Interdisciplinarity in Migration Research: Combining law and anthropology
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Addressing the co-production of law and time in regularisation processes: legal and ethnographic lines of enquiry

The significance of time and temporality for migration processes and governance has received increasing attention within migration research in recent years.

A screen with numbers on them in blue and yellow, and a hand holding up a queue ticket
The picture is taken at a waiting room in Hamburg, where Kari Anne Drangsland did her fieldwork amongst irregular immigrants who got their lives put on hold.
Kari Anne Drangsland

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In this blog post, our aim is to trace lines of enquiry that might be productive for addressing the co-production of law and time within interdisciplinary studies of migration. Specifically, we discuss the role of time in processes of regularisation and the production of migrant il/legality.  

Migrants who reside on a state’s territory for years without state authorisation have become a common feature in many countries around the world.  Their unauthorised territorial presence is often seen as a conundrum for policy makers in destination countries, with deportation, toleration, or regularisation as the alternative policy options. Regularisation is often understood as a last resort in the face of failing internal or external migration control, and as a measure that governments might deploy to improve the social situation of migrants and labour marked transparency (Levinson 2005).  

Regularisation, though, should not simply be understood as a pathway to legal inclusion and membership. Scholars such as De Genova (2002) have effectively argued that migrant il/legality should be understood and approached as a legal and political product of particular historical and national contexts. Migrant il/legality is a product of (national) frameworks of immigration regulation, rather than the consequence of individual migrants' actions. In this perspective, regularisation becomes graspable as a policy measure that shape the meaning and scope of migrant il/legality. With these insights from the anthropological literature on the socio-legal production of migrant il/legality in mind, how can we address the role time play in relation to regularisation?  

Temporal formulas and thresholds in regularisation legislation 

Regularisation, we suggest, is a prime example of how law uses a point in time and/or duration to both allocate and terminate rights. For example, time is central to regularisation mechanisms, either because the requirements specify a set date defining who can apply, define a set period of time for when one can apply, and/or require that the person has resided and/or worked in the country for a certain length of time. 

Many liberal states use temporal thresholds or formulas, such as dates and durations of time, to govern access to citizenship and to rights within the institution of citizenship.i The political scientist Elisabeth Cohen (2012) have argued that temporal formulas are powerful governing instruments because they appear as impartial and scientifically measurable ways of conferring and denying rights and membership. However, while temporal formulas may be administratively convenient, they are produced in political negotiations and embody specific rationalities. Cohen therefore argues that it is important to ask how and why specific moments, dates, ages, and durations of time come to have value in politics. 

What seems to be particularly significant for regularisation purposes, is not how much time a person has resided in a territory but rather how and whether that time is counted by the state (Lori 2020). This is seen for example, in the challenge of what legal anthropologist Susan B. Coutin (2003) has called the temporal double bind of illegal time. While social participation over time can create grounds for legalization as proof of attachment and deservingness, it can also work to document lengthy breach of immigration law, thus making it a more serious offense in the view of the immigration authorities. In our own research on temporality in migration governing as part of the research project ‘WAIT - Waiting for an uncertain future: The temporalities of irregular migration’ we find that how the state counts peoples’ time - days, months, and years - in decisions on migrant regularization and the distribution of rights, varies according to factors such as people’s economic contributions, skill-levels, age, and country of origin. This highlight, we suggest, the need to investigate how the valuation of time in regularisation mechanisms are shaped through gendered, classed and racialized norms of deservingness and economic desirability.

Temporal assumptions in regularisation claims 

We further suggest that it is important to unpack the temporal assumptions underlying regularisation claims, and their implications. The significance of time for irregular migrants’ claim to rights and membership has been addressed notably by legal and political theorists committed to develop a normative argument for regularisation. The central justificatory account in this literature centre around the assumed significance of, and connection between, time and social ties. The political scientist Joseph Carens (2009), for example, argues that liberal democracies should acknowledge the social ties that migrants establish over time. Hence to him, the accrual of residence time engenders a moral right to membership. Correspondingly, the legal scholar Ayelet Shachar has elaborated the principle of ‘jus nexi’ or ‘rootedness’ which she sums up as follows: ‘the longer the stay, the deeper the social connectedness, the stronger the claim for inclusion’ (Shachar 2009, 171).

These scholars do not address specifically how one can translate abstracts such as ‘rootedness’ and ‘social ties developed over time’ to measurable time units. Their social membership account for regularization, though, relies on the temporal assumptions that a) time can be a proxy for the quality and significance of connections or contributions made to society by migrants, and 2) that social ties have a linear logic, e.g. that social ties is something that is simply built over time through daily spatial activities. Based on this logic, rights should also accrue over time. A challenge with these temporal assumptions in the context of present regimes of migration governing is that migrant illegality tends to be shaped by public policies that aim at the civic exclusion of illegalized migrants (see Karlsen 2021a). Several legal scholars have thus argued that by excluding migrants who, despite prolonged residence, fail to meet social ties or rootedness criteria, social membership-based arguments risk reproducing some of national citizenship’s marginalizing aspects despite its apparently inclusionary promise (Bosniak 2013, Ellerman 2014).

Regularisation, being in and relating to time 

The third line of enquiry that we would like to highlight, concerns the temporal implications of regulations on those affected by them. In our ethnographic work in Norway and Germany, we have explored how the presence and absence of regularisation possibilities enhances particular ways of being in and relating to time.  For example, in the past few years Germany has opened various pathways to regularisation for tolerated migrants based on criteria of economic self-sufficiency and language skills (e.g. the Ausbildungsduldung and Beschäftigungsduldung’). In her study of such contingent offers of regularisations, Drangsland (2020a and b) investigates their temporalising effects and shows how they work to compel migrants to recalibrate their temporal horizons and schemes to the temporal order of the German state. She argues, furthermore, that regularisation works as a technique of governing by temporally ‘bracketing’ present harm through the promise of a future residence permit. ‘Living in the offer’ became in this sense a redemptive state that served to discipline irregular migrants into enduring suspension and deportability in specific and productive ways. That is to wait patiently and in the right way. Exploring how migrants navigate their conditions in Hamburg, she shows how people are unevenly positioned in relation to this expectation to ‘wait well’.

The redemptive promise of future residency in Norway was more ambiguous as there were few existing pathways to regularisation for adults. Still, Karlsen (2021b) shows in her research among so-called ‘unreturnable’ or ‘long-staying’ rejected asylum seekers in Oslo how the asylum system continued importantly to shape their future horizon.  The persistent promise of regularisation as the only route to ‘the good life’, she suggests, served to individualise and internalise a mode of governing the self into waiting orderly, despite few real possibilities for regularisation. Migrants’ continuing affective investment in the promise of asylum names in this sense a cruel attachment to a compromised condition of possibility. Cruel optimism (Berlant 2011) is, similarly to bracketing, a technology of patience that enable a concept of the later or the future anterior to suspend questions about the cruelty of the now.

Not only law 

In this blogpost, we have attempted to trace some lines of enquiry that might be productive for exploring the co-production of law and time in regularisation processes. Scholarship on the production of migrant illegality has highlighted how immigration law shapes life for migrants in multiple ways through the classifications it creates. Migrants’ legal status has been seen as a ‘master status,’ which overshadows the impact of other social locations (Gonzalez, 2016). The need to unpack law and time is therefore clear. However, as noted, law produces its effects in a world where people are differently positioned within intersecting racialized, gendered, and classed structures of power – structures of power spanning multiple spaces and scales. Relatedly, people live their lives in relation to temporal schemes and constructs that are not only defined by migration law. To grasp these times and the unequal workings of law in the context of regularisation, it is thus necessary both to widen the “temporal gaze” (Adam 2000) on ‘law’ as described so far, and, also to widen the gaze beyond the temporalities of law. In our blogpost ‘Multiple, uneven and relational time in ethnographic research’ we embark on this endeavour and foreground the importance of situating the analysis of law and time in a wider context of social relations of power. 


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