Islands of Sovereignty

by Greg Beckett, Western University

Islands of Sovereignty: Haitian Migration and the Borders of Empire, by Jeffrey S. Kahn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).

Jeffrey Kahn’s Islands of Sovereignty is a powerful and sophisticated ethnography of the political and legal system at the heart of the United States government’s policy of interdicting Haitian refugees and migrants at sea. At one level, Kahn offers an account of the making of the US maritime border as it took shape within, and in turn came to shape, a whole political cosmology of American exceptionalism and legal liberalism. At another level, Kahn offers a history of the present, as the world made through the offshore policing of Haitian migrants is one in which we all live now.

Kahn’s argument is too complex and nuanced to summarize in this review. But the story he tells centers around the rise of the maritime interdiction policy that has shaped how US agencies police what has become an offshore border. If the Caribbean Sea has become “a laboratory of sorts in which new forms of border governance would be tested, contested, and routinized” (p. 6), then Haitians have been the key experimental subjects. At the heart of this story are two moments of invention. The first is the interdiction policies launched by the Reagan administration in 1981; the second is the greatly expanded set of practices of containment and detention that followed George H. W. Bush’s 1992 executive order that effectively suspended asylum processing for Haitians interdicted at sea. It would be easy enough to see these policies as attempts made by the US government to evade judicial review—a set of practices that aimed to get around legal restrictions by operating at the margins of the law. Yet, as Kahn notes, this explanation is too simple. As Kahn argues, the Caribbean Sea is not an empty oceanic space where the law is absent. While it is true that interdiction operates as a kind of state of exception, it is not the case that it is merely about the suspension or absence of the law. As he aptly puts it, “there is far too much law at work here for that” (p. 13).

The world Kahn describes is vast and sprawling. To guide readers through it, he uses individual chapters to track pieces of the puzzle. While there is some repetition between the chapters, it is largely unavoidable given the layers of complexity involved. Early chapters offer a historical and conceptual grounding for the argument to follow. Historically, they trace the shift from the 1960s, when most Haitians who entered the United States were political exiles fleeing the Duvalier dictatorship, to the 1980s and 1990s, when Haitians came to be labelled as ‘economic migrants.’ Conceptually, that same shift is rooted in the more general split between the political and economic dimensions of social life that has taken hold in the neoliberal era.

A key moment here was the 1980 Mariel boat launch, when 125,000 Cubans crossed to the United States in just five months. Some 20,000 Haitians followed the Mariel crossing, but while Cubans were hailed as political refugees, the Haitians who landed were decried as “gate crashers” (p. 79). From that point onward, Haitians have come to be labelled, seemingly by default, as economic migrants rather than political refugees. In the 1990s, when thousands of Haitians fled a violent coup that overthrew Haiti’s first democratically elected president, it was harder to maintain this imagined separation between migrants and refugees. In response, a new policy was born. In May 1992, George H. W. Bush issued an executive order that stopped asylum proceedings and launched a new mode of Coast Guard interdictions. During the coup years, US Coast Guard ships became “mobile migrant camps” (p. 184) and over 50,000 Haitians were brought to the newly expanded Mass Migrant Complex center at Guantánamo Naval Base, in Cuba.

In later chapters, Kahn draws on a series of key metaphors to frame his analysis, describing the Caribbean Sea and the maritime border as a “laboratory” (chapter 2), unpacking the deep logic of racism and the myth of contagion that shapes immigration law, feelings of sovereignty, and the US approach to Haiti (chapter 3), and mapping the mechanisms of containment that make up the “architecture” of interdiction and migrant screening (chapter 4). There are so many important interventions and analytic insights in these chapters that it is impossible to do them justice here. Highlights include: a novel analytic frame that parses out the overlapping but distinct planes of border space—the territorial border, the juridical border, and the policing border (chapter 2); a rich exploration of the remarkably durable “American fascination with Haitian pathology” (p. 101) that has seen Haitian migrants blamed for HIV/AIDS on numerous occasions, most recently by Donald Trump, who said that “all [Haitians] have AIDS” (p. 131); and a finely detailed analysis of the metapragmatics of law and “legal craftmanship” (p. 140). There is also an account of the logic of exception at play in the maritime border, a logic according to which Haitians are rendered subject to exclusion precisely in relation to the counterclaim of American exceptionalism that grounds the “feeling” of sovereignty and the power to exclude (p. 220).

Conceptually and methodologically, Kahn’s work is wide-ranging and his approach evinces “a disciplinary restlessness … which is the product of purposeful wanderings” (p. 19). Based on years of long-term ethnographic, historical, and legal archival research in Haiti and the United States, Islands of Sovereignty is the first volume of an ongoing project, with a planned second volume that promises to explore other aspects of this world. This points to what might be a limitation or a strength (depending on one’s view) of the book—the overall ambition and scope of the project Kahn has undertaken. Make no mistake, this is a big book, dense at times, though tightly argued. It will surely be required reading for everyone working on legal and political anthropology.