Immigration and the State

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco | PASS Academician

Immigration and the State

Migration is an ancient human adaptation.[1] Viewed anthropologically migration is written in our genome and encoded in our in our bipedalism, in our stereoscopic vision, in our nervous system.[2] Modern humans are the children of immigration.[3] Migration is constitutive of the human experience. While human migrations antecede nations and states by millennia [4] in a number of modern states – Argentina, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, inter alia – immigration is at the center of the narrative of how the nation came to be in its present form.[5]

In the modern era migrations are complex, multi-determined and elude vulgar mechanistic models of causality. Migrations unfold in complex ecologies involving broad features of the state qua sovereignty – borders, demography, economy, and society. Furthermore, historical relationships, cultural affinities, political interests, and the environment itself (McLeman 2014; Forman and Ramanathan, 2019) continue to carve the pathways of the great human migrations in the new millennium.

All continents are involved in human migrations – as areas of immigration, emigration, transit, and return – and often as all four at once. In the twenty-first century, mass migration is the human face of globalization – the sounds, colors, and aromas of a miniaturized, interconnected, and ever-fragile world. Migration is indeed “a shared condition of all humanity” (Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 2017, 1).

In this essay, I first introduce the most up to date relevant data on human migration and examine the broad features of a conceptual model framing migration and the state in the current phase of globalization. Second, I turn to a new cartography of mass migrations flowing from unchecked climate change, environmental degradation, war and terror. Finally, I offer a humanitarian reflection on responses to the defining existential crisis of our times.[6]

Homo Sapiens Mobilis: Data Points

International migration has grown rapidly since the turn of the millennium. According to the most recent United Nations data, the number of international migrants worldwide reached “258 million in 2017, up from 220 million in 2010 and 173 million in 2000” (United Nations 2017, p. vi, In 2017 two thirds (67 percent) of all international migrants were living in just twenty countries. The largest number of international migrants (approximately 45 million) resided in the United States of America. Saudi Arabia, Germany and the Russian Federation hosted the second, third and fourth largest numbers of migrants worldwide (around 12 million each), followed by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (nearly 9 million)” (Ibid.). Today women “comprise slightly less than half of all international migrants. Female migrants outnumber male migrants in Europe” (Ibid.).

The largest corridors of international migration are in Asia, Europe, and the Americas.[7] In terms of emigrants in 2017, “India was the largest country of origin of international migrants (17 million), followed by Mexico (13 million). Other countries of origin with large migrant populations include the Russian Federation (11 million), China (10 million), Bangladesh (7 million), Syrian Arab Republic (7 million) and Pakistan and Ukraine (6 million each)” (United Nations 2017, p. vii,

Migration involves change in residency and change in community. Scholarly research has specialized in two broad types of large-scale migration: internal migration (within the confines of a nation-state) and international migration (across international borders). Although the large-scale movement of people within the nation-state is a phenomenon of a separate order from mass migrations across international borders, internal migrants share many characteristics with international migrants: most move from rural villages to urban centers, many experience linguistic and cultural dislocations, racialization, and face isomorphic bureaucratic and legal restrictions. Much scholarly and policy attention has been focused on international migration. Yet most migrants are internal migrants staying within the confines of their nation-states.

Internal migration is on the rise: “The estimated number of internal migrants (migrants inside of their country of origin) is 763 million” (International Organization for Migration, 2018 – The largest chains of internal migration occur in Asia: by 2015 China had an estimated 280 million internal migrant workers,[8] and in India well over 320 million people – over a quarter of the country’s population – were internal migrants between 2007 and 2008 (UNICEF 2016). The number of international and internal migrants today “is more than a billion people – every seventh person in the world is a migrant” (International Organization for Migration, 2018 –

While in pure numbers more people are now on the move than ever before, the rate of international migration has remained stable over the last fifty years, with roughly 2.5 to 3.3 percent of the world’s population living beyond their country of birth.

Globalization’s three M’s – Markets, their integration and disintegration; Media, the new communication, information, and social media technologies; and Migration, the mass movement of people on a planetary scale, challenge the deep structures of the nation state and interrupt the taken for granted Herderian ideals and longings for alignment and coherence qua language, identity, region and das volksgeist.[9] Globalization increases inequality (Picketty 2014) and emerges as a multiplier of migration in a variety of ways. First, the integration and disintegration of markets stimulate migration because where capital flows immigrants will follow (Sassen 1988, Massey et al. 2002). Second, new information, communication, and media technologies enable the post-nationalization of production and stimulate migration by producing new structures of desire, tastes, and consumption practices (Suarez-Orozco & Qin-Hilliard 2004). Third, globally integrated economies, especially in high- and middle-income countries, are structured around a predilection for foreign workers – both in the knowledge-intensive sectors and in the least desirable sectors of the economy (Piore 1980, Cornelius 1998, Saxenian 1999). Fourth, the affordability of mass transportation puts the option of migration within the reach of millions who, heretofore, could not do so. Fifth, globalization has stimulated new migration because it has produced uneven results – wage differentials, when controlled for cost of living differences, continue to grow in many of the best-traveled South-North migration corridors. Globalization weakens the traditional structures and strictures of the nation state. Demographic and environmental factors, examined below, also play a decisive role in mass migrations today and moving forward.

In the aftermath of World War II, well-worn migration corridors came to connect historically linked countries of origin with specific destinations in new societies.[10] That is the story of Latin American migrations to the United States;[11] Mediterranean, African, and Middle Eastern migrations into Northern Europe; Ukrainian and Uzbek migrations to Russia; and Indian, Bangladeshi, and Filipino migrations into East Asia and the Middle East. As the number of international migrants increased, a new research cartography was drawn. It endeavored to define, measure, theorize, and interpret the myriad of push-and-pull factors behind mass migration – above all the labor markets, demographics, wage differentials, social networks, and cultural practices defining and giving momentum to human movement. During the last three generations researchers came to depict in broad terms how labor migrations begat family reunification, which in turn begat the rise of the second generation now transforming Europe, North America, and Australia alike.[12] With the rise of the second generation, statecraft qua migration takes on a domestic flavor.[13] As we note below, with the rapid rise of catastrophic migrations a new focus on controls and security has come to the fore.

There are disparate motivations and pathways for migration yet large-scale migration is not random. It is ignited and then gathers momentum along predictable corridors. At the proximate level, migration is a strategy of the household (Foner 2009; Massey and España 1987). Distinct patterns of kinship, household, and social organization carve the pathways for worldwide migratory journeys. The fundamental unit of migration is the family – variously defined and structured by distinct, culturally coded religious, legislative, economic, reproductive, and symbolic forms. At the distal level, immigration is multiply-determined by policy choices, labor markets, wage differentials, demographic imbalances, technological change, and environmental factors. However, up-close it is the family that makes migration work. Immigration typically starts with the family, and family bonds sustain it. In the United States, we can say that immigrants bring their children to the US and their children then bring the US to their parents. That is to say, immigration profoundly changes families (Foner 2009; C. Suárez-Orozco and M. Suárez-Orozco 2012). “Love and work”, Freud’s eternal words on the well-lived life, are useful to think about migration as an adaptation of and for the family.

But migration for “love and work” tells only part of the story. Historically, the clash of powerful nation-states has been the main driver of the sudden, involuntary, and massive displacement of populations. Over the last century two world wars, the wars of colonial liberation,[14] and the Cold War pushed millions to seek shelter in safer lands. During World War I, millions of Russians, Germans, Serbians, Armenians, Belgians, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Jews, and others were forced from home:

In August 1914 the Russian occupation of East Prussia caused around one million Germans to flee their homes. Before long, Germany’s occupation of Belgium and northern France, Poland[,] and Lithuania provoked a mass movement of refugees. Austria's invasion of Serbia resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe as soldiers and civilians sought to escape the occupation regime. In the Russian Empire, non-Russian minorities such as Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians[,] and Jews were disproportionately concentrated in the western borderlands and thus particularly vulnerable when Germany and Austria invaded. In addition, Tsarist military commanders accused these minorities – falsely – of aiding and abetting the enemy and deported them to the Russian interior. 

In the Ottoman Empire, meanwhile, Turkish troops uprooted Armenians who had lived side by side with their Turkish and Kurdish neighbors for generations but who were now regarded as the enemy within. As Talat Pasha, a leading official, put it in a coded telegram in April 1915: “The objective that the government expects to achieve by the expelling of the Armenians from the areas in which they live and their transportation to other appointed areas is to ensure that this community will no longer be able to undertake initiatives and actions against the government, and that they will be brought to a state in which they will be unable to pursue their national aspirations related to advocating a government of Armenia” (Gatrell 2014a, 1).

By the cessation of hostilities, perhaps more than ten million people had been displaced internally or internationally. The refugee crisis was deep and lasting. According to British historian Peter Gatrell, “during the First World War the refugee emerged as a liminal figure who threatened social stability partly by virtue of the sheer number of displaced persons, but also because the refugee was difficult to accommodate within conventional classification such as assigned people to a specific social class. Other kinds of disorder were also at stake”.

War World II produced more than forty million refugees – then the largest number in recorded history. World War II had other significant indirect long-term effects on migration’s new cartography. In a crystal-clear example of statecraft moving the levers of international migration, the United States’ entrance into the war led to the creation of a guest worker program to recruit temporary Mexican braceros to labor in US fields. That temporary program led to the largest flow of immigrants into the United States in history (Massey et al. 1987). Likewise, the various temporary guest worker programs in Europe immediately following World War II ended up delivering permanent immigrant communities now visible in Berlin, Brussels, Rotterdam, and elsewhere.

Decolonization and the wars of national liberation generated their own routes of massive movement, sending Congolese to Belgium, Pied Noirs to France, and Indonesians to the Netherlands. The end of British India, the partition of the British Raj, and the subsequent independence of India and Pakistan (and then Bangladesh) resulted in the largest population exchange in recorded history. Approximately seven million Hindus and Sikhs from Bangladesh and Pakistan moved to India, and approximately seven million Muslims from India migrated to Pakistan.

The United States-Soviet Union Cold War and the proxy wars it engendered in Africa, the Americas, and Asia, created massive displacements. In Angola (1975-2002), four million were displaced internally, and another half million fled as refugees. At the height of the Cold War, the best predictor of who would arrive as a refugee in the West was someone escaping a communist regime: from 1975 until 1995 more than two million Southeast Asians fleeing Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were settled in the West, the majority in the United States but also some in the European Union, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Those fleeing the Soviet Union followed Southeast Asians as the second largest number of refugees arriving in the West, including more than a million in the United States and almost two million in Israel. Likewise, more than a million Cubans fleeing the Castro regime in various waves were favored refugees in the United States.[15] Least favored were the casualties of the proxy wars in Central America. Escaping barbaric anticommunist regimes in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, millions of folks arrived in North America in search of refuge. Few became formal refugees, yet over time they came to give birth to the new “recombinant migrations” of the recent era (see Suro, 2019).

After holding for three quarters of a century, the map tracing the major global migration corridors of the post-World War II era has become increasingly blurred. Three disparate formations laid the foundations for an emerging new cartography. First, the dismemberment of the Soviet Union (early 1990s) and the end of the Cold War significantly impacted the acceleration of human migrations. Second, the worldwide economic crisis of 2008[16] and the antigovernment uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East beginning in 2010 – the so-called Arab spring – signaled yet another turn. Third, President Trump’s moves to make good on his campaign promises that elected him – rapidly stepping up deportations of unauthorized immigrants in the United States, building a 2,000-mile concrete wall along the Mexican border, and halting Syrian and other refugees from entering the United States –

[VC8] marked a brusque turning point in the global migration landscape. In the same vein, BREXIT, along with the concurrent rise of nationalist, anti-immigrant movements in the European Union and elsewhere, marks the beginning an entirely new cartography of mass migration.


Globalization and massive migrations are changing the ways citizens experience national identities and cultural belonging. The unmaking of the Herderian ideal upsets the symbolic order of the nation, interrupts social practices, reshapes political processes, engenders new cultural identities, and channels the new anxieties of long-term citizens. Dystopic immigration processes are generating new oppositions, dualities, and hybrids that nation states at this point in history have difficulty managing.

Migration in the Age of Dystopia: A New Map

Mass migrations are increasingly defined by the slow-motion disintegration of failing states with feeble institutions, unchecked climate change, environmental degradation, war and terror, and demographic imbalances (Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019. See also McLeman 2014). Symbiotically, these forces are the drivers of the catastrophic migrations of the twenty-first century (Betts 2010; Suro, chapter 2 in Suárez-Orozco 2019).

In the first quarter of the twenty-first century, the world is witnessing the largest number of forcibly displaced human beings in history: while precise numbers are both elusive and changing (See “Data on Movements of Refugees and Migrants are Flawed” 2017,, UN data suggest that more than seventy million people – the equivalent of every man, woman, and child in Lagos, Sao Paulo, Seoul, London, Lima, New York, and Guadalajara – are escaping home into the unknown (UNHCR 2019).

The majority of those seeking shelter are internally displaced persons (IDPs), not formal refugees across international borders (International Migration Organization n.d.). In addition, approximately nine in ten international forcibly displaced will remain in a neighboring country.

While migration is normative, it is increasingly catastrophic: “The majority of new displacements in 2016 took place in environments characterized by a high exposure to natural and human-made hazards, high levels of socioeconomic vulnerability, and low coping capacity of both institutions and infrastructure” (Global Report on Internal Displacement 2017, 9). By 2017 there were 30.6 million new displacements associated with conflict and disasters across 143 countries and territories and by 2018 there were 28 million forcibly displaced.

Internal displacement associated with war and terror has been growing since the beginning of the millennium. In 2017 “The number of new internal displacements associated with conflict and violence almost doubled, from 6.9 million in 2016 to over 11 million”. Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Iraq accounted for more than half of the figure” (Global Report on Internal Displacement 2018). By the end of 2018 “Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East were disproportionally affected by displacement associated with conflict and violence … and new waves were also recorded in South Asia. Displacement associated with disasters mainly affected East Asia and Pacific and South Asia, both regions with high levels of population exposure and vulnerability to hazards” ( By then a total of “41.3 million people were estimated to be living in internal displacement as a result of conflict and violence as of the end of 2018, the highest figure ever recorded. Three-quarters, or 30.9 million people, are located in only ten countries, including Syria, Colombia and the DRC. An unknown number of people remain displaced as a result of disasters that occurred in 2018” (Ibid.).

The number of internally displaced persons is significantly larger than the number of refugees – there are 25.9 million refugees under UNHCR terms in the world (UNHCR 2019, 1,

Unchecked Climate Change & Environmental Dystopia

Homo sapiens sapiens has become a geologic force. Forman and Ramanathan (chapter 1 in Suárez-Orozco 2019) argue that unchecked climate change and geophysical hazards increase morbidity and mortality, disrupt production, decrease agricultural yields, decimate livestock, and forcefully displace millions the world over (See also McLeman 2014).

With unchecked climate change and air pollution, the very fabric of life on Earth, is at grave risk. We human beings are creating a new and dangerous phase of Earth’s history that has been termed the Anthropocene. The term refers to the immense effects of human activity on all aspects of the Earth’s physical systems and on life on the planet. We are dangerously warming the planet, leaving behind the climate in which civilization developed. With accelerating climate change, we put ourselves at risk of massive crop failures, new and re-emerging infectious diseases, heat extremes, droughts, mega-storms, floods and sharply rising sea levels. The economic activities that contribute to global warming are also wreaking other profound damages, including air and water pollution, deforestation, and massive land degradation, causing a rate of species extinction unprecedented for the past 65 million years, and a dire threat to human health through increases in heart disease, stroke, pulmonary disease, mental health, infections and cancer. Climate change threatens to exacerbate the current unprecedented flow of displacement of people and add to human misery by stoking violence and conflict. The poorest of the planet, who are still relying on 19th century technologies to meet basic needs such as cooking and heating, are bearing a heavy brunt of the damages caused by the economic activities of the rich (Pontifical Academy of Sciences 2017, 1).

According to the Global Report on Internal Displacement over “the past eight years, 203.4 million displacements have been recorded, an average of 25.4 million each year” (Global Report on Internal Displacement 2016, 8). The majority of new displacements unfold in “low- and lower-middle-income countries and as a result of large-scale weather events, and predominantly in South and East Asia. While China, the Philippines and India have the highest absolute numbers, small island states suffer disproportionally once population size is taken into account. Slow-onset disasters, existing vulnerabilities[,] and conflict also continue to converge into explosive tipping points for displacement” (Global Report on Internal Displacement 2017, 8).

Floods, storms, cyclones, monsoons, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, landslides, and extreme temperatures continue to displace millions of people the world over (Ramanathan and Forman, chapter 1 in Suárez-Orozco 2019). In Central America, millions have been affected by environmental factors (Durham 1979; Suro, chapter 2 in Suárez-Orozco 2019). There are many reasons for the rapid kinetic expansion of migrants fleeing from the Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – into the United States. In Guatemala, unchecked climate change, environmental malfeasance and land tenure clashes in the Western is pushing folk into the migration stream North.

In 2014 a group of agronomists and scientists, working on an initiative called Climate, Nature, and Communities of Guatemala, produced a report that cautioned lawmakers about the region’s susceptibility to a new threat. The highlands, they wrote, ‘was the most vulnerable area in the country to climate change’.

In the years before the report was published, three hurricanes had caused damage that cost more than the previous four decades’ worth of public and private investment in the national economy. Extreme-weather events were just the most obvious climate-related calamities. There were increasingly wide fluctuations in temperature – unexpected surges in heat followed by morning frosts – and unpredictable rainfall. Almost half a year’s worth of precipitation might fall in a single week, which would flood the soil and destroy crops. Grain and vegetable harvests that once produced enough food to feed a family for close to a year now lasted less than five months (Jonathan Blitzer, 2019,

Furthermore, depressed prices in global markets for Guatemalan commodities are pushing farmers northward. Climate change and severe drought in El Salvador has resulted in food insecurity for millions, while deforestation has left Honduras more vulnerable to Hurricanes.

By 2017 the world witnessed ferocious hurricanes in the Atlantic that devastated entire regions of the Caribbean, including Antigua and Barbuda. According to Prime Minister Gaston Alphonso Browne, after the largest storm ever in the Atlantic Ocean in September 2017, “the island of Barbuda [was] decimated[,] its entire population left homeless[,] and its buildings reduced to empty shells” (UN News Centre 2017). The entire island of Puerto Rico was left without power. A month earlier (August 2017), devastating monsoons in South Asia killed more than 1,200 people; forced millions from their homes in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh; and shut 1.8 million children out of school.

Indeed, who suffers Most from Extreme Weather Events? The Global Climate Risk Index for 2019 estimates the impacts of weather-related loss events (storms, floods, heat waves etc.) by region. The data over a period of two decades reveal that Puerto Rico, Honduras and Myanmar were the most impacted countries in the world by extreme weather patterns. More broadly, of the ten most impacted regions for the 1997-2016 period, nine were low income or lower- middle income countries. “Altogether, more than 524,000 people died as a direct result of more than 11 000 extreme weather events; and losses between 1997 and 2016 amounted to around US$ 3.16 trillion (in Purchasing Power Parities)” (Global Climate Risk Index, 2019).

The UNHCR predicts that climate change will likely become the biggest driver of population displacements, both inside and across national borders. Though there is general consensus that quantitative estimates are presently unreliable, Forman and Ramanathan (chapter 1 in Suárez-Orozco 2019) make a plea for an ethical global policy response to the emerging climate-migration crisis. They argue that we simply cannot await reliable metrics. International cooperation on climate mitigation is more urgent than ever as the United States under President Trump’s leadership is moving toward an ever more retrograde agenda on climate issues. Establishing international protocols that outline the rights of climate refugees and the responsibilities of industrialized nations toward them cannot wait.

Jeffrey Sachs (2017) has claimed that in addition to the physical environment, demography itself is a main driver of mass migrations. Africa and the Middle East are a case in point. In the 1950s Europe had twice the combined populations of the Middle East and all of Africa. So migration to Europe was not a problématique of significance – with labor shortages and the need to rebuild after the war, immigration was a solution, not a problem.

In an epic reversal, the Middle East and Africa now have twice the population of Europe. Europe now has about 740 million people. The Middle East and Africa combined have about 1.4 billion people. Furthermore, according to UN forecasts, Europe’s population will be level because of aging and low fertility rates, whereas the population of the Middle East and Africa combined is on its way to 4 billion people by 2100 (Sachs 2017, 5).

Rachitic States / War and Terror / Uncontrolled Criminality

War and terror and uncontrolled criminality are pushing millions of human beings from home. In the aftermath of antigovernment uprisings beginning in 2010, the Middle East and North Africa had the largest number of war-and-terror-displaced human beings. But by the end of 2016 sub-Saharan Africa led the way with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) overtaking Syria in the top ranking “with most new displacements by conflict and violence”. In Syria an estimated 12 million people have fled their homes since 2011. By 2016 more than half of the Syrian population lived in displacement either across borders or within their own country.

Now, in the sixth year of war, 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance within the country. Among those escaping the conflict, the majority have sought refuge in neighboring countries or within Syria itself. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 4.8 million have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq, and 6.6 million are internally displaced within Syria. Meanwhile, about one million have requested asylum to Europe. Germany, with more than 300,000 accumulated applications, and Sweden with 100,000 are the EU’s top receiving countries (UNHCR 2017c).

Protracted conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan account for huge numbers of both internally and internationally displaced migrants. In 2018 more than half of all international refugees under UNHCR mandate originated in four states: Syria (approximately 6.3 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.4 million) with Somalia following ( The conflicts in these countries are disparate and incommensurable in nature. Yet they share a chronic, protracted quality. Syria’s descent into a Dantesque inferno has been seven years in the making; the Afghanistan conflict has gone on for almost twenty years. In Somalia, “more than two million Somalis are currently displaced by a conflict that has lasted over two decades. An estimated 1.5 million people are internally displaced in Somalia[,] and nearly 900,000 are refugees in the near region, including some 308,700 in Kenya, 255,600 in Yemen[,] and 246,700 in Ethiopia” (UNHCR 2017b, 7). In the Sudan, war and terror displaced almost a million folks in 2016 alone. These conflicts have endured longer than World War I and World War II. In each case, environmental dystopia and extreme weather patterns antecede and accentuate the catastrophic movement of people.

Syria continues to represent “the world’s largest refugee crisis” (UNHCR n.d.). In its collapse, Syria also embodies the noxious synergies among the environment, war and terror, and mass human displacement. According to NASA data, Syria’s current drought is “the driest on record”. NASA scientists found that “estimating uncertainties using a resampling approach[, they could] conclude that there is an 89 percent likelihood that this drought is drier than any comparable period of the last 900 years and a 98 percent likelihood that it is drier than the last 500 years” (Cook et al. 2016, 1). According to UN data, the drought caused “75 percent of Syria’s farms to fail and 85 percent of livestock to die between 2006 and 2011. The collapse in crop yields forced as many as 1.5 million Syrians to migrate to urban centers like Homs and Damascus” (Stokes 2016, 2).

Long-term conflicts, unchecked climate change, extreme weather patterns, and environmental degradation in Africa are generating massive forced migrations. “Four countries in Africa – Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan – were among the top ten globally for new violence-induced internal displacements. ... In total, more than 12 million people have been internally displaced by conflict and violence within Africa – more than twice the number of African refugees” (UNICEF 2016, 58).

In South Sudan, “some 1.9 million people [have been] displaced internally, while outside the country there are now 1.6 million South Sudanese refugees [who have been] uprooted, mainly in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Uganda” (UNHCR 2017a, 7). Again the environment looms large: “Drought and environmental degradation, and a food crisis that became a famine because of government neglect and changing regional demographics” were behind the collapse in the Sudan (Global Report on Internal Displacement 2016, 4). According to the UN, “a famine produced by the vicious combination of fighting and drought is now driving the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. ... The rate of new displacement is alarming, representing an impossible burden on a region that is significantly poorer [than other African regions] and which is fast running short of resources to cope. Refugees from South Sudan are crossing the borders to the neighboring countries. The majority of them go to Uganda[,] where new arrivals spiked from 2,000 per day to 6,000 per day in February [2017], and currently average more than 2,800 people per day” (UNHCR News Centre 2017a, 8). The UN World Food Program estimates that by 2017, 4.9 million people (40 percent of South Sudan’s population) were facing famine (UNHCR News Centre 2017b, 1).

Famine lurks as a macabre specter:

In all, more than 20 million people in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia[,] and Yemen are experiencing famine or are at risk. The regions in which these countries sit, including the Lake Chad basin, Great Lakes, East, Horn of Africa[,] and Yemen[,] together host well over 4 million refugees and asylum seekers. Consecutive harvests have failed, conflict in South Sudan coupled with drought is leading to famine and outflows of refugees, insecurity in Somalia is leading to rising internal displacement, and rates of malnutrition are high, especially among children and lactating mothers. In the Dollo Ado area of southeast Ethiopia[,] for example, acute malnutrition rates among newly arriving Somali refugee children aged between six months and five years are now running at between 50 [and] 79 percent (UNHCR News Centre 2017b, 1).

By 2018 new displacement in “Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Syria accounted for more than half of the global figure” (

By large margins, African asylum seekers stay on the continent: “Some 86 percent ... find asylum in other African countries. Five of the largest refugee populations in the world are hosted in Africa, led by Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda. The protracted nature of crises in sending countries means that some of these host countries have shouldered responsibilities for more than two decades. Generations of displaced children have been born in some of the longest standing camps” (Dryden-Peterson, chapter 10 in Suárez-Orozco 2019).

In the Americas, a new migration map is also taking form. First, by 2015, Mexican migration to the United States, the largest flow of international migration in US history, was at its lowest in over a quarter of a century. Second, for the first time in recent history, more Mexicans were returning (voluntarily and involuntarily) to their country than were migrating to the United States. According to data analyzed by the Pew Hispanic Center,

[M]ore Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the [United States] than have migrated here since the end of the Great Recession. . . . The same data sources also show the overall flow of Mexican immigrants between the two countries is at its smallest since the 1990s, mostly due to a drop in the number of Mexican immigrants coming to the [United States].

From 2009 to 2014, one million Mexicans and their families (including US-born children) left the [United States] for Mexico, according to data from the 2014 Mexican National Survey of Demographic Dynamics (ENADID 2014).

Third, as Mexican migration decreases, uncontrolled criminality (Suro, chapter 2 in Suárez-Orozco 2019), terror, and environmental dystopia put Central Americans at the center of the new map. Indeed, the Americas gave the new immigration map a new nomenclature: mass unauthorized immigration (Pew Research Center 2016), unaccompanied minors, children forcibly separated from their parents.

The sources of the current forced movements of people in Central America have complex histories, finding their more immediate distal origins in the Cold War, inequality, uncontrolled criminality, and environmental malfeasance. In the case of Honduras, 1998 begins a new cycle of catastrophic migrations. That is the year Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras and the rest of the region. Hurricane Mitch was the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record, causing over 11,000 fatalities in Central America, with over 7,000 occurring in Honduras alone due to the catastrophic flooding it wrought, due to the slow motion of the storm. The hurricane left severe environmental and psychosocial scars. Data from the School of Medicine of Brown University, estimated that of the total of 3.3 million adults (15 years of age or older) inhabitants of Honduras, more than 49,000 have suffered PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The deforestation of Honduras left a country with weak institutional capacity extremely vulnerable to devastation in the wake of the hurricanes. Hondurans then began an ecological exodus North.

A generation before, La guerra del fútbol, the so-called Soccer War of 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras, had more to do with environmental factors flowing from extraordinary inequality in land holdings, than with the region’s beloved game. Running out of cultivable land some 300,000 Salvadoreans picked up and migrated over the border to Honduras. The ensuing war lasted 100 hours and forecasted the noxious synergies between environmental malfeasance, war and terror and mass migrations (Durham 1979).

In sum, catastrophic migrations unfold at the interstices of war and terror, inequality, “fossil fuel use, the pollution of the atmosphere and the oceans, climate change, public health, the health of ecosystems and sustainability” (Pontifical Academy of Sciences 2017).

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States and its allies developed a set of policies for refugees based on the assumption that whatever caused them to feel their homes would be resolved eventually. Civilized nations could promise “non-refoulement”, the right not to be returned to a place of violence or persecution, because the promise was only temporary.

Protracted turmoil in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Central America sends million fleeing with no expectation of return. We are in the age of what Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford, has called “survival migration”. Millions are fleeing existential threats but do not meet the standard requirements for refugee status. Millions of people linger in camps far away from the wealthy cities of Asia, Europe, North America, and Australia. Indeed, the world is witnessing what Sánchez Terán (2017) calls the great out-of-sight “forced confinement crisis” of our era. The majority of forcibly displaced persons remain within the confines of their states or spill over to neighboring states – Africans stay in Africa, Asians in Asia, Americans in the Americas. Only one in ten folks seeking asylum will ever make to a safe high- or middle-income country. Betwixt and between the structures of the nation-state, millions have been internally displaced, millions are awaiting asylum, and millions more are living in the shadow of the law as irregular or unauthorized immigrants. Dryden-Peterson found that in thirty-three conflicts globally, the average length of exile was twenty-five years (Dryden-Peterson, chapter 10 in Suárez-Orozco 2019). For a Syrian child in a Turkish camp today the odds are she will spend her entire childhood, adolescence, and emerging adulthood in displacement.

Summary and Reflections

In this essay, first we examined the relevant data on global migrations. We established that States in all continents are experiencing migration as sending, receiving, transit and return sites. The largest international corridors of human migration are unfolding in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. In 2019 the United States had the largest number of migrants (approximately 45 million) with Saudi Arabia, Germany and the Russian Federation hosting the second, third and fourth largest numbers of migrants worldwide (around 12 million each), followed by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (nearly 9 million). The countries with the largest numbers of emigrants included India (17 million), Mexico (13 million), and the Russian Federation (11 million).

We further established that internal migration within nation-states is also on the rise with an estimated 763 million internal migrants worldwide (International Organization for Migration, 2018, Asia leads the way: by 2015 China had an estimated 280 million internal migrant workers,[17] and in India well over 320 million people – over a quarter of the country’s population – were internal migrants between 2007 and 2008 (UNICEF 2016). Combined, the number of international and internal migrants today “is more than a billion people – every seventh person in the world is a migrant” (International Organization for Migration, 2018, The entry of China and India into the global system of production, distribution and consumption of good and services led to the largest movement of people in recorded history. We outlined in detail the features of globalization most implicated in massive migrations.

Second, we outlined the new drivers of mass migration in the 21st century. We examined how unchecked climate change and environmental malfeasance are creating new synergies with war and terror and uncontrolled criminality in weak states with rachitic infrastructures and feeble governance to forcibly push millions from home.

Mass migration and demographic change are, under the best of circumstances, destabilizing and generate disequilibrium in receiving, transit, and sending nation-states. Catastrophic migrations produce multiple additional layers of distress. The forcefully displaced undergo violent separations and carry the wounds of trauma (Mollica, chapter 5 in Suárez-Orozco 2019). Millions of human beings are caught in permanent limbo living in re-traumatizing zones of confinement – where “humiliation is re-created in the camp environment when individuals are not allowed to work, grow food, or make money” (Mollica, Ibid.).

The outright rejection of unwanted refugees, asylum seekers, and unauthorized immigrants compounds trauma. In many countries of immigration de facto and de jure policies are forcing millions of immigrant and refugee families to live in the shadow of the law. In the United States, the country with the largest number of immigrants, millions are separated, millions are deported, millions are incarcerated, and millions more inhabit a subterranean world of illegality (C. Suárez-Orozco, chapter 4, in M. Suárez-Orozco 2019).

When immigrants and refugees manage to settle in new nation-states, they bring new kinship systems, cultural sensibilities (including racial, linguistic, and religious), and identities to the forefront. These may misalign with (and even contravene) taken-for-granted cultural schemas and social practices in receiving nation-states. The world over, immigrants and refugees are arousing distrust, fear, and xenophobia. Immigration is the frontier pushing against the limits of cosmopolitan tolerance in the modernist nation-state. Immigration intensifies the general crisis of connection and flight from the pursuit of our inherent humanitarian obligations concerning the welfare of others (Noguera, chapter 14, in Suárez-Orozco 2019).

In the 21st century global migration is broadly challenging nation-states the world over. States endeavor to manage migration with the architectures of sovereignty and the legitimate use of violence:[18] borders, visas, issuance of permanent residency, naturalization, bi-national agreements – such as temporary guest worker and sojourn-worker programs, and international obligations – such as the Geneva conventions. States also endeavor to manage the transition of new arrivals with disparate tools of integration: schooling for immigrants, labor, and a variety of social welfare protections.

Reimagining the narrative of belonging, reclaiming the humanitarian call, and recalibrating the institutions of the nation-state are a sine qua non to move beyond the current immigration malaise the world over. In the long term, we must retrain hearts and minds, especially younger ones, for democracy in the context of demographic change and superdiversity. We need to convert a dread of the unfamiliar “Other” into empathy, solidarity, and a democratizing desire for cultural difference. In this book we endeavor to cultivate the humanistic ideal to find oneself “in Another” (Ricoeur [1992] 1995) in the refugee, in the asylum seeker, and in the forcefully displaced.


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[1] “According to the genetic and paleontological record, we only started to leave Africa between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago. What set this [migration] in motion is uncertain, but we think it has something to do with major climatic shifts that were happening around that time – a sudden cooling in the Earth’s climate driven by the onset of one of the worst parts of the last Ice Age”. When humans first migrated “out of Africa[,] they left genetic footprints still visible today” (National Geographic, n.d.).
[3] “Diverse species have emerged over the course of human evolution, and a suite of adaptations have accumulated over time, including upright walking, the capacity to make tools, enlargement of the brain, prolonged maturation, the emergence of complex mental and social behavior, and dependence on technology to alter the surroundings” (“Climate Effects on Human Evolution” 2016). Indeed, migration is a precursor of modern humans, “the open-country suite of features inferred for Homo erectus had evolved together and provided the adaptations for dispersal beyond Africa. These features foreshadowed those of more recent Homo sapiens and included large linear bodies, elongated legs, large brain sizes, reduced sexual dimorphism, increased carnivory, and unique life history traits (e.g., extended ontogeny and longevity) as well as toolmaking and increased social cooperation” (Antón, Potts, and Aiello 2014).
[5] “By the early 1600s, communities of European immigrants dotted the Eastern seaboard, including the Spanish in Florida, the British in New England and Virginia, the Dutch in New York, and the Swedes in Delaware. Some, including the Pilgrims and Puritans, came for religious freedom. Many sought greater economic opportunities. Still others, including hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans, arrived in America against their will” (See and Appendix).
[6] I will generally focus on US data. The US today has four times more immigrants than the second largest country of immigration. In the US immigration is at the heart of how the country came to be in its present form.
[7] According to the most recent UN data, “over 60 per cent of all international migrants live in Asia (80 million) or Europe (78 million). Northern America hosted the third largest number of international migrants (58 million), followed by Africa (25 million), Latin America and the Caribbean (10 million) and Oceania (8 million)”.
[8] See
[9] Von Herder, “developed the concept of romantic or organic nationalism, a form of ethnic nationalism in which the state derives its political legitimacy from historic cultural or hereditary groups. The underlying assumption is that every ethnicity should be politically distinct. Herder’s ideas on the subject were expressed in his theory of the Volksgeist (Hamilton 2019”.
[10] The migration corridors of the post-World War II era have much older origins – in the age of European exploration, wars of conquest and of empire that began in 1492. War and conquest created the unstable foundations of what would be called the “New World”. They destroyed civilizations, induced demographic collapse, and caused massive displacement of indigenous populations and their livelihood. The expanding European powers systematically linked the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, creating the largest trading systems ever seen in history. The trade routes became the great corridors for global migration during the last five centuries.
[11] Latin Americans are the largest immigrant group in the United States. The US has approximately four times more immigrants than the second-largest country of immigration.
[12] I subsume under labor migration the categories “sojourners”, “target earners”, and so-called “guest workers”.
[13] The Cuban diaspora in the US have made Cuba’s foreign policy and migration policy a domestic matter in US politics. There are many other cases from around the world.
[14] The colonial struggles of independence in the Americas (in Haiti in 1791); Africa (from the Maghreb to South Africa); and Asia, including the end of the British Raj in India and the subsequent partition of the subcontinent (in 1947) would be punctuated by cycles of “hot wars” such as those in Indochina (1947-54), Algeria (1954-62), and Vietnam (1959-75); “cold wars” such as those in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Cuba; and “dirty wars” such as those in Guatemala and El Salvador, resulting in massive movements of people.
[15] At the end of the Obama administration (in early 2017) US policy qua Cuban arrivals finally became aligned with the reception of other asylum seekers.
[16] The collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and the ensuing global recession began a significant downturn in patterns of migration – especially irregular, unauthorized migration.  
[17] See
[18] Max Weber argued that the defining feature of the State is the monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force (see Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation, 1919). Weber claims that the state “lays claim to the monopoly on the legitimated use of physical force. However, this monopoly is limited to a certain geographical area, and in fact this limitation to a particular area is one of the things that defines a state”. The State holds the right to use, threaten, or authorize physical force against residents of its territory. Such a monopoly, according to Weber, must occur via a process of legitimation (