Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US‐Mexico Border

Wendy Vogt

Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border. Ieva Jusionyte, Oakland: University of California Press, 2018, 296 pp.

There is perhaps no border in the world that had garnered more scholarly, journalistic or political attention than the U.S.–Mexico border. More than simply a geo–political boundary, the U.S.–Mexico border is an intensive site of cultural and economic exchange, natural biodiversity, and political spectacle. It is also a site of conquest, violence, and trauma, what Gloria Anzaldúa poignantly called una herida abierta, an open wound. It is this metaphor of the border as an open wound that begins Ieva Jusionyte’s brilliant ethnography, Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border, and foreshadows her inquiry into the complex politics of wounding and rescue in the borderlands.

As part of the California Series in Public Anthropology, Threshold is a timely book that will appeal to academic and public audiences interested in a more nuanced understanding of security and humanitarianism on the border and the paradoxical role of emergency responders, who function as both state actors and mitigators of state violence. Threshold is not simply an ethnography of “the border” but a historically rich, place-based ethnography of the region around Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora—together known as Ambos Nogales. With vivid descriptions and keen ethnographic insights, Jusionyte uncovers how state policies, material infrastructures, and the natural world collide in both urban and rural locales. Her narrative, which she admits may appear at times disjointed or detached in tone, captures the element of surprise, the fragmented encounters, and the necessary pragmatism that accompany the work of frontline emergency responders.

Jusionyte is intimately familiar with her subject, as she herself is trained as a firefighter and EMT/paramedic. As she reveals in the fascinating “About this Project” section at the end of the book, it was Jusionyte’s desire to bridge her double life as an emergency responder and an anthropologist that led her to this project. Her unique positionality and experience allow her to build rapport and immerse herself in the social worlds of firefighters and paramedics on both sides of the line.

Part One focuses on fire departments near Ambos Nogales and how the work of emergency and rescue are related to the “tactical infrastructure” of the U.S. security regime. Part Two examines the spatial, ecological, and logistical dimensions of security and emergency response that connect communities on both sides of the border. Part Three travels to the rugged wildlands of southern Arizona, where Jusionyte illuminates the complex and at times conflicting ethical space between rescue and humanitarianism.

Medical anthropologists will be especially interested in Jusionyte’s nuanced approach to violence. Moving beyond theoretically informed structural understandings, Jusionyte urges her readers to understand violence in the ways emergency responders do, as immediate and urgent, where “action precedes analysis” (p. 28). It is this urgency and mandate to protect all human beings that compels the first responders she encounters to adopt a deliberately anti-political stance in their work. But while politics and religion may be off the table as everyday topics of conversation in the firehouse, Jusionyte questions this stance and ultimately argues that such anti-politics, even for “neutral” emergency responders, is unviable in the violent threshold of the borderlands.

Another valuable contribution of the book is the way Jusionyte reimagines border security and emergency through spatially significant material and ecological landscapes, and not just through a lens of immigration, the war on drugs, or terrorism. For her interlocutors, border security and emergencies are constituted through the movement of hazardous industrial chemicals on railways, toxins in the air and waterways and, of course, the steel wall that bifurcates the natural environment. Such border infrastructures have embodied consequences, what Jusionyte calls “border wounds.” A central argument in the book is that injuries that occur on the U.S.–Mexico border are not accidents but deliberate consequences of the “tactical infrastructure” of the U.S. security assemblage and the often deadly convergence of built and natural environments. Ankles broken from falling off the border wall or bodies swept away in washes and hazardous waste spills can be traced directly to state border policies. Residents south of the border, whether they are migrants, local residents, or emergency responders, bear the brunt of border wounds.

These inequalities are linked to asymmetries in the political economy of rescue work across the border. For example, while there is a rich history of binational collaboration and solidarity between emergency responders, and Mexican firefighters regularly put their bodies on the line to assist in U.S.-based emergencies, U.S. emergency responders can no longer cross into Mexico for insurance and liability purposes. The United States does provide the majority of supplies and training to Mexican firefighters, who are perpetually underfunded and do not receive the type of state support their U.S. counterparts do. In another example, emergency response units from small border communities cannot count on local taxpayer dollars to cover the expenses they incur from rescuing border crossers, so they must contact U.S. Border Patrol to bill the federal government. This creates tensions between emergency responders and humanitarian aid workers, who are wary of contacting emergency responders for fear that they will involve Border Patrol agents.

Jusionyte’s attention to these everyday politics illuminates both the power and limits of the state. The state is not monolithic, but comprised of a multitude of actors, including Border Patrol and emergency responders, who are both agents of the state and respondents to the violence it produces. The border becomes a “space of discretion” (p. 69). The decision to transfer an injured migrant to a hospital in the United States, for example, is up to individual border agents, who interpret and enforce what may prove to be flexible legal and ethical boundaries.

Threshold is a beautifully written book, rich with ethnographic insights and stories. While perhaps beyond the scope of the book, Jusionyte included several fascinating observations that may have warranted even more attention. For example, she hints at some of the complex social and intersectional dynamics involved in emergency work. She mentions several times that she and other female emergency responders were the only women in male-dominated spaces, and that women and LGBTQ folks were at times targets of ridicule within fire departments. She also mentions the ways the security assemblage of the U.S.–Mexico border extends across what she calls “racially variegated landscapes” (p. 86). What are these racial dynamics, and how might they play out not just within and between the United States and Mexico but in relation to Native lands on the Tohono O’Odham reservation, which has also been deeply affected by border militarization? A final point that perhaps warranted more attention was Jusionyte’s argument that emergency responders experience trauma and PTSD at levels equivalent to combat veterans. How does the daily immersion in such low-intensity conflict shape individuals, and what are the ripple effects of such trauma in the lives of the responders, their families, and their communities? Might this trauma be another manifestation of “border wounds”?

The epilogue of the book offers a sobering critique of the U.S. security agenda and the absurdity of plans to build a “great new wall” along the border. As borders around the world become increasingly hardened and journeys more dangerous, the compelling narratives, personal experience, and analysis in Threshold teach us about the human consequences of militarized border infrastructure, not only for migrants and asylum seekers in search of a better life but also for local communities and the emergency responders who put their own lives on the line every day.

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