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The Oppressed, the Suspect, and the Citizen: Subjectivity in Competing Accounts of Political Violence

  • Susan Bibler Coutin


By juxtaposing religious, legal, and victims'accounts of political violence, this essay identifies and critiques assumptions about agency, the individual, and the state that derive from liberal theory and that underlie U.S. asylum law. In the United States, asylum is available to aliens whose gooernments fail to protect them from persecution on the basis of their race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or social group membership. Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants have challenged this definition of persecution with their two-decade-long struggle for asylum in the United States. During the 1980s, U.S. religious advocates and solidarity workers took legal action on behalf of what they characterized as victims of oppression in Central America. The asylum claims narrated by the beneficiaries of these legal efforts suggest that repessiwe pactices rendered entire populations politically suspect. To prevail in immigration court, however, victims had to prove that they were individually targeted because of being somehow “different” from the population at large. In other words, to obtain asylum, persecution victims had to explain how and why their actions had placed them at risk, even though persecution obscured the reasons that particular individuals were targeted and thus rendered all politically suspect.



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