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"The Pains of Seeking Asylum: Punishment from Border Crossing to the Cold Hieleras": (by Nancy Rios-Contreras) Review 3

Published onJul 14, 2023
"The Pains of Seeking Asylum: Punishment from Border Crossing to the Cold Hieleras": (by Nancy Rios-Contreras) Review 3

Vote: publish pending major changes.

This article relied on qualitative interview data from 40 migrants who lived in Tijuana and have experienced detention. It asks: How does the implementation of US immigration law influence border crossing and migrant processing in detention centers?

I enjoyed reading this paper and appreciated the rich – and quite disturbing – portrait of the asylum process that the author paints with her interview data. She got excellent access and managed to give voice to a population whose stories most certainly deserve airtime. I also appreciated how she engaged with a wide-ranging set of recent scholarship on these issues.

Yet I think the article still needs a fair amount of work before it’s ready for publication. This is why I voted to publish this manuscript pending major changes. The changes I suggest, as outlined below, have to do mostly with clarifying the paper’s focus. I would also like to see the author focus more on her theoretical argument and less on normative claims.

With regard to clarifying the focus, I would like to see the author point toward a more specific contribution this paper makes. The literature is already rife with examples of many of these pains and hardships that migrants endure in detention and throughout the process, so I don’t think readers will likely find much novelty in many of the author's general arguments. Instead, I would encourage the author to ask: What do these data uniquely add to the conversation about asylum and detention?

Maybe, for example, there’s something particular about the Migrant Protection Protocols that can be lifted up. Personally, I found myself looking for more about MPP and its relationship to bigger theoretical questions as I made my way through the manuscript. I think the article would benefit if the author were to add a full section outlining what MPP is if she were to ground the analysis more squarely in that particular policy, and if she were to even frame the paper more explicitly as a study of the lived experience of the MPPs.

Or perhaps the contribution is more theoretical – i.e., merging two popular frameworks to provide a fresh angle through which we can understand these hardships or this particular policy. Here, too, I was expecting more engagement with the pains of imprisonment and legal violence; after reading the paper, I was still uncertain about what this paper adds to those frameworks. (A combination of those two suggestions can also work – e.g., “This paper uses the voices of those who experienced MPP to build on these existing frameworks.”)

Also, on the point of adding focus, the author made a lot of minor points throughout the analysis that, while interesting, seemed to pull away from some of the bigger points of emphasis. I’m thinking in particular about the discussion of Latinx detention guards and the differences in treatment between California and Texas, but there are others. This is a common issue in larger projects (especially qualitative ones) where many interesting issues arise. But I would encourage the author to try to be more choosey. Only include that which supports this paper's particular argument, and save the other material for future articles (or a book).

Speaking more practically, I think the author can sharpen her focus by specifying it earlier in the paper (I noted that the introduction seemed to walk too slowly toward the statement specifying the paper’s main focus), by engaging with the literature more selectively (the last paragraph of the literature review noting the study’s focus felt separate from the prior paragraphs), and by being more intentional about which themes to focus on in the analysis section (I couldn’t tell if the headings were an inventory of the ‘pains of seeking asylum’ – and if they were, it wasn’t clear how the differences in that inventory depart from or build on Sykes / Longazel, Berman, and Fleury-Steiner).

Finally, with regard to my point about including fewer normative arguments: The paper has a lot of ‘should’ statements (e.g., p. 11 “not supposed to function”; p. 11 “should not be punishment-based”; p. 16 “should not be processed”) and a few similar value-laden statements (e.g., “This is appalling, but in a United States context… it is no surprise that guns are being used to manipulate migrants at the border”). This is admittedly tricky because there are so many gross moral and legal violations in this setting. And I should say I agree with just about all of these assertions. But I think the author can establish a more authoritative voice by adhering to the writer’s doctrine of ‘show, don’t tell.’ Especially here, where most of this paper’s readers will likely be simpatico. They won’t need much convincing that this is wrong, but I think they’ll appreciate a fresh way of seeing and understanding these ugly realities.

And just one more small thing: the methods section felt choppy to me. Perhaps it’d be better to merge it all into one section? Also, we get a demographic breakdown of the full sample from the larger project but not a breakdown of the sample (n=40) used in this paper. Giving us a better sense of who those 40 people are at this juncture will help us envision them while reading about their experiences in subsequent sections.

Again, kudos to the author for conducting this important project and assembling this promising manuscript. I hope my comments are helpful.

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