Urban citizenship, border practices and immigrants’ rights in Europe: ambivalences of a cosmopolitan project

Academic Article

Abstract: This article argues that as Europe has enlarged its external borders, it has also created an internal system of border controls that implicates civil servants at the local level in national migration policy. European cities have become an important arena where the expansion of the modes of control takes place. Using examples from German cities, the author questions whether politics of urban citizenship and legislation can compensate for the lack of civil rights that many migrants have to endure.

Although the politics of urban citizenship are promising for many migrants residing in European cities, they are also rendered highly ambivalent by the current EU border regime. European border politics are establishing a sophisticated system aimed at monitoring and excluding migrants not only along the peripheral borders of the EU, but increasingly also within the EU. Cities play a crucial role in this process. They have become an important arena, where the re-categorisation and re-scaling of spaces and borders, and the expansion and diversification of the modes of control and enforcement take place. As a result, the politics of urban citizenship become dangerously entangled with the practices of local border control. This is especially true when a “graduated system of rights” (Ong 2006) requires the systematic monitoring of migrants’ different statuses, and hence the production of “border situations” wherever and whenever migrants interact with the local state. Under these conditions, urban citizenship becomes connected to Schengen regulations and national immigration law rather then emancipating the urban realm from them. Only if we understand how these processes work can we counteract on the dynamics of control and exclusion and develop the full potential of urban citizenship as a concept that allows access to substantial rights based on residency rather than on national and/or European citizenship and (presumed) identity.

Urban Citizenship and its Cosmopolitan Perspectives 

The debate over urban citizenship is rooted in the work of the English sociologist T.H. Marshall and his seminal essay on “Citizenship and Social Class” (Marshall 1950). Marshall looked at the historic development of citizenship rights in various spheres of society and differentiated between formal membership in a political community on one hand and the rights that one would acquire through this membership on the other. Besides the right to political participation, he discussed civil and social rights, arguing that the gap between formal membership and substantial rights would only be closed in a long historical process leading eventually to “full citizenship”.

While Marshall’s investigation was mainly concerned with rights linked to the development of the national welfare state, in the late 1980s this debate was revived in the context of urban politics. By then, neoliberal globalisation had started to undermine the regulatory capacities of the nation-state, at the same time leading to both the disempowerment and the increased significance of politics at the local and regional level. Moving the citizenship debate from the nation to the city can be interpreted as a response to this trend. Marisol García states that “urban and regional forms of citizenship develop when: policy instruments are introduced locally and regionally in order to maintain and/or create social entitlements as a result of citizens’ demands or as a result of local institutions’ innovative practices; and when the mechanisms for political integration provide an open sphere for participation and contestation not only for established citizens, but also for denizens” (García 2006: 754). Recent approaches further broaden our understanding of citizenship – they look at “acts of citizenship” (Isin & Nielsen 2008) in the everyday sphere and at the role of grassroots movements as well as their struggles for rights and recognition (Holston 2007).

These perspectives not only change our understanding of the urban dimension of citizenship, but also shift the normative discussion over who is entitled to rights from a national framework towards an emphasis on the actual (physical) centre of people’s lives. “An urban citizenship that is emancipated from imperatives of national sovereignty and homogeneity may become a home-base for cosmopolitan democracy,” as Rainer Bauböck writes (Bauböck 2003: 157). Or, to put it simply: everyone who lives in the same place should have the same rights.

Although this debate has been very concerned with migrants’ rights to welfare, education and political participation in the city, it remains mostly silent about the impact of border policies, surveillance technologies, and the politics of urban (in-) security on citizenship. Often, it also fails to address the question of whether urban legislation – either at the municipal or the regional/state level – can compensate for the lack of civil rights that many migrants have to endure, for example concerning discriminatory practices of state and law enforcement agencies. Using examples from German cities, and specifically from Berlin, I will discuss some of these problems and show how they are closely connected to the politics of urban citizenship.[1]

The borders of the EU are also being extended into the interior of member states: a strategy that seeks to monitor and manage migration flows and – assumed – security threats.

Migration Control in the City

Today, European borders are not merely enforced along the Southern and Eastern European borders and at international air- and seaports (“Fortress Europe”). The borders of the EU are also being extended into the interior of member states: a strategy that seeks to monitor and manage migration flows and – assumed – security threats. Stephen Graham has argued that, as a result, we are witnessing a new trend, which “threatens to re-engineer ideas of citizenship and national boundaries central to the concept of the Western nation-state since the mid-seventeenth century” (Graham 2010: XV), challenging “the traditional definition of the geographical and social ‘insides’ and ‘outsides’ of political communities” (Graham 2010: XV).

On one hand, all over Europe border and law enforcement agencies are targeting public city squares, trains and train stations, public city transportation, highways and rest stops and other spaces of transit looking for illegalised migrants.[2] New and often militarised border zones and spaces overlay the social space of everyday life: Europe has become a borderland (Euskirchen, et al. 2007). On the other hand, we can observe the incorporation of various public, semi-public and private actors on the local level into the border regime as well as the inter-institutional circulation of data and information about migrants. While the verification of identity papers and visa documents used to be a core function of the sovereign state exercised almost exclusively by law enforcement agencies and immigration authorities, it has now become an inflationary practice that seems almost completely disconnected from the physical location of any national border or moment of border crossing. Today, the review of passports and immigration documents and the monitoring of residents’ legal status is performed by a variety of “ordinary institutions” in “ordinary places” far away from any border: by welfare agencies, municipal administrations, universities, public and private schools, healthcare providers, doctors, hospitals, housing agencies, banks and insurances and many other institutions that facilitate people’s everyday lives in European cities.

…meets Urban Citizenship 

But how do the practices of border control within the EU relate to urban citizenship? Most European countries have established a complex hierarchy of legal titles and permits that define migrants’ status ranging from complete precarisation (the preliminary suspension of deportation) to almost full membership (the permanent residency and work permit). Each legal title also comes with a variety of rights and restrictions that may not be written explicitly into the immigration law. Many are subject to local government action and often concern goods and services that are delivered by private companies and non-profits.

German cities, for example, grant migrants (and their families) access to subsidised language courses, subsidised childcare and access to public housing, depending on their legal status. Local governments are also in charge of administering and overseeing many national matters such as the granting of parental leave and child allowance, which only migrants with a more permanent legal status are entitled to. Thomas Faist and Hartmut Häußermann’s 1996 study “Immigration, Social Citizenship and Housing in Germany” distinguished between six status groups and identified crucial differences between each in the areas of citizenship acquisition, unemployment insurance, social assistance, education of children and social housing (Faist & Häußermann 1996).

It is in this context that immigration authorities and political hardliners have recognised the huge potential for extending the border into every pore of the urban fabric: many European governments have introduced laws that obligate public agencies and institutions to report information relevant to immigration authorities to the respective law enforcement agencies.

The establishment of such a graduated system of rights requires the tight monitoring of migrants’ different statuses, and hence the production of “border situations” wherever and whenever migrants interact with the local state. As a result, local state agencies and private service providers systematically and consistently check residents’ identification papers in order to verify whether they are legally entitled to obtain certain goods and services.

It is in this context that immigration authorities and political hardliners have recognised the huge potential for extending the border into every pore of the urban fabric: many European governments have introduced laws that obligate public agencies and institutions to report information relevant to immigration authorities to the respective law enforcement agencies. In Germany, for instance, this law is called “Übermittlungspflicht” – literally the “duty of transmission” (of information). In some countries, these regulations affect only specific areas and exclude for example schools and medical services; in others they can be (almost) all-encompassing. The crucial idea, however, is usually the same: to incorporate everyday urban life and its various institutions into the system of data mining and monitoring, control and management, and inclusion and exclusion of migrants.

To illustrate with an example: currently, staff members of German district and city administrations concerned with issuing coupons for state-subsidised preschools and kindergartens have to ask parents to show proof of their legal status. In order to apply for their children’s day care, parents not only have to fill out various forms and bring proof of income, but must also submit copies of their passports and visa documents. Based on the parents’ status, city workers decide whether or not the child is eligible to receive subsidised day care. If a city worker happens to notice an overstayed or expired visa document, she has to immediately inform immigration authorities in order to comply with the federal “Übermittlungspflicht” mentioned above.

What this example shows is how the logic of the border colonises migrants’ everyday lives in an as yet unknown intensity, and how the monitoring of migrants is tied to the provision of services and access to local resources. Urban citizenship and local border practices become two sides of the same coin. This is especially dramatic if cities require residents to register their address with local authorities. Someone’s decision to not register his or her address – for example because the person’s legal status is about to expire and he is afraid of being reported to immigration authorities – can lead to complete exclusion from all public and even many private services (which can usually only be obtained with a valid registration of residency). These services include access to medical services, insurances, a bank account, and even membership in city libraries and video rental stores.

Urban Civil Rights and Sanctuary Cities 

Cities utilise various instruments in order to address disadvantaged populations. They can provide services, goods and resources, for example through so-called integration programs that cater specifically to migrants, or through area-based policies that target marginalised neighbourhoods. If politically favoured, cities can extend access to local health care, subsidised housing, education, childcare, and other services based on the principle of residency, even to illegalised migrants, as many examples show. Not surprisingly, much of the urban citizenship debate evolves over place-specific mechanisms for the allocation of resources as well as over questions of political participation, especially for non-EU citizens who are barred from local elections in many European countries.[3] However, a lot less attention is being paid to the question of how cities could extend “classical” civil rights to their migrant populations – although the defence against discriminatory laws, state-induced exclusion, and arbitrary state violence was and continues to be at the core of many civil rights movements.

For example, in 2006 Berlin passed an anti-discrimination law that specifies and expands a federal anti-discrimination law to the state and local level. But this legislation only applies to civil law – to the discrimination of an employee by a company, for example, or of a tenant by his or her landlord. In contrast, it does not protect against the discrimination of residents by public entities. A migrant being subjected to racial profiling by the Berlin police, for instance, would not be able to invoke this law against the city. In 2011 Berlin’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Left Party (Linkspartei) drafted a civil rights law that focuses precisely on protecting citizens and residents against discriminatory actions by public entities and the local state (Poppenhagen 2013). But since the election of the new Berlin government in the same year, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) together with the Social Democrats and the Liberal Party (FDP) have blocked the bill from being passed into law. Current legislation would be sufficient for protection against state discrimination, they argue, so there is no need for further urban civil rights.

Other cities, however, have gone a step further in order to protect their migrant populations, most importantly when strong immigrants’ rights movements were able to forge local alliances with actors such as trade unions and progressive politicians. Especially when compared to the United States, a classical immigrant country, it becomes clear that Berlin, as well as many other European cities, still have a long way to go. San Francisco, New York, Berkeley and many other US cities have declared themselves “sanctuary cities”. In addition to strong anti-discrimination laws, they have issued ordinances that bar local administrations and the local police force from cooperating with or passing information on to federal immigration authorities, most importantly to prevent the deportation of local residents without a valid immigration status. The logic is quite simple: urban citizenship and federal immigration policies are two different pairs of shoes and it is good to keep them separate.


Urban citizenship is a highly valuable and innovative concept. It responds to structural political changes that have shifted key issues of citizenship politics from the nation-state to the urban and regional level. Analytically, it allows for a differentiated analysis of participation, rights and recognition in various spheres of the city. Especially in migration studies, this framework is extremely helpful if we want to understand the dynamics of socio-political inclusion and exclusion of those who are – formally speaking – citizens of another country. The concept also has an important political dimension. It opens up a pathway to counteract on the excluding principles of national citizenship, at least on the local level.

However, as I have argued in this article, the new European border regime and the strategies of migration control that focus on urban spaces within the European Union are rendering urban citizenship regimes precarious. Cities can counter the forces of control and exclusion with the politics of citizenship.  But local border practices and the politics of citizenship are becoming increasingly interlocked. Especially if cities deliver rights and services on the basis of a graduated system that distinguishes between various migrant groups and status-holders (instead of granting universal access), local agencies and institutions always run the risk of being absorbed into the border regime.

A strong and inclusive agenda for urban citizenship will need critical scholarship and political actors who understand the issues at stake and develop strategies that strengthen the (civil) rights of citizens and denizens alike. But in order to realise the cosmopolitan promise of urban citizenship, it will also require social movements and progressive politicians who are able to produce political effects on the national and European level, where questions of data sharing, visa policies, cross-national law enforcement cooperation, asylum and deportation standards, etc. are negotiated and developed. Only then, with the pressure of migration control removed from cities, will a pathway open up to free mobility and access to substantial rights based on residency. 


Bauböck, R. (2003), Reinventing Urban Citizenship,  Citizenship Studies, 7 (2):139-160.

Euskirchen, M., Lebuhn & H., Ray, G. (2007), From Borderline to Borderland. The Changing European Border Regime, Monthly Review, 59 (6): 42-53.

Faist, T. & Häußermann H. (1996), Immigration, Social Citizenship and Housing in Germany, International Journal for Urban and Regional Research (IJURR) 25 (4): 439-459.

García, M. (2006), Citizenship Practices and Urban Governance in European Cities, Urban Studies, 43 (4): 745–765.

Graham, S. (2010), Cities Under Siege, London, New York: Verso.

Holston, J. (2007), Insurgent Citizenship, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Isin, E. F. & Nielsen, G. M. (eds.) (2008), Acts of Citizenship, Zed Books. London.

Lebuhn, Henrik (2013), Local Border Practices and Urban Citizenship in Europe: Exploring Urban Borderlands, in: CITY. Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action, 17 (1): 37-51.

Marshall, T. H. (1950), Citizenship and social class and other essays, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ong, A. (2006), Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty, Durham: Duke University Press.

Poppenhagen, N. (2013),  Abwehrrechte als Teilhaberechte. Urban Citizenship und die polizeiliche Praxis des Racial Profiling, Berlin: Research Paper (unpublished), Dept. of Urban and Regional Sociology, Humboldt-University Berlin.

[1] The following two sections are based on an extensive research article published in “CITY” (Lebuhn 2013).

[2] I use the term ‘illegalised’ (instead of illegal, undocumented, or irregular) to underscore the fact that legality and illegality are not biological human attributes. Subjecting individuals to this juridical category, and to the loss of rights and mobility that follow from it, is always a political act.

[3] In fact, several EU member states do extend the right to participate in local elections to residents without EU citizenship.