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).

Moving Toward Religious Unity in Response to Violence?

Bishop Oscar Romero mural, El Salvador / Photo credit: alison.mckellar / Foter / CC BY

Bishop Oscar Romero mural, El Salvador / Photo credit: alison.mckellar / Foter / CC BY

Many Latin American churches are struggling to address the criminal violence challenging their societies – and are finding new ways of promoting peace in ways reflecting each country’s different conditions.  As part of American University’s multi-year project (click here) on religious responses to violence in Latin America, 40 grassroots activists representing two-dozen faith-based ministries in seven countries gathered in Guatemala City in mid-July to share experiences ministering to victims of the region’s rampant violence.* Their ministries in Mexico, Central America and Colombia ranged from programs for at-risk youth, to rehabilitation centers for former gang members, to shelters for Central American migrants crossing through Mexico.  Just as they developed a range of responses to the threats posed by authoritarian governments in the past, religion-based activists today are adapting strategies to a wave of “new” violence, a battery of social ills that includes gang violence, gender-based violence, and violence against migrants, as well as the persistent violence in states that have formally democratized but failed to deliver basic security.

Conflicting interpretations of the Church’s message of peace affect how churches define victims, how they emphasize or downplay the structural causes of violence, and how they respond to human suffering.  Thus, while many of the participants characterized the current crisis in terms of structural or institutional violence, such convictions were not always reflected in churches’ proposed solutions to the crises facing their communities.  There was no consensus, for example, on how faith-based organizations can effectively engage state institutions and policies, particularly where governments are perceived as corrupt and ineffective:  some participants believe the church’s role is to condemn corruption, while others saw no alternative to holding elected and appointed authorities accountable by pressing them to deliver justice.  One of the participating ministries based in Honduras, for example, provides legal aid for victims and their families, encouraging them to press charges, provide testimony, and follow-up with police and courts until they obtain a conviction.

For many of those in attendance, the ecumenical meeting was a first – in the words of a Mexican participant, “historic” – by offering a unique opportunity for religious practitioners to learn about the realities of neighboring countries, exchange ideas about best practices responding to violence, and discuss possible means of collaboration across borders.  Despite diverse traditions and circumstances, the churches are becoming a more visible and potentially more unified force in the struggle against violence in Latin America. In a region marked by ecclesiastical competition, they are challenging traditional understandings of “accompaniment” and are recognizing their shared responsibility to respond to violence with concrete action.  Indifference, passivity, fear, and silence received the greatest condemnation from the meeting’s participants.  These churches are realizing that their diverse activities are in fact complementary, and that they have a critical role to play – both to mitigate existing suffering and to eradicate root causes of violence.  

*The seminar “The Role of the Church in the Face of Violence in Mesoamerica: Models and Experiences of Peace in Contexts of Conflict and Violence” was co-organized by AU’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and the Latin American Anabaptist Seminary (SEMILLA) based in Guatemala City.