Banner from a rally at the California State Capitol building in the fall of 2019. Photo by Deborah Boehm.
Deborah A. Boehm was a 2013 visiting research associate at SAR and is now a professor in the Department of Anthropology and chair of the Department of Gender, Race, and Identity at the University of Nevada, Reno. She will be participating in a conversation with Jason De León and other scholars during SAR’s Beyond Borders Symposium on August 21, 2020, 10:00 a.m. MDT. We spoke about her year as a Mellon/ACLS Scholars & Society fellow and her most recent work on the US immigration detention system.
You’ve written extensively about the effects of deportation on immigrants’ lives, and now you’re studying the US immigration detention system. You spent the last year as a Mellon/ACLS Scholars & Society fellow working with the organization Freedom for Immigrants. What have you learned in the last year?
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that abolition is possible. I had the chance to work with activists on staff with Freedom for Immigrants and also in a number of partner organizations, as well as volunteers and advocates—folks on the ground—who are working around this issue of immigration detention and the movement to eliminate it. One of the most important things that I had a chance to see this year is how people are coming at this issue from different perspectives to bring about change.
Can you tell me more about what kind of work you’ve been doing with these organizations?
As an anthropologist and ethnographer, I started the research assuming I would use the same methods that I’ve used in my previous research, first with immigrant families and then looking at how deportation impacts families and communities. After interviewing people who had spent time in ICE prisons, I wanted to know more about the detention system: it was obscure, difficult to learn about. Because of the nature of prisons, so much is happening out of our view. It quickly became clear that this work was not going to be like other projects in the sense that much of what we do as anthropologists—spending time with people, building in-depth relationships—was difficult if not impossible in a prison setting. I found that I needed to study obscurity itself, that unseen spaces pose an ethnographic problem. I realized that to study these spaces in new ways and to uncover the violence and injustice happening there required a partnership. I’ve always been committed to working closely with interlocuters in my research projects, but this called for collaboration at a different level.
“ICE not welcome here” sign from an action outside the Yuba County Jail in Marysville, California, January 2020. Photo by Deborah Boehm.
How does a project like yours contribute not only to the field of anthropology but also to the work being done by these groups like Freedom for Immigrants?
There has been anthropological work about prisons, and I see my work as building on that, while also building on work about immigration control, citizenship, and state violence. I hope that my research brings together these often distinct bodies of work in anthropology. People working with community organizations don’t have the time to step back and reflect on processes in the ways that we do as researchers because they’re in the trenches. They are doing work that is urgent, and so they need to approach their work on a different timeline. I hope I was able to bring some new perspectives to that work as someone who was observing as well as participating.
Do you have any examples you could share about something that affected you or that you were able to bring to their work?
Freedom for Immigrants has a very extensive visitation network, and over the year I saw again and again just how vital visitation is. Visitation is human connection that counters the violence of prison. In detention, people are disconnected from society, from their loved ones, from friends, from family, from community members, and so one of the really powerful aspects of visitation—and that I think you are especially aware of when you’re entering those spaces for the first time or when you haven’t done it as frequently—is seeing just how important that is to individuals who are incarcerated. It can literally be a lifeline. Freedom for Immigrants stresses that visitation is not politically neutral. When you’re working in an abolitionist framework, visitation is a form of activism, it’s a way to dismantle the system, and in the meantime you’re directly supporting people who are incarcerated and following their lead as to how to abolish the system.
How are you planning to share the results of your research and do you think the form in which you share them affects your work or the work of your partners?
That’s a really great question and something I’ve been thinking a lot about. I initially proposed that I would write a book, and I still plan to do that, but I would also like to think about ways to share findings that are different from how we typically write books as academics. I want to communicate the research through public outlets and collaborative writing, in ways that I maybe haven’t focused on as much in the past. I’ve tried to do that with previous work, but I think I need to push it further, especially in this case. While the topic of this research is important academically, it’s much more important that it be debated in the public sphere. There are still more paths I can follow, and so that’s going to be a priority moving forward—finding the best ways to communicate the work.
What made you want to participate in the upcoming Beyond Borders symposium, and what effect do you think a public event like that has on people’s understandings of or action around immigration?
I’m so grateful to be part of the event and looking forward to the conversation among other scholars but also with people attending. I’m especially excited about that dimension. When I first started my research, I was thinking about these spaces as unseen, and that continues to be one of the striking characteristics of this very unjust system: people are often unaware of what’s happening in prison spaces.
“Free Them All” banner from a rally on the steps of the California State Capitol building, fall 2019. Photo by Deborah Boehm.
I hope I’m able to communicate a sense of what’s happening inside and to share how people inside think we should be moving forward as a collective. The experts are people who are experiencing detention directly, either because they are detained, they’ve been detained, or their loved ones are detained. That’s another kind of shift for researchers more generally—perhaps not as much of a shift for us as anthropologists—but we must always center the experiences of those who are directly impacted and follow their lead. More than any other research I’ve done, this project is connected to action and change, the crucial work of abolition.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.