Inequality and Assemblages of Noncitizenship in an Age of Migration

Inequality and Assemblages of Noncitizenship in an Age of Migration

Patricia Landolt and Luin Goldring

Globally, legal status and citizenship are critical determinants of well-being, mobility and immobility, inequality, and stratification. Dramatic shifts in the volume and character of global migration movements compel us to look anew at the content, boundaries, and pathways between citizenship and noncitizenship. The global numbers are sobering. By 2015, almost 244 million people lived outside of their country of birth: There were 20.2 million refugees or people living in refugee-like situations; the number of international students worldwide had risen above 5 million; there were an estimated 150.3 million migrant workers and 50 million irregular migrants worldwide (IOM 2014).

States have responded to global migration flows and refugee crises by creating multiple and changing noncitizen legal status categories, restricting access to citizenship, eroding the rights of noncitizens and citizens, and developing extralegal systems for detaining and deporting people who have unclear citizenship rights. Running counter to this global lockdown, substantive citizenship and claims making by noncitizens are proliferating.

Understood formally, the categories of citizenship and noncitizenship stand as mirror opposites, where the former denotes rights and responsibilities and the latter their absence. Current literature on citizenship recognizes the distinction between formal and substantive citizenships, thus allowing for a more nuanced view of the interrelations between citizen and noncitizen statuses and practices as well as the variation within them. Such a nuanced perspective, however, is rarely afforded to the experience of noncitizenship. This leaves unexplained significant differences in the experiences and outcomes of noncitizenship and legal status trajectories.

Our research proposes an alternative framework for understanding noncitizenship as a relational, dynamic, and uneven legal status category. We borrow Deleuze’s concept of assemblage as a particularly useful metaphor to capture the patterned yet contingent experiences of noncitizenship and the diverse and multidirectional configurations of legal status trajectories. The assemblage metaphor allows us to understand how disparate and often conflicting policies, power relations, institutions, and actors interact to produce different experiences of noncitizenship and variable relations between noncitizenship and citizenship. Understanding noncitizenship as an assemblage offers several theoretical advantages: it intentionally moves away from a focus on the documented/undocumented binary; contends with the heterogeneity of noncitizenship experiences and categories (e.g. undocumented, irregular, and temporary, etc.) that vary in terms of presence —the right to remain in a given national territory — and access — to labor markets and to public goods and services.

The assemblage model illuminates everyday migrant agency, thus presenting a more nuanced view of how migrants selectively and strategically use their social knowledge, resources, and social networks in navigating various institutional systems and in making claims. The model takes into account the importance of the discretionary power of institutional actors across arenas in facilitating or hindering people’s efforts at securing presence or access. Variable and dynamic frames of deservingness mediate all interactions, negotiations, and claims, and these moral scripts play a crucial role in determining legal status worthiness. These various social interactions, forms of agency, and discretionary practices intertwine in systemic and contingent ways to assemble noncitizenship.

In navigating and negotiating the systems and requirements, that confer or deny rights to remain present in the country and to access entitlements, social actors enact conditionality: they work to meet the formal and practical conditions required to maintain presence and access. Conditionality is framed by macro-level regulations, policies, and procedures that take hold through micro-level social relations, interactions, and negotiations. The relational and dynamic character of the work of conditionality configures noncitizenship assemblages and trajectories in varied ways that do not necessarily conform to institutionally outlined procedures, expected timelines, or outcomes. For this reason, we emphasize the systemic contingency of noncitizenship assemblages.

In what follows, we profile two migration stories to demonstrate how the work of conditionality configures the Canadian assemblage of noncitizenship. Drawing from interviews conducted in 2006, we identify the kinds of work noncitizens were undertaking to ensure ongoing presence and improved access, and illustrate significant differences in legal status trajectories in terms of timing, direction, and outcomes.

Case 1: In 1998, 22-year-old Rachel came to Toronto from St. Vincent to join her aunt. She had a high school education and hoped to continue her schooling in Canada. Rachel did not need a visa to enter and was not certain how long she would stay. Although she did not have a work permit, Rachel registered with a temporary employment agency and quickly found work as a live-out nanny. During her first year in Canada, she worked Monday through Friday for $1000 a month and sometimes cleaned houses for cash at the weekend. She was socially isolated, had no contact with community agencies, and was largely at the mercy of her employers. Over time, however, Rachel did build a social network through work. She developed friendships with other ‘illegal nannies’ from the Caribbean. They would tell her many things about how to regularize her status, but often the information would be inaccurate. However, four years and two employers after arriving, her nanny friends told her about an organization that provided employment and legal status-related services and support for caregivers. The staff there encouraged Rachel to work with her employer so that she could enter the federal government’s Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP).

Over the years, Rachel had spent a lot of time and money trying to regularize her status. After a couple of years working without a work permit or authorization to be in Canada, she contacted a lawyer to apply for permanent residence based on Humanitarian and Compassionate grounds (H&C). The lawyer took $400 and disappeared. Regularization and permanent residence came through employer sponsorship and the LCP. Eight years after arriving in Canada, Rachel got her permanent residence. At the time of the interview, she continued to work as a caregiver, volunteered for work experience in her field, and was going to school part-time.

Case 2: In 1999, Ana joined her husband in Toronto. He had made an inland refugee claim in 1998 and was awaiting a decision. Ana was originally from Bolivia but had spent a number of years working as a nurse in Uruguay before moving to Canada. Shortly after her arrival, Ana’s husband became abusive. In 2002, facing the possible miscarriage of her second child, and with the support of women in her English language classes, Ana left her husband and moved to a women’s shelter. This triggered a family sponsorship breakdown, and thus her irregularization. She was out of status, without health care coverage, a valid work permit, or the right to presence in Canada.

Ana’s move into a women’s shelter granted her substantive access to an extensive and diverse network of community agency resources. She received health care from a community health clinic with some funds for primary care for the uninsured. She and her daughter were referred to a psychologist for free counselling. The shelter also connected her with a legal clinic that helped her file for permanent residence on Humanitarian & Compassionate grounds (H&C). Because an H&C application does not grant provincial health coverage, a work permit, or protection from deportation, Ana continued to access resources under the radar. Although the acceptance rate on H&Cs stood at under 10% and processing times were very slow, Ana was granted permanent residence four years later, seven years after arriving in Canada. Before receiving her permanent residence, Ana held a variety of low-end jobs. She had a valid work permit for two years and a temporary Social Insurance Number; the latter authorized the payment of taxes but not employment unless it was paired with a work permit.

Both cases offer an empirical basis for mapping the elements of the assemblage of noncitizenship and highlighting how they are connected dynamically and at times contingently through the work of conditionality. Rachel’s case focuses on Canada’s burgeoning temporary migrant worker system. It illustrates the role of information of variable quality and the accumulation of social learning. The case also captures how friendship networks and the settlement organizations that advocate for noncitizens shape the terrain of conditionality, and the potential multidirectionality of legal status trajectories. Ana’s case, on the other hand, captures the interface between federal policy and local advocacy for and with precarious noncitizens and the importance of narratives of deservedness mobilized by migrant rights advocates. Through multiple transitions, her family situation, friendship networks, and organization-based network overlapped to mediate her legal status trajectory and access to formal and substantive entitlements.

As shown in the cases profiled, people’s work at securing presence and access is shaped by migrant agency, social learning, support networks, institutional advocacy, and frames of deservedness. These factors interact contingently, over time, and without necessarily fitting prescribed patterns. For instance, inaccurate information, predatory employers and legal consultants, and family dynamics also come into play and complicate experiences and trajectories.

Understanding noncitizenship as an assemblage configured through the work of conditionality demonstrates the formal and substantive features of noncitizenship. It shows that state categories establish the formal rules of access and presence, and unequal social relations shape the practice of noncitizenship. It also elucidates the diverse pathways that legal status trajectories can take in terms of timing, direction, and outcomes. Throughout, as citizenship becomes increasingly more precarious and more difficult, costly, and lengthy to obtain, legal status rises as an axis of lasting social inequality.

Complex trajectories of legal status are playing out across global landscapes, multiple countries, and various legal status situations, configuring ever more unstable and hazardous social environments. Examining how noncitizenship is assembled through the work of conditionality can enhance our understanding of the relationships between noncitizenship and citizenship. It can also inform strategic interventions to address the long-term negative consequences of precarious legal status.

For more on this research see Landolt, P. and Goldring, L. (2015) Assembling noncitizenship through the work of conditionality. Citizenship Studies 19 (8), 853-869.


Patricia Landolt is Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Her current research focuses on patchworks of access to public education for precarious legal status students and families.  It is part of an ongoing conceptual interest in precarious non-citizenship and the boundary work of conditionality. She has researched and published on Salvadoran transnational migration, Latin American-Canadian refugee political incorporation, and the relationship between racialization, precarious employment and income insecurity. Luin Goldring is Professor of Sociology at York University, Canada. Her current research examines the ways that legal status contours social inequality in Canada. Current collaborative projects study the intersections and trajectories of precarious legal status and precarious work, and access to education for precarious legal status populations. She has published in the areas of citizenship studies, transnational migration studies, Mexico-US migration, gender and migration, newcomer organizing, and im/migrant and refugee incorporation.