The Limits of Power and the Complexity of Powerlessness

The Case of Immigration 1

Authored by: Saskia Sassen

Routledge International Handbook of Contemporary Social and Political Theory

Print publication date:  March  2011
Online publication date:  March  2011

Print ISBN: 9780415548250
eBook ISBN: 9780203875575
Adobe ISBN: 9781135997946


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My concern here is exploring the limits of power and the complexities of powerlessness – the direct or mediated resistances that the powerless can deploy knowingly or not. 2 Immigration policy enforcement is one institutional domain for exploring these issues, especially in the case of powerful countries and undocumented workers, among the most vulnerable subjects in those same countries. We can think of this case as representing an instance of highly formalized power (the US state) and an instance of extreme powerlessness (undocumented immigrants). To gain some closure on this vast subject, I will focus on the tensions between current policies for controlling immigrants and what we can think of as new elements in the immigration reality. The particular policies that stand out involve the weaponizing of border control. The particular changes in the immigration reality can be thought of as bits, as in digital bits, that are being assembled into a somewhat novel reality constituted through both well-established conditions and emergent bits whose status is often unclear – they may or may not support that longstanding reality. Here I confine myself to certain bits in a multi-bit reality in-the-making which are unsettling basic alignments on which immigration policy rests. They also reveal the limits of even the most powerful state in the world to get its way, and they show that in certain settings powerlessness becomes complex. Let me illustrate with two recent cases.

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