In the engaging and politically salient informal seminar ‘Policing Migration’ on Thursday, 9 February 2017, Alpa Parmar shared part of her ongoing research focusing on the interplay between police and immigration.
To provide a backdrop to frame her research, Parmar began by outlining the government’s push to handle foreign national offenders more swiftly and efficiently. Changes included the introduction of the 2016 Immigration Act, which, among other things, extends the existing rights of the police to seize nationality documents of individuals in custody, and the piloting of Operation Nexus, a scheme which embeds immigration officers directly into police stations to facilitate the process of uncovering the nationality of individuals in custody. As such, Parmar argues that there has been a move towards ‘the search for nationality’ in and of itself.
Within this contemporary framework, her research is attempting to understand how (and whether) police and immigration officers collaborate in the broader purpose of policing foreign national offenders, and how the nature of the police is changing. The research was based on extensive fieldwork that occurred between October 2015 and January 2016, during which she conducted a total of 170 hours of observation and 24 interviews in six different police stations.
Throughout her talk Parmar touched upon a wide variety of important findings, a number of which are particularly noteworthy. Primarily, she uncovered the existence of uncertainty and tension in what was a very complex relationship between the police and immigration workers. Not only were there ‘conceptual and spatial’ issues, but also a difference in the working culture between the two organisations. Moreover, she discovered the use of various markers in helping to establish someone’s nationality. While race was not explicitly referred to, it was widely discussed through other lenses, nationality being the most common. Migrants were categorised as ‘deserving and undeserving’ by the police in accordance with their nationality. Yet, this was done overtly and confidently in that discussion about nationality was not perceived to be racist.
I found it particularly interesting that this categorisation took place regardless of the migrant background of some of the police and the immigration workers themselves. Parmar hence draws an intriguing parallel with Goldberg’s (2015) conceptualisation of the oscillating visibility and hypervisibility of migrants. Police and immigration officers from ethnic minority backgrounds used distancing techniques to set themselves apart from the individuals that were held in custody suites, and in such a manner made their own background invisible. In stark contrast, the migrant status of those held in custody was made hypervisible and they were ‘marked out for distinction’.
The aforementioned issues were exacerbated by an increased reliance on technology and its purpose of facilitating the communication between jurisdictions and nations when policing immigration. Although this increased use of technology could be considered an inevitability in today’s society, Parmar argues that the danger lies specifically in the manner in which it is employed - namely by focusing on nationality to disguise the racialisation of migrants.
Going beyond the research findings, it was very refreshing to hear Parmar discuss her own positionality as a female researcher in such a gendered space, and how this at times elicited feelings of vulnerability. Additionally, she highlighted the discomfort she experienced in cases where she was enlisted to take part in the framing of new migrants and provided an example of how in a private conversation, a derogatory term was used to refer to a migrant and Parmar was expected to go along with it. While she highlighted these instances as examples of uneasiness, I personally felt like they could also reflect notions of acceptance or inclusion by her research participants and speak positively about the rapport she managed to establish with them. Overall, the choice Parmar made to share information of this type with the audience made the reality of her qualitative research process come alive and provided an excellent insight into the potential difficulties that qualitative research of such nature poses.
On the whole, Parmar’s research inherently sheds light on the changing nature of the police as well as their intersection with immigration in contemporary society, and examines how this development perpetuates racialised narratives of belonging and exclusion. Her work thereby raises important concerns about ‘undoing the anti-racist work’ that has taken place. I believe such a concern is particularly worrying when one considers recent political developments, which have been followed by an ever-increasing focus on borders and the criminalisation of migrants.
Goldberg, D. T. (2015) Are we all Postracial yet?. Polity Press: Cambridge.