Episode 6: The Blurry Lines of Belonging (with Talia Shiff, Anna Skarpelis, and Elke Winter)

We think of citizenship as a binary category: you’re either a citizen or you’re not. But the levels of membership can be complex. Refugees and asylum seekers often find that the criteria for acceptance change, as states devise rationales to exclude them. Three Weatherhead Center sociologists reveal the motivations behind various immigration policies, from the colonial past to the present, and discuss the ethics and impact of open borders.

Image of Talia Shiff, Anna Skarpelis, and Elke Winter


In this episode, Elke Winter explains the different pathways to citizenship, not only for “economic immigrants” but also for refugees and asylum seekers. From an historical perspective, Anna Skarpelis reminds us that some groups have had citizenship imposed on them, in the case of territorial annexation. In the United States, asylum and immigration laws seem to change with each new administration, and Talia Shiff documents some of the impact of the recent changes during the Trump administration.

After World War II, the UN Declaration of Human Rights established that all human beings have the right to basic food, shelter, and security, and the right to freedom of movement—even if they cannot access these rights in their own countries. But nations have likely always strayed from these humanitarian values as their geopolitical goals change. Our scholars show how strategic interests and even race come into play, unofficially, to drive prevailing immigration policies. 

Finally, our scholars delve into the philosophical and ethical context for having more open borders and touch on the economic impact of immigration. On a philosophical level, they raise the questions: What do we owe others? Can a nation redress its colonial legacy through immigration policy? Do developed nations have a moral obligation to those in poorer regions who are trying to find a secure home?

With an estimated eighty million people on Earth in flux and looking for permanent settlement, our scholars stress that no single country can resolve this crisis on its own. 


Erin Goodman, Director, Weatherhead Scholars Program.


Talia Shiff, Affiliate, Weatherhead Research Cluster on Comparative Inequality and Inclusion. Assistant Professor, Tel Aviv University; Lecturer in Sociology, Harvard University.

Anna Skarpelis, Affiliate, Weatherhead Research Cluster on Comparative Inequality and Inclusion. PhD, Department of Sociology, New York University.

Elke Winter, William Lyon Mackenzie King Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies, Canada Program; Affiliate, Weatherhead Research Cluster on Comparative Inequality and Inclusion. Professor of Sociology, School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies, University of Ottawa.


Michelle Nicholasen, Editor and Content Producer, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

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Erin Goodman (00:05):

Welcome to the Epicenter podcast from the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. I'm your host, Erin Goodman, the new director of the Weatherhead Scholars Program. Today we're tackling the contentious issue of international immigration policies with three sociologists. As we know, people seek membership in another country for many reasons, including simply to make a better living or to reunite with their families. They're sometimes called economic immigrants. But some 80 million people on the planet are in a different category. They're looking for a new home because their lives are in danger, or their homelands are unsafe. Once they obtain refugee status, it can take many years before they find a country to welcome them.

Erin Goodman (00:45):

And while they're waiting in limbo, the rules of membership often shift. The pathways to membership in a new country are complex from refugees to asylum seekers, to permanent legal residents, the criteria for eligibility in these categories are blurry. And often change, causing tremendous insecurity for massive numbers of people around the world. In this episode, we'll uncover some of the political motivations behind immigration policy from a historical and political perspective, and reflect on the ethics and philosophy of open borders with our three scholars.

Erin Goodman (01:14):

Talia Shiff is an assistant professor at Tel Aviv University, and a lecturer in sociology at Harvard. Previously, she was a Raphael Morrison Dorman Memorial Postdoctoral Fellow in the Weatherhead Scholars Program. Anna Skarpelis has been a Fellow at the Weatherhead Center and at the Reischauer Institute for Japanese Studies. She is currently a NOMIS Fellow at the Center for the Theory and History of the Image, and an incoming digital postdoc fellow at the Social Science Research Center in Berlin. Elke Winter is a professor at the University of Ottawa, and the author of Us, Them, and Others: Pluralism and National Identity in Diverse Societies. All three are members of The Weatherhead Research Cluster on Comparative Inequality and Inclusion. Thanks for being here and welcome.

Erin Goodman (01:58):

Before we begin, let's review some terminology for our listeners. A migrant is the generic term for someone who moves to another country. A refugee is someone who moves for humanitarian reasons, that is for their own survival. Refugees may live in intermediary countries or in camps for many years before they find a permanent home. An asylum seeker is someone who also leaves home for humanitarian reasons, and arrives at the country where they intend to settle to apply for asylum there. Usually asylum applicants can live in that country until their asylum hearing. But the Trump administration changed that, as we'll discuss. After living in the United States for a year, both refugees and asylees can apply for a green card to become a legal permanent resident, which means that they can work and travel back and forth.

Erin Goodman (02:49):

Many countries require that you're a legal permanent resident for one or more years before applying for citizenship. It's a daunting process for everyone, but especially for people with limited resources. Elke, could you review for us the typical ways people acquire citizenship?

Elke Winter (03:05):

People have often asked me, "How do you become a citizen?" That is not clear, and I think we should just maybe start by just briefly saying there's three ways. Most people become a citizen of the country because they inherit the citizenship status from their parents. Increasingly, it used to be only the fathers who could inherit, but now gender equality also, mothers can inherit the citizenship status. This is why dual citizenship is increasing. There's more because mothers and fathers when they come from different countries can both transmit their citizenship.

Elke Winter (03:39):

But also in countries such as the United States, citizenship is conferred to individuals born on the national territory. In the U.S., this is really important because it was one of the important elements of the 14th Amendment. It would allow everyone, also the descendants of slaves to be when they're born in the United States to remain there and to be citizens in the full sense of the word. Now the third way, and that's maybe the one we're most interested here in becoming a citizen is by formal application. And here the individual asks for permission to the state of his or her new country of residence. This is called naturalization.

Elke Winter (04:20):

So usually the state will say yes, you can become a citizen but there's certain condition. You need to be free of criminal convictions. You need to have been a legal permanent resident for a certain time. You need to be able to support yourself financially, and you must not have given false testimony at the time you immigrated.

Erin Goodman (04:43):

And the end game, if you're one of the fortunate is to be granted citizenship. But it's not as simple as saying you're either a citizen or you're not, is it? Anna.

Anna Skarpelis (04:54):

There is, of course, a lot of merit in differentiating between citizens and non citizens. However, of course there are many differences within the ostensibly binary status of citizenship. So it's not that one is or is not a citizen. Even if you are a citizen, there's a stratification within that status in and of itself. So you might have the same legal status, but your political rights might differ, for example. Political scientists have talked about this. There's different forms of semi-citizenship. So Elizabeth Cohen, for example, has written a beautiful book about that in particular.

Erin Goodman (05:30):

Talia, do you have thoughts on this?

Talia Shiff (05:33):

An assumption many times we have about citizenship is that it is the static, status. And I think one of the things we sometimes don't think about is how this status, how this institution has changed over time. And to understand both the ways today that are available for people to become citizens, the meaning of citizenship, how we negotiate the boundaries between citizens and non citizens, we really have to talk about the question also of the membership. I think one of my fascinating findings is how contested the meaning of membership is in this context. And how central definitions of membership are to how we define and implement asylum law.

Erin Goodman (06:15):

Anna, you've looked at this question of who gets to be a member of a particular country from a historical perspective.

Anna Skarpelis (06:21):

Yeah, Elke mentioned the contemporary ways in which people become citizens. But of course, if you take a more historical perspective, there's also the less savory ways in which people have become citizens, that is through territorial annexation, ipso facto naturalization, et cetera. So this is where states annex a territory and just decide, you know what? Everybody on the territory is going to be part of us now. And that often has led to forms of inferior citizenship allocation. So if you think about Nazi Germany and then annexation of Eastern European countries, people weren't given full citizenship rights, of course not. Because why would you want to do that?

Anna Skarpelis (06:57):

They were given an inferior form of nationality. So there is this formal integration into the nation or into the Empire, whatever you want to call, non democratic forms of governance as the National Socialist dictatorship. But basically what happens, people are integrated against their will. And I think that really goes back to what Talia talked about, about different forms of membership. What does it mean to be a member in a national polity in this political community?

Elke Winter (07:26):

I also just mention indigenous peoples in here. They were forcibly incorporated, even they didn't want to be there.

Erin Goodman (07:36):

Forced citizenship is something we don't often think about. That begs the question of a state's motivation, doesn't it?

Anna Skarpelis (07:42):

Of course, state interests are very crucial here. So the question is, what does the state gain out of having you as a member, because it's a two-way street. As a citizen, you have rights and you have responsibilities, but you're also an asset to the state. Whether that is as somebody without political rights, whose economic abilities are being exploited. So in the cases of forced labor, and also not quite as horrendous forms of exploitation. But yeah. So I think it's really important to look at state motivations as well. And so citizenship is a really fertile site. It's almost like a Petri dish from which you can read state's priorities.

Erin Goodman (08:26):

So this is a good segue into the question of state's motivations behind granting membership to some groups, but not others. I'd like to talk about how race plays into citizenship decisions, and feelings of belonging in society. Some examples I'm thinking of are the Chinese Exclusion Act vis-à-vis the anti-Asian American sentiment today, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement.

Anna Skarpelis (08:47):

As somebody who studies Western Europe and Japan, mostly colonial Japan and Nazi Germany, race and ethnicity have always played a role in citizenship allocation. But the precise ways in which race and ethnicity have been mobilized to include or exclude populations has always been contingent on state interests. So yeah, I think it is an obvious thing to say that communities of color have never been historically privileged by states. And that white populations have been privileged compared to populations of color historically in the West for sure. But if we look at different empirical instantiations of which communities get excluded when, that can often be directly traced back to specific state interests at any one point in time.

Anna Skarpelis (09:44):

So are you afraid of a particular community taking over a particular region? If so, it is fairly easy to construct a moral panic, to construct this group as politically problematic as an outsider to an ostensibly homogeneous political community that all of a sudden becomes very similar internally and exclude on that basis. That often happens along lines of color in the United States, for sure. In Europe, it is often a little bit more subtle. It happens along the lines of religion, but also ethnicity. So when you look at again, I study Germany, when you look at what happens with the assimilation of French communities, Danish communities, Polish communities, Austrian communities in the early 20th century, you see this racializing logics at play in very, very different ways.

Erin Goodman (10:44):

Yet the UN's declaration of Human Rights after World War II and the 1980 Refugee Act in the U.S. were measures designed to remove race from the equation, by giving entry to people who were fleeing persecution regardless of race or affiliation. Talia, you've found that in spite of the humanitarian mandate, racializing logics, to use Anna's phrase, still played a role in U.S. asylum policy. Can you share any insights on this?

Talia Shiff (11:10):

I think in the context of immigration, especially in the United States after the Cold War, when it is no longer legitimate to explicitly exclude on the basis of race and nationality, and yet race continues to play such a central factor in terms of who we want to admit, who we don't want to admit. Who we categorize as deserving and who we don't. Policymakers have to find another way by which to make these decisions and implicitly, if you will, incorporate race. I think asylum policy here provides a really interesting example of how that is done. So during the Cold War in the United States, deservingness for refugees or the definition, the legal definition of a refugee is restricted to people escaping communist regimes or communist dominated regimes.

Talia Shiff (12:10):

This was a very nationalistic definition that excluded anyone outside of communist dominated territory, and so on. This was not a humanitarian based understanding of who is eligible for refugee status. After the Cold War, this changes and the United States basically incorporates the UN definition of refugee, which is ideologically neutral. And does not discriminate on the basis of nationality or race. For the first time, the United States is confronted with a challenge. We now have to admit under this new law, the 1980 Refugee Act, any person regardless of their ideology, regardless of their nationality, regardless of their race, to the United States as potential asylum seekers.

Talia Shiff (12:57):

As long as they can show that they were persecuted, or have a well founded fear of persecution on the basis of these five general ambiguous grounds; race, nationality, political opinion, membership in a particular social group or religion. This confronts policymakers with a real problem, and it's really fascinating interviewing policymakers that were active in the formulation of this new law. And reading case law and legislative documents. This is a debate that policymakers are having. What do we now do when it is no longer legitimate to exclude people on the basis of their nationality and race, and yet we cannot allow all these people to come in. Now we're talking here about the late 1980s. In Central America, specifically El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras. This is where this is the height of the Civil War is going on in these countries.

Talia Shiff (13:57):

We're talking about tens of thousands of immigrants arriving at the U.S. Mexican border and crossing into the United States claiming for the first time asylum under this new law. Given the atrocities that they are experiencing in Central America, it's also very hard for the U.S. government to categorize them as economic immigrants. And policy makers, immigration policymakers, asylum adjudicators are really confronted with the challenge of what do we now do? And what they do is that they re-debate the meaning of deservingness. They basically say okay, if once we define the deserving refugee, the deserving asylum seeker as a political activist who is fleeing to the United States in order to escape oppression, in order to gain political freedom, the argument now becomes this is not enough.

Talia Shiff (14:53):

This should not be their criteria for determining who is really deserving of refugee status. And for the first time during this period, they actually construct a new understanding of deservingness. One which centers on what I term immutability. Meaning that the focus shifts from a person's motivation to flee, to the type of trait an account of which a person is persecuted. So if a person is persecuted on account of an immutable trait, a trait that one cannot change, or that is so fundamental to one's individual identity that he or she should not be required to change it, they are now deserving an eligible of refugee status. I say all of this because in a really fascinating turn, this becomes the argument for excluding the vast majority of Central Americans entering the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.

Talia Shiff (15:56):

And now the current wave of new immigrants coming in from the same countries fleeing gang violence. They are excluded not on the basis of ... not the fact that they are economic immigrants. But the argument goes that they are escaping types of harms that are targeting traits which are not immutable, which are not fundamental to their individual identity. So race here is very central, but it's really interesting in terms of to think about how it is reformulated into the ... in terms of deserving this and humanitarian discourse.

Erin Goodman (16:37):

Elke, Talia is explaining an elaborate workaround to deny entry to refugees.

Elke Winter (16:42):

Talia, this is a really interesting research that you're conducting there. And it is interesting that we see we have a different context, the context that I'm studying is mostly Canada. But I hear that from scholars in the United States that it's a similar problem. Now even if sometimes refugees are, they make it, they are, and you explained how difficult it has become to be accepted. But even if they are accepted, what we see now in Canada is that as notions of deservingness have shifted from, if you want, the wretched of the Earth, the poor, and the refugees, to the most skilled and those with valuable human capital, we can see that not only are categories of who is a viable immigrant is changing, but also who's a desirable citizen.

Elke Winter (17:38):

For example, 42% of UN member state such as United States aim to attract migrants with valuable skills. And that would be people who are educated, speak several languages, but also have a background in business, in IT, they're doctors, chemists, and have some valuable skills that are good for the market. Now these criteria of being a good immigrant are now put on ... reflected in citizenship tests. And what we see in Canada is that the criteria of passing a test have become so difficult that sometimes refugees, who obviously joined the country for humanitarian reasons, have difficulties in passing this test. And who is mostly affected are refugee women. Just imagine it is easy for someone who knows how to read and write to pass the citizenship test.

Elke Winter (18:36):

But if you are from a country and you are a woman who can barely hold a pen, who is illiterate, who cannot read and write, then taking the test even though for many of us, it is easy, it's really a big hurdle. So we can see that women, for example, from Syria and Afghanistan are falling behind. Often their husbands will get citizenship in Canada, but their wives don't make the cut because they just don't pass the test. And I know that colleagues in the United States have found the same. So in that sense, they are on national territory. But still even then the refugees or some migrants are actually taking a much longer time to become citizens.

Elke Winter (19:20):

And since we also know that being a citizen as usually comes with higher salary and more secure status, we can really see a two-class society in terms of that emerging in both countries. I don't know the numbers for the U.S. But the problem is very much the same, because who is seen as a good migrant and a good citizen has changed so much.

Erin Goodman (19:43):


Anna Skarpelis (19:43):

Elke brought up the question of citizenship tests. And of course, the question here is, what are these testing? I was born and raised in Germany, as a child of a Greek person and of somebody who became German in their first year of life. I never had to pass a test. I don't know if I could pass the test. And so the question is, what are we testing for? Are we testing for political commitments to democracy, to other forms of values, to feminism, to liberalism? Or are we using these as a means of exclusion? So when you look at what Mississippi did and what other southern states did, they imposed literacy test on Black populations basically saying, "You know what? We don't know if you're a competent citizen. Let's see. We're going to test this. And if you get passed the test, you're allowed to vote."

Anna Skarpelis (20:31):

Of course, these were thinly veiled anti-voting tests that worked to effectively disenfranchise African American populations. When I gave these literacy tests to my undergraduate students at New York University in the 2010s, wholly capable people, I think I had a failure rate of about 95%. I then administered the same test to PhD students and professors in the Department of Sociology with a similar failure rate. Of course, citizenship tests these days don't have such a high failure rate from which we can say that they're not an explicit instrument of exclusion as these literacy tests were a means for disenfranchisement.

Anna Skarpelis (21:14):

However, we have to look at what these are doing. And if they're indeed a test of how well people can assimilate, and whether they can become competent citizens. Then we have to ask the questions, Why do American citizens, German citizens, French citizens not have to do exactly the same thing and pass the same test?

Erin Goodman (21:32):

Let's talk about some recent changes in immigration policy. Talia, we know there have been some abrupt changes and rollbacks under the Trump administration. And this has been your focus. Can you share some of your major findings?

Talia Shiff (21:46):

In my research, I have been following troubling changes in immigration and more specifically in asylum law that have occurred under the Trump administration. Both through an examination of case law legislation, but also through interviews with over 35 asylum officers who worked under the Trump administration. And I've identify two central types of changes specifically to asylum policy that occur under the Trump administration. One is the imposition of a growing number of restrictions on pre established standards. So in restrictive interpretations of existing codified and law. While these were also characteristic of the pre Trump years, under the Trump regime these limitations increased both in number and in scope. Whole groups once eligible for asylum are suddenly re-categorize as ineligible.

Talia Shiff (22:51):

The second change is the enactment of new asylum policies and laws, which fundamentally change the nature of asylum adjudications. Laws that many asylum officers and immigration officials viewed as undermining the true humanitarian mission of asylum. And I'll say two words about that in just a sec. To give you an example of these new laws that I'm talking about one that has been quite discussed in the news recently, is the Migrant Protection Protocols known as MPP, which states that all asylum seekers must wait outside the United States for the duration of their proceedings, leading to the enactment of in practice refugee camps on the U.S. Mexican borders with immigrants waiting there for a month, sometimes for a year or two, living under horrific conditions.

Talia Shiff (23:53):

A second example is the Third Country Transit Bar. In practice this means that any asylum applicant from the El Salvador Honduras, Guatemala, who has to cross through Mexico and has not applied for asylum in Mexico cannot apply for asylum in the United States. Now in my research, I focus not only on the implications of these changes on asylum seekers, and research has shown and well documented how the number of asylum seekers granted under these new policies has been reduced significantly. And we're talking about just 90% reduction, in terms of who is now eligible from these countries for asylum status. But I also focus on the implications that these policies have on state bureaucrats, who now have to implement them.

Talia Shiff (24:46):

Through my interviews, many of these state bureaucrats and asylum officers and immigration judges define these policies or define a tension that they regard as irreconcilable between the moral goals of the institution and their job, their role as a state officials in implementing these new policies. And one of the questions that I am interested in is how do they navigate this tension? To give you a quick example of one of my findings, in difference to asylum officers who worked prior to Trump and who generally describe themselves despite their critique of the system, as working with the system. Many of the immigration officers and asylum officers who work under Trump described feeling as though they were working within enemy territory, specifically the height in restrictions imposed by the Trump administration on established asylum standards, and the more stringent supervisory review of asylum officers decisions.

Talia Shiff (25:55):

The shift in policy encouraging officers to approach applicants with heightened suspicion, and to deny their claims to force these officers to choose their battles. Officers described how they constantly debated, which are the especially deserving cases worth fighting for and which are the cases they are willing to give up on. Forced to make these decisions. Unable to fight for every case under this new regime, officers, bureaucrats describe feeling morally compromised, emotionally stressed. And in very interesting ways, this really shapes their whole evaluation process. My findings actually show that they conducted much shorter interviews in this context. That they become emotionally detached, feeling like they can't ... they're powerless to really change the system from within.

Talia Shiff (26:50):

I'll stop here, but just to say that I think that this is a very interesting moment to think not only about the implications of these new policies and laws on incoming asylum seekers, but also on how bureaucracy deals with this moment, the durability of institutions and so on.

Erin Goodman (27:10):

Wow, that was a fascinating look into the experience of those who are implementing these policies. Following on the subject of stringent rules, Elke, you've looked into the practice of citizenship revocation. The taking away of one's citizenship. What's this about?

Elke Winter (27:26):

So usually, citizenship revocation, the withdrawal of citizenship particularly also after the experience Anna, as you mentioned, with the Nazi regime, was actually something that was not widely practiced. However, we've seen this return to many countries in the recent decade. And some authors like Audrey Macklin, in Canada, has called this the return of banishment. And one of the important rights if you are a citizen is the freedom of movement. So you can move, you can hold a passport, but you also have this legal status that protects you from deportation. Now the return of the revocation of citizenship is exactly that.

Elke Winter (28:10):

Your citizenship can be withdrawn, and that means you can be revoked. And this also ties in nicely to the research that Talia is conducting with the applicants for refugee status. Now for example, one of the problems that people when they apply for refugee status have is that sometimes they cannot say exactly the truth in order to protect their relatives back home from being persecuted. So if they lie, for example and this is detected afterwards, there may also even though they have already become U.S. citizens, their citizenship may be revoked. And hence, they can be deported.

Erin Goodman (28:58):

Even if you've been a law abiding citizen for years, you can still be deported if someone detects that you've given false testimony at the time you applied for citizenship.

Elke Winter (29:07):

Now this is really something very severe. It is, if you want, a very severe act of unbelonging, because it removes the convicted individual that felt secure because he or she is a citizen. It removes them not only from the society, as for example, imprisonment would do. But it also removes them from the national community because they will be withdrawn their legal status, as well as from the collective imaginary by the denial of belonging. Basically, they're being told, "You never belonged here." And in some research that I have conducted, it shows that this is not only something that penalizes the individual that is convicted and whose citizenship is withdrawn, but also their families, their communities, and everyone who is associated with that. They are associated with being by their ethnicity or religion as being close to the person who's been convicted. And so they are punished as a collectivity and not only as an individual.

Erin Goodman (30:11):

I want to bring up the topic of colonial pasts, and how colonial legacies influenced contemporary liberal democratic citizenship practice. Two examples that are coming to mind in terms of the U.S. colonial past are the 1917 Jones Act in Puerto Rico, which granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans at the peak of World War I so those citizens could then defend the United States. And another example is the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which created an easier path to citizenship for Cubans in the United States, which also does harken back to our colonial past at the turn of the century. Anna, could you give an example of some history about this colonial past, and how it informs our liberal democratic citizenship practices today?

Anna Skarpelis (30:55):

So you brought up the Jones Act. And of course, the counter example to that in the United States history is how the Philippines were treated. Who were promised citizenship in exchange for military participation during World War II as scholars like Katrina Quisumbing King are showing in their work. And then had those promised rights revoked, as so often happens when geopolitical fortunes turn. In my own work, I look at this as a case of racial Realpolitik, if you will. And by that, I mean a situation where states consider very strategically and cold heartedly what is in their interest in a geopolitical sense. So this is informed by geopolitical considerations, by balance of power, how does my state or the state I represent relate to others?

Anna Skarpelis (31:48):

And how can I defend and strengthen the power of that nation state vis-à-vis other states. And that sometimes leads to racial integration, and promises for racial minorities. But when the tides turn, that also often leads to taking those rights away. So it's a very strategic form of wielding power. Another way of looking at what I would call and others have also called colonial hangovers. So when we look at Postwar Europe, when we look at PostWar Japan, there's this fiction of national homogeneity that takes place.

Erin Goodman (32:22):

Could you say more about that?

Anna Skarpelis (32:25):

So there's this presumption that the population of Japan say is homogeneous, the population of Germany is homogeneous, doesn't contain many ethnic minorities. But that, of course, ignores massive population movements beforehand. And so it creates this fiction in the postwar, and this comes to the fore in the 1970s of labor migration from Italy, from Turkey, from Greece, for example, and Germany. That these people cannot integrate, because Germany is homogeneous. However, what happens in 1945 is that a lot of people who are not really ethnic Germans become German. And so you have this I would say ethnically very, very diverse population that where the state then imposes this fiction of homogeneity on it.

Anna Skarpelis (33:07):

Seen from a positive perspective, that means that integration and assimilation is actually quite easy. Of course, there are hiccups; displaced populations were mocked and made fun of, and discriminated against in the early Postwar Germany. But by the 1960s and 1970s, they had pretty almost gone away. People had been integrated. People with Polish last names, people with Eastern European last names had become pretty much German. So these are obviously, non Jewish populations. Populations who had not been murdered, but what we see when we look at national socialists involuntary assimilation practices, is that a lot of people who are non ethnic Germans become integrated into Germanness in some ways.

Anna Skarpelis (33:56):

So there's various groups that fall into that net. So these are phenotypically desirable people and populations, who are considered to be desirable population growth as the concept and description went. These are populations from within Europe that would have been considered non German, and that would not have been able to naturalize after 1945 to be frank, because they would be considered other. And so then people who are considered to be outsiders and non citizens, are people that come from the south, that come from further east. And so what I want to point to here is that when we think about membership, when we think about belonging, when we think about assimilation, there are all these fictions at work and they are often directed by the state.

Anna Skarpelis (35:00):

And that in many ways is one of the fundamental contradictions of dictatorships versus liberal democracies. That sometimes authoritarian states are more assimilationist than liberal democracies. Of course, they don't do this for emancipatory goals, and they don't grant the same rights. But citizenship can be more open under authoritarian regimes than under liberal democracies. And I think that is something that we need to really grapple with as we defend liberal democracy, if that is in fact, what we want to do.

Erin Goodman (35:37):

Let's take up the question of reasonable limits. I know it's a contentious issue. Are there reasonable limits to the number of people a country can or should welcome based on that country's capacity to provide services?

Anna Skarpelis (35:51):

So asking the question about numbers and limits can be interpreted in a way as to insinuate, you know what? There are so many people displaced, it's such a big problem. Our nation states will be overwhelmed. There's no way that the U.S. or Western Europe can deal with this massive displacement of hordes from the Middle East, if you allow me to re-appropriate the racist slogan from the late 19th and early 20th century. Longer term view is to look at what do we owe the world and other populations in terms of thinking about our historical trajectories, the wealth of our nations on whose backs that wealth is created, and really thinking about what decolonization could look like. And by that, I really mean the Western nation-state developed in tandem with the colonies.

Anna Skarpelis (36:54):

And so then the question is, how do we think about our responsibility? And what does decolonization really look like? How can we think about membership? Is it in a tit for tat way of reparations? You know what? My country colonized yours for so and so many years, let's think about how we can repair that. That often won't quite work, because the only way to repay is by completely expropriating the West to be honest, because of decades and centuries of exploitation of the non West. So maybe we can think about another way of taking this legacy seriously, and thinking about a decolonial responsibility for the West, and what that could look like.

Elke Winter (37:40):

That is an interesting and very thought-provoking idea, Anna. I really ... and I like it, and it resonates with some of what has been written in the literature on these questions. Now indeed, the question about limits reminds us a bit of the slogan "The boat is full." So that seems as if there are indeed these hordes that you have been quoting in quotation marks. But what we should not forget that many people actually don't want to move. They don't want to leave their homes, their families, the country they know, the languages that they've grown up and so on. So it is really not ... only basically a second chance, there may be some who want to move, but many do not want to move.

Elke Winter (38:29):

In her book, The Birthright Lottery, Canadian scholar Ayelet Shachar has described citizenship as the most important global sorting mechanism impacting a person's life chances. Basically, what she argues is the accident by birth. And this recalls what I said in the beginning, how do you become a citizen? You're either born to certain parents to inherit their citizenship, or you're born on a certain territory. This accident of birth is nothing that anyone deserved or actually did anything to obtain. It is pure luck, whether I was born in a rich country with a good passport, or I'm a baby born in a poor country and have a passport that does not allow me to travel. And it's a country that is torn by civil war.

Elke Winter (39:16):

So in that sense, Shachar proposes a levy on the rich states of all of us who were lucky enough to be born in a rich country that we actually owe to those who are not so lucky. And this in a way resonates, Anna, with what you have been saying. So maybe if we put those things together that we say well, as long as there is a large imbalance of wealth between countries, the global south, the global north, there will be migrants. Not because they want to necessarily come up particularly in a cold country like Canada, but because they are in need. So in that sense, the only thing that we can actually do is to make the process of migration possible, transparent. Make sure that it's a fair process similar to what Talia is researching.

Elke Winter (40:09):

And we should also not forget that in many of the countries that we are living, actually we are in need of new populations because our populations tend to decline. We have aging societies, we have women being not giving enough birth too. So to a certain extent, migrants are helping us. They're creating jobs by coming and populating the societies that are in a way in decline.

Erin Goodman (40:39):

Talia, do you have thoughts on this?

Talia Shiff (40:42):

I don't have, I don't think anyone of us has a defined answer as to are there exactly justifiable limits to the number of new citizens a country can welcome at any given time. But I think this is such an important question. One that is perhaps not debated enough. At the end, asylum refugee policy, citizenship decisions, they are centered on the question of when and how it is justifiable to draw a limit, a line between those that are in and those that are out. Those that are deserving, those that are not deserving. This is the definition of citizenship as an institution is making these constant negotiations. This is actually a question that I just debated with my students in class today. What is the meaning of open borders?

Talia Shiff (41:35):

How would this fundamentally change conceptions of membership, of nationality and citizenship? I think that many of the categorizations that constitute current immigration and asylum policy, economic immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers do not take into account the global inequality that exists between the global north, for example, and the global south in the sense that we cannot really differentiate or draw a clear cut line between economic needs deprivation and various forms of persecution. That clear cut line does not exist.

Erin Goodman (42:15):

Playing the devil's advocate here one more time, aren't there economic arguments for why a state might want to limit immigrants?

Anna Skarpelis (42:24):

I'll let the economists speak to that, but I think from a cursory reading of the literature of the economics of immigration there is a net positive effect of immigration as far as I recall my reading. And that immigrants create jobs. I live in New York City now. And without immigrants, the city would completely and utterly collapse. And of course, I have a selfish reason to say this as myself an immigrant to the United States and as a green card holder now. So I have a vested interest in declaring the integration and legal recognition of immigrants as useful.

Elke Winter (43:03):

We should recall and I think Anna mentioned this indirectly, that some of the civil wars and failing states that are the producers of migrant flows are actually not so only for by their own doing. Many of the countries in the global north also have their fair share in creating and stirring up at least not alleviating the conflicts in these countries.

Erin Goodman (43:31):

And hence, we have a refugee crisis with an estimated 80 million refugees around the world seeking security and a new home. It's clear that the need for sensible immigration policies is only increasing. How can this monumental responsibility be shared across nations? Are global institutions the answer to this global problem? Does the new Biden administration offer signs of hope? Elke...

Elke Winter (43:57):

Yes, to the question about the global institutions. I cannot speak to the institutions. But I think what the world will need to do is we will have to work together. Otherwise, it is not possible to solve this bigger problem because it's not one country or a couple of countries. We really need to work transparently and cooperatively by no longer stereotyping people off because of their ethnic and racial background. Maybe that in itself are steps in the right direction. And then we just have to wait and see how the next steps will follow. It's not an easy task for no administration, but I think what we're seeing is at least more promising than what we've seen before.

Erin Goodman (44:44):


Talia Shiff (44:45):

We're too early into the Biden administration to know exactly what changes it will bring. And there have been many promises and many of them that are still in a level of discourse, and have not been acted upon in terms of changing various immigration policies from the Trump era. But I do think that one of the things that we are seeing already, even though it's early on as Elke said, is a change of discourse. And I think that that change is very welcome, and really will allow different form of conversation and debate that we need to have in this country about immigration policy.

Erin Goodman (45:26):

Let's end on that subtle note of hope. This has been a thought-provoking discussion. I want to thank our scholars, Talia Shiff, Anna Skarpelis, and Elke Winter. And a big thanks to our listeners. If you haven't done so already, please subscribe to the Epicenter podcast on your favorite listening platform. I'm Erin Goodman signing off from the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, a research center at Harvard University supporting dialogue on complex international and global issues just like this one.