Cornell University

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Assembling the Illegality Regime: Vagrancy Laws, Indentured Labor, and the Making of Migration Control in Germany

Friday, March 15, 2024 at 11:30am to 1:00pm

White Hall, 106
123 Central Ave., Ithaca, NY 14850, USA

Today, illegality is the major frame through which societies discuss migration. While the existing literature has situated the emergence of the figure of the illegal migrant in the post-1945 era, I show that people were already criminalized as illegal in 1920s Germany. To target Jewish migrants fleeing the pogroms in present-day Poland and Ukraine, the German government built its first immigration detention camps and attempted to control its external borders and deport those that had been categorized as ‘nuisance foreigners’ – the poor, those without a job or a permanent abode, and those who had been found guilty of a crime. Through a historical case study of Germany, this paper therefore asks how states first came to render people on the move as illegal. Drawing on one year of archival research, I show how the making of migrant illegality is as much rooted in the domestic control of vagrants and Roma people as it was influenced by the transnational efforts to manage colonized labor. I argue that the entanglements of these local-subnational and global-colonial histories of mobility controls equipped the German state with the legal, bureaucratic, and enforcement capacities to define and categorize who can be excluded as an illegal migrant and to detain and deport those targeted.

About the Speaker

Sabrina Axster is a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University’s Migration Initiative and hold a PhD in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University.

This event is part of the Department of Government's Politics, Sandwiches, and Comments workshop series. 

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Event Type

Food/Catering, Seminar


Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Government, Global Cornell, Migrations, Institute for European Studies


cascal, GOVT, Global Cornell, Einaudi Center, cashum, govtcal


Contact E-Mail

Contact Name

Emily Jackson


Sabrina Axster

Speaker Affiliation

Postdoctoral Fellow, Migrations Initiative

Speaker Web Site

Dept. Web Site

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