All Along the Border

Scott McLemee reviews Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border by Ieva Jusionyte.

November 9, 2018
 
 

A number of social sciences take up issues, if not actual stories, "ripped from the headlines," as the ads for Law & Order used to say. An economist or sociologist may be called on to dispense suitable doses of expertise on something in the news crawl (tariffs, mass shootings, etc.) that they have researched -- secure in the knowledge that the public, while oblivious to questions of methodology, will have at least some notion of what their discipline studies.

Ethnography is a notable exception. The ethnographer's task is to describe a group's way of life -- not just what its members do but also how it coheres and the tensions or problems that strain its internal structure. I would be surprised if an ethnographer has ever set foot in a cable news studio except to do an ethnographic study of cable news studios. But that situation might change with Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border (University of California Press) by Ieva Jusionyte, an assistant professor of anthropology and social studies at Harvard University.

No area is more timely than the border just now. But where the author makes her mark is by describing and analyzing a dimension of border life that would slip through the cracks between its strictly political, economic and demographic aspects. Threshold takes the reader close to realities so easily overlooked that no public figure has even gotten around to lying about them.

Between 2015 and 2017, Jusionyte did fieldwork in towns on both sides of the border between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora -- in the towns' fire departments in particular. She observed life in the firehouse and also went along on emergency calls. Bilingual fluency, combined with training as an emergency medical technician, made her considerably more useful to the communities she studied than is usually the case with participant observers.

The towns' location near the border -- or, in the case of one of them, Nogales, right on top of it, with a tall fence between the Mexican and U.S. sides -- shapes everyday life in an especially complex way for emergency responders. It has a way of being at once irrelevant and inescapable. A wildfire does not respect boundary markers. That alone would give firefighters on both sides reason to join forces, in turn creating the special camaraderie of people with a shared experience of facing danger together. But trucks rushing from north to south have a much easier time of it than those going the other direction. Whatever social ties develop between emergency responders on both sides, the border itself remains "a quintessential threshold of the state," Jusionyte writes, where "political authority is perpetually remade, its legitimacy renewed."

One way the claim to legitimacy has been renewed -- or asserted in a highly consequential fashion, anyway -- is with the system of walls and fences that began construction under President Clinton and continues now in spite of a decrease in undocumented immigration that began during the Obama years. Jusionyte's report of her fieldwork includes detailed accounts of the human wreckage that emergency responders find at or near these barriers: people with broken limbs or mutilations, or severely dehydrated and starving, their attempts to enter the United States having been both unsuccessful and severely punished. "Unlike shipwrecks or automobile pileups, which happen without an intended cause," the author says, "border trauma is deliberate. It is calculated and produced by those who deploy the security apparatus …" The official jargon term of choice for this sort of thing is "tactical infrastructure" -- a label which can also apply to leaving gaps in the structure at points where the terrain is particularly dangerous. The landscape becomes a weapon.

Their training and professional ethics keep border-area firefighters and paramedics focused on the emergency to which they have been called, not on the national origin or legal status of the injured person. And politics is at or near the top of the list of subjects not to be discussed around the firehouse or on duty, in the interest of unit cohesion. At the same time, the border is a concrete, tangible fact of life -- and, often enough, a direct cause of the crisis they are handling. For some emergency responders living on the northern side of Nogales, the part in Arizona, being born in the United States barely counts as possessing American citizenship: "They are in the part of Arizona that the government considers an extension of Mexico, where constitutional rights can be suspended to uphold social order." Yet their work is necessary for that order to continue with anything like a reasonable level of safety and well-being.

Ethnography tends to present society as visible at fairly close range -- culture in its most compact manifestations. But in Threshold one gets a sense of huge problems under tremendous pressure; the scale is compressed but not miniature. The contradictions emerge sharply and with clarity, and it seems hard to imagine them continuing indefinitely.

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