Borders, Migration Report from the Road: Borders and Boundaries with Beth Simmons Part 1

June 17, 2017
By Beth Simmons | Borders and Boundaries Project, Perry World House

Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Beth Simmons is the Andrea Mitchell University Professor in Law, Political Science, and Business Ethics, with joint appointments at the Penn Law School and within the Political Science department in the School of Arts and Sciences. She is a world-renowned expert on international relations and human rights. Her new project, Borders and Boundaries in World Politics, which is a  part of Perry World House’s Global Innovation Program, is concerned with boundaries between organized human communities.

Borders and Boundaries seeks to understand the multiple significances of boundaries, including those designated as state authority, security buffers, expressions of social meaning, and opportunities for economic integration.   The Borders and Boundaries project hopes to contextualize border architecture, infrastructure, and institutions as expressions of social, political, and economic anxieties associated with globalization.  Dr. Simmons will teach a course this fall on Borders and Boundaries in International Relations, which will focus on these concepts.

As part of this project, Dr. Simmons is spending time this summer on the US/Mexican border conducting research. Perry World House will share Dr. Simmons’s  occasional field reports from the road  for the duration of her trip.

I’ve started a 10-day drive along the US/Mexican border, beginning in Brownsville, and ending in El Paso! The purpose? An ‘edu-vacation.’ I will teach a course in the fall on Borders and Boundaries in International Relations. I will also be heading a research group at Perry World House on a similar theme. So I thought it would make sense to spend some time this summer looking at a local example of the influence of an international border on how people organize their lives in the region.

We started today when we landed in Brownsville and visited the extreme eastern US/Mexican border, where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico, where the fresh water meets the salt, where Mexicans enjoy the beach and Americans come to fish and picnic. The feeling was remote, as we wound our way through the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Boca Chica area. The road turned rough. To our right, the first glimpse of the barred fence separating the US from Mexico.  Despite warnings that it was sea turtle nesting season, families in trucks and SUVs drove and parked along the sands, enjoying their Father’s Day weekend with fishing poles. We drove to the mouth of the Rio Grande, where evidence of recreation was abundant, but law enforcement surprisingly unapparent. No Wall. No fence. A shallow wade separating international neighbors. 

And yet, the locals told of surveillance of the less obvious sort – in the vegetation, beyond the dunes, from the sky. Returning to the road heading west, patrol cars indeed dotted the roadside. We experienced our first internal border by the US Customs and Border Patrol: uniforms, automatic weapons, a single stern question: “Are you US citizens?” We were profiled, and without showing documents, allowed to continue.

Lesson #1: the border certainly lies at the legally demarcated internationally recognized line between the United States and Mexico. But one crosses it inside US territory as well – no doubt, with varying degrees of anxiety by those who would pass.