Reading the Border Crisis

Scott McLemee highlights some new and upcoming books that are relevant to the current border crisis.

July 12, 2019
 
 
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Migrant caravan in Tijuana, Mexico

Several recent and forthcoming books from scholarly presses look highly pertinent to the border crisis now in the news. Some focus on how the relationship between the United States and Mexico plays out along the boundary between them. Others are more generally about migration, displacement, detention and refugee status as definitive facts of 21st-century life. A couple of the titles in this roundup will not be published until early next year; none is likely to grow less timely in the interim.

There are walls, and then there’s the Wall: a campaign promise, ideological linchpin and architectural mirage all rolled into one. (It hasn’t been in the headlines much lately, but give it time.) C. J. Alvarez is more interested in exploring real-world developments in Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the U.S.-Mexico Divide (University of Texas Press, October), a study of “the accretion of ports of entry, boundary markers, transportation networks, fences and barriers, surveillance infrastructure, and dams and other river engineering projects” built since the mid-19th century. Authorities on both sides of the border once showed “unbridled faith in the capacity to control the movement of people, goods and water through the use of physical structures.” But this created a vicious circle of “compensatory building” -- efforts “to mitigate unsustainable policies relating to immigration, black markets and the natural world.” (Quoted material in this column is taken from fall 2019 university press catalogs except when otherwise indicated.)

Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Díaz-Barriga’s Fencing in Democracy: Border Walls, Necrocitizenship and the Security State (Duke University Press, January 2020) treats the phenomenon of the border wall (with “over 30 nation-states constructing them”) as an aspect of “transformations in citizenship practices that are aimed not only at keeping migrants out but also enmeshing citizens into a wider politics of exclusion.” The authors’ use of the unfamiliar and enigmatic term “necrocitizenship” suggests the influence of Cameroonian political theorist Achille Mbembe, whose Necropolitics arrives in translation in October, also from Duke. Alluding to Michel Foucault’s concept of “biopolitical” institutions and practices that monitor and regulate human populations (e.g., census taking and vaccination programs), Mbembe “theorizes the genealogy of the contemporary world -- a world plagued by ever-increasing inequality, militarization, enmity and terror, as well as by a resurgence of racist, fascist and nationalist forces determined to exclude and kill.”

A couple of forthcoming collections of papers focus on how territorial boundaries leave their marks on the people who live near them or attempt to cross them. Bioarchaeology of Frontiers and Borderlands, edited by Cristina I. Tica and Debra L. Martin (University Press of Florida, September) presents studies of “how people in the past created, maintained or changed their identities while living on the edge between two or more different spheres of influence.” In this case, the appearance of the prefix “bio-” is not of Foucauldian provenance: the papers use “isotope data, skeletal stress markers, craniometric and dental metric information, mortuary arrangements, and other evidence to examine how frontier life can affect health and socioeconomic status.” Thomas E. Sheridan and Randall H. McGuire, the editors of The Border and Its Bodies: The Embodiment of Risk Along the U.S.-Mexico Line (University of Arizona Press, November), focus on “the terrible toll migration takes on the bodies of migrants -- those who cross the border and those who die along the way -- and discusses the treatment of those bodies after their remains are discovered in the desert.”

Jeremy Slack describes a grim form of homecoming in Deported to Death: How Drug Violence Is Changing Migration on the U.S.-Mexico Border (University of California Press, July). Those forcibly returned to Mexico “frequently become targets of extreme forms of violence, including migrant massacres” and often find themselves in the crosshairs of “the high-profile drug war” between cartels that responsible for “more than 200,000 deaths in Mexico.”

Among the forces driving immigration around the world are the trends Oswaldo de Rivero analyzed in The Myth of Development: Non-Viable Economies and the Crisis of Civilization, originally published in 2010 and forthcoming in a new edition (Zed Books, distributed by the University of Chicago Press, September). Arguing that both statist and market-oriented paths to economic development have failed in many countries -- where “cities, in particular, are collapsing into ungovernable chaotic entities,” the author proposes that the priority now must be “a policy of national survival based on providing basic water, food, renewable energy, and stabilizing their populations.” I’m pretty sure those things also fall under the heading of development, but in any case, it’s clear that the lack of them will continue to unsettle populations, pushing them across frontiers.

And when they do, mass media both reflect and shape “people’s preferences regarding migration policy, expectations towards newcomers and economic, humanitarian and cultural concerns about immigration’s effect on the majority population’s life” -- matters taken up by Images of Immigrants and Refugees: Media Representations, Public Opinion and Refugees’ Experiences, edited by Leen d'Haenens (Leuven University Press, distributed by Cornell University Press, June). Whatever the impact of mass migration on public opinion, T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Leah Zamore’s The Arc of Protection: Reforming the International Refugee Regime (Stanford University Press, September) maintains that the systems of international law and national policy established following World War II are “unable to address the record numbers of persons displaced by conflict and violence today.” The authors “identify compromises at the founding of the system that attempted to balance humanitarian ideals with developmental aims and sovereign control of their borders by states.” They propose “refocusing on responsibility-sharing, seeing the humanitarian-development divide in a new light, and putting refugee rights front and center.”

Well before that ever happens, we’ll have Philip G. Schrag’s Baby Jails: The Fight to End the Incarceration of Refugee Children in America (University of California Press, January 2020) to remind us that “the U.S. government’s practice of jailing families for months or even years until courts could decide on their claims for asylum” has been an issue for decades. Schrag recounts the complex repercussions of the case of Jenny Lisette Flores, an unaccompanied 15-year-old Salvadoran immigrant who “languished in a makeshift jail of a motel surrounded entirely by barbed wire” after being caught by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1985.

The case reached the Supreme Court in 1993, though the tortuous legal process did not end then. An opinion handed down three years ago by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit noted that the settlement of the Flores case in 1997 expressly called for children in detention to receive “food, clothing, grooming items, medical and dental care, individualized needs assessments, educational services, recreation and leisure time, counseling, access to religious services, contact with family members, and a reasonable right to privacy.” The Trump Administration has insisted that the prison-like conditions children are being held in near the border are, in fact, fully consistent with the legal requirements of the Flores settlement. It was 80 years ago this summer that readers first encountered the name for this sort of thing in the pages of George Orwell’s last novel. He called it “doublethink.”

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