Academics and Research

Activism leads to professor’s research on migration

Thomas Nail became interested in political philosophy through his activist work with antipoverty, antiwar, animal-rights, environmental and migrant-justice organizations. The assistant professor of philosophy at DU continues to be motivated by issues of social and environmental justice. His latest book project looks at the historical and political role of migration in society.

“I think that migration is one of the most important political phenomena of our time,” says Nail, who believes that the 21st century will one day be known as the century of the migrant.

“More than ever, it’s becoming necessary for people to migrate due to environmental, economic and political instability,” he says. “The Dutch government, for example, is already predicting an increase of up to 200 million international migrants in the next 40 years in response to global climate changes.”

Currently, there are more than 1 billion migrants in the world, Nail says. As this number continues to rise, so will the percentage of total migrants who are non-status or undocumented.

“If citizenship and legal equality are the concepts by which liberal democracies like the U.S. understand the political agency and rights of a people, what does this mean for the 15 to 20 percent of people now living in the U.S., for example, without full status?” he asks. “It means that a continually increasing population of migrants, with partial or no status, is now subject to permanent structural inequalities, such as the lack of voting and labor rights, possible deportation, and other deprivations. This is difficult to reconcile with almost any political theory of equality, universality or liberty.”

Nail’s current book project, “The Figure of the Migrant,” is inspired by his activist work with the migrant justice movement No One is Illegal. He hopes to do in philosophy what this group does in political practice.

“I think that the political figure of the citizen should no longer be the starting point in political philosophy,” he says. “What we need is a political philosophy that responds to the real material conditions of our times, which are defined less by sedentary citizens than by mobile migrants.”

Nail has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Oregon. He joined DU in 2011 as a postdoctoral lecturer and became an assistant professor this fall. His first book, “Returning to Revolution” (2012), details one of the most influential revolutionary movements of the past 15 years: Zapatismo.

Nail’s courses at DU often reflect his current and future book projects.

“This keeps me very focused and excited about my teaching and research at the same time,” he says. “I’m always surprised by the new ideas that come from teaching material that I think I know pretty well.”

He also enjoys watching his students take ideas and use them in ways he had not anticipated.

“It brings me great joy to watch students go from vague interest in a topic to passionate reflection and action,” he says. “Unfortunately, as teachers we do not always get to see immediately the fruits of the ideas we pass on. But when we do, it’s great.”

Nail’s published works can all be downloaded at:

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