Shackled to the Border: An Ethnography of the Territorial Dispossession, Criminalization, and Intensive Monitoring of Immigrant Garifuna Mothers Living in NYC


Maria Heyaca



Project Title:

Shackled to the Border: An Ethnography of the Territorial Dispossession, Criminalization, and Intensive Monitoring of Immigrant Garifuna Mothers Living in NYC

María, a Sociology PhD candidate at the GC, received her MA at The New School, where she advanced her work on torture and women prisoners. Her ideas benefited enormously from her first CUNY teaching appointment at John Jay, where she taught criminology. Currently, she teaches at Lehman College and is working on an ethnography of electronic ankle monitoring. She has received various awards, including a Fulbright Scholarship, a Marilyn J. Gittell Dissertation Fellowship, and her current Connect NY Fellowship. She has been a committed social justice advocate, with wide participation in human rights programs, social organizations, and grassroots campaigns. She co-founded Popol Wuj Itinerante and enjoys photography.


“Shackled to the Border” studies the enrollment of hundreds of Black Indigenous Garífuna mothers in the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP), which is an alternative to detention programs for immigrants with open deportation cases that typically mandates the use of a GPS ankle monitor. Whereas the Central American mothers and children who have arrived at the US border since 2013 are typically considered refugees escaping gang violence, the Garífuna are being forced out of Honduras as a result of an intensifying assault on their right to remain in their collective territory. This assault jeopardizes not only their spiritual practices and subsistence economy, but also their very existence as a differentiated culture. Almost five years of ethnographic research suggest that in NYCISAP initially hyper-targeted Garífuna women. Such practices foster the feminization and racialization of poverty andis instrumental to the production of a proletarian body open to class exploitation. Additionally, these practices enforce white supremacy through public punishment and humiliation. Whereas anti-Black racism is at the center of immigrant criminalization in the US, the fragile subjectivity that ISAP shapes is instrumental to land dispossession experienced by these women back at home in Honduras.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operates the most extensive detention and supervised release program in the country: in addition to running a web of over 300 detention facilities, it manages the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP). First implemented in 2004, ISAP was conceived as a cost-effective alternative to detention. It mirrors the government’s search for a way to ensure attendance at immigration hearings and compliance with removal orders through different levels of supervision. Through ISAP, ICE determines who is released into the community and their supervision level through a controversial risk-assessment tool modeled after similar criminal justice instruments. Since 2009, the private contractor BI Incorporated has provided electronic monitoring services and case management. Full service is the most restrictive supervision alternative: in addition to a GPS shackle, it encompasses unannounced home visits, and visits to an assigned BI’s office.

In 2004, I received an email asking me to join a grassroots effort to denounce the use of GPS shackles on immigrant mothers. The message included the shocking image of the leg of a Black woman in a New York City court with a GPS shackle locked onto her ankle. She was one among a group of hundreds of Black indigenous Garífuna women from Honduras forcibly enrolled in ISAP after release from detention (for crossing without inspection). Whereas they were portrayed as refugees escaping gang violence, the women’s exodus is the consequence of an ongoing project of land dispossession, which is in open violation of the Garifuna people’s ancestral title.

Shackled to the Border was born out of the need to understand the intersections between land dispossession in Black indigenous communities in Latin America, out-migration, and hyper-criminalization in the US. I conducted hundreds of participant observations and over 35 interviews with Garífuna women enrolled in ISAP, members of grassroots organizations, Garífuna teachers, and Mexican immigrant shelters. Thanks to my Connect New York Fellowship, I concluded the analysis of most of my ethnographic data over the summer: results highlight that the same anti-Black institutional racism which has driven today’s incarceration experiment in US history explains why the Garífuna women were hyper-criminalized through ISAP.

I hope my research will enrich our understanding of immigration enforcement. At the same time it provides evidence for the destructive effects caused by intensive electronic monitoring. Far from the noble intention of fostering a humane alternative to detention, which explains why important NGOs lobbied for ISAP, the shackle is a cruel public punishment that singles the person out from the social body. It also inscribes notions of criminality and dangerousness upon the body: people shouting “criminal” confronted some Garífuna women right in the middle of the street. One woman, Reina, shared the demoralizing anecdote of her entering a grocery store: all customers left when they noticed the shackle.

The Garífuna women have always had a central role in social reproduction and liberation struggles in Honduras, and their exodus is a tangible survival threat. The same is true of the weak subjectivity that ISAP produces: hundreds of Garífuna women started to perceive themselves as victims of “modern slavery.” But there is hope: the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), created in 1978 as a federation of Honduran Garífuna peoples, is at the forefront of the struggle to defend their cultural and land rights, so they survive as a differentiated culture. OFRANEH members in NYC provided essential leadership during the grassroots campaign.

Let´s project the silent reality of thousands of women claiming that being forced to wearing an electronic shackle is like torture to the soul onto the future. An unelected bureaucracy and an unelected corporation profiting from dispossessed bodies manage ISAP. To make them accountable would therefore be quite challenging. In the meantime, we should wonder: who is next? Questions like this will inspire me in the weeks to come as I finish my dissertation draft.

About the author: Stefano Morello

Stefano Morello is a doctoral candidate in English with a certificate in American Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY and a Teaching Fellow at Queens College, CUNY. His academic interests include American Studies, pop culture, poetics, and digital humanities. His dissertation, “Let’s Make a Scene! East Bay Punk and Subcultural Worlding,” explores the heterotopic space of the East Bay punk scene, its modes of resistance and (dis-)association, and the clashes between its politics and aesthetics. He serves as co-chair of the Graduate Forum of the Italian Association for American Studies (AISNA) and is a founding editor of its journal, JAm It! (Journal of American Studies in Italy). As a digital humanist, Stefano focuses on archival practices with a knack for archival pedagogy and public-facing initiatives. He created the East Bay Punk Digital Archive, an open access archive of East Bay punk-zines, and worked as a curator and consultant for Lawrence Livermore’s archive at Cornell University. He was a Wellcome Trust Transdisciplinary Fellow in 2019-2020.