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The Mischaracterization of the U.S.-Mexico Border

By Jill Fleuriet, author of Rhetoric and Reality on the U.S.—Mexico Border

“Oh, you’re from the border? Isn’t it awful down there?” For decades, I’ve heard a variation of this when I mention my childhood home of south Texas that borders Mexico. The comment is not only tiresome--it’s dangerous. How we think about a place shapes how we think about the people that inhabit it. The U.S.-Mexico border is, at best, misunderstood by most Americans.

The way we talk and think about the U.S.-Mexico border influences federal policy and funding for our immigration and security infrastructures as well as our humanitarian response to people crossing our borders. Each time ‘the border’ bubbles up in national media, we have an opportunity to challenge our assumptions about how we think of a place and to contribute to meaningful policy change.

In the United States, we have marginalized the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in south Texas, as a faraway place full of corruption and overrun by threats: poverty, disease, drugs, people. We minimize humanitarian crises facing people entering south Texas without legal documentation. We become desensitized to the suffering caused by epidemics of preventable, controllable chronic disease, such as diabetes. We treat regional poverty as inevitable. The border becomes a media spectacle rather than a real place. Unfortunately, our beliefs about the border can become self-fulfilling. 

The most recent news of the south Texas border describes a humanitarian crisis. As a nation, we are unable to take care of unaccompanied minor children crossing into the United States. Some media contextualize the unacceptable conditions and suffering facing the children within our long, checkered histories of a broken immigration infrastructure, but most don’t. The idea of a porous border remains forefront. Accusations from both sides of the aisle fly. Little seems to be getting done to help the children. Why?

As an anthropologist from the borderlands, I am interested in how and why we draw lines around people, places, and things. I’m interested in how we “border” our lives to define us and them and the impacts those borders have on wellbeing. I’m also keen to understand how we can deborder, or scrub away at the lines of difference, to improve our communities. What would it look like, for example, if we thought of the south Texas borderlands as rich with expertise and resources for our nation of rapidly shifting demographics? Would our immigration policy change? How? Or, what if we looked to the south Texas example for interventions and solutions to diseases such as diabetes? Would our national health improve? 

Part of my work traces how and why our southern borderlands are so easily mischaracterized. I also offer an alternative rendering of our nation’s southern border: a place of home, security, and innovation. Leaders in south Texas from all walks of life are committed to working across historical, established lines of difference to improve their borderland communities. Were someone to ask me how to address the current humanitarian crisis of suffering children, I would tell them to go talk to the people on the ground, doing the work. Talk to leaders in south Texas in health care, education, business, law enforcement, non-profit, politics, religion, and philanthropy. Talk to the staff in their organizations. They will have a better idea how to resolve the issues. They have dedicated their lives to doing so, and they are there

My book, Rhetoric and Reality on the U.S.-Mexico Border does just that. It drills deep into the thinking and action of local south Texas leaders. In so doing, a quite different narrative emerges, one that is hopeful, thought-provoking, and instructive.

Jill Fleuriet is Professor in the Anthropology Department of The University of Texas at San Antonio. She also serves as the Acting Dean of the Honors College. A cultural and medical anthropologist, her body of work considers how cultural practices, discourses, and structures about people and place shape well-being in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.