Securitization for whom? An academic look at the shift in U.S. border policy

By Ariana Sawyer

SEE RELATED STORY: Love Beyond Borders

The U.S. government is separating families who are not flight risks. It is holding children in cages, launching tear gas at refugees and, most recently, managing the fallout after two young children died in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody.

How did it come to this?

Taking children from migrant parents is against international laws. But recent actions by the U.S. indicates a continuing embrace of “securitization,” a process that allows law enforcement agencies or other state actors the freedom to take measures that would normally be considered undemocratic.

In an essay on securitization theory, Clara Eroukhmanoff writes: “In order to convince an audience to take extraordinary measures, the securitising actor must draw attention and often exaggerate the urgency and level of the threat, communicate a point of no return, i.e. ‘if we do not tackle this problem, everything else will be irrelevant,’ and offer a possible way out (lifting the issue above politics) – which is often framed in military terms.”

Eroukhmanoff, a philosopher specializing in international relations and a lecturer at London South Bank University, says that when state authorities identify something as a threat, they often attempt to engineer a reality that doesn’t exist. Securitization is successful when citizens willingly accept the state’s version of reality.

After 9/11, the U.S. was traumatized enough to do so. Americans felt threatened and exposed, and there was a public willingness to give up civil liberties in exchange for the protection we thought securitization measures could provide. The government went on to violate privacy laws with secret surveillance programs, engage in torture at CIA black sites where prisoners are denied due process or legal representation, and ramp up deportations during both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Officials increasingly identified immigrants as potential threats to national security, creating the Department of Homeland Security under the executive branch, where leadership roles are political appointments and agencies exist largely outside of democratic processes. DHS began using immigration law as a counterterrorism tool, detaining several young Arab or Muslim men on immigration violations, some for years, according to Ted Alden, a journalist and Council on Foreign Relations fellow. None of them were ever charged with terrorism.

Meanwhile, politicos began voicing concerns that Al Qaeda operatives might use the southern border to infiltrate the U.S. and attack again. Though no such incidents occurred, the era of the securitized border had begun.

No one has harnessed fear of “the other” as effectively as President Donald Trump. His campaign, which he kicked off by calling Mexican immigrants rapists, drug traffickers and criminals, hinged upon scapegoating foreigners (especially people of color) for all that ails the working class. He has shifted nearly the entire Republican Party’s stance on immigration, restricting even legal migrants’ ability to enter the U.S. And he’s been able to do it despite evidence that immigrant communities are less violent than the native born population.

In 2018, he revived the suggestion, long discredited, that terrorists are likely among the approximately 4,000 asylum seekers who were on their way north throughout October and November. He sent more than 5,000 active duty troops to the border. Trump and other conservatives have labeled the desperate, poverty stricken groups of refugees an “invasion.”

Readily believing the country to be under siege, those who supported Trump in the election were primarily white men afraid of losing their status as the dominant group, a recent study found.

At his rallies, they still chant “Build that wall!”

Securitized for whom?

Lost in the discourse of the border threat is the safety and dignity of human beings who are affected by securitization measures.

A recent study by the Center for American Progress reports that border patrol agents have been caught on wildlife cameras destroying water jugs and other humanitarian aid supplies. This is done in the name of security, supposedly to deter drug trafficking. But research shows that drug trafficking remains high despite so-called deterrent measures, making the success of these practices questionable at best.

The vocabulary of securitization can lead to violence against anyone perceived as being “the other.” After the presidential election, Univision documented nearly 200 reports of hate crimes or bias against U.S. Latinos, irrespective of their nationalities. The reports include vandalism and assault.

With securitization demonstrably ineffective at keeping terrorists out and ill-equipped to fight rising levels of drug addiction and death by overdose in the United States, we are left to wonder: For whom is the border securitized?

In her book “Borderlands/La Frontera,” border theorist and poet Gloria Anzaldúa writes, “Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them.” She isn’t just talking about the border in physical space;she is referring to wherever different cultures, races and classes come into contact. This is where, she says, “the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.”

The threat of the border is based on the idea that there are too many non-white immigrants entering the U.S., that rising levels of diversity represent an existential threat to white American identity. Though the country has a rich history rooted in migration, securitizing the border benefits those with the most power and who have a vested economic interest in maintaining that power — wealthy white men and women.

By “othering” non-white immigrants, the dominant class justifies treating them inhumanely and undemocratically, maintaining both a cheap and disposable labor force and a political bargaining chip.

But the fear of  “the other” disappears in binational relationships, where couples often have more in common with one another than with their respective cultures or capitals. That feeling of collectivity, that blurring of national lines, extends out from each couple to saturate their social groups — their friends, parents, siblings and children.

Introducing their book “Red Love Across the Pacific,” Paula Rabinowitz, Ruth Barraclough and Heather Bowen-Struyk argue that speaking for each other, “in the name of the other,” can produce “not only a poetics, but also a politics of embedded collectivity.” That we could come  to identify not with the thunderous proclamations of a nationalist administration, but with the immigrant, the refugee, the border crosser, is a dangerous proposition for a ruling class that is losing its legitimacy.

Anzaldúa identifies a need for a response to a violent dominant culture that is not just reactive — since “all reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against” — but that heals the divide.

To heal cultural divides, she says, we must first break down and transform the way we perceive reality. Loving someone beyond borders is transformative; it is inclusive rather than exclusive, a movement “toward a more whole perspective.”

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.


Ariana Sawyer

About Ariana Sawyer

Ariana Sawyer is a freelance journalist and graduate student of international policy and development at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., where she specializes in migration, trafficking and human security. Her partner, Paulina Pepper, is a graphic designer, photographer, writer and Mexican national. This project was part of a directed study program at MIIS under Dr. William Arrocha, whose research focuses on migration, development and human rights.