Aye -- Interview with Saskia Sassen (2000) -- 11.15.03

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Interview with Saskia Sassen (2000)

Saskia Sassen is one of the most incisive commentators on the processes and effects of globalization. In her latest work, Guests & Aliens she examines European immigration within the continent during the last three centuries and frames this history in the context of today's globalized world. Her work not only suggests new historical interpreations but also how a firmer understanding of immigration patterns of the past can illuminate contemporary policy making in Europe and the United States. The following questions are in response to some of the issues brought up in Guests & Aliens. We would like to thank Professor Sassen for taking the time to answer some of our questions.

Seminary Co-op:: It seems that in the popular imagination of Americans and many Western Europeans there is a sense that immigration means a steady flood or "invasion" of impoverished individuals from abroad. However, historically, to what extent does immigration regulate itself? How can an understanding of the history of immigration illuminate contemporary discussions?

Saskia Sassen: The historical record and the scholarship on immigration have provided us with a number of important facts. One of them is that migrations occurred in patterns sufficiently complex to set limits to the sizes and durations of flows, and to produce specific geographies of flows. In Guests & Aliens I explore if this shaping of flows tempered the size of migrations, set limits to the numbers who wound up migrating. And I probe, more analytically, whether and how such systemic conditioning of migrations might have had an effect akin to a quasi-equilibrating mechanism. Identifying and understanding these quasi-equilibrating mechanisms which set limits to the size and duration of immigration flows could make a significant difference in immigration policy making.

A careful reading of existing data about current immigration trends in all the major developed countries suggests a number of cross-country regularities in these migration patterns which may have strong implications for the rethinking of immigration policy. The other is through a transnational, as distinct from comparative, analysis of immigration in the context of political, military, economic, and cultural processes that integrate various countries into a global system.

Seminary Co-op: So, if immigration is a process with certain patterns and trends, what should governments be taking into greater consideration? In what ways have governments failed in the past?

Saskia Sassen: When policy makers and the general public misunderstand migration as caused simply by the poverty in sending countries, they are left with very few policy options. The seemingly logical response to a mass invasion would be to close all the borders. Xenophobia and racism are but the most extreme expression of this option in a country's political culture; milder versions of "closing the gates" to immigrants and refugees are appearing in all highly developed countries. My purpose in this book is to widen the options we envision for dealing with immigrants and, to some extent refugees, by making a broader interpretation of why these people in motion exist in the first place. This might lead to an interpretation which sets us free from the imagery of "mass invasion." I want to show how various migrations in the past and today have been, first, patterned and bounded in duration and in geography. Second, I want to show how such migrations transcend the brute facts of persecution, poverty and overpopulation. Of course I could not and would not deny the spur of such forces, but will argue that these brutal motivations are raw ingredients which combine and metamorphose within larger political and economic structures so that people are set in motion. When persecution, poverty, and overpopulation are seen as no longer sufficient explanations in themselves of migration flows, then images and metaphors based on invasion will no longer satisfy us, and policy-making concerned with immigration could be more innovative, since it would address a confined event, a shaped experience, a manageable process.

Seminary Co-op Bookstore: You mentioned xenophobia and racism as unfortunate, but common responsed to immigration. How do issues of culture and race, understood by immigrants as well as citizens of the receiving country, continue to inform today's discussions of immigration?

Saskia Sassen: The history of immigration has been, in many ways, represented through two histories: one a labor history and the other a history of the transformation of foreign workers into ethnic communities. These histories often happen simultaneously in a city, region or nation, involving people from the same or different nationality.

Today immigration has exploded the confines of these two histories. In so doing it is easily experienced by many in the receiving countries as transgression: the explicit allegiance to Islam among young Algerians in France; the emergence of immigrant associations as political actors connecting across Europe; the embedding of certain immigration issues in the broader multicultural debate in the U.S., and increasingly in Europe as well; the new politics of culture with the associated notion of the formation of transnational identities; the deconstruction of the notion of national community and the ascendance of transnational notions of citizenship and community of membership. All of these tendencies, efforts, activities, and images have contributed to a new "history" through which immigration is experienced.

What I find important to explore for the purposes of my inquiry is the extent to which this experience of immigration as transgression is in fact the outcome of two conflicting conditions: a) the globalization of economic life, culture, and increasingly politics, and b) the political confinement of the immigration question to a national, domestic arena. What happens to our thinking about immigration and its good or bad effects on the receiving country when we begin to see current patterns of immigration as being part of the broader process of globalization? And what happens to our conception of regulating immigration when we accept that it needs to be handled within the confines of a system based on a strengthening of civil rights and of civil society? What happpens to our thinking about immigrants if we argued, for instance, that many of the conditions in global cities are akin to a new frontier zone, and that the immigrants working and struggling in them are akin to the settlers of earlier centuries --settlers being subjects we have imbued with a positive value.

Seminary Co-op: As you point out in Guests & Aliens, there is a kind of contradictory impulse in receiving countries. More specifically, there is the xenophobia and racism you mentioned earlier but in other ways states also encourage immigration.

Saskia Sassen: International migrations stand at the intersection of a number of economic and geo-political processes; they are not simply the outcome of individuals in search of better opportunities. Part of the problem of understanding immigration is recognizing how, why, and when governments, economic actors, the media and the population at large in highly developed countries participate in the immigration process, in the formation and continuation of migration flows.

The particular processes through which geopolitics and economic transnationalization bind major immigration receiving countries to their emigration sending countries will vary for different periods and different countries or regions. The transatlantic economy of the 1800s was bound through processs that are different from the ones binding the US today to the Caribbean, and these in turn diverge from those binding major European receiving countries to their labor sending countries, or Japan to its major sending countries in Asia. Yet one fact in all of these situations is the existence of a multiplicity of economic, geopolitical and ethnic linkages. What is distinct about today's period is a) the growing formation of economic linkages where states play a sharply reduced role, a condition now increasingly referred to as transnationalization or globalization, and b) the fact that the state has developed the technical and bureaucratic capacities to control its borders which it lacked in the 1800s.

Seminary Co-op: How have policies in the U.S. over the past thirty years directly or indirectly influenced increased immigration:

Saskia Sassen: The renewal of mass immigration into the U.S. in the 1960s, after five decades of little or no immigration, took place in a context of expanded U.S. economic and military activity in Asia and the Caribbean Basin. The United States is at the heart of an international system of investment and production that binds these various regions. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States played a crucial role in the development of a world economic system. It passed legislation aimed at opening its own and other countries' economies to the flow of capital, goods, services and information. This central military, political and economic role contributed, I argue, both to the creation of conditions that mobilized people into migrations, whether local or international, and to the formation of links with the United States that subsequently were to serve as often unintended bridges for international migration. Measures commonly thought to deter emigration -- foreign investment and the promotion of export-oriented growth in developing countries -- seem to have had precisely the opposite effect. Among the leading senders of immigrants to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s have been several of the newly industrialized countries of South and Southeast Asia whose extremely high growth rates are generally recognized to be a result initially of foreign direct investment in export manufacturing.

The Seminary Co-op Bookstore: Though states have increased their policing powers in response to immigration, many also see the sovereignity of the nation-state threatened by globalization. Thus, as we enter an age in which, as many observers argue, the state's power is declining how will immigration policy in Europe and the U.S. be effected?

Saskia Sassen: Today the state is being forced to be more international, multilateral, to learn how to negotiate on a broader range of issues (cf. WTO, environment, Pinochet case) and hence that it will have to change, innovate in its regulatory concepts about immigration. One of the organizing arguments in this book is that the growth of immigration today is embedded in an increasingly global economy and that this raises questions as to the viability of the current framework for immigration policy in highly developed countries which remain domestic in orientation. How can we regulate immigration in a situation where other policies seek to maximize the international circulation of capital, goods and services? What are the institutional channels for regulatory enforcement in national territories that are increasingly internationalized?

While the state continues to play the most important role in immigration policy making and implementation, the state itself has been transformed by the growth of a global economic system and other transnational processes. These have brought on conditions that bear on the state's regulatory role and its autonomy. Two particular aspects of this development are of significance to the role of the state in immigration policy making and implementation: One is the relocation of various components of state authority to supranational organizations such as the institutions of the European Union, the newly formed World Trade Organization, or the international human rights code.

A second is that economic deregulation and the privatization of public sector activities have led to a de facto privatization of various governance functions. This privatization assumes particular meanings in the context of the internationalization of trade and investment. Corporations, markets, and free trade agreements are now in charge of "governing" an increasing share of cross-border flows, including those relating to specialized professional workers that are part of the international trade and investment in services. The state itself has been a participant in the implementation of many of these new arrangements. It has not merely been a victim, as many portrayals of the impact of globalization on national states assert. States have contributed to the formation of the global economic system and many states have furthered the consensus around the pursuit of economic globalization. Inevitably, some states have been leaders in this process and others have simply been pressured into participation. But insofar as global processes materialize partly in national territories states have had to be engaged and have had to negotiate the tension between opening up a country to foreign economic actors and protecting national exclusive territoriality. Further, in pursuing these goals of economic globalization, states have unwittingly contributed to the further internationalization of the inter-state system and to developing state competences necessary for engaging in multilateral negotiations.

Seminary Co-op Bookstore: How do the limitations placed on immigration and its policing conflict with many governments increased concern with human and civil rights?

Saskia Sassen: There are today far more civil rights instruments available to judges and we have seen a growing trend towards the constitutionalizing of civil rights. Further, there are far more human rights instruments available to judges and they are far more likely to be used than was the case even ten years ago. Finally, there is a sharpening sense of the concept of civil society -- a somewhat autonomous sphere that contains its own forms of empowerment and options for citizen action. Strategic sectors of the citizenry have asserted their right to criticize and even take to court various government agencies, most particularly police agencies. These conditions contrast sharply with the call for stronger police action when it comes to the regulation of immigrants. This is even more so in the case of the reduction of judiciary review of immigration police actions in the new U.S. 1996 Immigration Act.

There are consequences to this tension between, on the one hand, the strenghtening of police approaches to immigrant regulation and, on the other, the strengthening of civil and human rights and the civic empowerment associated with a stronger sense of civil society. When the object of stronger police action is a broad spectrum of people -- immigrant women, men and children-- sooner or later it will get caught in the expanding web of civil and human rights, it will violate those rights, it will interfere with the functioning of civil society.Acting on immigration through the lenses of national crisis is today both unsustainable and undesirable for states under the rule of law. Precarious and partial as the concept of the rule of law may be, and imperfect as its implementation is, it is nonetheless an impressive tool in the struggle for a better and more democratic society.

A crucial issue here is the object of the expanded policing: It is not known criminals or firms suspected of violating environmental regulations. It is a population sector, not even select individuals, but a fairly broad spectrum of men, women and children, who are considered guilty until they prove they are not. In the U.S. the INS can now excercise its police authority on individuals merely suspected of being unauthorized immigrants. If my son decided to go write the great American novel by spending time with farm workers or in garment sweatshops, and there were an INS raid he could well be part of the suspects -- because I know he would not be carrying his US passport with him. Or worse, if he were part of those running away from the INS police and pushed towards jumping in one of the water levies, he might have been one of those who drowned, as has happened a number of times recently in California.

The expansion of a policing approach to immigration regulation: is it viable in a context of a strengthening civil society and human rights, and even if viable, is it effective. When it comes to desirability, the issues are probably more ambiguous and become entangled in a variety of well-founded rationales along with ill-guided political passions.

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