Topic #1: Asylum

There are several research-related things I'll be working on when I go to Honduras in just two weeks. They include:

  • research on Honduran asylum to the U.S., for a talk in July
  • the corporatization of crime control as it relates to health, for a chapter due late June
  • an article on maquiladoras, due early July
  • research on attitudes toward and enforcement of domestic violence laws, in relation to the first topic
  • possibly doing press for my book

I'll discuss asylum here, because I'm meeting with a particularly knowledgeable colleague tomorrow to pick his brain on the topic. I'm giving a paper at the SSSPs this summer on expert witnessing for asylum cases in the U.S. and need to bone up on the literature right quick. The proposal, which includes language I myself find...well...naive, is below. For one thing I have serious misgivings about incorporating human rights discourse into my work, and that sure doesn't come across here.

Expert-Witnessing Asylum: Human Rights Limitations in a Global Arena

In my presentation I will analyze the results of my research on Honduran asylum seekers in the United States. I argue that human rights-focused discourse and action is limited by the structural obscuring of the continuum of violence experienced by asylum seekers in both Honduras and the United States.

Since 1997, I have been researching and writing on the intertwined phenomena of globalizing neoliberal policies, state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings, gang violence, Alcoholics Anonymous, the maquiladora industry, evangelical Christianity, and U.S. military interventions in Honduras. In that country I have focused on the role of symbolic violence in the active support by many Hondurans of state policies that have had devastating results for them and their families. I have found there to be a continuum of violence linking everyday violence and extreme forms, the latter ranging from common human rights violations like torture and capital punishment to genocide.

Since writing my dissertation, I have acted many times as an expert witness in asylum cases of Honduran nationals fleeing gang and state violence linked to the Mano Dura (strong fist) approach to crime enforcement imported by Rudolph Giuliani under former president Ricardo Maduro. This pro-bono work has entailed writing numerous affidavits and giving in-person and telephone testimony in federal court. I am fascinated with the process by which the U.S. government decides who is worthy to live within its boundaries when it bears responsibility for so much of the violence that exists today in Honduras. How do they become one of us? Who is the “we” that incorporates or rejects asylum applicants? How is ethnic and national identification, tied to violent geographical and legal forms of national enclosure, institutionalized through the asylum process? How does this process affect successful asylum applicants over time? My project is a political economic analysis of multiple forms of human rights violations informed by my previous work in Honduras but, following my transmigrant interlocutors, with a shifting geographic and national focus.

My project is by necessity reflexive, as the fieldwork involves my own frequent and uncomfortable position as “expert” within the confines of a violent state structure. In my expert work I find myself being forced to engage in the reification of Honduras as a violent and dangerous place, an idea I have very consciously written against. Legal immigration discourse promotes an understanding of different types of violence (only some of which merit official consideration) as discrete. Most of the continuum of violence in Honduras, including the United States’ history of violent military and globalizing economic interventions that are directly related to the daily gang and police violence on which most asylum claims are based, is excluded from the realm of evidence. Based on partial narratives and analyses, and a multitude of apparently arbitrary (at least to this participant observer) factors, U.S. judges make life or death decisions for Honduran asylum applicants. The asylum process is experienced subjectively as an isolating and terrifying one by many individual applicants. Applicants are pressed between the various forms of violence they are fleeing and an alien and alienating structure that compels a sort of social and psychological acrobatics to render Honduran violence comprehensible and admissible in US immigration courts from the witness stand.

In my ongoing role as expert witness, I have been involved in institutional processes of ethnic identification by the state in the service of the human right of asylum. The labeling in the United States of Hondurans as repentant gang members, victims of violence, illegal, and suspect, is dehumanizing to them at the same time that it provides them access to the benefits of human rights. This violence of asylum is carried out in large part by a structure that is continually restructured through its individual actors-members of human rights NGOs, wide-eyed young law firm associates doing pro-bono work between their paying corporate cases, advocates engaged full-time in cause-lawyering, overworked and often jaded government lawyers, politically-appointed immigration court judges, “experts,” and of course the applicants themselves. From the perspective of an active participant-observer, my presentation examines the interactions of these different actors, and their long-term implications for global human rights, within a historically-situated structure of violence.

So I have to come up with something by July 1 or so, I think, when the papers are due to the person who will be responding to the presentations. Here are some initial tasks:

  • Look at Beth Povinelli's work The Cunning of Recognition- a suggestion by Katherine Franke, the brilliant and nice (rare bigshot academic quality) Gender Studies/Law DVP who came here last week. This book deals with Australian indigenous lands claims and the demands of authenticity made of applicants.
  • For that matter, any of the vast literature on anthropologists involved with BIA land claims in the U.S. The topic overlaps significantly with expert witnessing for asylum, although the former deals with populations and the latter with individuals...I suppose there are other significant differences, too.
  • Also suggested by Dr. Franke, Karen Engle's work on indigenous rights.
  • thoroughly review http://www.asylumlaw.org/ and http://www.rsdwatch.org/
  • Go over historical stuff- '51 international refugee convention, '62 revision, '69 African union convention allowing for mass asylum (vs. individual status), etc. If only I remembered everything I learned in Ron Lee's economic demography course. Despite my bitter opposition to many of the underlying assumptions, I had to admit he knew U.S. migration better than anyone.
  • Do some serious thinking about Agamben and Arendt's work on refugees- are refugees a product/mistake of human rights?
  • Read Asylum Denied
  • Read the May 2008 Anthropology News on Migration- haven't gotten to it yet because my ANs arrive in Cairo about two months late. But I can read it online
  • Dig through my CfHR listserv archives- I know there's relevant stuff in there
  • Speaking of CfHR archives, find out what Linda Rabben has done on asylum, and read "Anthropologists' Expertise Can Aid Asylum Seekers," JC Salyer, Feb 2005 AN p 32
  • Check out International Refugee Law and Socio-Economic Rights: Refuge from Deprivation by Michelle Foster (and by "check out" I mean buy; the AUC library is not the best to begin with, and now it's closing down for the whole summer while the campus moves into the desert, far from the chusma downtown)
  • Get in touch with the incredibly well-placed contacts to whom my dear friends Atessa and Karl have cyber-introduced me- I've only blown this off until now because I'm waiting until I have intelligent questions to ask. Otherwise I'll be killing a fly with an elephant gun. Fhar says I should ease up on the metaphors.
  • read various articles I've gotten off jstor

A while back I had become quite sick of doing asylum cases. Talking with a jaded colleague had exacerbated my frustration- why was I doing this time-consuming and tiring work (for free), when the $!#$ overpaid corporate law associates working for the same firms that spawned notables like Jack Abramoff and Ken Starr get pro-bono props and earn their law firms ethical brownie points to cover up the sheer evil they engage in on the clock? Why should I put in all this work when immigration law is so specialized, and these do-gooders just made a mess of the cases anyway? And why should I engage in a system whose primary objective is to reify borders I oppose? Arguments said colleague added, but I never bought, included: why should I stick my neck out for people who are probably lying anyway? or those bastards (when referring to reformed gang members) don't deserve to be protected.

Although I considered quitting, an email conversation with Hojoon set me straight again. He pointed out that associates really had little control over funds, and a number of other points that I've since forgotten but made enough of an impact to seriously embarrass me. It would behoove me to dredge up the email exchange- it's not often I feel like he morally one-ups me, but when he does, it's pretty definitive. I mean, since when has money mattered to me, after I'm fed and clothed? It was just some weird vindictive thing about wanting my "expertise" to be validated through the capitalist lexicon. And por Dios, what kind of asshole would I be to not do something that, when I think about it, doesn't actually take that much of my time and energy, and might save someone's life. How many hours, days, weeks, have Hondurans given me, and what bloody good is my book going to do them?

Some, I hope.

But in the short term it's not going to protect them from being killed, raped, tortured, or otherwise terrorized by gangs, cops, private security firms, or vigilantes (who themselves may be cops or private security guards).

So anyway, a while back I decided to throw myself into it, but to write about the process as well. And just then was about when I stopped getting emailed by Fulano de Tal, esq., who has been referred by Sutana, esq., for whom I had allegedly written a case-clinching affidavit. Dry. I mean, they had been raining down just as I got into the thick of my first semester teaching, which is why I had become exasperated. And from Cairo, no less! Wasn't there anyone in the U.S. who could be used as an "expert" on Honduras? But then once I decided to make something of it, nothing. For five whole months. But just as I was starting to do research yesterday, I was contacted about an interesting case dealing with domestic violence. So as I am thinking about my own role in the asylum process, I'll be bringing myself up to date on that topic. Luckily, several of my friends in Honduras are deeply involved in the topic, so that research will be a simple question of a few interviews and minor archival digging.

My colleague Ray Jureidini helped me think through some basics yesterday. We talked about the meaning of expert vis-a-vis professional. An expert, for sociologists anyway, is assumed to have some special knowledge, whereas the professional is someone who's credentialed and associated with the professional association (e.g., in my case AAA), abides by their code of ethics, and is free of political alliances. The final point is hogwash, of course- everyone has political alliances, unless politics is defined so narrowly as to be utterly meaningless. But as Ray pointed out to me, I should determine what is assumed by the court about my moral position. Let's say, for arguments sake, that a particular expert had nothing but contempt for the entire asylum process, and for that matter, borders themselves. Would this invalidate her testimony, just as an anti-death penalty advocate would be disallowed from serving on a jury in a death-penalty state? Given that the whole legal system in the U.S. is based on an adversarial relationship, where one side is constantly trying to catch the other in a lie, voicing such a position could undermine the expert's "professionalism" and shut her out of the process, just as so many victims of U.S. aggression around the world are denied entry to that country because the nature of their victimization does not fit the narrowly-defined limits of asylum law.

And now it's one o'clock in the morning. Did I mention I packed and moved all my belongings this morning, then taught two classes, and spent several hours advising students? I hope tomorrow's not so long. My students threatened to hogtie me today when I promised to provide them a review sheet tomorrow, or else I'd cancel the exam.