Reading Between the (Redacted) Lines

Muddling Through Absent Presences In Public Information Requests On U.S. Immigration Detention

  • Nancy Hiemstra Stony Brook University, New York
  • Deirdre Conlon University of Leeds
Keywords: Immigration detention, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), transparency, expanding state power, absent presence


In our research on U.S. immigration detention (the Detention Economies project) in the greater New York City area, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have been a key data source. Throughout the research process our efforts to gather information in order to interrogate detention economies were thwarted. In this paper we consider the slow, bureaucratic machinations of the state, government information office omissions, and redactions in response to FOIA requests, with analytic intent. Drawing on cultural geography’s engagements with ‘absent presence’ we examine the politics revealed by managing access to, and containing the flow of, information in this manner. We argue that through absent presence, the state contains migrants in immigration detention, constrains information and occludes knowledge about the infrastructure, operation, and beneficiaries of this bloated system, while, simultaneously, enlarging and consolidating power. Our discussion highlights some of the continuities as well as significant expansion of geographies of containment, with reference to immigration enforcement, from the Obama to the Trump administration. We also consider the importance of persistence, perseverance, and collective effort—or muddling through—as necessary research tactics for critical migration scholars and geographers amidst the present culture of obfuscation and secrecy that expands the geographies of state containment.


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How to Cite
Hiemstra, N., & Conlon, D. (2021). Reading Between the (Redacted) Lines. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 20(6), 666-686. Retrieved from
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