Asylum Seeking in Unsettled Times: The Changing Nature and Function of Credibility in Immigration Law and Culture

October 31, 2019

Doctoral student Abigail Stepnitz of UCB’s Jurisprudence & Social Policy Department examined 120 asylum applications filed between 1989 and 2018, and found that the stories asylum seekers tell in their bids to be recognized as refugees has changed over time. As the number of applications rose, the government agencies handling them put more stress on well-prepared and documented applications.


Abigail Stepnitz Photo.jpg The asylum system projects a common-sense myth that asylum seekers need only tell the truth and those with credible claims will be protected, and yet both the broader cultural context and the specific institutional framework in which claims are raised reflect a much more unstable approach. Rather than being part of a transparent legal test to prove eligibility, credibility functions instead as a kind of shibboleth, a way to introduce changing cultural expectations into the process. The result is an institutional framework in which both the law and policy that structures the system and the content of asylum claims must evolve in response to these changes, absorbing and reflecting broader social, political and ideological shifts. Building on Swidler’s (1986) framework for understanding the relationship between culture and action in settled and unsettled times, this paper asks how and to what extent the evolution of the asylum system, and in particular the nature and function of credibility, are a product of the institutionalization of cultural changes. To answer this question, I offer a two-part analysis consisting of an historical framework for identifying and characterizing settled and unsettled periods in the evolution of asylum and credibility which reveals a top down institutionalization of cultural change, and an empirical evaluation of 120 asylum claims filed from 1989-2018, which reveals how, from the bottom up, asylum narratives reflect these changing institutional requirements and evolving cultural shifts to present asylum seekers’ lives as legible and credible.

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de Lucena Coelho's Comments (Summary)

Fluid read even for a broad audience. The main argument, that credibility is shaped by the discretion of institutions law and policy is presented on a coherent way with solid founded qualitative arguments. However there are three main points in which the article could make changes that are worthwhile noticing.

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