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ABF Doctoral Fellows: Heba Alex & Oscar R. Cornejo Casares

  • When: September 28, 2022, 12 pm
  • Where: Zoom: To register, contact Sophie Kofman at

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Rights Negotiation within the Boundaries of Citizenship

Sociological studies widely acknowledge that rights contestation is a major tool in majority versus minority/marginalized struggles within the boundaries of citizenship. Often, however, these rights struggles are interrogated through a binary boundary framework of the majority vs. the minority in the context of group competitions over resources. Whether scholars examine how citizens differentiate themselves from noncitizens or contend that the unequal extension of rights creates hierarchical classes of “citizens,” the literature focuses on competitions over rights that occur along traditional axes such as race, religion, gender, and nationality. This suggests that similar struggles do not happen within the majority, defined by the literature as the group with the “most types of rights.” How rights play out in differentiation disputes within more or less homogenous groups, where classification struggles often defy binary boundaries, is much less understood.

For example, what happens in a hypothetical situation where rights are extended equally among, say, white, Protestant, native-born, male citizens? Who gets excluded, and how?  I explore this line of inquiry by tracing how rights to access certain occupations were mediated through the personal qualification of having a “good moral character,” a vague stipulation that was common in state statutes after the Civil War. Examining the consequential contestations that emerged as a result of including this substantive element in the formal legal code, while delegating the authority to adjudicate the good moral character requirement to different private actors, illustrates the ways rights remain in flux within the juridical field even when some appear more stable/settled than others. Moreover, it demonstrates that rights negotiations regularly construct ways to restrict privileges within categories, even if such limitations are not necessarily hierarchical.

Heba Alex is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on how legal practices and institutions structure political spaces and understandings of citizenship. Her dissertation examines the coupling and decoupling of citizenship and rights. Using the U.S. as a case study, the project probes the conditions under which citizenship becomes the organizing principle of a specific right and why a right is removed from the citizenship field. She examines the variations in how rights and citizenship are bundled over space and time and how their (dis)connection moves across different activities and attributes. In addition, she is interested in examining legal decision-making from a Weberian perspective. Her research project on Cook County courts speaks to a broader interest in theorizing legal actors' behavior in a highly contingent legal environment that resists generalization. Prior to pursuing her doctoral studies, Heba worked at the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York and earned an M.A. in Gender and Women's Studies from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The Life and Afterlife of Migrant Illegality

Undocumented immigration has transformed American society. Yet, it remains a fundamentally misunderstood and controversial social problem. While migration scholars have developed significant contributions to the production of undocumented migration and/or the lived experience of undocumented status, sociological research has primarily directed its attention to the immediate and short-term effects of legal status. This dissertation study, thus, turns to the long-term intragenerational impact, investigating how legal status acts an axis of stratification with dynamic and cumulative consequences across the life courses of undocumented immigrants. I draw upon retrospective in-depth life history interviews of Latin American undocumented and formerly undocumented immigrants in the Chicagoland area. Thus, I seek to conceptualize the durability and temporality of migrant illegality as we as the power of the state and how immigrants respond, resist, or acquiesce to the immigration regime.

Oscar R. Cornejo Casares is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at Northwestern University. His research lies at the intersection of the sociology of law, race, and migration, particularly undocumented immigration. His dissertation, “The Life and Afterlife of Migrant Illegality,” explores the long-term, cumulative, and dynamic effects of undocumented status. The study is based on in-depth life history interviews of undocumented and formerly undocumented immigrants, their family members, as well as immigration lawyers in the Chicagoland area. Oscar’s research is informed by his personal connections and political activism with undocumented communities. In 2019, his co-produced documentary, “Change the Subject,” was released, which documents the history and political efforts to replace the subject headings "illegal aliens" from the Library of Congress. Oscar earned his B.A. in Sociology and Native American Studies from Dartmouth College where he was also a recipient of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship.

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