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Migrants as local citizens

by François Crépeau

What politicians say about irregular migrants depends on the audience they are addressing. To conservative voters and security agencies, they toe the “law and order” line and vow to expel these “criminals.” To employers’ associations, they promise to recruit the labour force needed in our economy. To social workers and NGOs, they insist on the dignity and rights of individuals.

Stephen Legomsky has shown how these varying discourses give rise to two opposing views of irregular migrants.1 The first image is of hordes of faceless “illegal” migrants, intent on taking jobs from worthy citizens and engaging in dangerous criminal activities. The insecurity thus created must be firmly repressed through detention and deportation. The second typically takes the form of individual stories, giving migrants an identity and a voice. It insists that irregular migration is a crime neither against persons nor against property, noting that irregular migrants perform tasks that citizens don’t want to do. Hence they should be given a chance to gain access to residence and citizenship.

In this article, I take the second view: a humane approach to irregular migration.2 Although states retain the power to decide who can enter and reside in their territory, there are democratic bodies within the state that may not want to include immigration status as a relevant criterion to define their constituency.

Why should this be? The answer is based on four points:

As migration is a constant of civilization, we are all migrants.

Over the past 30 years, there has been a transition from seeing irregular migration as a social phenomenon that responded to the economic needs of postwar growth to seeing it as a threat to national security.

Nevertheless, migrants do have rights, and respecting, protecting and promoting migrants’ rights and working out how they compare to the rights of citizens is the next frontier in the development of human rights policies.

As a result, we may need to reconceptualize citizenship and residence, at least locally, to recognize everyone’s human dignity over and above their administrative status.

We are all migrants

Migration is a complex phenomenon that defies caricature. It is a constant of civilization: the history of humanity is that of an endless journey on the various continents of our planet. Over time, it is also a generational phenomenon, triggered by a huge array of political, economic and social factors that cannot meaningfully be altered by short-term politics. It is multifaceted: it may be at once an economic transfer, a vector of social transformation, a challenge to territorial sovereignty, a security concern, a clandestine phenomenon, a key to cultural pluralism and more. It is also a personal trajectory through different social spaces: even though migration is described in terms of “flows” or “waves,” we should never lose sight of the individual voicing her or his hopes and fears.

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About the Author

François Crépeau
François Crépeau is Hans & Tamar Oppenheimer Professor of Public International Law at McGill University, and a Trudeau Fellow 2008–2011. The author thanks Louis-Philippe Jannard, coordinator at the Oppenheimer Chair, for his work on the manuscript, and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and the Calcutta Research Group for their part in the preparation of this paper.


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