Between Conditional and Unconditional Hospitality: The Contradictions of European Union and United States Immigration Policy

Immigration, especially along the border between the United States (U.S.) and Mexico as well as at the point where the Mediterranean and the “Schengen” zone meet (e.g., Italy and Greece), is increasingly marked by instances of violence and securitization. The utilization of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and the construction of sections of walls and fences by the U.S as well as the Frontex maintained by the European Union (EU) represent ongoing Western nation-state efforts to shore up their borders against various perceived threats from the Global South: refugees, drugs, weapons, smuggled goods, poor people, workers, and asylum seekers.[i] [ii] EU rhetoric particularly, evidences a basic tension among positions espoused by neoliberals, cosmpolitanists, and liberals. While European Union and U.S. narratives appear on their face to suggest a willingness to assist various refugees and immigrants, both nonetheless simultaneously have enacted policies and positions that undermine their globalization and cosmopolitan rhetoric. That is, these nations’ actions undermine their normative vocabulary that is nominally based on increasing freedom of movement, the reduction of barriers and borders, and a promotion of “universal” human rights. Their actions also contradict the view that nation-state borders are becoming more porous or, indeed, that the nation-state itself is waning.[iii] [iv]

In an essay entitled “On Cosmopolitanism,” Jacques Derrida critically engaged with the “cosmopolitanism” ideal that has been adopted by countries’ foreign policies within the European Union to signify a self-image of open, hospitable, and inclusive society.[v] Despite this self-understanding, reactions to child migration along the U.S border, responses to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris on the satirical news magazine Charlie Hebdo, the continuing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, and the subsequent horrendous human cost of the European Sovereign Debt crisis (especially in Greece), has only further undermined this cosmopolitan rhetoric.[vi] Indeed, Derrida argued that the concept of hospitality is characterized by an internal contradiction, or double imperative. On the one hand, the idea connotes a “right to refuge” to all immigrants and refugees. On the other hand, hospitality must be conditional; there has to be some limit on the “right of residence.”[vii] Derrida contended that, “This tendency to obstruct is extremely common…to the countries of the European Union; it is a price that is oftentimes paid as a consequence of the Schengen Agreement…at a time when we claim to be lifting internal borders, we proceed to bolt the external borders of the European Union tightly.”[viii]

Although Derrida wrote in 1977, this double imperative nonetheless characterizes immigration policy within the EU and U.S. today. The European Union’s inability to solve the migration crisis in the Mediterranean is perhaps an example of the core “impossibility” of reconciling these competing claims[ix] Yet, Derrida elucidates the seeming “impossibility” of this task not to paralyze politics, but to enable it.[x] Indeed, the contradictions of the EU’s immigration stance are further complicated by the fractures and lacunae that dominate and separate EU-level tenets (although far from being homogenous themselves) from the immigration policies of its respective member states. According to Adam Luedtke the 2001 “Tempere Conclusion,” represented an ambitious attempt by the European Council to:

  • establish a common EU-level immigration policy approach that because ‘it would be in contradiction with Europe’s traditions to deny…freedom to those whose circumstances lead them justifiably to seek access to your territory,’ the Council ‘requires the Union to develop common policies on asylum and immigration,’ which would result in ‘an open and secure European Union, fully committed to the obligations of the Geneva Refugee Convention…and be able to respond to humanitarian needs on the basis of solidarity.’[xi]

The September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, the train bombings in 2004 in Madrid, and in 2005 in London, and, I argue, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, have dramatically changed the picture of immigration in the European Union.[xii] Although these incidents were not the sole impetus for more restrictive immigration legislation, these acts of violence surely played a central role in the increasing securitization of the EU Schengen border. This shift calls into question the example of the Tampere Conclusion as an affirmation of the EU’s cosmopolitan since that declaration has remained only a potentiality and never a concrete established and effective policy.[xiii]

Yet, arguably, the Conclusion represented an attempt to find a balance between complete conditional and unconditional hospitality. This impossibility is predicated on a:

  •  Historical space which takes place between the Law of an unconditional hospitality, offered a priori to every other, to all newcomers, whoever they may be, and the conditional laws of a right to hospitality, without The unconditional law of hospitality would be in danger of remaining a pious, and irresponsible desire, without form and without potency, and even of being perverted at any moment” (emphasis in the original).[xiv]

The U.S’ immigration policy has also continued to undermine a similar cosmopolitan rhetoric. For example, despite the increasing securitization of the Mexico-U.S. border, language emanating from the American government nonetheless suggests an inclusive and accepting society open to immigration from all corners of the earth. Yet, the Ebola scare here in the United States illustrated the extent to which the U.S. Government would go to secure its border against a perceived “dangerous” Other. Popular public concern over the security of the U.S. border, already heightened by the surge of migrants from Central America, increased significantly following the outbreak of Ebola in Western Africa in conjunction with five high-profile Ebola patients who were flown into the country for medical treatment. In fact, the American reaction to the Ebola outbreak, which included the tightening of border controls in general, elucidates the weaknesses of cosmopolitan rhetoric. As Thomas Nail has observed, “More often than not, cosmopolitan institutions composed of nation-states exist to protect the interests of citizens and states above and at the expense of migrants and the stateless.”[xv] Moreover, there were calls from Congress not only to enforce a travel ban from migrants traveling from Western Africa, but warnings from certain Congressman that “illegal” migrants entering the United States would spread the disease.[xvi] It is this type of narrative that continually undermines the cosmopolitan narrative formally espoused by the United States.

In order to fulfill the potential of the open, democratic, and plural, promises espoused by the EU and U.S, the language of immigration and asylum must change to recognize the historical complexities that underlie the sociopolitical and economic reasons for migration and asylum seeking. Whether this is possible remains to be seen. I do not wish here simply to criticize the entirety of United States or EU democratic and inclusive goals, yet current laws and immigration policies in each continue to undermine their oft stated cosmopolitan ideals.  Derrida’s analysis suggests that these laws and policies should be transformed and improved within “historical space” in order to prevent, as the British Refugee Council chief executive recently noted concerning EU policies ad practice, “more people needlessly and shamefully dying on Europe’s doorstep.”[xvii]



[i] Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, (New York: Zone Books), 2010.

[ii] Ted Robbins, “Border Drones Fly into Fight Over Immigration,” NPR, June 11, 2013. Accessed March 30, 2015, According to its website “Frontex promotes, coordinates and develops European border management in line with the EU fundamental rights charter applying the concept of Integrated Border Management.” Accessed March 31, 2015.

[iii] Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty.

[iv] Lea Ypi, “Sovereignty, Cosmopolitanism and the Ethics of European Foreign Policy,” European Journal of Political Theory 7 (2008): 349-364.

[v] Michael A. Peters and Marianna Papastephanou, “Interview on Cyprus Crisis: European Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Financial Capitalism, truthout , May 18 2013,

[vi] Peters and Papastephanou, “Interview on Cyprus.”

[vii] Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (New York: Routledge), 2001.

[viii] Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, 13.

[ix] Alan Travis, “UK axes support for Mediterranean migrant rescue operation,” The Guardian, October 27 2014, Accessed March 30 2015,

[x] Ibid, 23.

[xi] Adam Luedtke, “Fortifying Fortress Europe? The Effect of September 11 on EU Immigration Policy,” in Immigration Policy and Security, edited by Terri E. Givens, Gary P. Freeman, and David L. Leal (New York: Routledge), 130-147.

[xii] Luedtke, “Fortifying Fortress Europe,” 131.

[xiii] Ibid, 130.

[xiv] Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, 23.

[xv] Thomas Nail, “Migrant Cosmopolitanism,” E-IR, April 11, 2013,

[xvi] Muzaffar Chishti, Faye Hipsman, and Sarah Price, “Ebola Outbreak Rekindles Debate on Restricting Admissions to the United States on Health Grounds” Migration Policy Institute, October 23, 2014,

[xvii] Travis, “UK axes support for Mediterranean migrant rescue operation”


Johannes GrowJohannes Grow is a student in the ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought) doctoral program. He received his Master’s degree in Public and International Affairs from Virginia Tech. His research interests include: Social and Political Theory, International Relations, Critical European Studies, Postcolonial Theory, and Critical Geopolitics. He also teaches in the Department of History at Virginia Tech.


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