“The migrant is not a statistic, he has a face and dignity.” — Mural at a shelter in Mexico.

The recent tear gassing of Central American asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border serves as a stark reminder to us all of the reasons for why people seek asylum in the first place.

In her book Lives in Transit: Violence and Intimacy on the Migrant Journey, anthropologist Wendy A. Vogt outlines the dangerous journey asylum seekers undertake, discusses how politicians may position the migrant journey to fit political need, and reminds us what is truly at the heart of this moment in time—the dignity and safety of people in need.


“In the United States, political and public discourses on migration from Latin America typically begin and end at the U.S.–Mexico border, but for many people crossing that border is but one phase of a much longer journey. Each year tens of thousands of people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and beyond leave their homes in search of a more secure future. Before reaching the scorching, deadly deserts of Arizona or the sweeping currents of the Rio Grande / Río Bravo, migrants must first cross Mexico, a paradoxical, resource-rich, naturally and ethnically diverse land of striking economic inequality, and the center of a hemispheric war on drugs. Between Mexico’s southern and northern borders, migrants spend indefinite periods of time navigating the complex physical and human terrain of the journey. Increased militarization and state enforcement by roadside checkpoints, raids, and detention centers have created borderlike conditions throughout Mexico’s interior. Migrants are funneled into more clandestine and dangerous routes, where they may engage human smugglers, buy passage from the organized criminals who control transit routes, and sometimes ride on top of freight trains. They routinely encounter abuse, injury, extortion, sexual assault, and kidnapping as they become caught up in local economies that profit from their plight. In response to this violence, a diverse network of migrant shelters has been established  along transit routes, offering aid and advocacy to migrants in need. …

Media and politicians often attribute the violence experienced by migrants to a typical cast of “bad guys”—brutal drug cartels, human smugglers, a few “bad apple” corrupt authorities, and sometimes migrants themselves. Indeed, unauthorized migrants are treated as both criminals and victims, depending on political strategy and context. In all these cases, blame is placed on opaque extralegal entities that render states and citizens devoid of responsibility. Inspired by a rich body of literature in the anthropology of violence, this book offers a different perspective so that the story of Central American migration does not become yet another predictable tragedy and fade into the background static of contemporary drug and border wars. It seeks to complicate the narrative of Central American migration by focusing on the deeper conditions that systematically produce and sustain violence along transit routes and in people’s lives. In reality, the “bad guys” blamed for violence are actors maneuvering within the constraints of the structures of global capitalism and state enforcement where there is profit to be made from the mobility of unauthorized people. …

Framing Central American migration as flight forces us to rethink the distinctions we often make between economic migrants and asylum-seekers/refugees. Many of my interlocutors’ narratives did not fit the traditional or legal definitions of either category, raising questions about the cogency of such terms and the need for broader analytical categories of mobility and violence as spatially and temporally deep. Moreover, migrants’ narratives bespeak the historical entanglements connecting Central America and the United States. The insecurities produced through a history of neoliberalism, criminal-state violence and securitization continue to undermine people’s ability to live with safety and justice. Through migration people both spatially express collective histories of violence as well as enact their determination for a better future for themselves and their families. The violence people experience along the journey echoes both the violence and the struggle for dignity that in many cases have shaped their entire lives.”

Read more from Lives in Transit.