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Becoming less illegal: deservingness frames and undocumented migrant incorporation

By Sébastien Chauvin and Blanca Garcés-Mascareña


Over the last two decades, research on unauthorized migration has departed from the equation of migrant illegality with absolute exclusion, emphasizing that formal exclusion typically results in subordinate inclusion. Irregular migrants integrate through informal support networks, the underground economy, and political activities. But they also incorporate into formal institutions, through policy divergence between levels of government, bureaucratic sabotage, or fraud. The incorporation of undocumented migrants involves not so much invisibility as camouflage – presenting the paradox that camouflage improves with integration. As it reaches the formal level of claims and procedures, legalization brings up the issue of the frames through which legal deservingness is asserted. Looking at the moral economy embedded in claims and programs, we examine a series of frame tensions: between universal and particular claims to legal status, between legalization based on vulnerability and that based on civic performance, between economic and cultural deservingness, and between the policy level and individual subjectivity. We show that restrictionist governments face a dilemma when their constructions of “good citizenship” threaten to extend to “deserving” undocumented migrants. Hence, they may simultaneously emphasize deservingness frames while limiting irregular migrants’ opportunities to deserve, effectively making deservingness both a civic obligation and a civic privilege.

Publication details

Sociology Compass (2014), 8 (4), 422-432. doi: 10.1111/soc4.12145

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