Border Deaths and Federal Immigration Enforcement

Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid 

by Joseph Nevins and Mizue Aizeki

2008, 225 pp., $16.95 (paperback), 

Open Media Series, City Lights Publishers | www.citylights.com



In the mid-1990s, immigrant rights advocates in Southern California began calling attention to a dramatic rise in the number of migrant deaths in the Sonora Desert. Since then, a growing number of journalists, academics, and artists have offered accounts of this crisis. Most famously, Luis Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway (2001) documents the tragic story of a group of Mexican migrants, 14 of whom died in their attempt to cross into Arizona. Focusing on Texas, sociologists Karl Eschbach, Jaqueline Hagan, and Néstor Rodríguez provided some of the earliest and most comprehensive studies of border deaths, while Wayne Cornelius provided a key study showing the rise in migrant fatalities along the California–Baja California border during the Clinton administration.


These pioneering authors pointed to a correlation between the growing militarization of border enforcement and migrant deaths. Joseph Nevins adds an important contribution to this literature with Dying to Live, which narrates the story of Julio César Gallegos, a young man who died of dehydration in the California desert while attempting to join his wife and children in the United States. The book centers on the question of border enforcement and reinforces its connection to migrant deaths, enriching this link with a complex application of geographical analysis. Nevins takes the extreme to illustrate the ordinary: He uses the tragedy of migrant death in the borderlands to illuminate the daily structures that operate within the United States to oppress immigrants. This book is as much about oppressive structures at work in the United States as it is about border deaths.


Although Nevins rarely uses the term, his book contributes to developing the concept of structural violence. Johan Galtung, who coined the phrase, argued that there is violence involved when people are prevented from realizing their full potential, or when they are more likely to be harmed because of systemic conditions. The medical anthropologist Paul Farmer built upon Galtung’s work, arguing that a disproportionate amount of risk is distributed along the social axes of race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Galtung and Farmer argue that human rights violations that result from structural violence that can often be invisible, and does not necessarily involve a single perpetrator. These kinds of violations exist in the vast spaces between victim and system, rather than in more direct forms of human rights abuses, like torture or murder.


By placing geography at the center of the analysis, Nevins is able to expose space and landscape as key factors in processes of structural violence along the border. Nevins’s analysis makes clear that concept of “space” has been naturalized. Just as race is not biology, space is not natural. How landscapes are experienced is conditioned by history and memory—the fact that the majority of the southwestern U.S. was taken from Mexico by violence and theft is a history that is greatly subdued in the current immigration debate. The experience of landscape is also shaped by power and economics—a fertile corn milpa in southern Mexico can be made barren by international trade agreements like NAFTA.


Theoretical insights from Nevins’s discipline of geography reveal the socially constructed, racist nature of the U.S.-Mexico border and the arbitrariness of the concept of “citizen.” The author thereby challenges “the assumption that some should have greater rights because of their geographic origins or ancestry.” Nevins’s intertwined insights into history, geography, and racism improves structural violence as an analytical tool and brings modern migration more into light as a human rights crisis. His book shows how migrant death on the border as only a part of a terrible continuum of human rights violations, violations that have been obscured by space, time, and racism. Settings like borders pose challenges to the customary human rights framework, which tends to dwell on direct, perpetrator-victim violence. Although individual perpetrators can be found along the border, the true culprit is a much more complex blend of political-economic structures that operate at the border and beyond. In this way, Nevins’s book provides a case study of the modern face of human rights crises.


Recent events in Arizona have been a painful reminder that these violations are getting worse. In the month of July alone, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson examined the bodies of 59 individuals believed to be migrants (many still remain unidentified). More than 2,000 bodies have been recovered along the Arizona border since the year 2000, according to the Tucson-based Coalición de Derechos Humanos. Meanwhile, the fear and dehumanization of immigrants—embodied in the support for Arizona’s SB 1070 law—is one of the biggest challenges faced in this modern civil rights struggle. However, even as academic articles, reports, books, newspaper stories, government studies, and even films about migrant deaths proliferate, public ignorance and misunderstanding permeate not only border communities but the nation at large. Nevins himself points with concern to the resounding silence that often follows such publications. The deaths, injustice, violence, and exclusion, he argues, have become so normalized in the public consciousness that alternatives are not even perceived.


…By telling a personal story woven into a people’s history of our two nations, Nevins offers an account that is inescapably human, if you can read at the level Nevins writes. The photos that punctuate the book, taken by Mizue Aizeki, add powerful humanity to the account without sensationalizing the issue. Yet the text is not as accessible, even at its brief length of 200 pages. Nevertheless, Nevins’s method of using data and history to illuminate a personal tragedy is sensitive and complex. He uses the personal (the death of a 23-year-old man in the California desert) to illuminate the global (the ever-expanding humanitarian crisis that many international borders have become).


Nevins’s book, thanks to excellent research and a nuanced application of theory, demonstrates not only professional excellence but also an ongoing commitment to justice and human rights. By calling the entire notion of a “right to be here” into question, Dying to Live serves as a powerful antidote to nationalistic amnesia on the part of the U.S. public, which has been too willing to embrace a shortsighted version of U.S.-Mexican history. By analyzing enforcement in the space of the border, he has provided an extension of the concept of structural violence. Those of us living in border states, especially Arizona, owe Nevins our appreciation. He shows how one can analyze policy information in a way that clearly communicates how common racial constructions support and extend the state’s use of violence.



Raquel Rubio Goldsmith is the coordinator of the Binational Migration Institute, Department of Mexican American Studies, University of Arizona. Robin Reineke is a doctoral student in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona and a researcher at the Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson.

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