Article Access: International Migration by Professor Zolberg

Intersections by JISJ
4 min readApr 15, 2022


By Chidera Olalere

In his 1994 article, “Changing Sovereignty Games and International Migration,” Professor Aristide R. Zolberg writes about international immigration and its role in establishing and maintaining authority in any modern State. The peculiarity of his argument arises from his belief that international migration is a historically bound phenomenon and that for today’s immigration issues to be fully understood, they must be analyzed within the confines of their historical bases. He evaluates international migration and globalization holistically through the lenses of sovereign States and their historical struggle with maintaining their power in the wake of wars, nationalization, and economic integration.

Zolberg sets the foundation for his argument by explaining how the concept of sovereignty within States became so vital: The transition from manorial economies to modern States involved a change in the very framework of control to compensate for the new level of economic activity. However, this transformation was not only a response to changing economic processes but also to the establishment of a representative leader. According to Zolberg, the early modern State sought to retain human capital for economic processes and wars; this attention to human capital made the control of human movement a pertinent exercise of sovereignty. Consequently, unauthorized emigration was considered treason and was punishable by death and slavery. He suggested that the evidence for the resilience of the system is reflected in totalitarian States.

The author goes on to describe the formation of empires and colonies and how such territories were strictly controlled by the sovereign of the State. He argues that the existing social and technological conditions did not allow for much emigration and that consequently immigration was not a big problem. But when Mercantilist States (countries that believed in free trade — mainly England and France) became excessively interested in accruing human capital due to limited population growth and general scarcity, they preyed on each other and exploited opportunities to recruit people they considered as advantageous. In response to such manipulation, early international laws ensured, enabling the sovereign’s control of any inward movement.

As migration gained more public attention, sovereigns began to argue over how to prevent ‘undesirables’ from entering the country and how to enable ‘desirables’ to naturalize. This situation was altered by the formation of the United States, which in Zolberg’s opinion acted as a magnet to people from all over the world, creating the first emigration crisis for many European sovereigns. They responded by creating sanctions to prevent unauthorized exit. However, enlightenment of the rights of the individual over the sovereign remained a barrier to the effectiveness of this sanction with documents released during the French revolution, detailing a citizen’s right to stay, to leave, and to return to France. According to Zolberg, these rights were subversive to sovereignty at the time as there could be no real sovereignty over an empty land.

The United States in particular presented a puzzle to those studying international migration because although the authority to enact naturalization laws lay with the congress, each State was giving the right to exercise power over issues regarding slavery. To explain this dissonance in the understanding of where power lay, Zolberg presented various observations, one of which was the belief that some non-laissez-faire legislation, designed to indirectly limit immigration, was still enacted at the national level. He argued particularly for this observation in the case of the 1824 New York law which prevented the landing of foreigners who were deemed incapable of maintaining themselves, to reduce the arrival of Irish immigrants. The law was challenged, but the court upheld the law on the basis of the State’s police powers, unintentionally undermining national power and introducing the concept of the ‘advantage of the State’.

Zolberg affirmed that another opposition to sovereignty was the ‘right to leave’. This is an almost universal right nowadays as citizens of first world countries are able to travel almost anywhere on the basis of their passport alone. But it has resulted in States relinquishing some of the policing power over who can leave their countries and who can enter.

Zolberg highlights that the growing importance of vocational and occupational affiliations that ‘transcend national borders and create incipient cosmopolitan communities’ as well as the ‘emergence of transnational communities’ threaten to undermine sovereignty. He considers technological and social mobility as well as international marriages as processes that have additionally reduced the power of any one nationality. He used the European Union to explain the idea of quasi-citizenship through the adoption of a uniform passport amongst all the member States and insisted that the free movement of people further minimized the already diminishing power of a sovereign to control international migration. Furthermore, he referenced World War I and II as occasions that demonstrated the dangers of equating rights with nationality and implied that the uniformity of human rights as well as refugee programs contributed to the decreasing power of the State to control international migration.

Zolberg concludes by speaking about how changes in the structure and power of countries have increased the amount of displaced people — people with no refugee status that move from one place to another. He proposed that although globalization is normally spoken about in terms of economic gain, the inherent resistance that States have to changes in traditional societal structure shows that there will be a lot of losses from globalization. However, on a hopeful note, he believes that as businesses, ideas and people become more dispersed, we might be able to understand each other better and influence the character of the modern State accordingly.


Zolberg, A. R. (1994). Changing sovereignty games and international migration. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 2( 1), 153–170.

Chidera Olalere is a student at Scarborough College studying the International Baccalaureate programme. She is author and creator of Dera’s Diary, an online blog exploring social issues on a personal and societal level.

Originally published at on April 15, 2022.