Where are they now? Solidarities of Citizenship

Apr 26, 2023 | Fellows, Transformations (Issue 9), Where are they now?

Solidarities of Citizenship
Professor Jackie Stevens (Northwestern University)

My time at the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) was a rare gift, for which I will always be grateful.  I was there as part of a trio of scholars brought together by Associate Professor Olga Demetriou and  Associate Professor Elisabeth Kirtsoglou for their “Politics of Credibility” project that was just getting underway.  Sharing an office with Professor Catherine Besteman and Professor Shahram Khosravi, the two other colleagues tied to their project, was a memorable pleasure, as was reconnecting with Olga.  I’d last seen Olga in 2012, in the Cyprus buffer zone at a conference she had organized with feminist colleagues from the Turkish and Greek sides questioning their respective communities’ investments in national over civic identities.

Since then, Olga and I had co-convened a “Declaration of Citizenship”  project with artists, activists, lawyers, and scholars from a diverse range of countries, including Bahrain, Pakistan, and Cȏte d’Ivoire.  In December, Professor Engin Isin joined us for a workshop sponsored by the Durham Global Security Institute.  Professor Isin is a key member of our group and was one of several UK-based colleagues I was fortunate to encounter while in Durham.

Olga and Elisabeth are researching how European asylum officials pose difficult or impossible standards for their credibility assessments of persecution claims made by arriving refugees.  The Deportation Research Clinic, of which I am the founding director, focuses on the evidentiary standards relied on by the U.S. government when assessing claims of U.S. citizens by so-called “aliens.”     Although the policy focus of Olga and Elisabeth differs from the Clinic’s focus on citizenship claims, the underlying legal operations and techniques for discerning government misconduct have important commonalities.  The formal and informal descriptions of research being conducted by Olga and Elisabeth were alarming and illuminating.

One of many delightful surprises was the opportunity to meet Professor Nayanika Mookherjee, an IAS co-director whose research in political anthropology engages problems of political membership and much more of interest to me.  An afternoon coffee upstairs at Vennels Cafe led to a fortuitous encounter with her colleagues and graduate students slated for her next appointment and connections that sustained after the surprise discovery of overlapping interests.  I also was fortunate to be among the IAS fellows Nayanika included in her exciting conference responding to her important special issue On Irreconciliation in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Special Issue Book series.

Through our encounter at the IAS, Professor Catherine Besteman and I began several ongoing conversations, including one on race and governance.  We plan to explore our different perspectives in a co-authored book, one focused on questions of race-based reparations as well as the viability and desirability of the U.S. courts versus community justice initiatives for engaging in unlawful or anti-social behaviors on the part of elites and other predators.

Among the many encounters fruitful for my research on the wage theft being perpetrated in the United States by the GEO Corp. and other private prisons insights from Professor Benedict Douglas proved especially helpful, in particular his prediction that the litigation in the U.S. could not happen in the UK because Parliament would have been more diligent and excluded from wage protections those in custody under immigration laws.  As it turned out, Benedict was 100% correct.  In 2006, Parliament amended immigration law to “disqualify persons detained in removal centres” from wage protections, an exclusion that does not exist in the United States.  Benedict was kind enough to introduce me to his colleague Assistant Professor Natalie Sedacca.  Natalie practices and teaches employment law and over coffee at Whitechurch further illuminated the status of similar litigation against private prisons in the UK.  The insights of my colleagues prompted me to seek out information on British procurement policies more generally, the results of which will be appearing in a paper on predatory governance I am co-authoring with Lester Spence.

Back at the Clinic, part of the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, student research assistants now are reviewing thousands of pages of records on private prison contracts for material that is unlawfully redacted or withheld.  The Clinic since its 2012 founding has been engaging in an iterative project of “forensic intelligence,” a method that uses law and publicity, including scholarship, to create new realities, which in turn produce new facts and knowledge.  Our intervention in studies of private prisons exploiting the labor of those in custody, used government records obtained through litigation and legislative history of employment and immigration law. This eventually elicited novel rulings by federal courts confirming the firms violating federal and state labor laws.   After initially publicly denying that the dollar/day payments were unlawful, the federal government produced quite different statements during litigation.

Also, in its first effort to amend the law on work performed while in custody under immigration law, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee endorsed legal findings of the Clinic and passed an appropriation Act obligating payment at rates set by the Service Contract Act, a law that obligates federal contractors to pay prevailing wages and benefits at levels well above the federal minimum wage.  The section was not introduced to the House for a full vote, but the passage of this section by the full Appropriations Committee is encouraging.  The students’ current team effort in identifying unlawfully withheld material will lead to the production of information we will use in new scholarship, and, as importantly, contributes to their own skills in holding government accountable in the U.S. elsewhere.   The cultivation of citizenship as self-governance, not status based on birth, reinforces a substantive goal of the Clinic.

As an IAS fellow, I was housed in a castle built in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  At a desk that looked out over a courtyard that is a World Heritage Site, I was able to write an essay tied to a presentation at the IAS workshop.  The view, like much of the rest of my time at Durham, is happily imprinted.  And, “Solidarities of Citizenship” following peer review, will be appearing shortly in Frontiers of Political Science.


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