Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
In moments when political-legal systems change much faster than the speed of ethnography, one can still observe stubbornly rigid frameworks operating through participants. The system of political asylum and its accordant refugee service sector are sites of constant technocratic manipulation and yet which are highly dependent upon social understandings that reflect much more durable images of its diverse participants. Drawing on 15 months of ethnographic research, this paper situates the field of US refugee service as both a vital site of interaction in a world of unprecedented displacement and also a space of orientalist knowledge. The knowledge can be seen in domains of religion, language and ethnicity, but here I explore the wide ranging effects of orientalist gender frameworks. These concepts operate through NGO caregiver-client relationships, mirroring in key ways tropes of colonizer and colonized. The imaginarium of dangerous or backward Muslim masculinities bars male refugees from cooperation with hyper-vulnerable feminine subjects, for instance, as an emergent biopolitics governs the incorporation of transnational actors within US American social spaces. In key acts of governmentality, refugees are infantilized, reeducated from patriarchal ideologies, and compelled to adopt chaste moral sexualities. The high stakes nature of political asylum, coupled with its dependent form of precarity, urges migrants to agentically wield and confirm these identities in the service of the greater goals of survival, family reunification, and often, a partial reconstruction of home life.