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Suffering and the struggle for recognition : lived experiences of the U.S. political asylum process

  • Author(s): Haas, Bridget Marie
  • et al.

This dissertation is an ethnographic study of seeking political asylum in the United States. With the implementation of restrictive immigration measures, particularly following September 11, 2001, seeking asylum in the U.S. has become increasingly onerous and protracted. From an institutional standpoint, the goal of the asylum process is to discern 'deserving' migrants ('authentic' refugees) from 'undeserving' migrants ('bogus' asylum seekers, economic migrants), and the process is undergirded by a tension between humanitarian imperatives and concerns over national security and border control. Based on fifteen months of fieldwork in an urban area of the American Midwest, this dissertation explores the experiential dimensions of being embedded in this complex landscape, focusing on how contemporary configurations of power mediate self and social processes. The study uses data collected among a multi-national sample of asylum seekers, with a particular focus on asylum seekers from Cameroon. Data were also collected within institutional settings (among immigration advocates, attorneys, government officials, legal proceedings). This dissertation reveals that the asylum process evokes novel forms of suffering and modes of being-in-the-world. By lodging an asylum claim, migrants become both liminal (noncitizens whose legal status is to be determined) and (hyper)visible subjects who are 'managed' and policed via myriad techniques, ranging from barriers to employment and housing to tactics of surveillance and criminalization, including electronic ankle monitoring and detention. I argue that the asylum process entails a "paradox of visibility" : asylum seekers' (hyper)visibility is at once a promise of security and a powerful source of insecurity. A significant finding of this dissertation is that asylum seekers locate their suffering not in their traumatic pasts, but rather in the present moment - in the political asylum process itself. More specifically, I posit asylum seekers as occupying a particular temporal, subjective state of "existential limbo," in which life is understood as immobilized during the asylum process. In elaborating this existential state of being "stuck," I argue that although the institutional forces of asylum are powerful in shaping experience, they are not wholly determinate of it. Thus, this dissertation also explores how asylum seekers exercise agency and practice hope within this oppressive environment

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