Public service work and discretion in migration policies

A publication is out!

Some weeks ago, the RIEM (Revista Internacional de Estudios Migratorios) published my article “The role of established immigrants within institutionalised immigrant integration in Israel. I wrote this article after having submitted my dissertation, with the idea to focus on one aspect of it: street level bureaucrats.

As a matter of fact, a large part of the interviews I conducted was with persons working in municipalities and other governement agencies, and were in direct contact with the residents. They were part of the welfare department, the employment department and more frequently, the department dealing with immigration and so-called integration-related matters.

The many differences I could spot between each city’s policies were in part to be attributed to these street level bureaucrats. I tried to make sense of it through this article.

This has also impacted our arrival in Portugal. Throughout the administrative maze that one immigrant follows, one can only recognise the high level of discretion public service workers have: at the tax office, at social security, at the clinic, and at the home office (SEF here in Portugal). Every person tells a different story, and by coming twice for the same thing, you might get two different responses.

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Winter is coming

The title of this post is obviously a marketing ploy.

But more seriously, after a week in Trás-os-Montes, I believe again in the power of seasons over our overall rhythm.

While the Christmas decorations were mere reminders that a week before, families were celebrating the end of the year’s festivities together, I arrived in Trás-os-Montes through a thick fog, and surrounded with the smell of burnt wood.

I had a plan to shoot some images at the houses of the people I met during the summer. Unfortunately, everyone was gone, had a cold, and in general, was not as eager as during summer days to show outside of their home.

First, I was frustrated. But I thought this was part of winter life in the region: empty villages once the sun sets, cold and foggy weather… So I took the decision to film just this. The absence.

To be fair, there were some people: the ones working – in agriculture in the villages, and in shops and services in Bragança. In the city, it seems that winter was also an opportunity to renovate the roads and sites. I decided to expand my horizons, and I visited Vimioso, Mirando do Douro, Vila Real and Chaves. Every where were works, renovations, and… empty streets, closed shops… The north was getting ready for its visitors!

Celebrating return: emigrants’ festival(s)

My former institution, Migrinter at the University of Poitiers, hosts for the last years a large project called CAMIGRI – Les campagnes françaises dans la dynamique des migrations internationales. And CAMIGRI publishes regularly works carried out by their team, or by collaborators in their newsletter.

I was happy to be invited to present a short account of my work in Trás-os-Montes this month, and here is the result!

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A little bit of politics

Last 6 October 2019, the Portuguese elected the new members of the parliament. Without much surprise, the Socialist Party led by Antonio Costa took the lead, followed by the Social Democrats and the Left Block. In the following days, the debates focused on the future coalition Costa might bring together, replicating the anterior minority government supported by the Left Bloc and the Communists (called here geringonça). Eventually, the Socialist Party will govern alone, and will have to request support and make compromise – a fragile position to hold.

I decided to check what this all means for the residents of Trás-os-Montes, and for (potential) returnees to the area.

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Airbnb is even in far away rural Tras-os-Montes!

Summer is over, and so are my trips to the north – well, surely I will do some follow-up in the upcoming weeks, but I will not be able to stay as long.

In order to make some sense out the data I collected, I courageously decided to end up the summer with a short presentation at the Royal Geography Society annual conference in London. I say courageously, because I felt quite stupid standing there after such a short time in the project… I was included in a great panel on rural areas and migration, with colleagues working in the field for much longer than me.

My idea was to share a first round of analysis. I decided to map in details of one of the villages I spent time at, and get a full picture of its current occupation. Here is, below, the result. This includes all the houses I could see while walking around.

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From Galegos to La Fontañera: walking on the smugglers’ path

I spent the week-end in northern Alentejo, in the natural park of Serra de São Mamede. And what started with a family hiking week-end, ended up in a research stroll!

On Saturday, we made our way to Castelo de Vide. The village hosts a museum in the old Synagogue, at the top of the old Jewish quarter (or the Judiaria), which was about to close for lunch time. We ran up the Judiaria to enter the museum. This was not the first time that I found myself in a museum dedicated to the Jewish communities that once lived at the Portuguese borders. In Bragança, a museum is dedicated to the Sephardic culture in the northern Tras-os-Montes region.

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Borders, peripheries and the “subnational”

Last April 2019, I participated in the ECPR Joint Sessions in Mons. More specifically, I joined the workshop entitled “Subnational Immigration Policies and Politics: Towards a Second Generation Research Agenda”. Led by three political scientists from both sides of the Atlantic, the workshop aimed at sharing our research projects and getting quality feedbacks by peers.

Two months have passed since that week, but I still thought it would be of interest to reflect on the questions we addressed together. On the first day, the conveyors started the session with a set of questions, which they would eventually come back to the last day:

  • What do we mean by “subnational” and “local”?
  • What can we learn when looking at the subnational level?
  • What are the relations between various levels (of policymaking and politics)?
  • What are the actors and the targeted beneficiaries of these policies?

My co-author and I were the first ones to present. I, for my part, introduced my doctoral project, and presented my work on four cities located at the borders of Israel. And right after, the first comment made by the discussant related to the broader question “what is the subnational?”. Is it the municipal level? If so, are the cities connected?

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Enquiring at the border

In the last year of my PhD, and after months of writing, I decided to update the title of my thesis. First named Local policies for the integration of new Jewish immigrants (Olim) in peripheral Israel, it became Governing or being governed? A scalar approach of the transformation of State power and authority through the case of immigration and integration policies of four frontier towns in Israel.

This was a source of debate with my supervisor, and later with the examiners that attended the defence. Why using the term “frontier”? One of the examiners even stated: “I would comment that the use of the term frontier towns is a bit pretentious and indeed the author mentions the alternating use of ‘small and mid- sized cities’ and ‘peripheries’”.

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Creative geographies and the “creative class”: are we participating in neoliberalising the academia?

The last years, I have grown into a “visual” enthusiast. I am now part of the “creative” scholars, advocating for a visual methodology – that I understand as a way to access knowledge through the production of still or moving images, of counter-cartographies, or of any other forms of art.

As a matter of fact, I co-edit a volume on visual methodologies, volume which I have bragged about in a recent post. In this book, we include contributions of colleagues who have all approached their fieldwork through the visual.

I am also teaching a four-session seminar on visual methodology in migration studies, to a little group of PhD students at my university. Through this seminar, I encourage them to find their creative voice in order to better involve their participants, but also to gain tools to be activist.

And even if I look at the last conferences I attended: Harriet Hawkins, encouraging us to be “makers” (see the book on creative geographies); Rickie Sanders who argues that she brings her camera everywhere because “it sees what she cannot see”; or even the decolonising museums conference I attended last week, which brough the idea that we ought to – through a umcomfortable, labourious process – be creative about how we de-colonialise the collections of our museums… All these scientific events advocate for the adoption of a visual methodology.

But, are we pushed to be creative at any cost? Are we just checking the boxes to get grants or simply, an academic career?

Somehow, the creative craze became associated, in my mind, with Florida’s “creative class” nonsense: are we simply enabling the hidden talents among us scientists to blossom? Or are we forcing a generation of scholars to be creative, and hence creating a new desirable category?

I have always loved drawing and painting. I took classes for years during my childhood and teenagehood. More recently, filming has grown on me. But I am a bit afraid that this will be soon imposed on us, together with publishing in top-ranking journals, raising funds, and a whole range of skills that researchers are meant to acquire, beyond being just good researchers and teachers.

I understand that I write about my fears here. I, for myself, think that amazing works have emerged from this new recognition. But while teaching the students, I wondered if this should be pushed on them? And while thinking of my own research, I wonder how to actually commit to my creative self, aside from outside pressure…

Retiring in Portugal: Is it really the dream?

Last week-end, I visited my family in France. We were having some coffee when one relative suddenly asked me: “Do you find it normal that people go to Portugal to retire and do not make taxes not in France nor in Portugal!” She goes on: “I saw on TV that Portugal put together a scheme to help its economy, but if the beneficiaries of the scheme do not pay taxes, how does it help the economy?”. 

Let alone the fact that I was surprised that this piece of news was significant in the countryside in Bretagne, far away from the main Portuguese communities established in France, I wondered: is it really scandalous? How many people really benefit from that? Did not they work their whole life and deserve a nice retirement? I also thought of the first people I met in the north, and I found it difficult to believe that they were returning to their home villages in order to escape taxes!

Credit: Fernando Ricardo

So legally, what happens?

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Dream house for sale: a glimpse in the real estate of returnees in Northern Portugal

This winter, I received a beautiful book entitled Dream Houses, by Roselyne de Villanova, Carolina Leite & Isabel Raposo (1994).

This was a great preview before I decided to spend a long week-end doing fieldwork in the north. I felt ready to identify the houses built by returnees from the 1980s on, houses that seemed to have upset many. In fact, built based on a French-style construction at the outskirts of the villages, these houses were accused of ruining the landscape. 

With this in mind, on a Friday morning beginning of February, I drove out of Lisbon towards Tras-os-Montes. After Mirandela, I left the highway in direction of Vinhais. I passed a beautiful countryside, green and pampered. However, throughout the villages, I was amazed by the amount of houses, including the immigrants’ houses, which looked unfinished, closed or abandoned… some had a sign VENDE hanging. For instance, Mouca looked like a beautiful place, but on Wikipedia, you could read that residents dropped from 800 to 260 residents in the last sixty years. And many houses were closed.

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On the non-habitual resident status: more retirees and less “creative” than hoped?

I recently posted a description of the incentives created by the Portuguese government to attract migrants and returnees.

One mechanism in particular is the target of parliament members in particular and the public in general: the non-habitual resident status. Quick reminder: if you have lived outside of Portugal for the last five years, and you now live more than 182 days per year in the country, you can lower your income tax to a flat 20% rate, and this during 10 years. The main objective of this mechanism is to attract both high-skilled workers and retirees (and this is stated in official documents issued by the tax office). 

But, as I enter the teachers’ room for my lunch break last week, Público’s front page reads: Tax bonus only attracted 8% of brains to Portugal. As a matter of fact, among the 27.367 beneficiaries, there are 2140 “brains”: 1024 are senior management workers in private businesses, 384 engineers, 170 high-tech workers, 80 researchers, 50 IT programmers, 48 professors, 45 fiscal consultants, 42 designers… and “at the end of the table”, says the journalist, seven singers, six musicians, five painters, four psychologists, two sculptors, a surgeon, a dentist and a paediatrician.

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