When so many eyes are on the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers making the ever dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean, it’s important to attend to the wider geographies of marine migration and its policing. So I really welcome news from Jeff Kahn of an intriguing and important new book, his Islands of Sovereignty: Haitian Migration and the Borders of Empire (forthcoming from Chicago later this year).
In Islands of Sovereignty, anthropologist and legal scholar Jeffrey S. Kahn offers a new interpretation of the transformation of US borders during the late twentieth century and its implications for our understanding of the nation-state as a legal and political form. Kahn takes us on a voyage into the immigration tribunals of South Florida, the Coast Guard vessels patrolling the northern Caribbean, and the camps of Guantánamo Bay—once the world’s largest US-operated migrant detention facility—to explore how litigation concerning the fate of Haitian asylum seekers gave birth to a novel paradigm of offshore oceanic migration policing. Combining ethnography—in Haiti, at Guantánamo, and alongside US migration patrols in the Caribbean—with in-depth archival research, Kahn expounds a nuanced theory of liberal empire’s dynamic tensions and its racialized geographies of securitization. An innovative historical anthropology of the modern legal imagination, Islands of Sovereignty forces us to reconsider the significance of the rise of the current US immigration border and its relation to broader shifts in the legal infrastructure of contemporary nation-states across the globe.
My own early work on Guantanamo [in ‘The Black Flag’: DOWNLOADS tab] nibbled at the remote edges of some of these issues, but Jeff makes them front and centre (as they should be), and the wider resonance of his argument in the face of Trump’s wretched views on immigration needs no gloss from me [though what Trump will do when someone tells him the US has maritime borders too is anyone’s guess].
Here is Jeff’s elaboration (taken from the book):
One of the overarching arguments of the book is that one must understand the valorization of law’s reign and the simultaneous desire for its evasion as two forces that have produced a potential dynamism within liberal sovereignty. That dynamism, having been activated through the historical conjuncture of Haitian migration, has reconfigured the spatiality of one of modernity’s core political forms–the nation-state itself. The goal is not to identify and typologize illiberal accretions on liberal political forms (R. Smith 1997) or to reveal the centrality of empire to American republicanism (Rana 2010) but to examine how the dialectics of the liberal rule of law continue to produce new geographies into the present. In this sense, the book is not just a dissection of liberal cosmology but a revelation of a liberal cosmogony of a kind by which state forms have been partially recreated as valued entities, both aesthetic and instrumental.
[Haitian] Interdiction [operations] emerged initially as a search for spaces of flexible bureaucratic intervention unburdened by the dense layers of proceduralism iconic of law’s rule. But what accounted for this urgent turn to the relative freedom of the seas? When Haitians began arriving in South Florida in the early 1970s, they encountered what was then an embryonic asylum-processing regime that granted the INS frontline screeners and district directors nearly unreviewable discretion to dispose of Haitian claims, which were, in almost every instance, denied as being merely “economic” in nature. The litigation and political organizing that emerged out of these early cases developed into a coalition of Haitian exiles, leftist activists, mainstream religious networks, and tenacious civil rights attorneys who would, through an unprecedented process of what I call “siege litigation” (chapter 2), effectively shut down the INS’s capacity to expel Haitians from South Florida for the better part of a decade. A space-producing dynamic would soon emerge around an energetic polarity of opposing litigation camps, each focused in different ways on the dilemma of what in government circles had already by that time become known as “the Haitian problem.” This book examines the ways new geographies were fashioned in these contests and what such space-making processes can reveal about existing cosmologies of law’s rule, including their shifting aesthetic and moral geographies.
You can get a taste of Jeff’s arguments about those legal geographies in his brilliant essay, ‘Geographies of discretion and the jurisdictional imagination. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 40 (1) (2017) 5-27.
The modernist ideal of liberal constitutionalism affords jurisdiction a special place as the organizing principle behind the distribution of official state power. Nonetheless, little attention has been paid to the intricate spatial infrastructures that give jurisdiction its form. In this article, I argue that the complex architectures that undergird various jurisdictional registers combine to segment material and virtual landscapes into historically specific, multilayered geographies of discretion, dictating where, when, and to whom various institutions are permitted to speak the law. Looking to politicized litigation and advocacy over the rights of Haitian asylum seekers in the United States, I demonstrate how battles over jurisdictional cartographies can both instantiate and remake the spatiality of nation-states and the cosmologies of liberal sovereignty on which they rest.
Here’s the main Contents list for the book:
1 • The Political and the Economic
2 • Border Laboratories
3 • Contagion and the Sovereign Body
4 • Screening’s Architecture
5 • The Jurisdictional Imagination
6 • Interdiction Adrift
And, as I’ve noted before, since this comes from an American scholarly press the price of the paperback and e-book is eminently reasonable. Commercial behemoths (oh, please let them soon become mammoths) take note!