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U.S. Border Surveillance Technology and the Dehumanization of Migrants

Alicia Schmidt Camacho, Yale University

This paper examines the visual technologies of surveillance deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border for the purposes of national security and immigration enforcement to discuss its dehumanizing effects on the migrant population. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents use a series of visual profiles as guidelines for interdiction at border checkpoints – with the stated aim of “facilitating the flow of legal immigration and goods while preventing the illegal trafficking of people and contraband.” My paper scrutinizes the state’s optics in producing these categories, in order to examine their broader social and political effects in the North American migratory circuit. As agents use invasive visual technologies like X-rays to uncover unauthorized people and goods, they expand police power over migrant bodies in ways that have mostly gone unremarked and unchallenged, but are propitious for multiple forms of abuse. In December 2013, a fifty-four year old Mexican woman brought federal charges against U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement agents for subjecting her to a six-hour full-body cavity search for narcotics, which included a body x-ray, vaginal and anal probes, and an induced bowel movement at a local medical center. This extensive search followed the more routine bodily search at the Ciudad Juárez crossing, which had turned up no sign of illegal substances concealed on her person. The woman was seeking re-entry into the U.S. after a visit with family members in Mexico – and thus part of the most common, and “legal,” aspect of border traffic. In protesting that she was “treated like an animal,” her lawsuit indicts the violence inherent in the practices of visual and bodily searches that have become routine instruments of border regulation since the mid-1990s.

This paper will look at the ways agents’ capacity for “seeing” is legitimated through a discourse of rational and objective interests – the discovery and seizure of threatening persons and substances – that has served as a cover for an illegitimate and illegal expansion of police power. Looking, in this instance, is co-extensive with a power to seize and control migrant bodies. I argue that the use of apparently neutral technology like the x-ray is a critical site for producing a category of migrant who can be rendered non-persons before the law and within civil society. Just as the search violates bodily integrity and privacy, its use at the border crossing is a form of pre-emptive punishment, one that presumes guilt by its application to an already criminalized population. The woman was not offered any redress after her ordeal, but rather served a 5,000-dollar hospital bill after her release from custody. My reading of the incident looks at the relationship between this kind of physical capture of the border crosser and the use of other visual scans of cars, lorries, and the border space. I argue that together, this system of surveillance and invasive seeing constitutes a peculiar regime of state violence that takes on the characteristics of what is often called “social cleansing” when practiced overtly by authoritarian governments.

John F. Kennedy Institute