no clear answer to the question of who is a refugee if the category is in opposition to that of the economic migrant.

In engaging with this debate, it is important to consider what appears to be good faith in marking these differences between migrants and refugees. What traditionally underlies this distinction is a belief in a necessary system of triage in order to ensure the most immediate assistance to those with the strongest claims. The moral system underpinning this refugee regime operates on the basic premise that a legitimate claim triggers a commensurate duty to respond adequately to it . States justify hierarchies of migration by appealing not only to their right to exercise their sovereignty by regulating migration but also to their duty to sufficiently satisfy their subjects’ most pressing and legitimate claims. U.S. immigration law prioritizes those with familial ties to American citizens. International refugee conventions mandate an immediate response to asylum claims. In both instances, the normative force behind admitting “foreigners” rests on the strength of their legal claims. For this reason, the common view grants a stronger normative force to refugees than to economic migrants.

While Zolberg, Suhrke, and Aguayo agree with a triaged system of migration, they disagree with the premises which dichotomize refugees and migrants. First, there is the difficulty of applying this distinction of voluntary migration to the situation of political dissenters. Moreover, a country’s economic conditions cannot be divorced from its political conditions, as even a cursory reflection on the legacies of colonialism and U.S. economic and political intervention in Central America illuminates. The political and the economic, like the voluntary and the involuntary, are not so easily triaged.

While non-voluntary migrants are commonly defined by the notion of a rational choice to seek better prospects through emigration, Zolberg Suhrke, and Aguayo argue that a political dissenter is someone who makes this rational choice par excellence. Political dissenters are persecuted because they choose not to comply with what they see as impermissible demands. Unlike those who are persecuted for arbitrary birth characteristics, for instance, dissenters can be held accountable for their voluntary actions. Given that refugee status has historically and continuously been granted to political dissenters, the dichotomy between voluntary and involuntary migration thus collapses here.

This analysis is especially relevant to understanding the so-called “caravans,” which are formed by individuals who make a rational decision upon joining. One obvious motivation for the “caravans” is to provide safety in numbers from traffickers and other potential predators, but they are also a political statement. Their frequency and size demonstrate that the cause of their movement is a deeply structural one and manifest a collective claim to the U.S. to fulfill its obligations. The very act of migrating in this manner, even in the hopes of better economic opportunity, thus represents a form of political dissent.

The discourse of the White House and government agencies has attempted to justify xenophobia and racism with arguments about the importance of sovereign nations protecting their borders. However, when the good faith behind the debate over refugee status is removed, it becomes literally deadly and self-defeating. As the distinction becomes a means to grant admission based on arbitrary birth characteristics rather than the normative force of ethical claims, it no longer has a raison d’être. That is to say, the distinction between migrants and refugees stops mattering because it is no longer a rubric to determine to whom states have a stronger duty but rather a cynical tactic to keep people out. Policies of caging peopleseparating children from their families, and maintaining inhospitable conditions in detention facilities are elements of a regime of explicit deterrence that violates established international and national commitments to refugees. We are witnessing the erosion of established international standards for legal obligations to refugees, which is even more alarming given that thirty years ago, Zolberg, Suhrke, and Aguayo already observed severe shortcomings.

Our conference presenters and attendees engaged with these and other observations about the current refugee regime. We examined the current discourse to ask how and why we continue to debate the epistemology of the “refugee” without responding in a just way to the asylum challenge. We now present those contributions through a series of essays for Public Seminar.

We begin this edition with a piece exploring a qualifier that echoes the question of agency and underpins the category of refugee: innocence. Miriam Ticktin (NSSR) explores the idea of innocence by applying it not just to those who receive refugee status but also to the administrative bodies which grant it. Anne McNevin (NSSR) and David FitzGerald (UCSD) share their respective analyses on the methods employed by states to control access to claiming asylum. Fitzgerald examines five different strategies that control the flow of refugees into the Global North. McNevin critiques the offshore containment of refugees by states expanding their border controls to extrajudicial territories. Simon Behrman (RHUL) offers an examination of grassroots asylum as resistance to the erosion of asylum granted by states. Jane McAdam (UNSW) identifies the gap in refugee conventions in regard to forced movement caused by climate change. McAdam proposes that instead of including those who undergo climate-caused displacement in our current definition of refugees, we should adopt a parallel paradigm to address their claims.

Since our conference marked the 30th anniversary of Escape from Violence, we supplement this special series for Public Seminar with commentary by Astri Suhrke (CMI), Sergio Aguayo (COLMEX), and Rubén G. Rumbaut (UCI), reflecting on their collaboration with Aristide R. Zolberg — whose name our Institute bears, in honor of his profound contributions to migration studies. It is the Zolberg Institute’s objective in publishing with Public Seminar to engage the intellectual community to discuss the current events relevant to our refugee regime. As Zolberg, Suhrke, and Aguayo argued in Escape from Violence three decades ago, refugee crises are political consequences that can only be understood through thorough examination. This series is part of that deep and ongoing effort.

Daniel Calzadillas-Rodriguez is a master’s candidate in the philosophy department at The New School for Social Research. His interests include the Philosophy of (immigration) law and social epistemology.