Border Emergencies

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

Reviewed by Rafael Wainer, University of British Columbia – Vancouver

This book provides a unique glimpse into the lives of first responders and firefighters in two bi-national local communities, in Arizona and Sonora, and their compassionate attempts to aid border crossers. Jusionyte bluntly shows us the conditions of life (and death) encountered by those who attempt to cross the border. She makes visible the biographies and stories that are hidden in the statistics that government officials use to depict migrant and ecological crises. She does this from within, she stays with the trouble, and she also inserts the local dramas she recounts in a larger political and legal narrative. As both an anthropologist and a first responder (as well as an EMT) working with fire departments on both sides of the border, Jusionyte helps the reader grasp the realities of everyday life for first responders. The ethnography brilliantly shows the local impacts of techno-bureaucratic-military top-down border rationality as well as the bottom-up humane interactions between the two sister towns of Nogales, on either side of the Mexico/US border. Threshold is at its best when unpacking microlevel politics, the concrete, mundane and localized facets of the medical frontline/borderline emergencies, but it falls short when analyzing the macropolitical processes that effectively criminalized border crossers in the  border zone. Jusionyte effectively addresses how a militarized border dismembers and destroys human bodies attempting to cross it—and also harms those who have to respond to these emergencies—but offers fewer answers to the question of why this border is policed in this way.

The first strength of the book is how it breaks down the border crossing encounter, tracing the physical, emotional, psychological and social experience of borders for both first responders and the crossers whom they try to help. First responders and firefighters working on both sides of the border expose their bodies to all kinds of dangers while aiding border crossers. Michel de Certeau talks about how strategies of power and tactics of everyday life can oppose or interfere with each other. Here we see a similar analysis: On the one hand, a top-down border strategy is organized by a centralized, far-away, power aiming to control the “porous” terrain of the US/Mexico border. On the other hand, there is the tactical maneuvering of the border crossers coming from Mexico, a choreography of desperation zigzagging the “politics of wounding.” Jusionyte shows us the border crossers adapting to the constantly changing environment (both natural and built), a “terrain” that has been carefully orchestrated by the ruthless strategies of the powerful (Border Patrol talks about “tactical infrastructure”). First responders on both sides of the border also navigate these two logics. They may find border crossers trapped in a sewage pipe or lost in the middle of the desert, but they aim to help and provide care despite any xenophobic and racist central government rhetoric.

The second strength is the incredible access that the reader has to emergency care workers’ lived experiences. Her analysis of first responders’ daily lives is outstanding. From the protocols to manage biochemical hazards and bi-national hazmat drills to the handling of dismembered or injured crossers, the reader learns the language of first responders and sees, through Jusionyte’s thick descriptions, what they see while emergencies are unfolding in real-time. Jusionyte often describes her work among the first responders and the camaraderie that emerges in those situations as a kind of brotherhood; we can feel this, too. Jusionyte shows the reader the ordinary life of first responders, and her (more-than-bilingual) capacity to communicate between her first responder and anthropologist languages makes this book a rare gem. We see the first responders struggling with following unfair rules, or coping with their traumas, or bending bi-national protocols, or laughing in the middle of dark situations. We see them as humans with all their complexities. This is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the book.

However, while Jusionyte’s attention to micro-politics is remarkable, the reader is left with an ambivalent feeling that there were missed opportunities to further engage with the macro-politics that give meaning to these encounters and that evidently frame the personal politics of the author. The longstanding unequal Mexican-US relations, the political climate of historically and exponentially harsher border politics, the increasing deployment of surveillance and warfare technologies, and other trauma-inducing, systemic, and security-driven strategies that Jusionyte analyzes are framed, designed, and implemented by macro-political processes produced by a simultaneously amorphous and institutionally-demarcated state. Jusionyte declares in her introduction that “the border is a quintessential threshold of the state” and the state “both wounds and cares” (p. 24). We witness her journey as a first responder/ethnographer caring for those wounded by the dozens of different state agencies; yet, the top-down hierarchical strategies of the hurting state are often peripheral to her focus on the micro-level. That is a politics, too, as becomes clearer throughout. Her political choices are apparent in the writing style, in the choice of her object/subject of study, in the stories she chooses to tell (or not to tell), and in what she makes visible to the reader. Indeed, Jusionyte’s humorous and emotionally-detached writing helps the reader get vivid glimpses of her own and the first responders’ lived experiences. However, Jusionyte frequently refrains from engaging in detail with the constantly shifting alignments along lines of gender, race/racialization, and class among first responders. Since she was an insider/outsider working with (mostly) racialized men, I persistently wondered throughout the book what may we have learned, as readers, about the social spaces she engages in if she had dealt with such lines of division more explicitly.

Yet, overall, this book is a remarkable socio-historical-anthropological study of the war-zone landscape of the US/Mexico border. Jusioniyte shows the kinds of struggles people living in those bi-local places find themselves confronting, when working as first responders attempting to aid those crossing the border looking for a better future despite the techno-legal-militarized deterrents ready to smash their dreams.

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