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  • Irregularities are the New Frontier –McNevin’s Contesting Citizenship
  • Anastasia Tataryn (bio)
Anne McNevin, Contesting Citizenship: Irregular Migrants and New Frontiers of the Political. Columbia University Press, 2011. 240 pp. $45.00 (cloth) ISBN-10: 0231151284

Almost every day, stories about migrants – whether arriving in boats to claim asylum, or disturbing economies by working without legal permits – fill the pages of news outlets worldwide. Not surprisingly, migration continues to be an important focal point to analyse shifting spheres of economics, labour, social welfare, citizenship, political participation, legality and legal subjectivity, and sovereignty. In this arena, new ideas become difficult to claim. In her 2011 book, Contesting Citizenship: Irregular Migrants and New Frontiers of the Political, Anne McNevin succeeds in providing fresh ‘food for thought.’ McNevin explores how governance of migration, which is performed at the level of the nation-state and extra-territorially, shifts notions of territorial sovereignty as much as political belonging and participation. At the same time, organised movements of migrants contest their irregular status and this shifts ideas of citizenship, albeit in different ways. Unlike what typically may be expected when someone claims a ‘new frontier of the political’, the new frontiers that McNevin suggests are neither utopian nor all-inclusive. These frontiers concern tensions, demands, economic needs, legal and illegal practices alike. The frontiers McNevin discusses do not claim comprehensive unity, but involve the pursuit of a language that speaks to practices, movements, and techniques of survival particular to each situation and experience.

Opening with the events of the Tampa boat affair in Australia in 2001, McNevin contends migrants are being used as scapegoats for social, political, cultural, and economic anxieties. These anxieties are heightened in the 21st century by fears of national security and economic crises. McNevin’s argument is that irregular migrants are “active agents in the transformation of political belonging” that “reconstitute the social and spatial parameters of citizenship” (viii). Drawing on Laclau and Mouffe, and the notion of space as political (Doreen Massey) McNevin asks, “what spatial frames do irregular migrants deploy in order to contest prevailing registers of political belonging?” (39). In asking this, she engages with others asking similar questions such as Nicholas DeGenova, Saskia Sassen, Pheng Cheah and Engin Isin. Ultimately, McNevin suggests that as migrants are targeted and ostracised through conventional notions of citizenship, they also contest and actively reinvent citizenship.

While reading the book, I was sceptical about whether McNevin’s discussion presented anything new to literature in migration. The introduction seemed to follow a similar set-up to other books on migration and irregularity, such as Davergne’s 2008 Making People Illegal. However, my worries were soon allayed as McNevin proceeded to analyze, in a thoughtful and integrative approach, how migrants in irregular status situations contest and unsettle conventional notions of citizenship. McNevin uses academic literature and narratives of migrants to face the irregularity of the very topic of migrant and citizenship. Irregular migrants expose a network of interests, actions, policies, campaigns and struggles that are contradictory and inconclusive. McNevin does not claim that a ‘new frontier’ would smooth over these disjointed realities. Rather she suggests that the concept of ‘new frontiers’ involves a form of openness to shifts and movements that are not going to happen, but are happening. There are contestations occurring on multiple levels and in multiple spaces of politics, in forms that surpass traditional definitions of citizenship as tied to a right bestowed by the nation state.

McNevin’s discussion of the contemporary phenomenon of irregular migration pushes beyond conventional scholarship in the field of migration. This book suggests a much more honest assessment of how citizenship and political belonging are actively contested in paradoxical and often inconsistent ways. McNevin introduces the chapters with anecdotes from individuals struggling with, and contesting, borders and irregular statuses. Most of her discussion focuses on government policies and organised movements of migrants in Australia (Tampa and off-shore processing sites), France (the Sans-Papiers movement), and the United States (organisations of ‘illegal’ migrants, economic issues, and regularisation). Unlike Dauvergne’s Making People Illegal, or Benhabib’s Rights of Others, which may be read as a series of distinct articles, Contesting Citizenship is best read in...

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