Migration and Morality: Jeffrey S. Kahn

By Tanzeen R. Doha – Jeffrey S. Kahn is an assistant professor of anthropology at UC Davis and a legal scholar interested in migration, mobility, and border policing. His research focuses on Haiti, the Guantánamo Naval Base, the United States, and the Republic of Bénin. Here, Kahn, who earned his PhD at the University of Chicago and his JD at Yale Law School, and who served as an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, talks to ISS about how he is shaping these interests into two forthcoming books.
Migration and Morality: Jeffrey S. Kahn

Jeffrey S. Kahn

Can you please tell us a bit more about your research on the history of Guantánamo? How do you think about the pre-history of Guantánamo? How do you think the earlier history of Guantánamo affects its contemporary history within the structure of the War on Terror?

Well, one could say that there are at least two faces of Guantánamo. First, there’s the Guantánamo that remains quite alive in the public imagination today. I’m speaking of Guantánamo as the most visible remnant of the globe-spanning carceral archipelago that took shape in the wake of 9/11. For many, the continued use of the facility as a detention site in the so-called war on terror is a reminder of a lapse in American constitutional and moral values that needs to be rectified through the closure of the base—something President Obama vowed to do during his first term in office.

As we’ve seen in this election cycle, however, there are others who view Guantánamo not as a stain on the reputation of the United States but as an instance of necessary, hard-nosed realism in counter-terrorism policy, a willingness to turn to “the dark side,” to quote former Vice President Dick Cheney, lacking in our current leadership. For reasons having more to do with political theater than substantive disagreement, the end of that story has yet to be written.

The second face of Guantánamo is that of migrant detention center. Since the early 1990s, the base has been used to hold Haitian, Cuban, and other asylum seekers intercepted at sea by U.S. Coast Guard vessels. In this guise, Guantánamo emerged less as a momentous policy shift and more as an incremental elaboration of an offshore migration-policing framework that has existed since the early 1980s when the Reagan administration began intercepting Haitian boat migrants at sea.

The continued use of [Guantánamo] as a detention site in the so-called war on terror is a reminder of a lapse in American constitutional and moral values.


Dubbed “Haitian Migrant Interdiction Operations” during its initial years, that program was explicitly crafted to shield immigration officials from lawsuits challenging the near blanket denials of Haitian asylum claims during that time. It was, in essence, a bit of jurisdictional arbitrage designed to take advantage of the flexibility offered by moving South Florida’s border protection regime out into international waters and beyond the reach of U.S. courts.

Certainly, the legal battles over the detention of Haitian asylum seekers at Guantánamo provided a template for later assertions by the Department of Justice that the base was in many ways a legal black hole insofar as post-9/11 detainee rights were concerned. This is well-documented. More interesting for me, however, are what I see as deeper shifts in the ways the very spatiality of the American nation-state was reimagined as part of the extension of migration policing out into the Caribbean in the early 1980s, a transformation that involved Guantánamo as a key institutional site.

My forthcoming book draws on my training as an ethnographer, historical anthropologist, and legal scholar to reveal the complex forces that produced this exceptional jurisdictional landscape, which, it is worth noting, has since been exported in various forms to the Mediterranean and, with chilling effect, the Pacific as part of Australia’s efforts to fortify its own maritime boundaries against migration by sea.

Yes, this “spatiality of the American nation-state” seems significant not only as an institutional site, but also for a particular political-geography (exceeding a conventional notion of the nation-state), which seems to have a political-economic basis. How do you think about this structural relation between spatiality, political-geography, and political-economy?

Certainly there is nothing new in recognizing the transnational dimensions of global capital, nor is there anything new in grappling with the ways in which state bureaucracies have exceeded the territorial bounds of national metropoles. The history of American empire has long been about thorny jurisdictional questions concerning the definition of insides and outsides far more ambiguous than the classic image of sovereign borders would suggest. Disputes over whether the writ of habeas corpus should run to Guantánamo, itself a peculiar remnant of this imperial past, illustrate how these questions continue to haunt us in the present.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing novel about the specific spatial techniques that emerged with migrant interdiction. In fact, one of the most haitian boat on the oceaninteresting aspects of the research for the first book was the opportunity to examine how an aesthetics of state form has shifted in the past several decades and how the rise of maritime migrant interdiction presaged that shift in important ways.

When I speak of an aesthetics of state form, I’m referring to the idea that the nation-state is imagined as an entity with a particular shape to it. Typically, that spatial vision includes a territorial entity encased in borders within which some type of government—usually some version of liberal democracy—is able to function free from outside interference. But there are important nuances and variations to how that form can be envisioned and valued even within the liberal model.

Take, for instance, the post-9/11 discourse of “homeland security,” which evokes in many ways a sort of quaint domesticity of home and hearth while also suggesting its vulnerability. At the same time, however, this focus on the insulated core of the homeland has been accompanied by an emphasis on “layered defense” and “defense-in-depth” within military discourse, both of which have been tied to extraterritorial forms of oceanic policing. The extension of immigration borders out into the Northern Caribbean during the early 1980s served as an incremental move towards the current turn to maintaining sea-based frontiers thousands of miles from firm land. As these relations between national space and offshore power are remade so is our sense of the ideal shape of the nation-state itself.

As to your question about how to figure the spatial dimensions of the political and the economic in this instance, I can say that one would be hard-pressed to ignore that the emergence of the flexible maritime policing arrangements that accompanied this aesthetic transformation occurred amidst a post-Fordist reconfiguration of global capital. Unpacking that connection would, however, require a longer conversation.

Can you tell us about your current research?

My first book is in many ways an account of the historical evolution of a particular architecture of American sovereign power. Although it focuses on Haitian migration and transnational social movements, it is largely a view from the United States. In my second book, I pivot from legal technicalities, litigation battles, and Coast Guard surveillance routines to the experiences and practices of Haitians who have been navigating these offshore U.S. border zones for decades. The two volumes have been imagined as a related pair from the start, although each stands alone.

The research for the second book has involved extensive fieldwork with Haitian boat migrants and smugglers in coastal communities throughout Haiti, many of whom were held in the migrant camps at Guantánamo during the 1990s. I imagine the second book as an opportunity to explore the ritual economies, cosmologies of mobility and wealth, and actual passageways of circulation through which Haitians have crafted their own vision of the northern Caribbean in the shadow of American projects of containment and securitization.

It's curious how you bring together ethnographic work and legal scholarship. Can you tell us a little bit more about this in terms of methodology?

Well, I’d say it’s less about bringing ethnographic work and legal scholarship together than it is about opening domains of legal knowledge to ethnographic inquiry. I knew when I embarked on this project that I wanted to examine the technical dimensions of legal world-making—in this instance, how law works to shape experiential landscapes of violent power.

With that in mind, I integrated formal legal training into my research by bookending my time pursuing a JD at Yale with two, more traditional, periods Large vessel with many peopleof fieldwork in Haiti and the United States—not to mention archival work in various collections, and, eventually, a clerkship for a federal appellate Judge. I also was careful to devote myself as much as possible to the practice-based dimensions of law school, representing clients in immigration and federal courts under the supervision of clinical faculty. This ended up providing me with invaluable insights I’m not sure I could have acquired through other modes of research.

Moving back and forth between anthropological fieldwork and law was deeply challenging but also deeply productive. The goal was to cultivate a sophisticated sense of how the legal artifacts I would be examining were produced and deployed by producing and deploying them myself as a participant observer. In many ways, this methodological choice was not all that different from those made by science and technology studies scholars interested in laboratory practice, except in this instance, my aim was not to write an ethnography of legal education or contemporary impact litigation strategies but rather to use my immersion in these spheres of practice to better understand the technical aspects of specific, prior legal battles, learning, in some instances, from the very attorneys who had participated in those conflicts earlier in their careers.

While this process required perhaps disproportionate attention to, for example, the esoterica of administrative law or questions of federal jurisdiction, I was always able to temper this specialization by remaining grounded, research-wise, in communities outside of the legal profession, whether they were networks of repatriated migrants in Haiti or groups of former Guantánamo detainees in Brooklyn.

My second book delves deeper into the experiences of these Haitians than the first, charting a different set of entangled political, ritual, and moral geographies. In many ways, the second book is more attuned to my own ethnographic tastes: eclectic but related ethnographic topics like the invisible economies of Haitian lottery magic, the dynamics of political protest in an HIV quarantine facility at Guantánamo Bay, and the craft of wooden boat-making all make an appearance.

I’ve already had the opportunity to start exploring these questions with students here in my Anthropology of Migration, Anthropology of Religion, and Anthropology of Ocean Worlds courses. I look forward to continuing to work on this second book project while in the company of my wonderful colleagues here at Davis.

Learn more about Jeffrey S. Kahn at his UC Davis faculty webpage.