Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Book Review: Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border



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Guest post by Erika Herrera Rosales. Erika is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Her research explores the power relations between Central American migrants and local NGOs in Mexico, from decolonial/postcolonial theoretical perspectives. You can find her on Twitter @erika_herros.

Review of Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border by Ieva Jusionyte (University of California Press, 2018)

Migrants who dare journey into the United States confront the hostility of the US-Mexico border. The 3145-kilometre border exists within a global system that seeks to suppress the mobility of racialised individuals. Through violent practices such as detention, deportation, and the building of the infamous wall, migration from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador,  Guatemala, amongst other countries, is being haltered. The border has also enabled more oblique ways to dissuade migrants. That is, by putting them at risk of being harmed and killed.

In Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border, Ieva Jusionyte retraces ‘mechanisms of injury’ (p.11) that threatens the lives of migrants. The book offers a detailed portrayal of the first responders who care for wounded migrants in the border cities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. Aid workers attempt to help people at the border after an accident; at the same time, rescue operations reveal how these emergencies are being engineered by the US government: “Rather than being ‘accidents’––unanticipated occurrences that happen unintentionally and result in damage––emergencies on the border are deliberately caused by government policies” (p. 13). It is through these pages that Jusionyte unearths how the US weaponised the landscape at the border with Mexico to create a deadly space for migrants.

Without following a rigid structure, Jusionyte recounts her fieldwork experiences with fire and ambulance services, as they respond to emergencies in multiple locations at the border. The author’s fluency in Spanish and English, as well as her expertise in emergency interventions (she had previously been an emergency medical trainee, firefighter, and paramedic volunteer), allow her to navigate bewildering events. Through interviews and observations, Jusionyte brings us closer to the interactions between paramedics, firefighters, border agents, and migrants.

In the first part, entitled “Ankle Alley”, we are introduced to the Arizona-Sonora border, part of the US-Mexico border, where migrants are regularly found injured at the base of the fence. “The border sliced those who challenged it, cruelly mutilating the bodies of men––it was mostly men back then––who were coming to find work” (p. 60). Jusionyte hears the stories of injured migrants from the early 2000s, recounted by firefighters over the years. She traces the deployment of the ‘tactical infrastructure’ by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that has maimed the bodies of migrants and limited the capabilities of emergency responders. Following people such as Bojo, a firefighter born in Arizona, and Araceli, a migrant found along the border wall with her legs broken, the author conveys the heavy responsibilities placed on first responders and the real-world consequences of the militarised border.

One of the most notable contributions of this book is found in the second part, “Downwind, Downhill and Downstream”. Jusionyte captures the solidarity across border communities, which has developed despite the divisive efforts of the US and Mexican states. In this part, we encounter two episodes where firefighters collaborate to suffocate a fire and contain a toxic spillage. Through a ‘bureaucratic wall’, the United States government restricts the actions of emergency responders. Bureaucracy and regulations hamper the ability of US emergency responders to perform their jobs; insurance does not cover them in Mexican territory, and there are security claims and compensation issues. Still, US emergency responders deliver high-tech equipment and specialised knowledge to their Mexican counterparts. Meanwhile, Mexican firefighters cross into the US and put themselves on the frontlines, reclaiming an historical brotherhood. However, aid and safety result in an asymmetrical exchange between the two nations, as binational cooperation is designed to benefit the US more than Mexico because the former has externalised their border control to its neighbour in the South.

In the third and final part, “Wildland”, Jusionyte untangles the difficulties facing first responders tasked with helping injured migrants at the border. The author introduces Tangye, a firefighter and paramedic in Arizona’s border town Arivaca. We witness her saving the life of migrants, or “border crossers” as she calls them, on a daily basis. She usually reports undocumented migrants to federal authorities. Like all emergency responders, Tangye can only be reimbursed for her expenses by the government. In a sense, medical care becomes conflated with immigration enforcement as emergency responders cooperate with the state. Humanitarian organisations, critical of emergency responders for participating with law enforcement at the border, take a different approach to supporting migrants, instead focusing on providing basic necessities and advocating for human rights.

This book carries out an intimate exploration of the people who inhabit the borderlands, whilst avoiding sensationalist accounts of migrant violence at the border. For those interested in border studies, medical anthropology, ethnography, and migration, this volume provides a stoic and exhaustive rendering of border policies. Although the author acknowledges the Mexican state’s interests in the border, much of the analysis is focused on the US government. Therefore, Mexico’s participation in creating a dangerous context for migrants could have been further discussed. As both states aim to entrench the fatality of the US-Mexico border, the book aptly examines the suffering of a border that has yet to heal.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Herrera Rosales, E. (2020). Book Review: Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/02/book-review [date]

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