Contesting Immigration Policy in Court: Legal Activism and Its Radiating Effects in the United States and France

By Cook-Martin, David | Refuge, December 30, 2016 | Go to article overview

Contesting Immigration Policy in Court: Legal Activism and Its Radiating Effects in the United States and France


Cook-Martin, David, Refuge


Contesting Immigration Policy in Court: Legal Activism and Its Radiating Effects in the United States and France

Leila Kawar

New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, 232 pp.

Leila Kawar's book is an innovative extension of Bruno Latours method of studying how scientists make knowledge in laboratories to how lawyers create law through daily practice. She argues that legal contestation reshapes how power arrangements affect the law and policymaking, which in turn has radiating effects. Put differently, activism at one moment and in particular institutional domains sets legal precedent and frames subsequent activism in multiple domains. In contrast to other studies of the dynamics of immigration policymaking that focus primarily on "the coercive power of official rules and remedies" (5), Contesting Immigration Policy narrates the ability of legal rights activism to make and remake social relations.

Methodologically, Kawar's exploration of the cultural life of law relies on a comparison of legal activism in France and the United States after 1970. The author selects the two country cases because they are both immigrant-receiving countries with long-standing contentious politics surrounding immigration and where immigration legal activism developed at about the same time. "Legal activism" refers to practices that explicitly aim to influence official law (see 20). A dialogic, comparative strategy reveals differences as well as "unexpected similarities" and de-centres the U.S. experience. The comparative approach, the author argues, allows her to build theory not through hypothesis testing but by "identifying particular assemblages of actors and activities in one setting and then examining the extent to which those assemblages can profile insights into our understanding of other settings" (15). Concretely, the study results from sixty in-depth interviews with key informants, substantial participant observation, and an analysis of archival sources.

Contesting Immigration Policy consists of an introduction and six chapters arranged to show points and counterpoints between France and the United States on legal practices. The introduction identifies shortcomings in previous attempts to understand the constitution of law, Kawar's alternative approach and related argument referenced earlier, and a discussion of the benefits of adopting a Latourian approach. Chapter 2 traces the historical emergence of "immigrant legal rights activism" in France and the United States among progressive lawyers and grassroots immigrant social movements. Chapter 3 focuses on key cases that brought attention to rights activism in each national context. It examines how political mobilizations around litigation campaigns of the 1970s assisted immigrants and set legal precedents, which framed subsequent activism (radiating effects). …

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