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Beyond Informal Citizenship: The New Moral Economy of Migrant Illegality



Over the past decades, citizenship studies have explored in detail the various forms of social and civic integration achieved by otherwise illegal residents in contemporary immigration countries. While a great deal of analysis has tended to rest on a dichotomy between formal exclusion on the one hand and informal incorporation on the other, recent studies have begun questioning this dualistic model by examining the formal circuits of incorporation followed by unauthorized denizens at various geographical and institutional levels. Taking cues from this emerging line of research, this article makes three interconnected arguments. First, in contemporary liberal democracies, the rising tension between the illegal status of new immigrants and their limited but effective incorporation does not always pit formal law against informal practices, but is often located within law itself. Second, as a dynamic institutional nexus, “illegality” does not function as an absolute marker of illegitimacy, but rather as a handicap within a continuum of probationary citizenship. An incipient moral economy sees irregular migrants accumulating official and semiofficial proofs of presence, certificates of reliable conduct and other formal emblems of good citizenship, whether in the name of civic honor, in the hope of lesser deportability, or in view of future legalization. Third, such access to formal civic attributes is simultaneously being made increasingly difficult by the intensification of restrictions and controls from immigration, labor, and welfare authorities, thus confronting irregular migrants with the harsh dilemma of being framed as “more illegal” for the very documentary and economic features also assumed to improve their present and prospective civic deservingness.