Research Projects

Talia Shiff – Research Projects

A Sociology of Discordance: Negotiating Schemas of Worth and Codified Law In US Asylum Status Determinations, Under Review

  • Recipient of 2018 Shils-Coleman prize for the best graduate student paper in Theory, Theory Section of the American Sociological Association
  • Honorable Mention for the 2018 Richard A. Peterson Award for the best student paper, Cultural Section of the American Sociological Association.
  • Recipient of the 2017 Robert F. Winch Award for Best Published or Presented Paper, Northwestern University

This article investigates an understudied phenomenon within sociology: the moral underpinnings of bureaucratic action. Drawing on archival work, analysis of case law, legal documents, and extensive interviews with asylum officers and immigration attorneys, I examine when, and why, legal bureaucrats working on the frontlines of agencies that are under strain, decide to stretch, deviate from, and even break, agency rules and procedures to assist persons they construe as deserving but whose claims fall outside the scope of codified law. These moments, I argue, are not extraordinary acts but rather recurring instances characteristic of frontline decision-making. Current approaches to street-level bureaucracy and official state action have not identified, and cannot make sense, of these morally motivated acts of bureaucratic defiance, attributing them either to cultural bias or to individual psychology.

My research proposes an alternative theory of frontline decision making which suggests that frontline bureaucrats are moral problem solvers: in the course of applying rules to real-life cases they engage in a process of matching the characteristics of the individual case both to the rule’s underlying moral schema (e.g. institutionalized understandings of worthiness for asylum), and to the codified definitions of eligibility that the institution asks them to apply. More often than not, these two dimensions align. This is a precondition for the routine processing of cases. But this is not always the case, and often there is discordance. For instance, asylum officers may judge the case of an asylum seeker worthy even when the applicant does not meet the formal criteria of eligibility. In such cases, do asylum officers attempt to solve the discordance? If so, how do they accomplish do it?

My findings reveal that when officers evaluate non-conforming asylum claims that nonetheless resonate with institutionalized understandings of worthiness for asylum, they become emotionally invested in the case, attend more closely to the challenges faced by asylum seekers, and use case-specific information to critically assess the legitimacy of the classificatory scheme. As a result, they draw less directly on preestablished group-stereotypes to assess individual claims. In contrast, when asylum officers evaluate standard claims (that align with institutionalized categories of worthiness for asylum and codified definitions of eligibility), they are more likely to directly draw on group-stereotypes and to spend considerable time verifying applicants’ authenticity.

My work creates a bridge between the literatures in cultural sociology on moral schemas and organizational and legal theories on processes of rule application. I show how in their attempt to solve the discordance they encounter between categories of worthiness and codified law, frontline actors shift the focus of their evaluation from applicants’ credibility to an interrogation of law’s meaning and scope, with implications for how they evaluate applicants and define their gatekeeping roles. Contrary to previous theories that describe bureaucratic systems as rule-bound and impersonal, my findings reveal how bureaucracies generate conditions for moral deliberation. These findings have important implications for the study of inequality. They suggest that the disposition (negative or positive) of decision makers toward cases, and their use of racial and gendered stereotypes, is shaped by their schemas of worth, and how these clash (or not) with codified law. Finally, this research indicates that we need to broaden the sociology of immigration by considering how immigrants’ deservingness is evaluated in the context of administrative decision-making. My findings reveal that asylum officers engage in moral problem-solving: they strategically work to match applicants’ claims with codified definitions of eligibility and moral schemas of worthiness. When officers fail to secure a match, they cease to engage with applicants as indifferent bureaucrats and turn to critically reflect upon the categorization process. These findings highlight the importance of looking beyond grant and denial rates to the dynamics of asylum evaluations.

Reconfiguring the Deserving Refugee: Cultural Categories of Worth and the Making of US Asylum Policy; Law & Society Review Forthcoming 2020.

In this paper I set to explain an overlooked policy episode that is not accounted for by current approaches: the inclusive approach towards a new group of claims involving gender-related harms at a time of increasing hostility towards asylum seekers. I show how the development of gender asylum is reflective of a broader reconfiguration in the meaning of worthiness for asylum. After the Cold War, definitions of worthiness for asylum no longer centered on a person’s motivation to flee but rather on the idea that to be worthy of asylum you have to be singled out on account of immutable traits that are beyond your control to change. I analyze case law, legislative debates, agency transcripts and administrative guidelines, in addition to interviews, to show how gender (framed in terms of immutability) provided a conceptual template for reorganizing differences between “deserving” and “undeserving” asylum seekers: women and sexual minorities are worthy of asylum protection because they are targeted for traits perceived to be immutable and fundamental to their individual identity. Conversely, Central Americans fleeing the civil wars in the 1980s, and gang violence in the 2000s, are constructed as unworthy because they are targeted for mutable traits considered not to be fundamental to their personhood.

Revisiting Immutability as the New Standard for Defining Membership in a Particular Social Group and its Impact on Asylum Claims Related to Gender; University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Forthcoming 2020.

An emerging issue in U.S. asylum law is how to define the category “membership of a particular social group.” This question has become ever-more pressing in light of the fact that the majority of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border are claiming persecution on account of their “membership in a particular social group.” The INA does not define the meaning of “particular social group” and courts are split over the correct definition of the term. According to one approach, the focus should be on which immutable characteristics should be protected from systemic discrimination. According to a second approach, the focus should rather be on how members of a given society define the boundaries of the proposed group. Each framework centers the analysis on a fundamentally distinct set of questions and concerns. The article outlines the development and conceptual basis of each framework, to show that an immutability-centered approach to defining particular social group generates more consistency in asylum decisions and broadens the scope of asylum to include women and victims of harm traditionally categorized as falling within the category of “private criminal activity.” This article contributes to debates on asylum policy by shedding new light on how to define the contours of asylum status and proposing concrete means by which to accomplish change.

Feminism/s in Power: Rethinking Gender Equality after the Second Wave, co-authored with Ann Orloff, Political Power and Social Theory, Vol. 30, 109-134, 2016.

In this article we investigate a new and evolving critique among analysts of sexuality, political economy and culture, of feminism’s changing relations to institutions of state power and law in the United States. We show how these critics make explicit a concern shared by radical political movements: what does it mean when the ideas of those who were once considered political outsiders become institutionalized within core sites of state power and law? We use these critiques as a starting point for critically thinking about the implications of the institutionalization of feminist ideas within law and state institutions.

Book Manuscript: The Reconstruction of Citizenship: Negotiating Worth and Documentation in Definitions of Immigrant Illegality

My book manuscript expands the framework that I developed in my dissertation on the interrelations between schemas of worth and codified law in the context of asylum, to provide a broader canvas for investigating questions of legality, citizenship and boundary drawing. In the book, I define asylum as one of several de-illegalization programs – procedures for legalizing immigrants deemed socially desirable despite their lack of formal legal status – that took form in the United States over the course of the 20th century. De-illegalization programs were created in response to the 1921 and 1924 quota laws’ new requirement for legal entry: proper documentation. For the first time, legality constituted an abstract status known primarily through documentation. Prior to the quota laws, grounds for excludability in immigration law were marked by qualitative criteria such as race, sexual predisposition, physical and mental health and political orientation. By the late 1920s, aliens lacking proper documentation became the largest single class of deportees. The rising number of immigrants deported due to their lack of proper documentation generated great controversy: policymakers and growing segments of the public started voicing concerns that illegal status alone was no longer sufficient to determine desirability of membership. This generated a rift between codified definitions of legality (now determined by a person’s proper documentation or lack thereof) and normative conceptions of desirability. De-illegalization programs became a primary means for bridging this gap.

I draw on data that I obtained by filing a Freedom of Information Request that yielded information on a wide range of archival resources, including case law, agency policy memos, and statistical data, in addition to interviews with judges, lawyers and high-level policy officials, to examine the application of three primary de-illegalization programs in the United States: (1) suspension of deportation (currently termed “cancellation of removal”), (2) family reunification and (3) asylum. Underlying each program is a distinct schema of worthiness for membership: suspension of deportation provisions justify de-illegalization by a showing of cultural acclimation. This statutory provision authorizes adjudicators to suspend deportation if the alien can prove that deportation would result in serious hardship to the alien or his immediate U.S. citizen family members. Family reunification programs are based on a social proximity rationale for membership: persons who have family ties to US citizens are considered deserving to become members of the US polity. Asylum provides a humanitarian rationale for membership.

This research contributes to the robust literatures on immigrant legality and citizenship. In highlighting the interconnections between suspension of deportation, family reunification and asylum, my analysis reveals a hitherto neglected dimension in studies of immigration and legal membership: changes in the moral underpinnings of citizenship. It proposes a new framework of citizenship as the product of ongoing negotiations between changing, and at times competing, schemas of worthiness of membership, and codified definitions of (il)legality. This research also advances sociological work on the role of bias in the formation of citizenship. I argue that while the value of membership, broadly defined, interacted with racialized and gendered notions of social fitness to legitimize the crossing of individuals from one side of the boundary to the other, documentation shaped how these crossings took place and directed their reach. In the process, the boundary demarcating immigrant (il)legality was redefined.

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash