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W&M history professor recognized by Society of American Historians

William & Mary Assistant Professor of History Brianna Nofil was awarded in May the 61st annual Allan Nevins Prize by the Society of American Historians for her dissertation, “Detention Power: Jails, Camps, and the Origins of Immigrant Incarceration, 1900-2002.” 

According to a press release, Nofil’s work was recognized for its depth and breadth of research, including work in more than 90 local newspapers, its chronological and geographical range and the moral urgency of its prose. 

“I was thrilled to receive the Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians,” said Nofil, who earned her Ph.D. at Columbia University. “It's great to hear people appreciate your work, but it also feels like important recognition that the stories and histories of migrant detainees are a significant part of American history.” 

“Detention Power” documents the long history of jailing immigrants and asylum seekers in the United States. It shows that since the turn of the 20th century, the immigration service relied on county jails and collaborations with sheriffs and local police in order to facilitate deportations and border policing, Nofil said. 

“These relationships often became profitable, as American communities received federal money for detaining migrants in local jails, effectively transforming incarcerated migrants into a local commodity,” Nofil said. “In 2021, communities throughout the U.S. are reassessing their relationship to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and in many cases, terminating the contracts allowing ICE to use local jails. 

“My research shows the deep roots of these debates around the ethics, politics and economics of local collaboration in immigration policing, and the ways this system has left migrants highly vulnerable to neglect and abuse.”  

In the fall, Nofil will teach an immigration history survey and a seminar called "American Borders, American Walls," which examines the history and ethics of border control and policing. She will also teach a history of U.S. public health course in the spring.

Nofil's other areas of expertise are U.S. legal history and the history of incarceration and policing.

The Allan Nevins Prize, named for the society’s founder, is awarded annually to a doctoral dissertation on an American subject. The winning dissertation will be published by one of the publisher members of the society.