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Falling Outside: Excavating the History of Central American Asylum Seekers


Susan Bibler Coutin is Professor in the Departments of Criminology, Law and Society, and Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. She can be contacted by email at Her article draws on research supported by grants from the American Association of University Women, the National Science Foundation (Awards #SBR-9423023, SES-0001890, SES-0296050, and SES-0518011), and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She is grateful to all of the individuals and institutions that collaborated in fieldwork and interviews, including Luis Perdomo, Jesús Aguilar, Dan Sharp, CARECEN Los Angeles, CARECEN Internacional, and the Los Angeles and San Salvador offices of Homies Unidos. Previous versions of this article were presented at the conference “Seeking Refuge: Caught between Bureaucracy, Lawyers and Public Indifference” at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, the American Sociological Association's Historical/Comparative Mini-conference, and the Center for Law, Society and Culture at the University of California, Irvine. She thanks John Campbell, David Cook-Martin, and Mona Lynch for these invitations, Victoria Bernal for suggesting the paper's direct, and Catherine Lee, Rachel O'Toole, and audience members for incredibly helpful comments and suggestions. She is also grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their comments.


This article takes a retrospective look at legal advocacy on behalf of Central American asylum seekers, which has been influential in the development of US asylum law and in the creation of an infrastructure to address immigrants' needs. The article considers three time periods when Central Americans have been deemed to fall outside of the category of refugee: (1) the 1980s, when US administrations argued that Central Americans were economic immigrants; (2) the 1990s, when civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala came to an end; and (3) the 2000s, when some Salvadoran youths in removal proceedings have argued that they faced persecution as perceived or actual gang members. This retrospective analysis highlights the ways in which law can be creatively reinterpreted by legal actors, as well as how legal innovations carry forward traces of prior historical moments.