The “Invisibility Bargain” Constrains Migrants’ Identities and Rights

By Jeffrey D. Pugh*

Colombian refugees carry groceries

Colombian migrants in Ecuador carry home groceries. / Michelle Snow / USAID / Flickr / Creative Commons

Migrants win tolerance for their presence in host countries by striking an “invisibility bargain” with local citizens – contributing labor but settling for constraints on their identities and political participation – that slows their integration and leaves them vulnerable to discrimination and violence.  Through surveys of Colombians forced into Ecuador by conflict and violence, I have found that migrants feel pressure to conform to host communities’ expectations of their economic contribution and political and social “invisibility.”  (Full text of my recent article in International Migration Review is here.)  Migrants whose visible characteristics and practices violate norms that the host society deems to be unacceptable or who engage in overt political claim-making on the state often risk sparking a nativist backlash.  In response, Colombian migrants have employed a range of survival strategies:

  • Many who seek to integrate into Ecuadorian society sacrifice important elements of their Colombian identity, making a conscious effort to “unlearn” their accent, speak more softly and slowly, and use diminutive forms of speech to fit in better with Ecuadorians. Those who blend in better tend to have an easier time finding a job, getting housing, and building constructive relationships with Ecuadorians.
  • Others, particularly racial minority migrants, often choose to avoid contact with Ecuadorians, but this strategy of self-isolation removes them from potential spaces where they can negotiate access to rights, protection, and resources. Afro-Colombians are less likely than mestizo Colombians, for instance, to live in neighborhoods with mostly Ecuadorian neighbors.  As a result, they are less resilient against attacks or discriminatory behavior because they lack a support network in the host society.
  • Yet others employ a strategy that emphasizes the similarity between the experiences of Ecuadorian emigrants to Europe and Colombian immigrants in Ecuador. They propose a boundary-blurring strategy recognizing migrant rights everywhere and legitimizing migrants’ political participation in countries of both origin and residence.

The rhetoric of “universal citizenship” of former Ecuadorian President Correa (2007-2017) – a concept in which every person has a right to migrate and should therefore have access to basic rights – appeared to offer escape from the invisibility bargain and its consequences.  The 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution prohibited discrimination based on migration status and guaranteed refugees many of the same rights as Ecuadorians.  This “open borders” rhetoric promised a commitment to human security above national security and promoted a reciprocal protection to Ecuador’s large diaspora in Spain and the United States.  Crafted to undergird politically beneficial policies, however, Correa’s approach faced political constraints and was undercut by the populist nature of his government style – and made only limited progress at the level of implementation.  Surveys show that the legal distinction between refugees and other migrants is still lost in practice in Ecuador.  The formal institutions of democratic states fail to provide security for everyone living in their territory in their responses to constituent pressure to scapegoat migrants.

In the absence of concrete progress toward concepts like universal citizenship, migrants will continue to face the trade-off between maintaining their identities and customs and successfully integrating into host communities and gaining political rights and participation.  Although informal mechanisms of political participation pale in comparison to the exercise of full citizen rights, they can be important sources of protection and assistance.  The evidence from Ecuador shows that the frequency and quality of interaction between Ecuadorians and Colombians seem to influence their attitudes toward one another.  Migrants reporting daily interaction with Ecuadorians had nearly double the level of positive perceptions of the native population compared to those who interacted less frequently – and broader acceptance by local communities at least offers a glimmer of hope of liberating other migrants from the pain of the invisibility bargain in the future.

 October 25, 2017

*Jeffrey D. Pugh is an Assistant Professor of conflict resolution at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and executive director of the Center for Mediation, Peace, and Resolution Conflict (CEMPROC).