mmigration and border-crossings from Mexico are daily headlines and topics of conversation in the United States, yet struggles happening offshore on US territory are more distant and out of sight. This invisibility means that they are less talked about. The US has a long history of interception at sea and detention of Haitian and Cuban migrants and asylum-seekers on US military and naval bases in Guantánamo Bay (Cuba), the Panama Canal, and elsewhere in the Caribbean (Koh, 1994; McBride, 1999). Farther away from the US mainland, there are important struggles over migration, interception, displacement, and resettlement happening on US territories in the Pacific. There, complex forms of jurisdiction and citizenship intersect with histories of colonization and occupation to create a grey landscape of entry, exclusion, access to asylum, and rights to belonging.

Few Americans know much about Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Located some 6200 miles from the west coast of mainland territory, Guam is the westernmost, unincorporated territory of the United States. Like other islands, it has been central to military strategy and spheres of influence. As Rogers (1995: 1) writes, “Guam is important because of the enduring imperatives of geopolitics, an enormous and underestimated force in the histories of small, strategically located islands, straights, and canals.” Guam has a lengthy history of territorial struggle shaped by colonization, occupation, and militarization. The island was a Spanish colony handed over to the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American war, part of the Treaty of Paris that also ceded Puerto Rico and Cuba to the United States. During World War II, Guam was occupied by Japanese forces and then liberated by American forces who in 1944 established one naval base and one air force base there. The UN Special Committee on Decolonization (2009) recently named Guam one of the last remaining colonies. 

Map by Project Cartographer Rob Fiedler under Island Detention Project 2013
Map by Project Cartographer Rob Fiedler under Island Detention Project 2013

The population of Guam is approaching 160,000. Due to the size of the military work force, its economy is tied closely to periods of military expansion and contraction. Like many islands, Guam is a space of transit, mobility, and a place where people seek asylum on land distant from mainland territory, but more proximate to countries of origin. During the Vietnam War, some 100,000 Vietnamese were resettled on Guam and lived in temporary camps en route to resettlement elsewhere. During the first Gulf War, 6600 Kurdish refugees were also resettled through Guam and spent time on the bases en route to new homes on the mainland.

Whereas military personnel and migrant workers arrive and depart from Guam as a well-known fact of daily life, few Guamanians are aware of the continuous, if small presence of asylum-seekers in prison and the ongoing reconfiguration of the carceral landscape. This group is hidden from view of the mainland population due to distance, but hidden from view of the local population because of the nature and location of their imprisonment. Until recently, most asylum-seekers detained were held in prison on Guam. They have come into view, however, during times of crisis and heightened visibility associated with particular arrivals. In 1999, for example, boats arrived carrying several hundred asylum-seekers from China. The prison filled beyond capacity, and authorities set up a tent city outside prison walls (United States Committee for Refugees 1999). The US Navy, Coast Guard, and what was then called the Immigration and Naturalization Services started intercepting boats and transporting people to Tinian. Because Tinian has distinct political status, people detained there were unable to access asylum. Shortly thereafter, the arrival of nearly 1,000 Burmese nationals seeking political asylum on Guam again prompted attention of mainland advocates concerned about access to asylum. 

As is often the case, distance and imprisonment curb access to asylum in myriad ways. While asylum-seekers on Guam have a legal right to make claims for asylum, their files are submitted to California, and their cases heard on televideo conference by a judge in Honolulu, approximately 3800 miles away. Many have neither legal representation nor local interpreters. In a recent report that sought to measure the isolation of foreign nationals in detention in the US, the National Immigrant Justice Center (2010) found Guam to be the most remote location in the country, due primarily to the lack of access to legal representation – the main factor measured. Although Guamanians have a history of volunteering with displaced groups on the island (notably, Vietnamese, Kurds, and Burmese; Smith et al. 2010), there are no community organizations dedicated to immigrant or asylum advocacy, and only one law firm handles immigration issues on the island.

In 2008, the US Congress passed the Consolidated Natural Resources Act, which pulled governance of migration on the other islands (the CNMI) under control of the Department of Homeland Security. Referred to as “federalization,” the ensuing process began in 2009 and brought a nearly 515,000 people on Saipan and Rota into status by April 2011 (Government Accountability Office, 2011). A new detention center was opened on Saipan in June 2011, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement began transferring detainees there. Although the Act includes provisions for asylum-seeking among transported detainees, no access to asylum will be allowed until the five-year transition period ends in 2014, thus shifting the borders of sovereign power once again and creating barriers to access with punitive carceral space on Saipan. Research for the Island Detention Project conducted on Guam and Saipan in 2010 and 2011 found that authorities were exploiting the punitive movement of populations between islands. Detainees are being transferred from Guam to Saipan as a way to restrict access to asylum, effectively shifting the border from island to island across the region.

This reconfigured carceral landscape has not been without controversy and power struggles over resources among governing bodies on the islands. Additionally, the regional expansion of border enforcement has fueled increases in underground economies of entry, intensifying sex and labor trafficking. The recently-proposed movement of 8,000 Marines and their families from Okinawa to Guam prompted a boom in housing construction, increasing demands for temporary labor, and growth in illicit entry and employment activity.

This contemporary movement of borders and people overlays broader struggles over colonization, citizenship, identity, and governance. A recent social movement also brings to the fore the Chamorro struggle for self-governance, territorial control, and full citizenship rights. “We are Guahan” is a movement that challenges the identification of Guam as a space of federal control and seeks forms of self-governance that would lessen federal control over the island.

Detention practices on islands reflect and also inform detention policies and practices onshore. Not surprisingly, US carceral society is present on Guam, but distinct, with anomalies and power struggles related to territoriality, jurisdiction, resources, and access to asylum on islands. The hidden nature and isolation of foreign nationals, migrant workers, and asylum-seekers in the region is a part of US carceral society that is little known, but highly representative of the ways that these groups find themselves isolated and invisibilized in detention on the mainland. Islands may occupy geographically marginal locations, but are prominent in the geographical imagination and strategies of sovereign power. Islands hold stories that link individual status to collective histories about power, control, governance, and belonging. 


Government Accountability Office (2011) Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands: Status of Transition to Federal Immigration Law. www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-805T  (accessed September 2012).
Koh HH (1994) America’s Offshore Refugee Camps. University of Richmond Law Review 29: 139-173.
McBride D (1999) Migrants and asylum-seekers: policy responses in the United States to immigrants and refugees from Central America and the Caribbean. International Migration 37(1): 289e317.
Mountz A (2011) The enforcement archipelago: detention, enforcement and haunting on islands.Political Geography 30: 118-128.
National Immigrant Justice Center (2010) Isolated in detention: limited access to legal counsel in immigration detention facilities jeopardizes a fair day in court.http://www.immigrantjustice.org/isolatedindetention (accessed November 2010).
Rogers R (1995) Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Smith TS, KD Smith, and A Peang-Meth (2010) University-based services for asylum seekers on Guam: empowerment, cultural learning and community. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 34:150-162.
United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization (2009) Special committee on decolonization approves text reaffirming principle of self-determination as fundamental human right. 19 June 2009. http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2009/gaco13197.doc.htm  (accessed January 04, 2010).
United States Committee for Refugees (1999) Where America’s day begins: Chinese asylum-seekers on Guam http://www.refugees.org/world/articles/asylum_rr99_8htm (accessed June 01, 2006).