Anna Tuckett on her book, Rules, Papers, Status

Cover of Rules, Paper, Status by Anna Tuckett

Interview by Dodom Kim

Dodom Kim: Rules, Papers, Status examines migration, legal citizenship, and the question of belonging in contemporary Italy. Instead of the migrant-carrying vessels attempting to enter the Italian water–one of the favorite European border spectacles in international media–your book focuses on how people encounter immigration bureaucracy, ambiguous laws, and complex documents in an advice center for migrants ran by a trade union. What led you to this perhaps less thrilling and even frustratingly mundane site for your ethnographic research?

Anna Tuckett: The standard imagery employed by the media perpetuates the myth that the majority of so called illegal migrants cross nation states’ borders illegally. In reality, however, the vast majority of migrants enter destination countries legally (usually with some kind of visa) but become illegal due to restrictive legal and bureaucratic regimes. My book explores these processes of legalisation and illegalisation at the sites where they occur: police stations, bureaucratic offices and advice centres, among others. This focus on the everyday workings of immigration law insider borders aims both to remedy the lopsided view of immigration that the border spectacle produces and to shine a light on the real causes of putative illegal migration

Dodom Kim: Your book pays a special attention to how people handle documents, and how such practices are embedded in what you call the documentation regime—one aspect of the migration infrastructure that conditions how people move within and across nation-state borders (p.4). What inspired you to focus on documents in your research? What were the methodological challenges and gains of ethnographically engaging with this specific form of media?

Anna Tuckett: Documents are integral to experiences of migration. Passports, permits, visas, and other kinds of paperwork fundamentally shape migrants’ lives. While such documents are ostensibly used to remove ambiguity – someone either having the right to remain or not, for example – by tracing the social life of documents we learn about their essentially unstable and uncertain nature.

Methodologically, focusing on documents in the Italian context was both unavoidable and essential to my research. As the material artefacts of immigration processes, examining documents enabled me to learn the complex machinations of Italian immigration bureaucracy. For example, to renew a work permit one needs to submit paperwork relating to employment, income, housing, and family arrangements. Focusing on these detailed documentary practices enabled me to see the gaps that often exist between people’s paperwork and their real-life circumstances. This insight helped me to form some of the book’s central conclusions. Firstly, that migrants must carefully navigate the documentation regime in order to become legal or to hold on to legal status, including the production of false paperwork. Secondly, that the immigration bureaucracy relies upon this gap between paperwork and real life circumstances in order to function.

Dodom Kim: Your attention on documents must have made you quite conscious about your own documentary practices as an anthropologist. On this note, could you tell us why you decided to begin each chapter (except Chapter 1) with extracts from fieldnotes?

Anna Tuckett: The vignettes which open each chapter are designed to bring the bureaucratic and legal processes to life for the reader. Understanding the significance of different documents, documentary practices and how they relate to individuals cases was a large part of my fieldwork. Much like an anthropologist in a different setting might need to understand the ins and outs of, for example, a ritual, in my setting I needed to understand the legal and bureaucratic processes of the Italian immigration system. Equally, the reader needs to become familiar with details on Italian immigration law and bureaucracy in order to understand the book’s arguments and analysis. Introducing each chapter with a vignette was a way to bring these technical (and perhaps rather dry!) details to life.

Dodom Kim: Throughout the book, you show how culturally savvy people strategically maneuver and exploit the convoluted bureaucratic systems and policies. At the same time, you rigorously remind the readers that it is not necessarily a form of empowerment: the upsetting irony is that the more one becomes adept to the cultural practice, the riskier it might be to secure a legal citizenship. Is there something particular about Italian bureaucracy that creates this irony, or is it something to be found in other EU member states as well? Or does this irony have to do with some sort of fundamental limitation that modern law and bureaucracy imposes? In short, what do you think the irony’s broader implication might be beyond Italy?

Anna Tuckett: This is a great question and one which I grappled with throughout writing Rules, Paper, Status. As you say, in my book I argue that migrants need to have insider knowledge in order to successfully navigate the Italian immigration bureaucracy. Migrants’ strategies of navigation, I argue, fit into broader rule-bending practices that are prevalent in Italy, which are rooted in the dominant discursive construction of the Italian state and bureaucracy as inefficient and corrupt, and the accompanying expectation that its rules should therefore be bent. It is through their encounters with the Italian bureaucracy, I argue, that migrants come to participate in the production and reproduction of this collectively shared imagined state and become ‘cultural citizens’ (Ong et al. 1996). In the Italian bureaucratic context, however, prevalent rule-breaking is accompanied by strict compliance with proceduralism in relation to paperwork. Paper trails must be authentic even if false and successfully navigating the immigration bureaucracy requires expertise in the management of documents. Given the documented nature of migrants’ lives, however, rule-bending in one application could create problems in others; even skillful rule-bending can be highly risky for migrants. As a host of ethnographic case studies in my book highlight, developing cultural citizenship can therefore, paradoxically, also result in migrants’ risking the attainment of actual juridical citizenship or other forms of secure legal status.

While there are certain elements of this argument which are particular to the Italian context, I think that the paradox does have broader implications. It highlights the inherent uncertainties within categories employed by modern law and bureaucracy, such as ‘citizen’ and ‘migrant’ and ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’, which documents and paperwork are designed to unambiguously define. Documents, however, do not hold the truth that will indicate someone’s rightful membership or not. Rather, they highlight the arbitrariness and ambiguities within the laws that produce these simultaneous processes of inclusion and exclusion.

Dodom Kim: With the COVID-19 pandemic, so much of the documentation regime around the world have been undergoing vast changes. Borders have been shut more tightly in many places, while those that remain open ask for a whole slew of novel documents (such as PCR test results, vaccine records, and so on). During this extraordinary time when there is heightened interest in international movement and documentary controls, what would you like the readers to get out of reading your book?

Anna Tuckett: As you say, the ongoing pandemic has resulted in restrictions on our movement, the closing of borders and the necessity to produce new and ever-changing documents in order to travel. For those of us lucky enough to hold what my respondents called ‘powerful passports’, these shifts have been experienced as an abrupt disruption to the flow and ease of movement previously enjoyed. While the stakes are still much higher for most of my respondents in the book, the past year has given many more of us a taste of what it feels like when border regimes directly impact and impede everyday life. The new and changing documentary requirements for travel also give us direct insights into the kinds of anxieties, uncertainties and frustrations that are produced by documentation regimes and already experienced by much of the world’s population.  

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