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Legal Care and Friction in Family Detention

By Erin Routon

Cite As:
Routon, Erin. 2021. “Legal Care and Friction in Family Detention.” Cultural Anthropology 36, no. 2: 312–339.


The modern instantiation of migrant family detention in the United States has resulted in the creation of carceral spaces in which conflict and care intermingle in everyday encounters. While legal advocates traversing these spaces offer critical aid to the detained, asylum-seeking parents and children confined within, legal advocacy is rarely recognized as caregiving work. Drawing from my ethnographic research with voluntary legal advocates working at family detention facilities in South Texas, this article demonstrates the potential for deploying a lens of care to such encounters, which I ultimately frame as “legal care.” I argue that cross-disciplinary conceptualizations of care, which emphasize its interdependency, relationality, and contested terrains (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017), as well as its practices as being marked by a continuous tinkering (Mol 2010), offer windows to reconfigurations of care and power that reside amid both the mundane and unpredictable frictions that characterize these environments.


legal advocacy; care; asylum; incarceration; family detention; United States