The Sea Is Not Anonymous: On Jeffrey S. Kahn’s “Islands of Sovereignty: Haitian Migration and the Borders of Empire”

By Allison CoffeltMay 14, 2019

The Sea Is Not Anonymous: On Jeffrey S. Kahn’s “Islands of Sovereignty: Haitian Migration and the Borders of Empire”

Islands of Sovereignty by Jeffrey S. Kahn

THE PHYSICAL PRESENCE of a map can stand, at times, in direct contrast to the reality of borders. Lines are fixed on paper, maybe even framed and hung — boundaries appear secure and permanent.

Reality is more mobile. Borders are in constant negotiation: rivers swell and shrink, cultures run together, belonging is tangled, and invasions are part of our 21st-century landscape.

In these contemporary times, the word “border” calls to my mind the crisis of family separation in the United States, or the fleeing of migrants across Europe, or the exodus from Venezuela. When I hear of migrants arriving to the United States by sea, I think of boats on blue, rocky waters and dangerous passages — I do not think often enough of US Coast Guard cutters interrupting vessels or the tent camps at the Guantanamo Naval Base.

In his book Islands of Sovereignty: Haitian Migration and the Borders of Empire, the first of a two-volume project, legal scholar and sociocultural anthropologist Jeffrey S. Kahn explores the construction of the US maritime border south of Florida. “This was a border forged in law,” he writes,

not in the sense of an object erected on the intercalation of legal texts and built environments, though it was that, but in the sense that it was produced dynamically in the agonistic struggle of legal interpretation and legal violence both in the courts and in their shadow. I can think of no other US border quite like it.

As an anthropologist with a law degree, Kahn wrote his first book after nearly two decades of inquiry, pulling from community work, field research, and training from Yale Law School and the University of Chicago. Islands of Sovereignty focuses its gaze in six parts, ranging from how migrants are defined to medical rhetoric to interdiction. Much of this book is highly specific to legal and anthropological scholarship, though a few sections are more accessible to a wider audience interested in the subjects. Its precisely reported history is reminiscent of Peter Hallward’s Damming The Flood, though Kahn’s focus is border creation, and especially migration in the 1970s, while Hallward writes about political administrations and the coups that unseated Aristide.

Islands of Sovereignty aims to be, and is, what I might call a researcher’s research insomuch as it is fertile ground for those in the field and it is the kind of research in which others, who write for a more general audience, might root their work. Kahn’s book makes its contributions through careful detailing of specific events, legal cases, and policies, all while situating the US-Haiti maritime border within the larger narratives of 20th-century history.

One of Kahn’s primary concerns is the way the spatial imagination and transformation of the last half-decade has been informed by legal proceedings over the definition of the border. For example, the distinction between “political migrant” and “economic migrant” is significant when determining whether or not the US government categorizes the claim as necessary and legitimate. If Haitians were categorized as responding to “economic push factors” (rather than “political persecution”), their asylum claims were more easily dismissed.

In an unwelcoming system, this classification becomes a crucial tool. In one poignant example, Kahn raises the case of William Joseph, who applied for asylum in 1973 and was denied under the standard INS explanation he was not facing political persecution. He was labeled as an economic refugee. But his detailed statement explains that the US-supported government of Duvalier had sent the para-police force (Tonton Macoutes) to kill him because of his support for the previous government and his protest of the dictatorship. In the time since he fled, the rest of Joseph’s immediate family had gone into hiding.

Joseph and migrants like him certainly stood to gain economically by seeking US employment, but it was often not the primary driver of their voyage. Checking the economic box rather than the political, however, made for an easier rejection.

As Kahn writes, distinguishing between political and economic immigration “runs deeper […] it is a quintessentially modern divide, evinced in the very notion of economy and society, as opposed to economy in society” (author emphasis). Political versus economic was a bifurcation stemming from Cold War ideology. The category of “political” would extend to Cubans on a raft or a Lithuanian defector, but not Haitians because Haiti showed an “openness to ‘free’ markets and foreign capital, so long as the ruling clique received its cut of the proceeds.”

This is a strength of Islands of Sovereignty: again and again, the author reminds us of the frameworks through which these policies emerged. The book provides an opportunity to see the concrete ways cultural and legal ideas affected the Haiti-US border and migration of people from Haiti.

In one of the most engaging chapters, Kahn unpacks the rhetoric of disease and contagion. This section takes a wider, broader look, from near the turn of the 20th century, including the US invasion and occupation of Haiti (1914–1934), to the policy in the latter part of the century. The use of US-run Service d’Hygiène inspectors as a kind of police force was one of the contributing factors to a culture of medical surveillance that would become essential in the fear-driven, punitive policies around HIV and AIDS. “This interplay of contagion, chronotopic thinking, and medicalized border controls was long in the making by the time the first Haitian sloops began departing for South Florida in the 1970s,” he writes.

I only wish Islands of Sovereignty had included more in this compelling section, as I would have liked further rhetorical analysis of public health and more examples of when medical language informed legal understanding of borders. Though this is not, I suppose, the scope of Kahn’s work — his heaviest lifting comes one section later with his admitted “painstaking attention to the technical dimensions of law to an extent that may, at times, border on excruciating for those not initiated into the world of legal draftsmanship.” Indeed, the reason I, a non-legal scholar, find the contagion segment of the book compelling is because it points to the ways that “bodily idioms” reveal our perception on whether sovereign nations are contained or porous, “smooth” or “ulcerated,” and this “pathologized geography” influences the way the United States regulates space by sea or on land.

Kahn’s writing is strongest and clearest when he zooms in on singular moments, like William Joseph, or describes the script of a film written for the US Coast Guard, which features their policing of Haitian migrants.

Make no mistake: Islands of Sovereignty is a thoroughly academic work with dense and meticulous legal prose and far-reaching relevance. In his section “The Jurisdictional Imagination,” Kahn connects the colonial worldview of Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams with present-day neocolonial maritime policing and border ideation. These presidents, among many others, viewed the islands south of Florida, including Cuba, as inevitably belonging to the United States.

Kahn writes, in characteristic prose:

The reaction to the Haitian threat in its various imagined forms (economic, biomedical, cultural) was more than a mechanical insertion of new practices into existing juridico-spatial models. The creation of the maritime border and migrant detention reshaped older practices, institutions, and legal scaffolding, remaking them and the contours of the nation-state itself.

This focus on how we define ourselves by how we define our borders is thrown into sharp relief in one of the images near the end of Islands of Sovereignty: Kahn includes a map with Haiti in the lower righthand quadrant, Cuba in the middle left, and the Florida Keys peeking out at the top of the frame. Areas S1, S2, and S3 are dotted shapes, drawn over water, and situated between Haiti and Cuba. They dominate the image, for good reason. Areas S1, S2, and S3 were the US Coast Guard patrols in the spring of 1992, intercepting and preventing migrant crossings from Haiti. The sea is not anonymous, not a monolith. It is border-making and sovereign-defining. It is just as linear as the green and brown parts, and the borders are perpetually being redefined.


Allison Coffelt is the author of Maps Are Lines We Draw: A Road Trip through Haiti. She lives in Columbia, Missouri, where she works for the True/False Film Fest.

LARB Contributor

Allison Coffelt is the author of Maps Are Lines We Draw: A Road Trip through Haiti. A review of her books can be found here. Her writing has appeared in Hippocampus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Columbia, Missouri, where she works for the True/False Film Fest.


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