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Davis, California

Saturday, April 13, 2024

UC Davis Comparative Border Studies Mellon Initiative in its last year


Reflection, stakes, future of program

Members of the UC Davis community over the past few months may have noticed the palpable presence of the UC Davis Comparative Border Studies Mellon Initiative on campus. The presence has expressed itself through the current art exhibition at the Manetti Shrem Museum entitled “Welcome?” curated by professor Susette Min and the recent panel “Border Protests and Transnational Solidarities,” a roundtable of scholars and activists negotiating the violence and resistance of borders as the initiative finds itself in its final year.

Since 2016, the Mellon project has been researching and organizing around the comparing of contested border zones internationally. Feeling that transnational border studies are of the essence at this historical moment, co-chairs and UC Davis Professors Sunaina Maira and Robert Irwin have led the charge. They are accompanied by two graduate fellows, two visiting scholars and many affiliated faculty and graduate students alike who pursue migrant and border experiences.

“We recognize that the US border regime is only one of many that shares technologies and strategies of containment, exclusion, counterterrorism, surveillance, policing, and racial violence around the world,” the mission statement said. “This larger network of migration control has had detrimental consequences for the freedom of movement and for migrant rights around the world. We condemn the imperial, racialized, and violent exclusion of migrants globally, as starkly visible in places such as Israel, Australia, the European Union, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, India, and elsewhere.”

Though this excerpt can’t say it all, it touches on some of the sociopolitical conditions essential to a study of borders and migration, which include racialization, gender, militarization, nativism, nationalism and imperialism. Zunaira Komal, a first-year student in the cultural studies Ph.D. program, takes a critical approach to the border zone of Kashmir, disputed between China, India and Pakistan since decolonization of the area following British imperialism.

“Everyone kind of has a starting point for how they get into things, and my mom is from Kashmir,” Komal said. “I kind of just grew up with a lot of stories of separation […] my grandma’s family, her sister got married and went to the other side of the border and then due to the wars and stuff they just never talked to each other again. We didn’t even know she had a sister until very, very recently when her [sister’s] grandkids […] moved back to the Pakistan side of the border. And that’s not a unique story. That was kind of my starting point. Coming to college and taking classes about colonialism and imperialism and secular empire, just sort of beginning to connect the dots of like okay there’s a repeating pattern for why this is happening in Palestine, why this is happening here, why this is happening in the U.S.”

The repeating pattern referenced by Komal is key to the pursuit of the comparative border studies. How do we make sense of the trends of settler colonialism around the world?

Robert Irwin, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, works from a U.S. and southwest border perspective. For him, issues of U.S., Latin and Central American migration are impossible to ignore in his courses as they directly affect some of his students.

“The threat of deportation which is all over the news, debated in very dehumanizing ways, in politics and in the media, I can see the effects day to day,” Irwin said. “I could visibly see how the election took a physical and mental toll on my students.”

Irwin, like his students and many others, has a personal stake in the developments of immigration policy. As covered recently, Irwin has worked on a video project called “Humanizing Deportation,” which shares the experiences of deportees.

“My grandparents were immigrants […] I have lived myself in Mexico as kind of an undocumented immigrant there for a while, I have married to an immigrant, I have relatives, my in-laws in Mexico,” Irwin said. “This is my world. To see that world so violently under assault in a country that I thought was more welcoming has been something that I’ve also felt very deeply.”

These experiences in many ways provide emotional information to the goals of the Mellon Initiative. The “mental toll” that the militarization and reinforcement of borders takes on students like those at UC Davis demands immediate attention.

“The Mellon project addresses questions of not just migration […] but migration and borders from the perspective of lived experience of people who are affected often in very devastating ways by borders and the politics of borders and the securitization of borders,” Irwin said. “What we want to do is not just address the very tense and violent border contexts around the world but also put them in dialogue with each other and see what we can learn from each other.”

The more that Irwin studies and follows border politics, the more he can see them encroach into his classroom curriculum, if not for the better than out of necessity and pertinence.

“I’ve been learning more about expulsions, mass deportations going on between Colombia and Venezuela, between Haiti and the Dominican Republic […] Argentina expelling Bolivian and other immigrants, kind of following the master deportation model of the United States,” Irwin said.

Migration policies do give credence to the approaches of the United States, making a comparative study of borders essential. Scholars and activists like Irwin, as well as professor Sunaina Maira, of the Asian American Studies Department, emphasize transnational approaches to migration and resistance. Maira applies the idea of transnational solidarity to her research.

“I got interested in the idea of transnational solidarity in response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the occupation in Palestine and an example of the way in which people were crossing borders in order to connect what was going on in their homelands,” Maira said. “Since 9/11 there has been this broader coalition […] which we see with the ME/SA program […] that’s bringing together communities from different regions with a kind of shared concern around U.S. military intervention and occupation but also with some overlapping histories of cross connection and exchange. These regions are also border zones.”

Maira’s research is informed by years of involvement in activism. She privileges a reconciliation between scholarship and activism, a tenuous relationship in spaces like the university. Thus, the recent and final major event hosted by the Mellon Initiative was extraordinary to Maira and Irwin alike.

“What I think was really kind of powerful was that we had five women of color speaking and we didn’t actually intentionally plan it that way,” Maira said. “I think what was really wonderful was that it was really a mix of academics and activists and scholars. It’s sometimes very difficult to bring people who don’t have academic jobs into the university and allow them to sit at the table with those who are scholars.”

Inclusion of activists from outside of the university ameliorates another challenge faced by border studies, which is the separation of disciplines and departments that often eliminate the possibility of truly transnational and comparative study.

“I think that while on the one hand the university is a place where people get to do critical research […] what often happens is these conversations happen in silos,” Maira said. “For the most part people are focusing on particular regions but are not necessarily looking at them transnationally and when they’re looking at them transnationally they’re not always looking at the questions we’re interested in, which are the very notion of a border, like where does it come from and why are people challenging it, or crossing it, or fortifying it or resisting it.”

The university is at once a challenging and optimal space in which comparative border studies can be conducted. It is the location of the AB 540 and Undocumented Student Center, of a campus radical sanctuary collective that hosted Resist Trump Tuesdays, of the Migration Research Cluster and a recent Migration Research Portal site, but it is also a place that reproduces or invests in systems of oppression.

“There’s a way in which universities get portrayed as like super liberal, diverse institutions through which we can do justice work and it increasingly doesn’t seem like the right avenue for me to do that work,” Zunaira said.

Maira herself has written a book called “The Imperial University,” using UC Davis as a case study, which challenges both the problematic nature of the university and the tendency to be complicit.

“Those of us who are scholars at U.S. universities can use that as a space for activism and challenging the complicity of the university,” Maira said.

Her aspirations and commitment to reforming the University perhaps can be paired ideologically with projects like the Comparative Border Studies Mellon Initiative. Reflecting on a successful roundtable on transnational solidarity, Maira was pleased.

“This theme of kind of solidarity and crossing borders was very powerful,” Maira said.



Written by: Stella Sappington — features@theaggie.org


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