“Seen Through a Spatial Lens … ”: Interview with Ulla Berg

This interview is part of the series “Seen Through a Spatial Lens … – Spatializations in Global Times”. The series presents the guests invited by the Collaborative Research Centre 1199 “Processes of Globalization Under the Global Condition” at the University of Leipzig. The short interviews combine a peek at the scholars’ research with an invitation to creatively reflect upon the centre’s focus on spatializations. Enjoy reading!

Ulla Berg (photo: private)

Ulla Berg is an assistant professor in the department of Latino and Hispanic Caribbean studies and Anthropology at Rutgers University. Her research focuses on historical and contemporary processes and experiences of migration and mobility within Latin America and between this region and the United States. Currently, she is working on two new multi-year research projects: The first is based on ethnographic fieldwork in New Jersey, Peru, and Ecuador and investigates immigrant detention and deportation of South Americans from the US. The second one examines new elites in contemporary Peru by exploring the intersection of race with the distribution of economic, social, affective, cultural, political, and knowledge capitals in the changing character of Peruvian inequality. In addition to her research, Ulla Berg is a practicing filmmaker.

In three sentences, what do you research and which questions guide your research?

I am a sociocultural and visual anthropologist specializing in Latin America and in Latino communities in the US. My research focuses on historical and contemporary processes and experiences of migration, mobility and processes of immobilization within Latin America and between this region and the United States. At the moment I am researching the experience of precarious migration from the Andes and its relationship to “detainability” and “deportability” in the light of the last decade’s increase in arbitrary immigrant detentions in the US. I am focusing particularly on everyday life after deportation back in the countries of citizenship

What motivates you in your research? Which personal experiences encourage you to continue your research?

In my current research on detention and deportation of South Americans from the United States, a key motivation is not just to expose the injustices and endemic financial interests embedded in the US detention and deportation regime, but also the social inequality that undergirds the vastly differentiated access to global mobility today. When I did the research for my book Mobile Selves: Race, Migration, and Belonging in Peru and the US (2015) it was clear that contrary to the experiences of most of my interlocutors, my own claims to a privileged transnational mobility and cosmopolitan subjectivity were rarely questioned by the institutions and social groups monitoring it—in Peru, the U.S., and the transit spaces in between. I had to work much less than the majority of people in my study to convince anyone that my movements and whereabouts were legitimate. This personal experience is brought even more to the forefront in my current research on detention and deportation where the social consequences, for example, of an encounter with the local police is vastly different, according to a person’s class, racial, gendered, and institutional positionalities. Moreover, many of my students at Rutgers University come from families and communities in New Jersey who are affected in one way or the other by the detention and deportation regime and this situation both infuriates me and also encourages me to continue my research

Which key insights from your research do you consider to be the most surprising for general audiences? Why do you believe this to be the case?

Human migration and refugee flows is one of the most important social and political issues of our time. It shapes not only the lives of millions of people, but also define public debates that extends way beyond the issue of the movement of people itself. I think one of the most surprising thing for general audiences about my current research on detention and deportation—especially for European audiences—is the punitive nature of immigration law enforcement in the US. Why is it that it should make sense to separate families; lock someone up for many months who have committed no serious or even any crime at all; and/or deport someone to a country to which they might not have any significant ties and maybe not even any family members? It doesn’t require more than common sense to realize that this system is both flawed and inhumane.

General audiences are also often surprised by the numbers. In the last two decades the United States has deported close to 5 million people; in the past decade around 400.000 per year. This is a lot of people! Most of them are members of families, so the actual number of people affected by deportation policy can be consider much much higher

Seen through a spatial lens, which processes of spatialization – understood as a central dimension and result of social actions – are particularly relevant in your research? Why?

Deportation itself is a spatial process deeply embedded in geopolitics and the consequences of both US border and interior enforcement policies extend deeply into the migrant-sending countries in Latin America (and elsewhere in the world). After all, deportees have to be sent somewhere – even if the receiving state don’t regard them as “deportees.” Deportation also has consequences for the social and economic reorganization of families and communities to accommodate the spatial and temporal separations produced by detention and deportation regimes – not just in the US but also globally

Let’s take a look from the future! Which processes of spatialization in the early 21st century were crucial for society in 2050?

It is interesting that you should ask me this question. I was just asked to be on a panel for the 2017 American Anthropological Association titled “Anthropological Reflections from Futurist Scholarship,” where the conveners asked us to reflect on how anthropologists of the future will look back on today’s worlds. I think many of the institutions, formations, and subject positions that are central to my research including borders, nation-states, immigrants, nativists, anthropologists, and perhaps resistant armies alike will look, think, labor, and act very different in 2050. Global capitalism requires migrant labor. The US economy today is based on immigrant labor—often low-skilled and poorly paid—and as long as the jobs are there people from Latin America will continue to head north. Several migration scholars predict labor shortages in US and Europe in the near future – an issue that only migration can solve. So, as a process of spatialization, global migration will continue to be crucial for societies in 2050

What role could science – and your research – have played in this development and how do you think this could have happened?

Well, I hope my current research will help illuminate how the current US deportation regime is both a pointless, cruel, and economically futile system that does not benefit anyone, really: It does not benefit the migrants or their families—obviously so—but it also does not benefit the US government, employers, taxpayers, or even the white American middle class who oftentimes want the benefits of cheap immigrant labor but don’t want their government to extend rights to brown laboring bodies. What currently counts as “immigration policy” in the US is a series of contradictory piecemeal actions—including the current and largely arbitrary crackdown on immigrants by the Trump administration—which does not add up to a coherent policy. This has to change. As other researchers, I hope my work can contribute to push for a sorely needed change in policy in the form of a comprehensive immigration reform. Furthermore, the trend that many deportees in Latin America end up going back to the US after their deportation should call attention to the fact that current deportation policies do simply not work and do not have the intended deterrent effect.

As social scientists, we need to be more out there to ensure that the results of our research get circulated and put to good use both by government officials and the media. In the US, this is often complicated not just because of deep divisions along partisan lines in public debates about immigration and immigrant detentions but also because of the rampant anti-intellectualism which has soared and achieved almost official status in the distinctly post-factual Trump presidency.



Citation: “Seen Through a Spatial Lens … ”: Interview with Ulla Berg, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 31.08.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/7485


Further articles in the series “Seen Through a Spatial Lens … – Spatializations in Global Times”:

Interview with Joshua B. Forrest (2017), TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research

Interview with Kate Higgins (2017), in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research


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