Interview: Working as an EMT at the US-Mexico Border
“The policies we have at the border and this militarization, building fences, they didn’t start with Trump. This is a lot of the policies have continued from the Obama administration much earlier… Bush and Clinton.”
Citizen Truth had the pleasure of speaking with Ieva Jusionyte who spent over a year volunteering as an EMT at the Nogales, Arizona border area. Jusionyte is also an assistant professor of Anthropology and Social Studies at Harvard University and the author of Threshold: Emergency Responders on the U.S.-Mexico Border, which details her experience as a paramedic at the border and the complexities of border communities and border life.
Jusionyte’s unique combination of academic expertise and her time spent as an EMT make Threshold a compelling and important read in a world of escalating border tensions and as we watch the increasing militarization and criminalization of our southern border.
Enjoy portions of our interview below, you can also watch the full interview on our YouTube channel.
Today we’re talking to Ieva Jusionyte and you are a professor of anthropology at Harvard. Also, you just wrote a book called Threshold Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border. But I also found out that you wrote a book about the border in Argentina, right? Do you have a particular interest in borders?
I think so. I have always been interested in the U.S.-Mexico border. When I was doing my dissertation research, I couldn’t go to the U.S.-Mexico border. I just studied journalists and how they report on violence, so I was looking for another area to ask those same questions. But I think coming from Lithuania, that’s part of the reason why I’m so interested in societies that are in between. Our Lithuanian history was always way between the east and the west and they were different countries that we were part of. So I was very intrigued by this division of space and political community.
What was your experience in terms of the feeling down there? Does it feel like a kind of combative area, with hostility or acceptance? Obviously, there’s a lot of different communities.
I think you can feel this heavy presence of federal security enforcement in the region and the people who erect the checkpoints are, these are border patrol agents, they usually not from the area. They are rotated from other parts of the country and they live in the community, but for a very short time.
Whereas locals, were they ranchers or emergency responders or local business owners, they have different opinions of whether this is needed to secure the border or not. Some say yes, some say no.
Well, there was a lot of activism going on around the checkpoints, a lot of protest. There’s a lot of profiling going on for people who are either of Mexican nationality, descent, or dual citizens who raise suspicion when they go through checkpoints. Even the emergency responders I worked with were often, you know, questioned just because border patrol agents couldn’t understand maybe in their first weeks at the border that this is the composition of the community right here.
In addition to the border patrol agents, what’s happening there, there are also these volunteer militiamen who moved to the area and… yes, they are taking the law into their own hands and their presence is also very complicated. A lot of local people don’t want them, but some others are okay with them.
So borderlands are like anywhere else. People have different opinions on it, but they, they really live it daily.
Let me ask you, why did you want to go down? What were you looking at from the anthropology perspective?
So, you know, we say that the border needs to be secured, we need to build a wall, we need to send more border patrol agents to the line, we need all this technology of surveillance. But for people who live in these border communities, do they feel more secure? Do they feel less secure when all of this security build-up happens?
And being an emergency responder and working with emergency responders, I thought that’s a very good approach or an access point to understand the issue because emergency responders are there in the worst situations – whether it’s a heart attack or whether it’s a dehydrated migrant going across the border, whether it’s a fire or a flood, they, they are there when people are unsafe or insecure in the most tangible ways.
Also because emergency responders, they are this very contradictory role. On the one hand, they work for the government. They work for the local government… and since 9-11, a lot of emergency departments, so fire-rescue departments, have been integrated into the international preparedness system… the mission has been shifted a little bit to also include potential terrorist attacks if they come across the border and tried to sneak in chemical weapons or something like that.
But on the other hand, they are also medical professionals, so their primary responsibilities to help people regardless of their legal status, nationality, criminal background. So, so they have this humanitarian imperative to help anyone and everyone. And at the same time, they work for the government that’s enforcing these laws – that hurts some people. So I thought that’s also will be helpful for an anthropologist to show how contradictory state processes are on the ground.
So what did you find? Did you think that the local community felt more secure with a strong border presence or strengthening the border, building a bigger wall, putting in more money for more surveillance or so on?
No. And it wasn’t very surprising. The security, the militarization clearly has a negative impact on the social ties between the two communities that depend on each other in an emergency.
So there are situations when emergency responders from Mexico have to come to the United States to help with large fires for example and vice versa. When there are big hazardous materials incidents in these maquiladoras or assembly plants that are producing a lot of components for American industry then the Americans provide training, provided equipment.
So there is this collaboration which is being hurt by, not so much by the rhetoric, but by the very material interventions into the landscape. Like the border fence, first responders were used to passing firehoses across the border fence, but as the fence gets or the wall gets bigger and there is now this mesh that doesn’t even allow to pass the hose through the gaps in the border fence, that becomes more difficult.
It’s more difficult for emergency responders to get visas to cross into the United States, which they used to do all the time. To help with, to provide manpower for the U.S. emergency responders. In addition, they are members of these larger communities in Mexico and then the United States which even the rhetoric or the discourse, the bigger policies, are being driven apart.
When you talk about the emergency responders, to me it paints a picture of these two communities actually being very kind of intertwined and working with each other and then this border, then the militarization that we do just keeps kind of dividing it – which actually creates more problems rather than the original community that worked well together.
Yes, that’s absolutely correct… So these communities are connected… the communities are connected socially through work, through school, through business. A lot of towns in southern Arizona, they don’t have property taxes, so they live off sales taxes and a lot of shopping is done by Mexican shoppers. So even, even municipal services that needs taxpayer money in a way depend on this cross border movement.
At the same time, it’s also infrastructure. The water, even the sewage, the sewage from Mexico, most of these tunnel into the United States to treatment plants. There are talks to create binational electric grids. Air pollution is another big issue. In a way which is caused by very long lines that trucks have to wait at inspections to get into the United States. They idle there for hours and that makes air pollution worse than a few years ago.
And the border patrol built these barriers inside the tunnels. Because of the landscape, Mexico is uphill, upwind and upstream from the United States. So when it rains, for example, the water rushes towards Arizona and they install these barriers in the tunnels that the water needs to go through creating a plug which ended up exploding or causing explosions in the streets in Mexico, inundating part of the town.
So it’s very… it’s one environment, and air, water, fire doesn’t see these political boundaries as relevant. And people who live there also depend on this shared understanding that we have to think of this space as one and there are some really nice efforts going on. The EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, has been working with their Mexican counterparts and trying to find solutions to environmental emergencies in the border zone. And the border zone is understood as hundreds of kilometers north and south of the boundary. So we’d have to really think about it as one region – train and equip emergency responders on both sides and find policy solutions to air pollution, water pollution that cross these national jurisdictions.
Do you think there is a place where there does need to be a discussion about what to do in terms of addressing immigration and the problem? …Rather than just pretending that there isn’t a problem?
Whoa, it’s a question you can write several books about that.
In terms of the current situation with asylum seekers, this has really nothing to do with the border wall because these people are coming and asking for asylum at ports of entry or they’re presenting themselves as soon as they cross the border, they are not even trying to evade authorities.
But the border wall was, it’s politically marketed primarily to stop illegal drugs from getting into the country and from preventing unauthorized entry by people into the country. And it’s been counterproductive for both.
For drugs, most of them come through the ports of entry anyways, hidden in the vehicles or they are being taken through very remote areas or launched using catapults or taken through tunnels for the people – it happens similarly. Unauthorized migrants that used to come – not the current asylum seekers, but people who used to come here for work and they didn’t even try to ask asylum – a lot of them had to pay a lot. Big fees to organized crime groups who would control these more remote areas in the desert where there are several days of travel to reach those areas. So it helped almost in our enforcement of the border, helped increase, solidify, and fund organized crime in Mexico. So that’s very counterproductive I think.
So they’ve kind of built up an industry of working to get around the border. And so when you look at this, you go on and you make the border bigger, you’re just reinforcing the industry that’s already there working to get around the border?
Exactly. Because there is no… the incentives, the motivations haven’t changed. So it only makes it more profitable, and more costly depending on who you are.
…there are countries that have different policies for how to admit immigrants and how to give them, whether it’s temporary work permit or permanent status. And this is where a lot of solutions have to come from. Definitely, for current asylum seekers, there are a lot of push factors and Central American countries that make them want to flee.
But there are also issues with our immigration system that’s very complicated and solutions can be found through policy such as temporary seasonal work permits or family, different family reunification programs or sometimes because of… well, I really don’t want to go into that because immigration law is not my expertise. But there are some very strange rules that make people, make them wait for 10 years, for example, to bring your spouse from Mexico to the United States – which could be made simpler. And it will also motivate more people to be seasonal laborers, like they used to be, go back and forth between the countries.
Now a lot of people who came here earlier, they are stuck because they know how difficult it would be to cross again if they needed to come, you know, to get a construction job and then go back to their home country… Now they know they couldn’t come back to the U.S., so more of them are motivated to stay here. And again, this has nothing to do with increasing the heights of the border wall.
Have you looked at the media’s role in the U.S.-Mexico border?
I didn’t study it specifically, but I’ve worked a lot with journalists obviously both while I was at the border and now that my book came out. I’m very interested in how we talk about it, what problems get foregrounded, how we portray the border as this place of crisis and insecurity.
I think there is a lot of good journalism being done now, where people really care – how do the local communities experience this militarization or intensification of rhetoric about the border crisis? But too often the further you are from the border, the less you know about it and the more you are affected for fear by fearmongering. I think media has a very big responsibility of not giving to that, not make headlines only that reinforce people’s very often simplistic understandings on both sides.
You know, as you say, it’s not… the policies we have at the border and this militarization and building fences, they didn’t start with Trump. This is, a lot of the policies have continued from the Obama administration, much earlier – Bush and Clinton. This is part of what our political establishment has been doing for many decades.
And yes, there are drugs coming across the country or across the border. But again, the reason is because there is high demand in the United States. So maybe we should address the problem of addiction and look at it as public health and not necessarily through an enforcement lens. So I think these are very, very important conversations, that are not always easy to put in a simple and short narrative.
Thank you. Thank you for your experience going down there and writing the book Threshold, we’ll include a link to it. People can check it out. I hope to hear more from you. So I’ll try to keep in touch because I think what you’re doing is fascinating and important. So thank you.
Thank you. Let’s, let’s keep in touch. Take care.
*Note this transcript has been edited from the video version for clarity. Check out our video interview with Ieva Jusionyte on our YouTube channel, where you can enjoy the rest of our conversation and her insight.