Center for Race and Gender Thursday Forum Series

Lynch Law, Migration Control, & the Regulation of Racial Meaning

October 20, 2016

Ida Wells and the Rules of Law
Kavitha Iyengar, Jurisprudence and Social Policy

This project details the ways in which Ida Wells-Barnett operated as a legal thinker in the face of violence and brutality. Reading newspapers as documents that trace legal relationships by circulating legal language, the project builds on antebellum legal historians’ work on the modalities of legal rule (Christopher Tomlins) and the “peace” (Laura Edwards) in order to make claims about what appeals to peace, order, and the rule of law on the pages of newspapers do. Taking ‘law’ as a call for justice, Ida Wells responded to the lynching of her friend and community in the courts of public opinion. Reading Wells’ counter trial in the black press next to white press discourse that called for lynching, violence, and a different kind of order draws Laura Edwards’ work on the antebellum South into an entirely different arena and register. It highlights the competition for legal meaning that Ida Wells appealed to.

Drawing from Ida Wells’ newspaper articles, archival evidence of her publisher and readership, and a literature on the construction of race and gender that surrounded lynching, Wells offers insight into the ways in which the conceptual rule of lynch law, what Wells calls an ‘unwritten law’ was in fact litigated on the pages of newspapers (if we are to take Wells’ claims seriously). Her project also invites us to consider the institutional role that newspapers played in the racial terrorism of post-Reconstruction America. The publication and circulation of black guilt and death by both the black and white press offers a horrific example of a competition to create legal meaning in the face of terrorism. This paper examines Ida Wells’ writing as a response to the institutional and conceptual infrastructure of the rule of lynch law. It argues that Wells’ work made her an important legal actor.

Race, Discretion, and Summary Deportation at the US-Mexico Border: An Examination of Voluntary Return, Past and Present
Mina Barahimi, Jurisprudence and Social Policy

In recent years, an emerging strand in the legal scholarship has problematized the growing use of “speed deportations” (Wadhia 2014), a term used to describe a number of programs that replace the role of judges with administrative immigration officers, enabling them to issue deportation orders at their own discretion and without the procedural due process protections that are normally attendant with being subject to deportation by a judge. Although streamlined expulsion procedures have only recently received critical interest from scholars, they have arguably constituted an important part of the U.S. deportation regime since the early 20th century in the form of a practice known as administrative voluntary departure (“voluntary return”). Unlike the programs described above, voluntary return is not legally constructed as “deportation.” Instead it is viewed by the government as a beneficent alternative to deportation that an officer can, in his discretion, offer an undocumented immigrant so he can depart the country “voluntarily” without a hearing before an immigration judge and thereby ostensibly avoid the stigma and consequences of being formally deported. It has therefore been treated by scholars as a liminal deportation category and has largely escaped critical examination. Nevertheless, historically the vast majority of persons who have departed the country as a result of state action have done so via voluntary return—not deportation—and most have been Mexican nationals in the southwest expelled by Border Patrol officers. In this presentation, I argue that voluntary return constitutes a major and largely hidden regime of state control against Mexican immigrants in the border region. I first provide a secondary historical analysis of US immigration law enforcement through the lens of voluntary return, showing the practice as a central part of the broader regime of discretionary administrative policing that has helped construct Mexican immigrants as transient, temporary, and ultimately unsuitable for membership in the U.S. polity. I then present some findings from a qualitative case study of the contemporary practice of voluntary return in San Diego, California, drawing parallels between the past and present practice of voluntary return to provide a broader and more nuanced perspective of the practice that has been offered heretofore.


Mina Barahimi is a Ph.D. candidate in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy program. Her research interests are broadly in the socio-legal dimensions of immigrant/immigration control, with a focus on issues related to citizenship, race, rights, social exclusion, immigration law enforcement, and the criminalization of immigration. Her dissertation examines (1) how the discretion of US Border Patrol officers shapes the practice of voluntary return, a summary (i.e. no due process) expulsion procedure implemented in the US-Mexico border region against undocumented Mexican immigrants, and (2) what the effects of that discretionary practice are on the border community.

Kavitha Iyengar is a second year graduate student in Jurisprudence and Social Policy. She studies 19th century US legal history, with a special focus on African American legal history, and histories of race, gender, and citizenship.