Issue 16 / February 2021
by Manuela Lenzen
Migration, Identity, and Inequality in Times of Global Mobility and Immobility
With the advent of globalization, an old utopian idea has gained currency – the notion that people can now find themselves anywhere on the face of the earth and still be at home, that nationality no longer plays a crucial role in shaping the identity of the true citizens of the world. “For the jet-setting managerial class, this kind of cosmopolitanism may have become a reality to a certain degree,” comments the migration researcher Jaeeun Kim, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and presently a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg. “But when we look at the big picture, only very few people can actually relocate to their desired destinations. It really does matter where you hail from, what kind of passport you have in your possession.” For many years now, Jaeeun Kim has been talking with people who have made cross-border moves and those who have failed to do so, asking about their experiences, their strategies, and their self-conception. And in this undertaking, she has encountered a twofold paradox. In our globalized world, a person’s national identity has not lost but rather gained importance, as one’s passport increasingly determines where and how a person can move and at what costs. At the same time, however, the passport, or paper identities in general, may not necessarily determine where that person might feel at home and how she sees herself.
After graduating from Seoul National University in South Korea with a Bachelor’s degree in law and a Master’s degree in sociology, Jaeeun Kim prepared to depart for her doctoral studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. As she collected numerous documents required for a U.S. visa, she came to appreciate the importance of passport identities in shaping how others saw her and even how she got to see herself. “Before I went to the States, I never saw myself primarily as Korean,” says Kim. “That was always taken for granted, it was not important for my self-understanding. But the grammar of international travel I had to learn in the next few years made me think otherwise.” Her personal experience sharpened her awareness of how governments attempt to pin down who someone is and the critical role that official documents play in this process. And she soon realized that not all official identities were created equal. Some passports enable you to have the world at your feet; others may make you end up dead in the water. Migration, identity, and inequality have since been Jaeeun Kim’s primary research interests.
Her award-winning book, Contested Embrace: Transborder Membership Politics in Twentieth-Century Korea (Stanford University Press, 2016), engages these interests through a study of the migration of Koreans between Korea, China, and Japan throughout the long twentieth century. The dynamic of migration, identity, and inequality is illustrated especially vividly by the “return” migration of ethnic Koreans from northeast China – the descendants of Koreans who fled the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula – to South Korea in the last three decades or so. In the 1990s, the South Korean economy was more advantageously positioned than its Chinese counterpart, offering Korean Chinese better opportunities to get ahead as they weathered the drastic economic transformation of China. “And most of them were also fluent Korean speakers,” Kim adds. “So South Korea emerged as one of the most attractive migration destinations.” But the South Korean government did not make things easy for these coethnic migrants, treating their “return” with suspicion and making legal migration challenging. Moreover, “when these migrants finally arrived in Korea, they were shocked that South Koreans treated them as Chinese,” says Jaeeun Kim. In the course of her research she learned about the strategies that Korean Chinese migrants have employed to escape “involuntary immobility” and to deal with the various systems of migration control.
Kim argues that various authorized and unauthorized forms of “identity craft” are a crucial element of these strategies. For example, she tells a story of Korean Chinese who were born in the north before the country’s political division, and then felt compelled to invent a South Korean background decades later to overcome the gatekeeping practice of the South Korean government. She says that the crafting of identities – the creation of biographies meeting the demands of the gatekeeper state where one wishes to settle, with the assistance of a variety of props – is quite a widespread phenomenon. “Some acquire passports with which they don’t necessarily identify to facilitate their global mobility. Others marry on paper to move to their desired destinations or avoid deportation. Still others mold the stories of their suffering and victimization to fit the template imposed by the refugee institution.”
Kim emphasizes that the boundary between genuine identities and fake masks may not always be so clear-cut: “Crafting identity is not like wearing a mask that you can just easily put on and off as you see fit. In some cases, it may require intensive reorientation of your embodied self. It may also require changing your social relationships. That must exert an influence on who you ultimately are. A person’s self-understanding can change as a result of the pursuit of certain paper identities.” One such example is the so-called marriage of convenience whereby a person enters into matrimony so as to legally remain in a country: “You engage in a marriage of convenience initially only for migration and citizenship purposes. You don’t intend to change who you are, you are marrying only on paper. But it may end up changing who you are – the family relationship that you have – and you may in fact become precisely what you pretend to be. I have been particularly interested in this complicated relationship between papereality and corporeality, between paper identity and self-understanding,” says Kim.
Another aspect of unauthorized identity craft that attracts her attention is the “moral economy” underlying this practice. Kim explores how people understand migration policies to which they are subject, whether or not they regard them as legitimate, and what strategies they consider morally admissible for circumventing these policies. Moral economy might come into play, for example, in justifying the violation of an immigration law by asserting that the state’s demands are indecent anyway or by declaring it the only way to attain other worthy goals, like the betterment of family lives, that are otherwise unachievable. Distinctive understandings of debt, morality, and honor often shape unauthorized identity crafts, transcending the binary of legality and illegality.
Ethnographic observations and interviews play a central role in Kim’s research. She describes herself as a qualitative sociologist, but she also knows her way around the fields of history and cultural anthropology. “I examine primary historical sources and also undertake qualitative interviews and ethnographic observations. My research is pretty interdisciplinary.” For her theoretical framework, she finds inspiration from Pierre Bourdieu, among other scholars: “His theorization of the state can be pretty helpful to understand how the passport and visa systems work – why official documents are so important in the migration system, how immigration bureaucrats rely on all these documents, and also how they differentiate more valuable documents from others.” Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic violence also helps Kim to understand what forms of migration are regarded as legitimate and what forms as criminal, and how this distinction shapes the unequal distribution of life chances, honor, credit, and moral worth across the globe.
Some Korean Chinese migrants find no enduring home in South Korea and travel onward, for instance to the United States. And Jaeeun Kim travels with them in her new book project that she is working on at the Wissenschaftskolleg – preliminarily entitled Redemption: Asylum-Seeking on Religious Grounds in the Era of Involuntary Immobility. She focuses especially on the role that the religious affiliation plays in the migration and settlement of the Korean Chinese in the U.S. “Scholars have shown that religion offers immigrants an alternative ‘cartography of belonging,’” she says. Membership in a community of faith can often pave the way for even unauthorized migrants to integrate into a new milieu. It sometimes helps to maintain the connection to the homeland, while also imparting a sense of belonging to a supranational community. “Especially in the States,” says Kim, “being Christian is also considered a marker of assimilation. The process of becoming an American is intertwined deeply with becoming a Christian.” Furthermore, in the case of people who apply for asylum based on religious persecution, religion is what makes the asylum application possible in the first place. Similar to marriages of convenience, here too doors can be opened through a pro forma profession of faith and subsequent efforts to make that appearance credible. But again, like marriages of convenience, this can change people over time: “Those who initially adopted a particular religious identity on paper for opportunistic reasons may develop a serious commitment to that faith by performing that identity over the course of a prolonged asylum process.”
Jaeeun Kim attempts to obtain a comprehensive view of migration and asylum-seeking processes by examining the roles of multiple actors, including the countries of origin, transit, and settlement, religious organizations of a transnational scope, and last but not least, all sorts of commercial migration intermediaries, who loom large in the lives of most migrants. “All these different institutions have their own logic,” states Kim. “They bring different ideas of who deserves asylum and they interact with each other, producing multifarious consequences, both intended and unintended. The asylum institution is not free from the deeply unequal mobility regimes,” she adds. “It systematically favors those with greater resources over those who are vulnerable, contradicting our widely shared belief. Those who are truly vulnerable have greater difficulty navigating the complicated, expensive, and prolonged visa procedures and refugee status determination processes.” She stresses that migrants are nevertheless an active part of this dynamic interplay. “They are not passive victims. They bring distinctive moral understandings, various resources, and innovative strategies to this relational dynamics.”
Kim also emphasizes that migration should be understood from a thoroughly processual perspective. She hopes that her long-term ethnographic research in the U.S., northeast China, and South Korea will help her provide an in-depth analysis of various self-transformations, enacted and embraced by migrants and asylum-seekers over time. Jaeeun Kim is certain that her findings are applicable to other parts of the world and other migration contexts. “In Germany, for example, the Christian conversion of Iranian asylum-seekers has created a similar dynamic I examine in my new book project. I hope my study will elucidate some of the most vexing questions of the present time. Namely, the questions of global inequality, migration governance, and the politics of humanitarianism.” At the Wissenschaftskolleg she will have sufficient time to shed light on these complex questions.
More on: Jaeeun Kim
Images: © Maurice Weiss