Native/Immigrant/Refugee – Crossings Research Initiative

Who is a “native,” who is an “immigrant,” and who is a “refugee”? Refugees, immigrants, and indigenous peoples are typically constructed as separate categories within nation-states, and thus may be studied in relation to white “natives,” but rarely in relation to one another. Immigrants, indigenous people and refugees are conventionally imagined as communities with little in common. This collaborative research project thus tackles a new question: how do these communities intersect, and how do the fields of study focused on these communities intersect?

These categories that are presumed to be fixed are in fact contingent; this contingency is made visible when pressure forces one group to slip from one category to another. Take the asylum seeker who can either successfully gain recognition as a refugee or become an irregular migrant. This slippage can happen narratively, even while it does not happen legally. We could look to Puerto Rico, which as an unincorporated territory of the United States, exemplifies the geographic, legal, and narrative incorporation of populations who are selectively included or excluded, marginal populations whose status is not secure.

Location in some geographic spaces renders some populations particularly vulnerable. The pressures of climate change link Puerto Ricans with Sami in the Arctic Circle. That land and water can render one a refugee or force one to migrate suggests a revisioning of the refugee as a figure produced through political persecution or war; likewise, it challenges us to expand our framing of forces such as climate change to consider its relation to colonization, and geopolitics.

Our key questions ask how the legal and cultural construction of these three groups–the native, the immigrant, and the refugee–are not isolated discourses but are deeply entangled in the regulation of the other. How has immigration law understood refugees as an exception? How has immigration law understood native peoples? How have native nations policed borders, membership, and territorial presence of non-members? And how do cultural forms and practices, from literary works to indigenous drum circles at the airport welcoming refugees in the face of Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants, reflect distinct epistemologies, experiences, and political claims that confound or confirm these legal understandings?

This research initiative has been generously funded by a Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society Faculty Cluster Research Grant and by grants from Critical Refugee Studies, the Peder Sather Foundation, Social Science Matrix, the Institute of International Studies, and the UC Humanities Research Institute.

Image above: Dynamic Earth – Ocean Currents, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Leti Volpp

Leti Volpp is the Robert D. and Leslie Kay Raven Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Director of the Center for Race and Gender.  She researches and writes about immigration law and citizenship theory.





Beth PiatoteBeth Piatote

Beth Piatote is an Associate Professor in Native American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is also an Affiliated Faculty member in the Department of Linguistics and in American Studies.  She is the author of  Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship and Law in Native American Literature (Yale 2013).




Bonnie Cherry

Bonnie Cherry is a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program.  Before attending Berkeley, Bonnie worked as a grant writer and program coordinator at Haskell Indian Nations University Cultural Center, building cultural programming for Undocumented and Indigenous youth, as well as working with local nonprofits and tribal entities to address jurisdictional gaps in the Violence Against Women Act for women on reservations. 


Fantasia Painter

Fantasia Painter is a 4th year Ph.D. student in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley and a new Researcher for the Native/Immigrant/Refugee: Crossings Research Initiative in the Center for Race & Gender (CRG). She is also a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellow, a Joseph A. Meyers Center for Research on Native American Issues Fellow, and a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (SRP-MIC).