By Ana Muñiz, author of Borderland Circuitry: Immigration Surveillance in the United States and Beyond

The passage below is an adapted excerpt from Borderland Circuitry.

I’ve loved the land for as long as I can remember. I grew up in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona, a stunning place knifed through by a nearly 2,000-mile long border with Mexico. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Chicana writers – Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo – helped me to understand this bewitching and brutal space, and my place in it. Anzaldúa wrote that the border functions as an “open wound/ dividing a pueblo, a culture,/ running down the length of my body.”[1] Yes, the border is a wound, a scar that has been cut and sutured many times over.  

And yet, people made a community around and through this barrier. To the southeast of the city of Tucson where I grew up is the border town of Naco, Arizona, United States; it has a lover from which it is divided, right across the border, in the town of Naco, Sonora, Mexico. Between the 1970s and early 2000s, residents of Naco, Sonora and Naco, Arizona used the barbed-wire border fence as a net in community volleyball games.[2] After the matches, people often slipped through holes in the fence for a drink with brothers and sisters on the other side. But the switch to taller and sturdier metal beams in the post-September 11th world ended the cross-border tournaments. Even if the metal beams were short enough to allow for volleyball, it is likely that a Border Patrol agent, outfitted as if they are in an active war zone, would quickly intervene to break up the game. And so, Naco, along with so many other towns along the border, became more militarized. Crossing now requires a more extensive screening process with more extensive documentation backed by higher walls and a widespread surveillance infrastructure.

By 2019, several contractors started to build sections of an even bigger, more imposing wall, not just in Naco or the Tucson sector, but across the breath of the line from San Diego, California to Brownsville, Texas. Under orders of the US Government, the metallic blades of bulldozers scythed through saguaro flesh in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Contractors extracted millions of gallons of groundwater near sacred Quitobaquito Springs and used it to mix concrete for The Wall.[3]

As construction contractors built The Wall, the US Government also selected tech contractors – Palantir, Amazon, Booz Allen Hamilton, Northrop Grumman, Dev Technology Group, SRA International, and more – to build digital surveillance systems that reinforce already existing borders, de-territorialize traditional border control methods, construct new borderlands, and construct immigrants and US-born people of color as dangerous. The border becomes ever more hardened physically as it becomes more fluid digitally. The spectacular visibility of The Wall works in concert with the invisible surveillance circuitry, feeding off of one another, each made stronger by the other.  

Over the years, I have come to see that my border is made not only of concrete, barbed wire, or steel but increasingly, of code. It has changed so much since I first read Anzaldúa, Cisneros, and Castillo, and I needed to understand its new form. When I sorted through mountains of novel government documents and spoke with immigration attorneys on the front lines, I found a border composed of digital circuitry that spreads far and wide and is serviced by an amalgam of law enforcement agencies – local police; state law enforcement; federal homeland security, border control, and immigration enforcement agencies; and partner law enforcement agencies in other countries – that work together to surveil, criminalize, brutalize, detain, and forcibly move people.

“Over the years, I have come to see that my border is made not only of concrete, barbed wire, or steel but increasingly, of code.”

Ana Muñiz

I followed these circuits from my borderland in Southern Arizona to California, where police across the state collaborate with law enforcement in Washington State, Nevada, Arizona, Maryland, Washington DC, and federal agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Law enforcement personnel in these agencies label Black and Brown people, both US citizens and non-citizens, migrants and non-migrants, as gang members. They then construct internal borderlands in the United States; law enforcement agents control where alleged gang members and associates can go and who they can socialize with. They use gang allegations as a justification to harass, harm, and deport people. I followed the surveillance circuits outside of the country too, as they snaked south across the US-Mexico border, carrying information from ICE to law enforcement partners in Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean, and even further, to Somalia, Laos, Vietnam, and Sudan.

I followed immigration attorneys as they tried to prevent their gang-labeled clients who were not US citizens from being placed in extended detention and then deported. They sought answers to basic questions – why was my client labeled as a gang member or associate? Which agency, which officer, gave them this label according to what criteria? They were frequently met with the unsatisfying refrain that law enforcement simply had reason to believe their client was gang-involved and to reveal any more information would compromise investigations. Sometimes attorneys were told that law enforcement considered their client to be a gang member because a database or an automated assessment tool said so. Consequently, the paper trail dead-ended somewhere into the black box of law enforcement privilege.

I opened the black box and found that law enforcement agencies have programmed automated classification tools to construct immigrants and US-born people of color as dangerous based on unreliable information gleaned from field interviews, informants, and other databases. This racialized, subjective, and sometimes fabricated information is transformed into authoritative hard data after it is processed through digital data systems.

As often as my heart can handle it, I return to the US-Mexico borderlands to see the ways in which this disembodied and deterrritorialized surveillance data hits the ground and the body. I go out into the borderlands and I see how lawmakers and white supremacists have tried to make a beautiful land ugly with blood and bulldozers; how they destroy plant and animal flesh for The Wall, and how they destroy human bodies in detention centers and in the desert. Politicians and law enforcement officers raise the specter of violent cross-border gang members to justify the mass death and the destruction of land for border militarization. You see, the surveillance technology, the digital databases, they are just new ways of doing old things. The cruelty is now more efficient.

But I also see that the electric beauty of the land persists. Sometimes, the fury of the desert, the floods and winds, knock down those walls. I see the beauty of fronterizo/as – borderland people – who have moved across the international boundary since its inception, perhaps for a post-volleyball game beer with fellow fronterizo/as. I see laborers churning and irrigating the land, showering it with love. Many fronterizo/as have built community without regard for the border between them, between us.

I see this transformative work happening in all of the other places to which I followed the circuits too. I see people who are unsatisfied with ineffectual reforms reaching for the roots of systems of state violence. In the process, they challenge the legitimacy of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, and the criminalizing labels that they generate. Anzaldúa knew that inhabiting the borderlands is painful, but also potentially transformative. A hole cut in the border fence is a portal to other possibilities.

[1] Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera, 2.

[2] Gallón, “When Neighbors Played Volleyball Over the U.S.-Mexico Border Fence,” N.P.

[3] Prendergast, “Contract for Stretch of Arizona Border Wall,” N.P.; Prendergast, “Ancient Watering Hole at Risk from Border Wall Construction,” N.P.