Refuge, Recognition, and Resistance

Editorial Introduction


By Jennifer Curtis

In response to the Trump administration’s Executive Order 13769, barring U.S. entry to citizens of seven countries as well as legally recognized refugees, PoLAR and APLA commissioned a series of responses from scholars working on the politics and law of borders and migration. This installment features work by Sébastien Bachelet, Susan Bibler Coutin, Jennifer Curtis, Nisrin Elamin, and Shahram Khosravi. In the next week, additional contributions will follow including pieces by Nikolas Kosmatopoulos, Sara Shneiderman and Sharika Thiranagama, among others. Visit our series page to access posts as they are published, and links to PoLAR content and scholarly articles by contributors.

No Ban, No Wall.” Williamsport, Pennsylvania (January 29, 2017) — More than 100 people rallied outside of the Herman T. Schneebeli Federal Office Building to protest against Trump’s actions targeting immigrants and Muslims. By Paul Weaver. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

In the past few weeks, my mother has taken to texting me on Fridays: “The time is now a quarter to Shabbat. Brace yourself.” Her semi-joking message references the “Shabbat theory” of the Trump administration, which holds that its most shocking actions, like Executive Order 13769, are unveiled when his daughter and son-in-law observe Shabbat and retreat from electronic devices. The theory implies that Trump’s family acts as an important check on the administration.

Whether or not Trump’s family wield real influence over administrative actions, my mother’s texts remind me of another important point: this administration has indeed brought some families and communities closer together… perhaps cowering in fear, but still, together.

I must admit it is nice to have a standing date to watch Samantha Bee’s weekly show with my mom. I like going to protest marches with my family. And this pulling together is happening on a much larger scale than individual families. In this web series, Heath Cabot and I asked scholars to respond to the order, and many colleagues readily volunteered. This is notable in and of itself, because for most academics, time is a precious resource, and writing for a website is an additional task, perhaps thankless, on top of considerable teaching, research, and administrative responsibilities.

As we worked on the series, we found ourselves thinking of and reaching out to people we know, and then thinking of and reaching to people we had never met. As Anthony Good notes, in the usually stealthy implementation of immigration policy, the public does not see immediate, wide-scale effects. Instead, we usually notice effects in isolated drips and drabs, as individuals we know are affected here and there. In ordinary circumstances, causality is obscured, effects are dispersed, and mass mobilization is elusive. As several authors point out in this series, many thousands more refugees remain invisible to us. Nevertheless, the executive order has set in motion processes of recognition and resistance that can move us from the mechanics of law and judicial institutions to the politics of empathy and mass mobilization. Just as Trump speaks at us to make the world he envisions, many of us are more consciously speaking with one another to change the world in which we live.

Japanese American internees in mess hall line at Tanforan Assembly Center San Bruno, CA on April 29, 1942. By Dorothea Lange. U.S. Government Works.

Many are hopeful that the judiciary will assert a check on executive power. On February 4th, Judge James L. Robart stayed many provisions of the order until courts can assess its legality, in response to complaints by the states of Washington and Minnesota. On February 9th, the 9th circuit court of appeals unanimously upheld that stay. However, to achieve its goals, the Trump administration need not request an en banc hearing of the 9th circuit or appeal the stay to the Supreme Court. They could just as easily withdraw the order and rewrite it in a way that conforms more clearly with the law.

U.S. history provides many cautionary tales that the judiciary is not a savior. In 1944, in Korematsu v. United States (1944), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Japanese internment. In its 1896 judgment, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court ratified the doctrine of separate but equal, authorizing subsequent decades of state-mandated racial segregation. History shows us that injustice is not always combated in courtrooms, and reminds us that our own actions and orientations to one another are a significant part of these struggles.

When the executive order was implemented on January 28th, mass protests converged on airports across the U.S. Journalist Jamelle Bouie compared this response to the massive resistance many northerners mounted to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Although the act was intended to strengthen the legal compulsion for northerners to return escaped former slaves to the south, it became pivotal in creating a more radical and widespread abolitionist movement. In 1854, Anthony Burns escaped from enslavement by Charles Suttle of Alexandria, Virginia, and found sanctuary in Boston. Suttle travelled to Boston to reclaim his “property” with the Fugitive Slave Act on his side. Burns was arrested for robbery, and imprisoned in the federal courthouse. Black and white abolitionists met to decide how to help Burns, and ultimately stormed the courthouse. Although Bostonians had successfully liberated re-captured slaves in the past, this time they failed. Burns was convicted of being a fugitive slave, and reportedly 50,000 Bostonians watched as he was led, shackled, to a ship bound for the south. Less than a year later, a black church purchased Burns’ freedom and he returned to Boston.

Fugitive Slaves Recaptured: 1850.” This illustration was originally designed to portray the effects of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Originally published by Hoff & Bloede, 1850. By Washington Area Spark. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Of course, after Burns was freed, millions of human beings remained enslaved. But the continuation of slavery does not negate the importance of those Bostonians’ witness and resistance. Bouie is correct that the Fugitive Slave Act galvanized an abolition movement that eventually prevailed, although the racist legacy of chattel slavery continues to profoundly shape the present. The unintended consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act are instructive today: in the current political moment, it reminds us that responses to these executive orders have the potential to galvanize new mass movements for justice, even as white nationalism resurges across Europe and North America—and millions of displaced people seek refuge around the world.

In this part of the series, the authors ask us to consider the people whose lives are at stake in immigration policy, and our relation to them. Susan Coutin and Sébastien Bachelet interrogate the figure of “illegal immigrant” promulgated in the executive orders and nationalist discourse. Nisrin Elamin and Shahram Khosravi ask us to reckon with the subjective experiences of travelers and refugees, people affected by these orders and by broader racialized regimes.

There are many varieties of political actions beyond courts, from mass protests to voting. We also have the capacity to reach out to others in even the most banal situations. For my part, the simple act of helping plan my son’s classroom holiday party became one of those small but meaningful gestures of solidarity in the aftermath of the presidential election. Rather than the usual “not-Christmas” party, one of the Muslim mothers and I organized an inclusive celebration of light/gift-giving holidays—Eid, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year and so on. Children of color constitute one-third of the class, and many were anxious after the election. It is certainly possible that a few of the parents who supported Trump were unimpressed by our efforts. Although the gesture seemed small and insignificant, the delight of my party planning partner and the joy of one child over a diya-shaped cookie were potent reminders that recognition and coalition are everyday commitments.

Diwali oil lamps lit during the Diwali, festival of lights on Lakshmi Puja day in Darjeeling. By Benoy. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Recently, psychologist Paul Bloom (2016) has made a contrarian case against empathy, appealing to rationality as the basis for compassion. Although this argument has faced critique within his discipline, as anthropologists we can and should resist a distinction between thought and feeling (Rosaldo 1984). Indeed, the pieces in this series compel us to remember that although law is a tool in the struggle for justice, to move beyond defensive politics, we must come together with others. Bitter politics of migration began long before the current moment, and no single action will remedy them. But I hope that mass responses to these executive orders continue as movements to oppose discriminatory law and policy, and that when immigration policy returns to a stealthy status quo, the people we have finally recognized and tenuously reached toward remain visible in our hearts and our politics.

JenniferCurtis2Jennifer Curtis is Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and a board member of the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology. She is the author of Human Rights As War By Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Her work focuses on grassroots social movements to alter rights politics and law. She is currently completing an ethnographic monograph on race, sexuality, and rights advocacy in red state America, based on fieldwork in Missouri. 

Works Cited

Bloom, Paul. 2016. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. New York: Ecco.

Rosaldo, Michelle Zimbalist. 1984. “Toward an Anthropology of Self and Feeling.” In R. Shweder and R. LeVine (eds.) Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion. Pp. 137-157. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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