Interview with Sati, Author of “Other” Borders: The Illegal as Normative Metaphor”

Sati is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Jurisprudence and Social Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. He recently published a chapter titled, “Other” Borders: The Illegal as Normative Metaphor,” as part of the “We Are Not Dreamers: Undocumented Scholars Theorize Undocumented Life in the United States” book. His chapter examines the limits of current frameworks on illegality, as well as the DREAMer narrative, including how it marginalizes the voices and experiences of those who do not fit the “DREAMer” label. In his chapter, Sati also notes that within the immigrant rights movement, there’s a constant balancing act between fighting for piecemeal or comprehensive reforms. In light of the changes we have seen under the current administration and the upcoming presidential elections, Sati’s insights on alternative frameworks are particularly crucial within scholarly and public debates on immigration.

At My Undocumented Life, we had an opportunity to interview Sati to learn more about his chapter and work on illegality more broadly. We thank him for responding to our questions via e-mail. In the coming weeks, we are also excited to continue featuring additional Q&A’s with some of the contributors of the collection.

Don’t forget that you can now read the book’s introduction for free and/or purchase a copy of the book directly from Duke University Press.

Q: Can you share a bit more about your trajectory into academia and more specifically what motivated you to engage in immigration-related research?

A: I guess my journey into academia began in September of 2010, when I found out that I was undocumented. Long story short, because of that I could not go to college straight out of high school. In the eight months between my high school graduation and my first class in community college, I came across philosophy. Around the same time, I got into immigration activism, beginning with the Maryland DREAM Act. I began doing that work in 2012 with CASA de Maryland; we shifted to more national efforts when the referendum passed. When I transferred to City College of New York (CCNY) in 2013, I ended up doing work with African Communities Together and the New York Immigration Coalition.

With the above experiences in mind, I dove into existing philosophical literature on immigration. However, the literature did not discuss undocumented immigration that much, if at all. A lot of the work asks, “should undocumented immigrants receive a path to citizenship?” Though I agree with those scholars who say “yes,” I also found the whole question to be missing the point.

One literature that I found helpful in this quest is the philosophy of race. That interest began with Michael Brown’s death in 2014. What I had been thinking of as the endgame up to that point—permanent residency and citizenship—became insufficient. So what if people receive citizenship when a certain class of citizens routinely get murdered by police? The parallels between police treatment of black people and immigration enforcement’s treatment of immigrants became stark for me; I then decided I would dedicate my scholarship to advancing that work. It was also then that I decided that law was where I could advance that work.

Q: In your chapter, you discuss at length the limits of the DREAMer narrative, could you elaborate a bit more about the alternative framework you propose on illegalization?

A: There’s definitely a lot to work out, but I’ll try to be comprehensive yet succinct. I think what framework one uses to examine illegality has a lot to do with what one thinks is the endgame for immigrant rights. One of the issues with the term “illegals” is that people themselves cannot be illegal. Yet the law uses the term “illegal aliens” to describe those without status. Though undocumented is a much more humane term, it really does not interrogate why the term “illegal aliens” is significant; it merely asks that we not use it. But perhaps the most pernicious aspect of using (un)documented as a framework is that it paints the endgame for immigrant rights as receiving immigration documents. To go back to my point earlier, Black people—many of them citizens of the United States—are mistreated by the state. Focusing on documentation alone cannot explain that.

So, what a framework of illegality should explain, at the very least, are two things. The first thing to explain is the legal significance of illegality, and what it means for that framework to be applied to people. The second thing to explain is the difference between status citizenship and a more substantive conception. In addition to these two, frameworks of illegality should account for the ever-changing nature by which people are made into “illegal aliens”. For more on this, readers can check out some public writing on illegalization (see here and here) I’ve done, and I’m working on a couple of papers—and a dissertation— explicating that concept further.

Q: What do you hope readers will walk away with after reading your chapter?

 A: My hope for the chapter is for people to have a much more expansive conception of what illegality means over and above just lacking status. The chapter itself not only looks at how metaphor structures our thinking, but more specifically at how the metaphors we use in the immigration context can set the boundaries (pun somewhat intended) on what we consider possible when it comes to immigration justice.

Moreover, how we think of the processes of regularization, detention/deportation, and migration are indicative of how fair people consider the immigration apparatus to be and whether practices in service of the apparatus are fair. For example, if you think of the regularization as a line, the idea that undocumented immigrants are attempting to “cut” in front of the line triggers very basic intuitions we have about fairness. Though the paper itself focuses on the immigration context, there are enough examples of metaphors being studied in the criminal law context such that combining both criminal law and immigration will, I think, lead to some very interesting work moving forward.

Q: Lastly, many of our readers are undocumented students who are hoping to apply to graduate school, as someone who has navigated the process, what are 1-3 pieces of advice you would share with prospective undocumented grad students either about the application process or about conducting UndocuScholarship?

A: The first piece of advice is that preparation is never a bad thing. One thing that I did in the summer before I applied was write my essays for four hours each day for a week. By the end, I had complete drafts done, and in good enough shape that I could turn my efforts toward the GRE (and LSAT when it came to law school). If you know others who are applying, getting together and having a peer network to read each other’s materials is also beneficial. Also to the extent that your advisors/mentors have the time and capacity to do it, ask them to look over materials (NOTE: you can also send your recommenders your materials so they can better craft recommendations). I would also recommend applying to the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans and any other fellowships that do not prevent undocumented scholars from applying. I know how hard it is for undocumented (or DACA-mented) individuals to find scholarships that accept them. So, if you are eligible for this (or any other fellowship), apply.

Another piece of advice that has been really critical in these harrowing times is this: consider whether a school has a dedicated center/apparatus for undocumented students. That was a major draw to my choosing Berkeley, and the center has been incredibly helpful. The benefits range from help with DACA renewals to just having people around that relate to you and are there to make sure you succeed.

One last piece of advice: don’t feel like you need to discuss your experiences or traumas as an undocumented person if you aren’t comfortable. Trauma porn is a very real phenomenon in which underrepresented applicants feel like they need to bear their souls out to have a shot at admission/scholarships/etc. Remember that you are in complete control of your story and how you tell it; that genuineness does show in the high quality of your application, which bodes well for you.


SATI is a Ph.D. candidate in Jurisprudence and Social Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. His scholarship focuses on “crimmigration”, especially when it comes to the increased use of criminal enforcement tactics in immigration enforcement. Sati is also a 2018 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow.


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