In this paper we present ethnographic evidence from China and the UK to show that the state’s migration discourse is not simply a dominant force imposed externally by the state on migrants, but is itself shaped by migrant strategies. These strategies lead to migratory, employment and survival practices that in turn produce the social phenomena (bogus asylum seeking, an informal labor market, illegal border crossing) that originally informed and justified the discourse itself. Furthermore, and as a final irony, some of the very discursive categories themselves are not simply externally imposed on migrants. In this article we will show how for instance “legality”, “skills”, or “qualifications” are not intrinsic qualities that migrants do or do not possess, but bureaucratic statuses manufactured and commercially supplied in the process of migration. We conclude that the state started with a carefully crafted discourse on “good” and “bad” migration, but ended up with a migratory reality that produces these categories on demand. What results is a regulatory arms race between migrants and state agents that may restrict the total number of migrants that are let in, but on the basis of criteria that have been firmly appropriated by migrants themselves and that have often very little to do with the original intentions of policy.
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