By Ieva Jusionyte, author of Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border
As news about migrant caravans traveling from Central America caught Washington’s attention last month, the government deployed over five thousand troops to the border with Mexico. To prevent what President Trump has called an “invasion,” the military personnel brought with them coils of concertina wire, which they unspooled on top of existing fences in towns along the country’s southern fridge, from California all the way to Texas. Not even that discouraged men, women and children who wanted to ask for asylum at the border crossing south of San Diego yesterday. Only tear gas turned them away, for now.
But there is another way in which fences do work. It has proven to be an effective mechanism of injury. For over a year, while volunteering as an EMT and paramedic on both sides of the border, I saw how the wall mutilates the bodies of those who try to scale it. It is the subject of my new book, Threshold: Emergency Responders on the U.S.-Mexico Border.
Women and men who fall of the newer 20-foot tall barrier break their legs and damage their spinal cords; some have died from head trauma. In towns along Arizona’s southern edge ambulances go to pick up wounded border crossers so frequently that emergency responders refer to the cement ledge abutting the wall as “the ankle alley.” The first time I accompanied them in Nogales, Arizona, we helped a woman with bilateral open ankle fractures. She was flown by helicopter to the regional trauma center in Tucson, where surgeons have become used to treating migrants with orthopedic injuries from falls of the wall. From EMTs to emergency room doctors, medical professionals are well aware that the mechanism of injury depends on the design of the barrier. The older fence, sections of which still stand near San Ysidro Port of Entry where the migrants approached the border on Sunday, is made of corrugated sheet metal the U.S. military used as landing mats for cargo planes and helicopters during the Vietnam War. It is shorter but some of those who tried to scale it got their fingers amputated by the same sharp edges that tore the tires of heavy military aircraft.
The wounds incurred at the wall are not accidental, but rather deliberately produced by policies. Criminalization of immigration, which took off in the 1990s, aggravated by concerns with terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, led the U.S. government to designate the border with Mexico as a source of potential threats and waging there what has been likened to low-intensity warfare. The wall is a key component of “tactical infrastructure”–a concept CBP uses to refer to the assemblage of materials and technologies that regulate movement in the name of national security. It is a weapon deployed on the frontlines of the overlapping “wars” the U.S. is waging in the borderlands–the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war on terror, and now, the war on immigration. More than seven thousand people have died crossing the militarized region in the last two decades.
Migrants are not the only victims of border militarization. By focusing on building barriers, federal authorities ignore the harm tactical infrastructure causes binational communities that straddle the boundary. Wildfires and flash floods, air pollution and toxic spills spread from one country to another without regard for the border. Aware of this intertwinement, emergency managers and first responders have developed binational partnerships. The U.S. Forest Service and Mexico’s National Forestry Commission jointly fight wildland fires within ten miles of the border. Sister cities have municipal mutual aid agreements, which allow them to share resources–including water–in cases of emergency on either side. Such binational cooperation is over a century old.
Deploying the military and building barriers undermines these achievements and threatens the safety and wellbeing of border residents. And it does nothing to dissuade those who are on the run for their own and their children’s lives.