Visiting the ‘ground zero’ of US border control

dsc_0357-e1480422548270-169x300Associate Professor Leanne Weber headed to Arizona in early November for a short study tour as part of her Future Fellowship project on Globalisation and the Policing of Internal Borders. Arizona has often been described as the ‘ground zero’ of US border control because of its proximity to the US-Mexico border and its harsh approach to internal border enforcement. Leanne’s visit was made even more poignant by the shock result of the Presidential election, which reignited debates and fears about mass deportation, the reinforcement of border walls, and the rights of immigrants and minority populations more generally. In fact, the election pledges made by President-elect Trump demonstrate the close relationship between processes of literal exclusion (through physical border control) and social exclusion (effected through legal restrictions and the deepening of social divisions) that lies at the core of Leanne’s Future Fellowship research.

The study tour began with colleagues at the Northern Arizona University, where Leanne discussed her Future Fellowship project with faculty members and addressed students on how to ‘build bridges’ between human rights and social research. At Arizona State University in Phoenix, Leanne met with the authors of a recently published book on Policing Immigrants, and spent election night commiserating with her hosts.  One potentially positive outcome from the local elections from a border control point of view was the defeat of long-time Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who spearheaded the involvement of local police in street-level immigration enforcement under the controversial SB1070 laws. The tour then took Leanne to the University of Arizona in Tucson, less than a one-hour drive from the US-Mexico border. Here Leanne addressed faculty and students on the topic of ‘What is a Border’, using powerful images from the Borders, Barriers, Walls exhibition held this year at the Monash Museum of Art. She had separate meetings with an investigative journalist who has published ground-breaking books on border control, and with the dynamic founder of the Colibri Centre for Human Rights that documents border-crossing deaths and disappearances and advocates for families. She was invited to observe Operation Streamline proceedings at the Federal Courthouse in which groups of undocumented immigrants were convicted en masse of the crime of illegal (re)entry, and participated in a public forum on border control and human rights with local activists and academics.

dsc_0387-300x169The tour culminated in an unforgettable visit to Mexico, beginning with a border crossing by car through the divided town of Nogales, and culminating in a return crossing by foot that evening. On both occasions, vans driven by private security personnel engaged by the US government to carry out deportations could be seen depositing migrants at the border. On the Mexican side, Leanne was taken to see the politically-charged artwork that adorns the metal border fence, including tributes to Jose Antonio Rodriguez, a Mexican teenager who was fatally shot on Mexican territory by a US border guard. She visited a government-run reception centre providing support to migrants, a local community centre that supports children and families in a poor neighbourhood of Nogales, and a family-run hostel that provides shelter and food both for migrants returned across the border by US authorities and those waiting to make the crossing.  Assisted by her Spanish-speaking host, Leanne repeatedly heard heartbreaking stories about family separation, the extreme dangers of desert crossings due both to environmental hazards and human malfeasance, and the determination to succeed in reaching the US, even in the face of repeated failures or expulsions. Later that evening, our group was joined by photo-journalists from the German news magazine Der Spiegel, who were researching a feature story on the implications of the election of Donald Trump from the perspective of migrants.

Leanne’s visit to the ground zero of US border control brought to life the harsh realities of practices she had previously only read about. She was left with an even deeper conviction about the futility, harm and injustice of deterrence-based policies that are insensitive to the dramas and imperatives of people’s lives, and of the need for a dramatic change in thinking about the meaning and management of borders. Leanne is very indebted to the following people who hosted her visit and devised her thought-provoking and inspiring program:  Professors Nancy Wonders and Ray Michalowski of Northern Arizona University; Professor Emerita Marie Provine of Arizona State University; Assistant Professor Victor Breitburg and Associate Professor Bill Simmons from University of Arizona; and Scott Nicholson from the Nogales-based organisation HEPAC, who gives generously of his time to educate people about life on the other side of the border wall.