Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border

Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border

by Ieva Jusionyte

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"Jusionyte explores the sister towns bisected by the border from many angles in this illuminating and poignant exploration of a place and situation that are little discussed yet have significant implications for larger political discourse."—Publishers Weekly, STARRED Review

Emergency responders on the US-Mexico border operate at the edges of two states. They rush patients to hospitals across country lines, tend to the broken bones of migrants who jump over the wall, and put out fires that know no national boundaries. Paramedics and firefighters on both sides of the border are tasked with saving lives and preventing disasters in the harsh terrain at the center of divisive national debates.
Ieva Jusionyte’s firsthand experience as an emergency responder provides the background for her gripping examination of the politics of injury and rescue in the militarized region surrounding the US-Mexico border. Operating in this area, firefighters and paramedics are torn between their mandate as frontline state actors and their responsibility as professional rescuers, between the limits of law and pull of ethics. From this vantage they witness what unfolds when territorial sovereignty, tactical infrastructure, and the natural environment collide. Jusionyte reveals the binational brotherhood that forms in this crucible to stand in the way of catastrophe. Through beautiful ethnography and a uniquely personal perspective, Threshold provides a new way to understand politicized issues ranging from border security and undocumented migration to public access to healthcare today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520969643
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/09/2018
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #41
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Ieva Jusionyte is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Social Studies at Harvard University and the author of Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border. She has trained and volunteered as an emergency medical technician, paramedic, and wildland firefighter in Florida, Arizona, and Massachusetts. 

Read an Excerpt



Ankle Alley


"This is Nogales, Arizona, Mexico," Bojo told me when we met in early May 2015. His curly black hair was beginning to recede and, when he bent his head, a gold chain highlighted his thick neck. "The United States begins north of the checkpoint," he said, unsure how I would take it. We sat in the bay, next to the trucks. Bojo preferred it here, despite lingering smells of smoke, rubber, and diesel — the smells of a firehouse — seeping into our lungs. I recognized in him that deep respect for the engine — hisengine — that is rare among the younger members of the department. "We can go across," he said, meaning Mexico. "But we can't open the fence and just throw lines." The fence is federal property. "But there is a way around it." For Bojo, who is a binational citizen, Ambos Nogales has always been one community, its two sides held together by strong family ties. For the government, this Spanish-speaking region was akin to a foreign country, which prompted setting up a Border Patrol checkpoint in Tubac.

Earlier that morning I sped past the checkpoint (there is no control on southbound lanes), then past a warning to drivers on I19 South that weapons and ammunition were illegal in Mexico, and took a left-side exit ramp to get off the highway, entering the city from the north. The sign announced: "Nogales; Elevation 3,865 feet; Founded in 1859." Mechanic shops, motels, storage facilities, and supermarkets line both sides of Grand Avenue — the asphalt backbone of this desert town — and the streets that splinter from it to the east and to the west. There's a Walgreens, a Safeway, a Walmart, a JC Penney, a Home Depot; most vehicles in their parking lots display Sonoran plates. Vehicles with Sonoran plates also surround identical square buildings sprinkled all over the town. Announced by colorful signs, only their names distinguish one from another: Carl's Jr., Denny's, Panda Express, City Salads, IHOP, McDonald's.

Nogales has three ports of entry, which explains the proliferation of customs brokers, money exchange, and insurance offices; large signs advertising their services stand tall on the main road. Huge tractor-trailers and semis make wide turns as they descend from the highway to the warehouses, where they drop off or pick up their cargo. Up to 1,600 trucks, loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables from the fields in Sonora and Sinaloa — watermelons, squashes, tomatoes, cucumbers — pass through the Mariposa port of entry every day, accounting for more than a third of all US produce imports from Mexico. Only a fraction of traffic can be inspected without bringing NAFTA-enabled commerce to a screeching halt, allowing licit and illicit businesses to seamlessly converge. CBP press releases cite examples of this symbiotic relationship: on April 21, 2016, customs officers made the third-largest pot bust in Arizona's history when they seized 14,800 pounds of marijuana, worth $7.4 million, comingled in a shipment of watermelons. It happened only a month after a drug-sniffing dog alerted authorities to 240 bundles of pot, weighing 5,700 pounds, hidden in a trailer carrying Italian squash. It gets repetitive, though some captures are more peculiar than others; for example, when the authorities at the Morley gate arrested a woman carrying burritos filled with more than a pound of methamphetamine, or when some men tried to smuggle meth made to look like tamales and hidden in stacks of hollowed-out tortillas.

The city's main street aligns with the train tracks. In 1882, Nogales became the site of one of the oldest railway connections between the US and Mexico — an important trade route between the Sonoran seaport in Guaymas and towns north of the border in Arizona. The construction took half a century because the sonorenses were suspicious of what they saw as an American encroachment on their soil. But commerce interests triumphed over anxieties about national sovereignty. It wasn't just freight. In the 1960s, Ferrocarril Pacífico was inviting passengers into first-class Pullman cars for trips all the way to Mazatlán. Today, Union Pacific trains pass through the city several times a day hauling tanks with propane gas and industrial chemicals, including sulphuric acid for the copper mines in Sonora. Northbound, the railway carries Ford cars from the company's manufacturing plant down in Hermosillo. Before the government stepped up security, undocumented migrants used to hide in brand new automobiles to get past US immigration control. With the gamma ray scanners now in place, it would be reckless to try that today.

Running parallel to the street and the railroad is the Nogales Wash, an intermittent stream that empties into the Santa Cruz River and serves as a major gravity drainage system for cities on both sides of the border. Most of the year, the channel is dry. Pieces of clothing, plastic bags, and other debris may still be clinging to the low branches of trees, lodged there during the previous monsoon. The wash connects Ambos Nogales: it begins uphill in Mexico, where streets were built on top of arroyos and turn into rivers with every rain; flows through a 3-mile-long tunnel in Nogales, Sonora; passes under the wall right beneath the Dennis DeConcini port of entry; and reemerges about a mile north of the border in Nogales, Arizona. Although both cities have made repeated efforts to control the flow of the water, buttressing the main drainage channel with concrete panels, the water digs under these reinforcements, causing cracks and eroding the bed of the Grand Tunnel.

The wash gathers so much water from the arroyos that the powerful current sweeps vehicles off the roads. Running at 30 miles an hour, it has carried away many people unaware of its potential force — visitors from out of town as well unauthorized migrants, who know that the gate inside the tunnel automatically lifts when the water level rises and pressure builds up, but underestimate its power. Bodies have been recovered miles north of the border: some are found without being lost — they remain, unidentified, in a drawer at the medical examiner's office in Tucson; others are lost but never found — volunteers still hike along the wash in hopes of discovering what's left of the missing. Firefighters in Nogales remember how once the arroyo carried away two adolescent girls and their mother. They were part of a group of seven border crossers who were trying to enter the United States through a storm drain that empties into the Nogales Wash. Although it was not raining when they got inside, the wash quickly filled with water further south of the city. Police officers saw the girls first and got into the wash trying to catch them, but they were not properly equipped. "We first had to get the cops out, then the girls," one of the responders recalled. Then they pulled out the mother's body.

Perched on top of a hill overlooking the valley is the Santa Cruz County Complex. It houses the Office of Emergency Management and the Emergency Operations Center — three windowless rooms on the first floor, where cell phones have no signal. Once every three months, when the office hosts the meeting of the Local Emergency Planning Committee, representatives of fire and police departments, state public health services, CBP, and other US agencies sit down and talk together with the Mexican bomberos and delegates of protección civil from Nogales, Sonora. Here, planning for the next emergency unfolds on a binational scale. In 2015, the committee applauded Union Pacific for bringing a training car to teach firefighters from Arizona and Sonora how to secure loose or broken valves on nonpressurized liquid tanks. Railcars carrying hazardous materials have derailed, raising the alert for emergency managers on both sides of the border.

The larger part of the county complex is occupied by the Tony Estrada Law Enforcement Center, with a jail that can boast having the best views of the area. Estrada, who was born in Nogales, Sonora, and grew up a few blocks inside the United States, has been the county's sheriff since 1993. "Tony Estrada is the law here," a correspondent for USA Today described the situation. In 2016, Estrada appeared in the news as one of several sheriffs vehemently opposed to Arizona governor Doug Ducey's Border Drug Strike Force. "You can't just come in here and do your thing," Estrada criticized the governor's top-down initiative, arguing that more funding should instead go to local counties, which better understand border issues. When President Donald Trump began talking about building a wall with Mexico, Estrada was furious. He compared earlier fences to "iron curtains." "We've got to put up some resistance," said the seventy-three-year-old sheriff. He took it personally when during his campaign Trump alleged that Mexicans were "murderers" and "rapists." "He insulted my people," he said. Not everyone was as articulate as the sheriff, but many nogalenses agreed with him.

For a greater part of the past century, the Nogales Fire Department operated out of the historic building on Morley Avenue, steps away from the border fence. Their first hose cart and pumper, named "Able and Willing," which the volunteers acquired in 1895, is still displayed at the old firehouse, now converted into the Pimeria Alta Historical Society and Museum. Today the department covers an area of 20 square miles and employs forty-two shift workers, split between two stations: Station 1, the headquarters, is right next to the City Hall; you can see Station 2 on the right when you take exit 8 off the interstate. It's just past Villa's Market, which wraps excellent cuts of meat for carne asada in pink paper. In the backyard behind the station, Captain Lopez and his crew toss steaks onto an old, rusty grill over smoldering mesquite. Firefighters enjoy them with tortillas, guacamole, and refried beans.

Dividing Nogales, Arizona, from its namesake to the south, a dark metal fence crawls across the hilly terrain. The people who ordered this wall to be built have come to wield laws as weapons in hopes of protecting the illusion of the national economy and social order. The steel fence in Nogales is but a tiny piece of nearly 700 miles of barriers that have been built along the border between Mexico and the United States. They are not meant to be impermeable: rivers flow north and south; wildlife slips through; even undocumented migrants and drug mules get across. It's not an all-out war. It's about tactical advantage in the never-ending game.

"That's just an extension of this city, and this is the extension of that city. It's just got a border in the middle of it," one fire captain told me. From the perspective of those working in the fire service, trying to disentangle the two communities by drawing jurisdictional boundaries does not make sense. Nogales, Arizona, has just over twenty thousand residents, most of them Hispanic or Latino, settled in one-story houses that climb up the hills on both sides of I-19, images of the Virgen de Guadalupe in their yards facing the street. At least ten and possibly twenty times as many people live in Nogales, Sonora. Hundreds go back and forth every day. Not everyone realizes that the dolares that foreign nationals spend at Home Depot or at Walmart, at Panda Express or at Denny's, fund the Nogales Fire Department. While the four fire districts — Tubac, Rio Rico, Nogales Suburban, Sonoita-Elgin — get a share of the county's property taxes, public services in Nogales, the only city in the Santa Cruz County, rely solely on revenues from the sales tax. Since Mexican shoppers are responsible for up to 80 percent of retail transactions in Nogales, having the streets full of vehicles with Sonoran license plates is a good sign for the local and state economy. The Nogales Police Department doesn't even ticket foreign drivers with expired vehicle registrations, honoring Mexican laws that allow a three-month grace period in the beginning of each year.

Firefighters have a unique relationship to the manmade and natural environment. Most residents take urban design as a given, and law enforcement — in this case, the Border Patrol — modify and use it to gain tactical advantage over unauthorized entrants and drug traffickers. Emergency responders, by contrast, look for "hot spots": they focus on the vulnerabilities and fissures of buildings and infrastructures; they identify the dangers inherent in the topography and material forms that can injure or kill those who use and inhabit them. They relate to landscape through risk. In the United States, where the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 mandates companies to submit inventory forms for hazardous substances that exceed set threshold values, fire departments have access to confidential information about facilities that store dangerous chemicals in their jurisdictions. The threshold level for gasoline is 75,000 gallons, while for "extremely hazardous substances" (EHS), such as ammonia, chlorine, or sulphuric acid, it is only 500 pounds. But firefighters must look beneath the surface of official paperwork and recognize dangers to life and health lurking beyond the veneer of urban infra/structures. For example, a 13,350-gallon capacity rail tank carrying only 500 pounds (around 33 gallons) of sulphuric acid through Nogales would be considered "empty," even though this residual amount of oily liquid would be enough to cause severe inhalation injury and corrosive burns.

Seeing the city through this conceptual lens allows firefighters to detect structural weaknesses invisible to the naked eye. They have been trained to consider the possibility that every construction and container, given the right circumstances, may fail. Tunnels collapse. Assembly plants and warehouses catch fire. Tank cars leak. On a windy day, fire could use old furniture and appliances accumulated in the backyard as a trampoline to jump from one house to another, setting an entire city block ablaze. A person walking across unfamiliar terrain at night may fall into a long-abandoned mine shaft. The train may derail, spilling toxic chemicals into the wash and contaminating the county's groundwater supply. This last scenario has been popular in training drills and tabletop exercises held in preparation for a possible emergency.

But what actually happens in Nogales often surpasses the wildest imagination of emergency managers. The city's location has attracted the most peculiar infrastructural incidents. In 1999, a suspected drug tunnel was discovered downtown: it had both lighting and ventilation, was reinforced with plywood and cement, and was big enough for a person to crawl through. But nobody knew where it led — searchers who descended into the tunnel bumped into a steel wall and could not advance any further. The fire department's special operations team placed a smoke machine at the tunnel's entrance in a private house and saw that the smoke emerged from under the altar in the Sacred Heart Church. Out of 183 illicit tunnels that have been discovered crossing the US-Mexico border since the mid-1990s, 107 have been found in Nogales. Nowadays, to protect their agents, the Border Patrol sends small UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones — to explore them.

Bundles of marijuana have also disrupted the flow of sewage through Nogales. In July 2015, the acting chief called NFD personnel on scene for something that he did not explain over the radio. The following morning local media reported that a cross-border sewer line, which in dry weather carries approximately 15 million gallons of raw sewage from Colonia Héroes in Nogales, Sonora, to the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant in Rio Rico, Arizona, ruptured under Morley Avenue. Video footage from inside the International Outfall Interceptor (IOI) showed drug bundles blocking the pipe. A house just south of the Nogales Medical Clinic was flooded by sewer water, which prompted the discovery of an illicit tunnel connecting it to the Nogales Wash. Officials suspected that the steel pipe was damaged during the process of digging the drug tunnel. Uncanny incidents like these tend to repeat. The IOI, which collects both stormwater and wastewater, runs next to the Morley Tunnel and approximately 3 feet below the concrete floor of the Nogales Wash, creating "three layers of nightmare," as one local public health specialist aptly put it.

Firefighters have seen worse. People have been swept into the sewer, which ranges from 24 to 42 inches in diameter and in some places is big enough to walk nearly upright. A woman who fell into the IOI in Mexico was still alive when they pulled her out in Rio Rico, about 8.5 miles north of the border. "Her skin was badly damaged by the acids in the sewer, but she made it there," recalled Alex, who participated in the rescue operation. Another time two women and a man from Mexico descended into a manhole on Morley Avenue and Washington Street to hide from the Border Patrol. But the wastewater, which can rush at a speed of up to 14 cubic feet per second, swept them away. Rescuers pulled the women out two hours later and miles north, battered and bloody, but alive. The man also survived.


Excerpted from "Threshold"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Ieva Jusionyte.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Dead End
Treacherous Terrain
First Due to the Border
Binational Security
Toxic Statecraft
Politics of Wounding and of Rescue


Nogales, Arizona, Mexico
Fence Jumpers
Tactical Infrastructure
Por Otro Lado
Overpaid Tomato Pickers
Accidental Violence


Red Tape
Acid Rain
Road to Rocky Point
Security of the Future


Load Vehicles
The Man in Black Dress Pants
Bound by Law
Aid Is Not a Crime
Land of Many Uses
Some Pill to Help Us Walk


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