Guest post by Douglas S. Massey, Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, Princeton University. This post is the third instalment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Race and Border Control organised by Prof Yolanda Vázquez.

Over the past four decades, the white middle class has been hammered by rising inequality while civil rights policies have reduced the privileges and prerogatives once accorded to white people as a birthright. At the same time, the United States has been relentlessly portrayed in the mass media as being under attack—first by communist agents from Latin America, later by terrorists from the Muslim world, and throughout the period by nefarious drug traffickers and alien invaders seeking to destroy the American way of life—all not coincidentally framed as racialized dark-skinned others.

Texas National Guardsmen patrol the US-Mexico border. (Photo: Maj. Randall Stillinger)
In this context, the Mexico-US border has become an outsized symbolic barrier separating Americans from all manners of external threats. Indeed, calling for more border enforcement has become the principal trope deployed by politicians to reassure nervous white citizens whenever a new threat appears in the media. In the words of the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, ‘the US-Mexico border has become theater, and border theater has become social violence. Actual violence has become inseparable from symbolic ritual on the border—crossings, invasions, lines of defense, high-tech surveillance, and more.’
A plethora of examples exist to illustrate this point. In 1985, Ronald Reagan warned Americans that ‘terrorists and subversives [are] just two days driving time from Harlingen, Texas’ and that Communist agents were ready ‘to feed on the anger and frustration of recent Central and South American immigrants who will not realize their own version of the American dream.’ In August 2014, Texas Governor Rick Perry told the public that ‘individuals from ISIS or other terrorist states could be taking advantage of the situation. I think it's a very real possibility that they may have already used [the border for entry].’ In October 2014 Republican Senate candidate (and now Senator) Thom Tillis stated that his opponent, Senator Kay Hagan, ‘has failed the people of North Carolina and the nation by not securing our border. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got an Ebola outbreak, we have bad actors that can come across the border. We need to seal the border and secure it.’
Texas National Guardsmen patrol the US-Mexico border. (Photo: Maj. Randall Stillinger)
All this, of course, is nonsense. Central American guerillas never entered the United States through Mexico, there are no Muslim populations or Islamic terrorists in Mexico, and no African populations or airline flights from Africa to Mexico. In contrast, there are sizeable Muslim and African populations in Canada and known terrorist cells operating in Canadian territory, but of course Canada is perceived by most Americans as ‘white’ whereas everything south of the Rio Grande is seen as ‘brown,’ thus facilitating a racialization of each perceived threat. The primary focus of border enforcement remains directed south.
Although unauthorized migration has fallen, calls for more border security continue to emanate from politicians in both parties. Between 2008 and 2009 the unauthorized population of the United States fell by a million persons, going from 12 to 11 million. Since then the population has hovered around 11 million, with apprehensions of Mexicans slowly declining and Central Americans slowly increasing but with little net movement in either direction. The only people crossing at this point are the children of Central American parents who fled the violence of the US intervention in the 1980s, but these people number only in the tens of thousands compared to the hundreds of thousands of unauthorized migrants seeking entry two decades ago.
Texas Department of Safety Troopers patrol on the Rio Grand along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo: Eric Gay)
The Mexico-US border is presently as controlled as ‘effectively’ as it will ever be and further spending is a waste of taxpayer money. The United States is spending more money than ever on border enforcement even though the number of unauthorized border crossers has fallen to unprecedented levels. As a result, whereas the cost per apprehension was just $90 in 1986, it had reached $10,431 by 2011. Far more troubling than the wasted money, however, is the waste in lives, for even though the number of attempted border crossings is way down the number of border deaths is way up. Whereas there were 139 border deaths and 1.7 million border apprehensions in 1986 there were 477 deaths but only 365,000 apprehensions in 2012. The correlation between the Border Patrol budget and the number of border deaths is 0.80. How many more people have to die before the political theater of border enforcement ends its run on the national stage?
Themed Week on Race and Border Control:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Massey, D. (2015) Border Enforcement as Political Theater. Available at: (Accessed [date]).