Toward a Critical Phenomenology of “Illegality”: State Power, Criminalization, and Abjectivity among Undocumented Migrant Workers in Tel Aviv, Israel


  • Sarah S. Willen

    1. National Institute for Mental Health Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
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Given the vast scope and magnitude of the phenomenon of so-called “illegal” migration in the present historical moment, this article contends that phenomenologically engaged ethnography has a crucial role to play in sensitizing not only anthropologists, but also policymakers, politicians, and broader publics to the complicated, often anxiety-ridden and frightening realities associated with “the condition of migrant illegality,” both of specific host society settings and comparatively across the globe. In theoretical terms, the article constitutes a preliminary attempt to link pressing questions in the fields of legal anthropology and anthropology of transnational migration, on one hand, with recent work by phenomenologically oriented scholars interested in the anthropology of experience, on the other. The article calls upon ethnographers of undocumented transnational migration to bridge these areas of scholarship by applying what can helpfully be characterized as a “critical phenomenological” approach to the study of migrant “illegality” (Willen, 2006; see also Desjarlais, 2003). This critical phenomenological approach involves a three-dimensional model of illegality: first, as a form of juridical status; second, as a sociopolitical condition; and third, as a mode of being-in-the-world. In developing this model, the article draws upon 26 non-consecutive months of ethnographic field research conducted within the communities of undocumented West African (Nigerian and Ghanaian) and Filipino migrants in Tel Aviv, Israel, between 2000 and 2004. During the first part of this period, “illegal” migrants in Israel were generally treated as benign, excluded “Others.” Beginning in mid-2002, however, a resource-intensive, government-sponsored campaign of mass arrest and deportation reconfigured the condition of migrant “illegality” in Israel and, in effect, transformed these benign “Others” into wanted criminals. By analyzing this transformation the article highlights the profound significance of examining not only the judicial and sociopolitical dimensions of what it means to be “illegal” but also its impact on migrants' modes of being-in-the-world.