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Introduction: Legal Borderlands: Law and the Construction of American Borders

American Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 3, September 2005

19 Pages Posted: 10 Aug 2012  

Mary L. Dudziak

Emory University School of Law

Leti Volpp

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law

Date Written: September 1, 2005


This volume interrogates law's role in constituting American borders. It has been a project of American Studies scholarship to explore American culture and history in relation to the rest of the world. But the global turn in American Studies raises new questions about the boundaries of the field, and of the reach of America itself. Once we view the United States in a global context, once territory - formerly the implicit boundary around American studies - is decentered, it becomes important to ask what the frame is around "American" studies, and to ask how, in a global context, U.S. borders and identities are constructed. Law is one window through which to take up the question of the construction of American borders. Law is an important technology in the drawing of dividing lines between American identities and the boundaries (or lack of boundaries) around American global power. Borders are constructed in law, not only through formal legal controls on entry and exit but also through the construction of rights of citizenship and noncitizenship, and the regulation or legitimation of American power in other parts of the world.

Legal borderlands can be physical territories with an ambiguous legal identity, such as U.S. territories where the Constitution does not follow the flag, or Guantánamo. Their ambiguity seems to render them sites of abnormal legal regulation, placing them on the edge of the law. Legal borderlands can also demarcate ideological spaces or gaps, holes in the imagining of America, where America is felt to be out of place, such as contexts where, in spite of American ideals of democracy and rights, violations of the law are routinized, such as in the space of the prison. The supposition that these spaces are the exception rather than the norm enables the continued belief that the story of America is the story of the rule of law, for stories of the violation of the rule of law are explained through their location in those physical spaces or their placement in those ideological gaps. Law also helps define the boundaries of American national identity. That American identity and law are conflated is indisputable. But American ideology incorporates a particular vision of law, which is law as the rule of law, and law as the guarantor of democracy, equality, and freedom. The essays in this volume demonstrate that there is a necessary outside to the notion of the United States as the embodiment of the rule of law. American history is marked by episodes which can be simultaneously conceptualized as violations of the law and as actions sanctioned by law; violations of law are as fully a part of America as what we consider to be its democratic inside.

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Dudziak, Mary L. and Volpp, Leti, Introduction: Legal Borderlands: Law and the Construction of American Borders (September 1, 2005). American Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 3, September 2005. Available at SSRN:

Mary L. Dudziak

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

Leti Volpp (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

215 Boalt Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

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