In November 1978, a group of Haitians sailed their small wooden vessel into the harbor of the US Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay. After replenishing their stores of food and water, they departed with the blessing of the base commander and continued toward the Florida Coast in search of asylum. Far from unusual, this voyage was one of many that unfolded across an open Caribbean seascape in which Guantánamo served as a waypoint in a larger odyssey of oceanic migration. By the early 1990s, these unimpeded sea routes gave way to a virtually impenetrable wall of Coast Guard cutters while Guantánamo itself transformed into the largest US-operated migrant detention center in the world.
Islands of Sovereignty is the first book to examine the history of this new maritime border and how it emerged from decades of litigation struggles over the treatment of Haitian asylum seekers in the United States. Jeffrey S. Kahn explores how a series of skirmishes in the South Florida offices of the US immigration bureaucracy became something much more—a fight for the soul of immigration policing in the United States that would eventually remake the asylum adjudication landscape on a global scale. Combining fieldwork with a wide array of historical sources, Kahn seamlessly weaves together anthropology and law in an ambitious account of liberal empire’s geographies of securitization. A novel historical ethnography of the modern legal imagination, Islands of Sovereignty offers new ways of thinking through border control in the United States and elsewhere and the political forms it continues to generate into the present.