Notes from the Field: Irregular Citizenship and Citizenship in a No-Borders World – Prof. Peter Nyers interviewed by Julia Wong

Peter Nyers is Associate Professor of the Politics of Citizenship and Intercultural Relations in the Department of Political Science at McMaster University. He is the author of Irregular Citizenship, Immigration, and Deportation(Routledge 2019). Professor Nyers was interviewed by Julia Wong, a third year Philosophy student at the University of Toronto.

In an extensive interview, Professor Nyers explained his concept of irregular citizenship and what citizenship might be in a borderless world.


With our current political climate characterised by difference, considerations of citizenship flow from our alertness to otherness and to the fragmentation in our communities. Professor Peter Nyers brings forth a way of thinking about citizenship that refocuses on the polysemy of citizenship experiences. Turning away from the study of citizenship through the legal and formal lens, Nyers’ forthcoming book, Irregular Citizenship, Immigration, and Deportation, asks the question: ‘what unmakesthe citizen?’


Citizenship is both an issue of status and of performance. While the legal, or formal, nature of citizenship justifiably carries much weight in refugee and migrant social movements, Nyers emphasises the performative aspect of citizenship. “What it means to be a citizen demands an intersectional analysis to understand it, to see how these relations of gender, race, ethnicity, ability, and sexuality overlap and reinforce each other,” he said. In this way, citizenship is polysemic: it is experienced differently according to these arbitrary, but defining, characteristics. In Nyers’ view, we should seek an understanding of who political beings are, who has political presence or visibility, and who can make claims and enact responsibilities and obligations. This investigation centres upon citizenship not as a gained status, but as the ways that people enact themselves as citizens.


Nyers’ concept of irregular citizenship stems from this understanding of varying citizen experience. He problematises “the borderline between the citizen and the non-citizen.” Citizens are thought of as secure in status, residence, and rights. The migrant, as an outsider, occupies precarious or permanent status without the formal right to participate politically, and may, in the case of undocumented migrants, be an “absent presence within our society.” Irregular citizenship questions this hard line of Citizen and Outsider, uncovering “how contemporary forms of government and power relations are also undermining the assuredness that we have about citizenship as this stable category.”


In virtue of their incomplete status or non-status, migrants and refugees regularly operate in a dimension of irregular citizenship. But Nyers also argues ‘regular’ citizens are also undergoing a process of irregularisation through the removal of their rights. Borrowing a concept from Arendt, Nyers argues both ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ citizens struggle for “the right to have rights.”


Furthermore, Nyers’ concept of irregular citizenship identifies how legal and non-legal citizens can show an ambivalence or refusal toward state citizenship. Political subjectivity—for example, spatiality, relationship to land and cosmos, and struggles for sovereignty and self-determination showcased by Indigenous political activism—can’t neatly be revised or addressed within traditional notions of state citizenship. Irregular citizenship captures both how citizens are being diminished and irregularised, but also citizenship is self-irregularised in favour of other modes of being political.


In a world without borders, citizenship “would demand a radical openness to others, a willingness to engage with and be transformed through our encounters with others.” But Nyers finds it more interesting to study “actually existing no borders” spaces, how these spaces are created and what citizens are within them. He cites Sanctuary Cities, like Toronto, as prime projects wherein political identity and community are crafted without borders, or in a way that transcends them. He credits the download of state services onto cities as giving those without status an opportunity to reaffirm their political power and presence, because gaining similar or identical treatment to citizens is a more accessible area of campaigning.


He identifies the unsuitability of amnesty as a framework for addressing migration, as it implies (unnecessary) forgiveness, and reaffirms the state’s authority to exclusively determine who can join communities. Amnesty refuses to acknowledge how refugees, migrants, and all the excluded are already involved in campaigns for the recognition of their belonging, instead perpetuating the fiction that community membership is granted top-down. Nyers believes amnesty thus turns the making of political claims to a narrative of morality and acts of grace.


When asked what he would change about treatment of refugees in Canada, Nyers expresses how politicians must hear the demands being made by social campaigns around refugee and migrant rights, because many of these movements are grounded in the everyday experience of being a refugee or having precarious legal status, and reveal the reality of migrant life. He identifies theNon-status Women’s Collective of Montrealas one such campaign that ought to be heard by the government. Their open letter to the federal government was left without reply, despite some of the women being constituents in Prime Minister Trudeau’s riding.


He also identifies housing as an area where all people—not just newcomers—make urgent demands that require an immediate response from the government. He believes housing is a “site where the struggles for citizens and non-citizens overlap, where solidarities can be forged.” In fact, the community membership dynamic can be reversed in issues of housing. A powerful example for him is the way refugee housing squats opened their doors to Greek citizens who were displaced by the fires outside Athens.


Professor Nyers suggests students, at the end of their undergraduate studies, do something different that allows one to see the world from another perspective. He believes this is a way to get on the path to making progressive change in the world, while remaining “humble but audacious.” Students must view themselves in the picture of larger movements and societies, and intervene in the world through research and critical response. “Don’t get too lost in the world of ideas.”


Notes from the Field

CARFMS Notes from the Field is based on a conversation between an undergraduate student finishing their degree or a postgraduate student starting off their degree, and a more established researcher in refugee and forced migration studies. While all Notes will be different, the unifying thread connecting them is a focus on recent developments in research, law, policy, and approaches within Canada to issues of asylum, borders, and immigration. Each student will also find out if the researcher has advice to dispense to scholars at the end of undergraduate studies, and if there is one key change that we should be making about how refugees are treated in Canada. At the end of the initial run of Notes, will publish this advice together as a guide and inspiration.

If you would like to participate as either an interviewer or interviewee, please contact Dr. Stephanie J.

Silverman at or @DrSJSilverman

Advice, support, and editing will be made available, so don’t be nervous!