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August 28, 2012 |  Print  Your Opinion  

Bastian Vollmer

Governing Irregular Migration: No Power Politics but Deliberation

Bastian Vollmer: The policy domain of irregular migration has reached a new level of politicization. ‘Power politics’ increasingly set the stage for policy-making subject to forces and logics that do not serve the public good but rather political careers. Instead, the high-risk policy domain of irregular migration needs deliberation - a high quality of a well-informed and balanced discourse in the EU and the US.

Public awareness - which regards irregular migration, or ‘illegal immigration', with images of ‘boat people' from Africa on their way to Europe or with media reports about horrific events at the Mexican borders - is growing in the European Union and in the United States alike. Consequently, the policy domain of immigration, and especially forms of irregular migration, has become politicised over the past 30-40 years.

However, more recently it has become not only politicized but also one of the pivotal issues on policy and election agendas in the US and in EU member states. The nature, scope and implications of the phenomenon of irregular migration is highly complex and has challenged researchers for decades, but the increasingly high public profile of this thematic field in policy and politics adds another probably even more complex dimension--the convoluted and precarious dimension of ‘power politics'.

This dimension is not new but has reached a heightened public profile that demands closer scrutiny. Regulating and governing irregular migration and its implications are so important for hosting societies, sending societies and for migrant communities themselves that it becomes (even more drastically) subject to ideology and power-driven politics.

One of the numerous examples - a very current one - is the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors). The DREAM Act may include, as announced by President Barack Obama and his administration, a measure that will stop deporting young ‘illegal immigrants' from the US who comply with certain eligibility criteria. It is an innovative and humanitarian policy measure that will contribute effectively to the reduction of irregular migrants in the US (as previous regularisation programmes of different nature implemented in the US and the EU have also done). But at the level of power politics and the terrain of strategic election campaigns, this measure will be subject to other forces and logics of politics. Whatever the content, the rationale or urgency of the policy measure might be, ‘power politics', party politics and career-driven politics underlie a different regime, one that is determined by self-interest and the positioning of strategies for the next elective showdown.

Thus, it is of highest importance for incumbent or future administrations to demonstrate symbolic and powerful images (or manufactured numbers) that put forward the successful control or reduction of irregular migration - say, for example, hard facts to satisfy the elective clientele. However, such symbolic policy actions that only intend to demonstrate the effectiveness of the ‘fight against illegal migration', ‘benefit scroungers' or ‘bogus asylum seekers', are often not of great use to the sustainable well-being of societies and individuals but simply serve the regime of ‘power politics' and individual (or collective) political careers.

Instead of becoming further politicised, burdened and constrained by ‘power politics', highly sensitive and high-risk policy areas such irregular migration need deliberative structures of democracy and governance with high standards of discourse (see Jürgen Habermas and others). Deliberation - that is, a high quality of a well-informed and balanced discourse - is what the domain of irregular migration needs and deserves at policy and public levels in the EU and the US alike.


Dr. Bastian A. Vollmer
is a researcher at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, University of Oxford. His main research interests include migration processes (particularly irregular and transit migration), discursive formations of policy-making, and control mechanisms and securitization regimes of migration.

This article is published as part of the "Border Policies: Lessons for Improvement" theme week.

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