The Smuggling Workshop emerged as a response to the mainstream discourses of irregular migration facilitation. As social scientists, we were critical of the narrow representations of clandestine transits, where the smuggler (an inherently criminalized, often racialized and gendered body) was monolithically portrayed as the predator of naïve and ignorant migrants who blindly put their lives on his hands. The work of scholars like Sheldon Zhang, David Kyle, Ko-lin Chin, David Spener, Peter Andreas and Julie Chu had already presented some challenges to these dominant narratives of crime, exploitation and despair. Through their work, we learned of the interactions that shaped by migration regimes had given place to mobility efforts from below: to the practices that emerging within communities as mechanisms for transnational mobility, were often far from being criminally organized or exploitation-driven. Mobility projects were instead reflections of complex epistemologies of risk, desire and resistance, their sociological dimensions often hidden in state-centered narratives of fear, crime and exploitation.
The idea of the workshop emerged therefore as an attempt to build upon that initial body of scholarship. We sought to become a platform to share empirically documented work on the roles of migrants as agents of their mobility processes, the fluidity of migratory journeys, and their embeddedness in communal, historical and personal projects of mobility structurally shaped by migration enforcement and controls. The workshop was conceived as an academic space where budding and senior academics and policy makers could contextualize the body of practices known as smuggling in the context of the expansion of border enforcement and controls and the criminalization of migration. It was also an attempt to map the scholarship on clandestine and irregular migration facilitation, and in this sense create a research collective which could counter the overly simplistic narrative of migrants as victims and facilitators as exploiters.
The first edition of the Smuggling Workshop revealed that contrary to the perception of smuggling as an obscure practice whose research is restricted by its underground nature, researchers have developed strategies –although often in isolation—to create a corpus of empirical and critical work on the facilitation or brokerage of irregular migration within contemporary migration regimes. This work must be fostered and strengthened.
With that goal in mind we gather this year along the US Mexico border, at The University of Texas at El Paso. We invite you to join us and to participate in our conversation.