Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2021
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Columbia University
Paper-Work: Migrant Labor, Documentation, and Legality in Postsocialist Moscow

Employed in Russia’s vast shadow economy, Central Asian migrant workers are caught in a double bind between the demand to become legally legible and the realities of informal labor that make lawful status all but impossible. Corruption, deceit, and the weak rule of law in Russia have exacerbated this dilemma by undermining the authority of state-issued papers to such an extent that distinguishing documented from undocumented migrants becomes increasingly unviable. Scholarship on undocumented migration has examined the conundrums that arise from being deemed “illegal” by the state (De Genova 2002, Fassin 2011, Ngai 2004), but the sheer legal indeterminacy of migrant life in postsocialist Russia throws the predicament of what it means to become documented into sharp relief. While scholars have highlighted the tension between the proliferation of immigration restrictions and a demand for the increasing mobility of labor (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013), relatively little is known about the paperwork that sustains this precarious arrangement. Paperwork – in the sense of both practice and product, both the seemingly routine and mundane work of documentation, and the written records generated through bureaucratic inscription – is central to the ways in which Central Asian migrants attempt to reconcile their unsettled legal status and maintain access to waged work. By following the paper trails and people that crisscross immigration offices, legal aid organizations, administrative courts, and migrant spaces of work and rest in Moscow, my project examines the meanings, practices, and experiences of documentary precariousness among migrant workers from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. How does paperwork, given the “epistemic anxieties” (Stoler 2009) surrounding its verification, come to signify the legal status of its bearer? How do migrants’ strategies of documentation enact, perform, or upset the tenuous subject position of the lawful immigrant, and what kinds of legal subjectivities are produced under these conditions?