Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Human smugglers roundtable: on border restrictions and movement

Are border fortifications/restrictions a useful or counterproductive response to mass movements of people?

10 April 2017

Question 2 – Are border fortifications/restrictions a useful or counterproductive response to mass movements of people?

Yaatsil Guevara


Yaatsil Guevara González is a doctoral researcher in sociology at the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology.

The benefits mainly accrue to the governmental institutions that receive special budgetary allocations in line with the number of deportations they carry out (National Institute of Migration in Mexico). Other beneficiaries include companies that manage the logistics of migrant deportations, i.e. land and air transport companies, or providers of food to detention centres. These firms obtain vast sums of money around the interdiction and deportation of undocumented migrants in Mexico.

Some migrants have told me that border crossing facilitation (provided by so-called coyotes, guides, trespassers) has become more expensive because of the anti-smuggling policies implemented by the Mexican state. Ironically, border constraints have resulted in many migrants staying in Mexico because their passage has been hindered, mainly in all the border cities in the south. The Mexican government lacks immigration integration policies for people from Central America, and many new problems have arisen as a result of this temporary, precarious settlement.

Naasim Majidi and Sagaarika Dadu-Brown


Naasim Majidi is co-founder of Samuel Hall while Sagaarika Dadu-Brown is senior researcher on migration and displacement at Samuel Hall.

Border restrictions increase migrant vulnerabilities in three ways, identified in our forthcoming research on migrant smuggling to Canada. First, they push migrants to take bigger risks, change their destination, or partially take over their own logistics (i.e. rather than entrusting themselves to smugglers for the duration of their journey, they may pay to cross a certain border or to have a certain document forged, but do the rest on their own).


Second, border fortifications leave migrants in a state of limbo. Border restrictions render mobile migrants involuntarily immobile, in locations with no connections or support networks. As they have no intention to stay in a transit hub and are only there to catch the next leg of their journey, their time forced in transit increases their exposure to risks and vulnerabilities.Third, they create and reinforce new migrant-smuggler relationships, for instance introducing migrants to opportunistic smugglers that will take advantage of a border closure or restriction to increase prices. Lupe A. Flores

Lupe A. Flores is a graduate student in anthropology and Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley.

Militarised policing tactics along the Rio Grande create the undetermined outcomes of irregular border crossings and exacerbate physical injuries, exhaustion, and not infrequently lead to death. Politicians should pay attention to the complex realities of border communities, their local sense of morality, ethics, and justice, and respond to the mass movements of people with humane and non-violent policies toward migrants and their facilitators. This means holding the state, rather than just the smugglers, accountable for the structural violence carried out at borders in the name of national security.

Theodora Simon


Theodora Simon is associate director for advocacy & leadership development at the Hope Border Institute.

In El Paso – and throughout the southern US – border security is increasingly being militarised: drones, military helicopters, heavily armed agents. This border fortification is designed for a national security threat, yet the US-Mexico border is not a national security issue; it is an issue of human security, a humanitarian crisis. And so, far from useful, border fortification in our communities is counterproductive. It undermines the safety and freedom of borderlands’ residents and migrants alike.

Millions of residents’ lives and constitutional rights are threatened and interrupted by the security regime. Thousands of migrants perish in the desert. Asylum seekers face inhumane conditions in holding facilities and detention centres, and immigration authorities – emboldened by national security rhetoric – have a long track record of using racial profiling, excessive use of force, and abuse. Militarised border fortification responds to an inexistent national security threat. It does little to deter desperate families and children seeking refuge. Worse yet, militarisation of the border undermines human rights and civil liberties, compounds the suffering of migrants and asylum-seekers, and leads to more violence.

Wendy Vogt


Wendy Vogt is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

If the goal is to actually stop people from moving or crossing national territories, then no: border fortifications are not particularly useful. In the Central America-Mexico-US corridor, we know that fortifications can be very good at deterring people from particular routes by funnelling them into more dangerous and clandestine routes, landscapes and industries. But they do not stop people.This is not to say that borders are not useful or productive. On the contrary, borders, and bordering practices along interior migrant routes, are extremely productive. In some cases, they produce imposing physical structures that disrupt natural ecosystems and historically rich corridors of economic and cultural exchange. In doing so, they produce profit – big profit – for a security-industrial complex with multiple vested stakeholders.


More securitisation in the form of surveillance, high-tech walls, guards, and detention facilities in turn creates demand for more clandestine industries to move people and drugs. These industries serve the insatiable appetites of (mostly) U.S. capitalists and illicit drug (and prison) industries, though associated violence is almost always constructed as a product of people of colour. Violence – real or perceived – thus becomes a very productive tool to instil fear of “the other”. And fear … well fear is perhaps the most useful tactic of all as politicians and states seek power and legitimisation. So if the goal is to generate profit, fuel xenophobia and elect ‘strongman’ leaders, then yes, borders – as symbols and material realities – are quite useful. Jared P. Van Ramshorst

Jared P. Van Ramshorst is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

From fences along the U.S.-Mexico border to the wall that separates Israel and Palestine, border fortifications are a popular response to mass movements of people. Despite their prevalence in government policy and contemporary immigration debates, border fortifications are both ineffective and counterproductive.For example, Operation Gatekeeper, a 1994 Clinton-era measure that vastly expanded border fortifications on the U.S.-Mexico boundary, did little to prevent or deter unauthorised migration to the U.S. Instead, the failed policy led to thousands of migrant deaths by shifting unauthorised entry to remote regions of the U.S.-Mexico border, such as the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas.

Meanwhile, rates of unauthorised migration remained largely unchanged amidst a growing undocumented population in the U.S. The policy also led to an increasingly robust and organised industry of smuggling and trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border, which has succeeded in facilitating unauthorised migration, despite border fortifications, for the past three decades.In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency and his promise to “build the wall”, border fortifications have reemerged as a popular response to recent migration streams. As past evidence indicates, further fortification of the U.S.-Mexico boundary will not only be ineffective but also counterproductive.

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