National Fellow

Brianna Nofil

Frank Gardiner Wisner National Fellow
B.A. Duke University (2012)
M.A. Columbia University (2015)
M.Phil. Columbia University (2016)
Dream Mentor:
Lisa McGirr
Harvard University
Fields of Interest:
Immigration Policy
Legal History
Political Economy


Brianna Nofil is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at Columbia University, where she specializes in the history of immigration and the criminal justice system. Her dissertation, “Detention Power: Jails, Camps, and the Origins of Immigrant Incarceration, 1900-2002,” examines how immigration detention emerged as a distinct form of “administrative imprisonment,” which propelled the expansion of jails and generated new modes of carceral profit-making. Brianna received her B.A. from Duke University and previously held the Bear Fellowship in Business, Law, and Human Rights at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. She is originally from South Florida and currently resides in NYC.

Thesis Description:

Detention Power: Jails, Camps, and the Origins of Immigrant Incarceration, 1900-2002
In 2018, the U.S. detained immigrants at over 400 sites, ranging from county jails to office buildings to federal detention centers. “Detention Power: Jails, Camps, and the Origins of Immigrant Incarceration, 1900-2002” examines how this distinct system of “administrative imprisonment” emerged, tracing its development from the era of Chinese Exclusion to the era of ICE. This project demonstrates how the immigration bureaucracy fueled the expansion of the carceral state, creating new demand for jail space and partnering with local law enforcement to surveil and police migrants. This dissertation pays particular attention to how the immigration service’s reliance on county jails fostered a century of collaboration between local communities and the federal government, recasting deportation as a federal initiative impossible to carry out without local cooperation. Throughout the twentieth century, sheriffs negotiated nightly rates for detaining immigrants at their jails, counties competed with one another for lucrative federal contracts, and citizens, civil rights groups, and religious communities grappled with the ethics of jailing immigrants who had not been accused of any crime. By focusing on how towns and municipalities partnered with the federal government to expand the state’s capacity to detain, “Detention Power” excavates the web of political negotiations, financial deals, and conflicting conceptions of punishment that allowed the U.S. to steadily expand its detention footprint.

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