Borders, Migration Report From the Road: Borders and Boundaries with Beth Simmons Part 5

June 30, 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.

Blog Post #5

What is it like to cross an international border?  Most readers of this post probably have flown across multiple international borders. If so, then you experienced the “crossing” at the port of entry, the international airport, where customs and immigration inspect bags and check papers. You probably flew over the geographical international border without even realizing it - just as the credits for the movie went up.

Ground borders are different. There are three kinds of crossings at the Mexican border with the United States. First, there are commercial ports of entry, where only trucks (or in some cases, trains) with bills of lading are allowed to pass. Second, there are crossings that mostly accommodate private vehicles. Third, there are pedestrian crossings, accommodating mostly people on foot or perhaps on bicycles.

There are 30 official ports of entry on land between United States and Mexico between Brownsville and El Paso. We crossed 10 of them on foot in 8 days, and viewed 5 more from very close range. These 5 were for vehicles only. The “modal” crossing stations combine private vehicular and pedestrian traffic, with three lanes for vehicles and covered pedestrian sidewalks on each side.

It is illuminating to be attentive to the warnings locals provide about crossing the border. We got advice not to cross at all to Matamoros, near Brownsville. Drug cartels, cross fire. Just don’t do it, especially at night. So we didn’t. Next in terms of concern was the town Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass, Texas. Locals advised not to go more than three blocks straight down the main street, and don’t turn off to the left or right. “You were pretty brave to cross there,” according to Sheriff Martinez, whom we introduced in Blog #4. (Or naïve, perhaps.) Piedras Negras was strangely quiet near the border. A Children’s Museum, a colorful Eagle sculpture, even a group of 10 kids playing drums and bugles in line on the plaza by the water. It didn’t have the feel of danger – just a strange abandonment.  The third area was Cuidad Juarez, across from El Paso. Just take the normal precautions, we were advised – wallet, phone in front pockets, arm over pocket book – the obvious things one would do anywhere. Juarez and El Paso are closely intertwined, with families living on one side and working on the other, or maybe crossing regularly to attend the University of Texas, El Paso. 

Border crossings are quintessentially places of control. Walk here, not there. Chain links channel pedestrians along permitted paths. At some crossings, walking is one way; in El Paso we walked across the Stanton Street Bridge and found we could not return by the same path. Most pedestrian crossings have a set of turnstiles where you deposit your quarter or pesos to use the bridge. (Sometimes, leaving Mexico, the turnstiles are said not to work, and the quarter goes into the border official’s hand.) Prove who you are. All crossings require a passport, or at least some form of official ID with your home address. In some cases, US citizens and Mexicans form one line to enter the US. In others, citizenship has its privileges, and separate lines expedite returning Americans. Justify your crossing.  This was slightly awkward for us. Where did we go? Maybe 2 blocks. Did we buy anything? No. What were you doing? Just looking. Hmm. OK, have a nice day.

A couple of crossings were decidedly not modal. At the Pharr crossing station to Reynosa, in the RGV, we were decidedly not welcome to cross, to photograph, to ask questions, or even to stand and look. Traffic was modest, but Border Control seemed edgy. I can’t recall the last time I was accused of loitering and told to move on, but that’s what happened at Pharr. Anyway, we learned what we needed to know (not a happy place), and retreated north up South Cage Blvd. 

Also not typical, at Laredo, we viewed the largest port of entry on land in the world. The highways tangled like a can of worms near the Laredo approach. There were few explicit directions to the bridge entry itself; I guess truckers all knew the way and cars were to keep outof the way. Trucks and trailers were parked in what looked like small cities. Traffic moved smoothly, not surprising given the massive capacity of the infrastructure. Here we could only look, but in contrast to Pharr in the Rio Grand Valley, we were not turned back. One officer fielded our questions for 15 minutes or so before he said he had to get back to work. And in contrast to Pharr, photos were apparently OK (in most directions – just not right at the security kiosks). It’s no exaggeration to say that standing at the “World Trade Bridge,” with the public sculpture to match made me feel like I was looking at NAFTA’s central artery. 

Least typical of all was the border crossing from Big Bend National Park to Boquillas, Mexico. We had to work for this one, folks. To get there we had to loop around from Marfa to Presidio (where we added a crossing into Ojinaga Mexico) to Lajitas (admittedly, enjoyed a resort lunch there) and into the Park. In Big Bend, temperatures topped out at 117 degrees on Friday June 23, the day we visited. At the crossing to Boquillas, there is nothing separating the US from Mexico but a wadable Rio Grande and a really friendly park ranger. It was near closing, and the ranger said that 20 people had crossed that day (none the whole time we were there). We crossed by rowboat – and debated whether to go into ”town.” As we hemmed and hawed, another gentleman walked two donkeys toward us, and it seemed to become a done deal. I’m not generally comfortable on a small animal who doesn’t deserve my weight (especially not at 115 degrees) but there I was with a soaked cloth and my husband’s baseball cap on my head, on a dutiful donkey, headed toward Boquillas, where we were supposed to ”shop.” I bought my way out of that with a nice tip, and made it back to the National Park, just in time to avoid heat stroke.  It felt great to sit on the cement floor of the National Park building, and chat for a few minutes with the park ranger – a local whose father in-law owned a ranch nearby. Overall, this was quite an adventure. The stunning scenery justified the trip, even had we not had the pleasure to experience the most remote border crossing to Mexico from Texas. 

Did the United States actually leave it to a National Park ranger to decide whether to allow people to (re)enter from Mexico? Absolutely not. Upon return, I entered my passport into a kiosk, lifted a phone receiver, and was questioned, camera trained on my face, by Border Protection agents in El Paso. Problems would have had CPB on the spot in short order.

Lesson #5: Border crossings are sites of facilitation and impediment; in short, of filtering.They are also spaces where governments – and their societies – express their values and identities as well as their anxieties.