When the Borderlands Became Home

"Hopping on a plane back home, I would leave behind the surveillance and the border wall, but I couldn’t shake off the people I met."

Reportage

US - Mexico border wall. Image courtesy of Adréanne Bissonette.
U.S. - Mexico border wall. Image courtesy of Adréanne Bissonnette.

 

As a researcher and student, field study is an important part of my work. I first started doing field studies for my Master's thesis in 2017, driving along the US-Mexico border, from San Diego, California to El Paso, Texas. I conducted interviews and sought to gain a practical understanding of the impact the border wall and immigration enforcement practices have on daily life in the borderlands.

 

This work was part of my master's degree dissertation on undocumented migrant women's access to health care in Texas and Arizona. I was able to meet with practitioners, scholars, researchers, NGOs workers and migrant women, discussing the experience of health care access in light of immigration restrictions.

 

During the following two years, I went back on three different occasions: twice to the Rio Grande Valley and once to the San Diego-Tijuana sector. Those experiences of the border were short, always had a beginning and an end. No matter what I experienced, I knew I would rapidly return to the comfort of my home and friends. Not to say that what I experienced, saw, and lived didn’t affect me, but no matter how hard it got, I could see the end. Eventually, I would leave the borderlands, no longer feel under constant surveillance, and no longer have the wall creep up on me at every turn.

 

As my research intensified and became more personal, those trips in-and-out of the borderlands became harder. Every time, the stories became more numerous and stayed with me longer. Hopping on a plane back home, I would leave behind the surveillance and the border wall, but I couldn’t shake off the people I met. I would see their eyes as I closed mine, and their stories stuck with me, making it harder every time to simply fall back into my daily routine.

 

When I returned from my last short stay in March 2019, I met a woman who had just been released by Customs and Border Protection and was flying to Hawaii for the first time with her two young children. She was set to reunite with her brother there and wait for her asylum case to be heard. This was just after the Trump Administration’s family separation policy was put in place. She was carrying a plastic bag containing her belongings — a few toys given by a local NGO, toothbrushes, and contraceptives.

 

What I will never forget is not only what she was traveling with, but what I saw in her eyes. Her strength was unlike anything I’ve seen before. She traveled alone with a toddler and young child, fleeing violence and insecurity in hope of living a life where her kids could play outside without fear of being fatalities of the gang wars. Through all the hardships, she remained one of the most genuine human beings I’ve met.

 

As this family started boarding, I told her that if she or her kids needed to use the bathroom, they should go now since it might be a while until we could be authorized to do so again. She looked at me and asked if I could go with her daughter while she stayed with her son. Here she was, trusting me with her daughter after knowing me for less than an hour. After we went our separate ways in Houston and I arrived back home in Montreal, it took me months to recover from this encounter. I regretted not giving her my contact information. I searched for her, I read all the articles on asylum cases in Hawaii, I woke up at night, shaken by nightmares of immigration controls.

 

***

 

In September 2019, equipped with my short-lived experiences, I embarked on my longest field study yet: a four-month stay at the University of Texas in El Paso. I packed my life in my small car and drove across the United States to the U.S.-Mexico border, where Texas, New Mexico, and the Mexican state of Chihuahua meet. During those months, my relationship with the borderlands changed. The borderlands became my home. I no longer experienced the border as an object of study, but as something that affected my movements, that marked a separation that, as days went by, felt forced rather than natural. Ciudad Juarez was right next to the university, and it felt both very foreign and very intertwined with daily life in El Paso.

 

Living in the borderlands also meant that everything relating to the "Remain in Mexico" asylum policy and Migrant Protection Protocol were no longer things I read about, but were happening a few miles from where I slept. As temperatures dropped during the Fall, all I could think about were those families sleeping outside, afraid of gangs, hunger, and government officials but mostly of missing their number being called and no longer having a shot at asylum in the U.S.

 

Living in the borderlands meant that every day, I drove home from the university with the border wall in sight. It meant hearing the Border Patrol helicopters flying over campus every night before going to bed. It meant seeing people apprehended as I drove around town or on the highway. It meant knowing that families were being torn apart by inhumane immigration policies while I was sitting in class.

 

Living in the borderlands takes every policy, practice and agency to an individual level. Nothing is faceless anymore. That border patrol agent is the father of a barista at your favorite coffee shop. That police officer collaborating with immigration enforcement is your neighbor. That Republican official is the father of a friend. That humanitarian worker is your friend. That undocumented migrant is someone you see every day, most of the time without knowing their immigration status.

 

While I knew I would be leaving El Paso, those four months changed how I felt about the region, about my work, and who I am as a human.

 

***

 

Kids at the border wall, Anapra, New Mexico / Puerto de Anapra, Chihuahua
Kids at the border wall in Anapra, New Mexico / Puerto de Anapra, Chihuahua. Image courtesy of Adréanne Bissonnette.

 

Movements mark the borderlands. The wall may stand tall, a visual and symbolic divide, but the U.S.-Mexico border remains one of the most crossed international lines in the world. For economic, cultural, political or family reasons, it is a space of constant movement.

 

As we move along and beyond the border, we travel with baggage – both material and immaterial. As a researcher, I bring my baggage with me to the border. My life experiences, my bias, my positionality, my interpretative lenses. These are all things that impact and inform how I receive the life stories I hear. It affects the way I connect emotionally with the people I meet, how I experience the constant surveillance, and even how I express myself.

 

As a privileged white woman, I bring my material possessions and comfort with me – as well as a Canadian passport. Unlike migrants whose passports may impede their movements, my identity papers allow me to move relatively freely along and within the border zone. I can cross back and forth without fear of harassment (what I can expect are jokes and questions about tacos as I cross back into the U.S.).

 

Migrants also bring baggage with them. While they may have fewer material possessions, their immaterial baggage, their stories, and their identity, are representative of the dual dynamics in the borderlands where everything is both rich and difficult.

 

Migrants embark on the difficult journey north for many reasons: economic hardship, gang violence, gender violence, governmental impunity, and more recently the negative impact of climate change.

 

Most women experience sexual assault during migration (official numbers estimate that 8 out of 10 women are raped or sexually assaulted in route to the U.S.-Mexico border). While the hardships are numerous, Central American and Mexican migrants are among the most resilient, courageous and inspiring people I have met. They are strong, face every challenge headfirst, and even when resources are scarce, they push through. They bring their own richness.

 

Every individual I met along the U.S.-Mexico border has stayed with me. Doing field work is an emotional rollercoaster, it requires almost as much work on yourself as on the research. Yet doing field work is one of the most enriching experiences – whether for a week or four months.

 

 

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Immigration, Borders, Mexico, Migration, Political Asylum, Asylum, Refugees, Governance, Gender, Women