Society for the Anthropology of North America
Abstract: This roundtable has two purposes. The first is to provide a forum to share information and the experiences of anthropologists who provide expert witness in asylum cases with colleagues who may be interested in becoming expert witnesses themselves. Acting as an expert witness requires some understanding of the “ethnography” of U.S. immigration courts and asylum hearings, how to prepare an expert declaration, how to work with legal counsel—issues that can be addressed in this roundtable. Given the changing landscape of expert witnessing in asylum, criminal or youth courts, this panel furthers the conversation on the application of anthropological expertise. Providing expert witness is all about engaging with change, including changing conditions in both the home countries of asylum seekers and in the laws, policies, and social and political attitudes of the United States and other host countries. Anthropologists also have access to an increasing and changing body of theory, concepts, methods, and ethnographic studies to assist the expert witness in preparing an effective testimony. The second purpose is to offer a forum for assessing the current state of expert witnessing in asylum cases in a context of increasing conflict and political struggle around immigration and asylum in the United States and elsewhere. Expert witnessing in immigration justice systems raises practical and ethical questions that deserve continual re-examination. There are questions about the nature and limits of the relationship and role of the expert witness in the asylum process in relation to the asylum seeker, the legal counsel, and the immigration judge. Beyond these concerns are larger questions that some have raised in recent years. What is the future of expert witnessing? Will it be more in demand and more useful or will it be open to increasing criticism and less in demand as political and practical pressures on an overloaded immigration system tempt courts to eliminate or scale back the use of expert witnesses? Or the larger concern expressed by some who ask if providing expert witness merely supports an unjust immigration system that needs radical “decolonization” at both ends of the asylum seeker’s journey? But this concern comes up against the impelling knowledge that providing expert witness can (might possibly) contribute significantly to saving the life of an asylum seeker. Providing expert witness in asylum cases fully engages the struggles for survival and a decent life for asylum seekers, as well as the perennial struggle of anthropology to remain relevant in a changing world. It also engages an important form of collaboration with dedicated colleagues who provide legal counsel to asylum seekers and a collaboration with others in the home and host country to understand the conditions to be addressed. It is a contribution to justice in a literal, legal sense, and in a larger ethical sense by trying to assist those who are vulnerable due, in some cases at least, to the history and policies of involvement of the expert’s own country in the affairs of the asylum seeker’s home country.