Centre for Research in Communication and Culture


5 November 2021

Networked power and arbitrariness in the U.S. asylum system

Presented By Professor Caroline Nagel for the CRCC Seminar Series

About this event

Until recently, asylum has had little political salience in the U.S., reflecting deliberate policies by the U.S. government to insulate itself from its global wars. This situation, however, has changed as asylum cases have surged, outstripping for the first time in decades the number of refugee resettlement cases.   This talk examines both the political discourse surrounding asylum and the actual bureaucratic and the legalistic workings of the asylum system, and it considers what this system can tell us more broadly about the ‘migration state’.  My analysis brings into focus how bureaucratic priorities, rules, and practices relating to asylum have shifted constantly, even as the letter of the law (specifically, the 1980 Refugee Act) has remained virtually unchanged. I give special attention to the flurry of policy ‘guidance’ and executive orders through which the Trump Administration sought to restrict the right to request asylum.  Some, but not all, of these Trump-era policies have been rolled back and are being challenged by the current administration. In the meantime, a variety of state and non-state actors—border patrol and customs officials, immigration judges, immigration advocates, and lawyers, among others—are responsible for making sense of policy changes. In this context, the success of individual asylum claimants hinges almost entirely on how ‘street-level’ actors interpret new rules and assess the merit of claimants, and asylum approval rates across court districts varies widely. This case requires us to disaggregate the migration state, and to think about state power as networked rather than centered.  While the distribution of power through the network provides asylum seekers and their advocates with spaces for maneuver, it also produces an arbitrariness that works simultaneously to mobilize and immobilize non-citizens.

Caroline Nagel is Professor of Geography at the University of South Carolina.  She received her B.A. in Political Science and Latin American Studies from the University of California Berkeley, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Colorado, Boulder.  Prior to her arrival at UofSC, Caroline was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Kentucky and a lecturer in Geography at Loughborough University (United Kingdom). Caroline is Associate Editor of Political GeographyCaroline is a broadly trained human geographer whose interests lie at the intersection of urban, cultural, and political geography. As a migration specialist, Caroline has long been interested in the politics of identity, integration, and citizenship in immigrant-receiving contexts. Her work on British Arab and Arab American activists (with Lynn Staeheli) and on Christian outreach to immigrants in the U.S. South (with Patricia Ehrkamp) has explored themes of transnationalism, ethnic formation, multicultural discourse, immigrant activism, and religious identity. Underlying all of her work on migration is a concern with the everyday, place-based production and negotiation of social membership and belonging. Her years of teaching and research on immigration are reflected in her 2016 book, co-authored with Liz Mavroudi, entitled Global Migration: Patterns, Processes, and Politics (Routledge). Caroline also has an interest in Lebanon that stems from her work on Arab immigrants. Having visited Lebanon shortly after the country’s civil war, Caroline returned as a Fulbright scholar in 2010-11 and was based at the American University of Beirut. Her work on Lebanon has focused on the redevelopment of Beirut and the role of NGOs in producing new citizenship discourses in a fragmented political landscape. Caroline’s current research explores the political subjectivities of young Christians who participate in short-term overseas missions. This research asks how young people come to understand themselves as being in community with, and as having obligations to, faraway people and places. It also examines the tensions and overlaps between ideas of Christian mission and more secular conceptions of ‘global citizenship’ and humanitarianism.

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