2016-Competition Winner-a

Threshold: Emergency and Rescue on the U.S.-Mexico Border

by Ieva Jusionyte (Harvard University)


The wall trapped him. Unable to move forward into the United States or retreat back into Mexico, Juan was stuck under the border fence south of the official pedestrian crossing between Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona. That late afternoon in the summer of 2008 a group of Mexicans dug under the corrugated steel panels of the fence and crawled into the U.S. Juan was not among those who succeeded in what the law designates “illegal entry.” Emergency responders from both sides of the border were dispatched to the scene to rescue the unlucky man. Temo, one of the bomberos  (Mexican firefighters) in Nogales, Sonora remembers how they found Juan wedged halfway through the fence. His upper body was in Arizona, but his legs–they remained in Sonora. The ill-fated migrant pleaded with his rescuers, armed with “jaws of life,” to pull him back into Mexico. For a time being, Juan’s body was shared by the jurisdictions of two legal regimes. He was on the threshold of two states, only one ofwhich implicated him in violating the law. He didn’t want to end up in the U.S., where the Border Patrol was waiting to take him into custody. The bomberos tried to fulfill Juan’s wish, but they couldn’t. He had to be extricated to Nogales, Arizona, by an American fire crew. Juan was barefoot when he was rescued. Apparently, when he got stuck, he shouted at the passersby on the Mexican side to help him out. Instead, they stole his sneakers. “Que chiste !” Temo laughed. What a joke!

1. Overview:

“The border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging toform a third country–a border culture.” Gloria Anzaldúa

Law, like poor quality scotch tape, doesn’t stick to the rugged land where U.S. and Mexico meet,  despite the army of Border Patrol officers firmly pressing legal codes hard onto “the hostile terrain.” Over the years, the changing design of the border fence and security infrastructure have intensified the risks of the hazardous topography, producing different types of trauma. While migrants who fall off the current slatted bollard-style wall, which reaches up to thirty feet, fracture their legs and ankles, the previous fence, made of corrugated sheet metal, had sharp edges on the top and often caused limb amputations,  creating a special type of jurisdictional problems when the individuals fell on the U.S. side, while their fingers dropped into Mexico. Firefighters and paramedics have also responded to multiple deadly accidents involving pick-up trucks and vans, sometimes carrying dozens of unauthorized migrants, when these rolled over during pursuits by the Border Patrol on roads that have dangerous curves, often at night. Migrants who walk along the Nogales Wash through the tunnels still get swept away by turbulent waters–every year somebody drowns. But even more border crossers need medical treatment for dehydration, kidney failure, heat stroke or hypothermia when they are exposed to extreme temperatures during the walk across the vast expanse of the Sonoran Desert in hopes of avoiding checkpoints permanently installed on all northbound roads. Security policies have weaponized the already difficult physical terrain of the borderlands: Those who trespass without authorization can be injured or killed.

How is security buildup and border enforcement experienced by those who are charged with mitigating the deleterious human effects of these hardline policies? At the center of this book are emergency responders who work on the Arizona-Sonora border and navigate moral and legal obligations within the politicized security regime. While most of the stories were narrated to me by Mexican and American rescue workers, some of the incidents I experienced first-hand as an emergency responder volunteering on both sides of the border. I offer my involvement in the stories I tell as a lens through which to understand the routine of risk and rescue that characterizes the lives of first responders on the fringes of two states. Firefighters and paramedics on the U.S. side who save unauthorized dmigrants find themselves in an ambivalent position between security logics and rescue ethics. Meanwhile, the bomberos on the Mexican side have become an expendable workforce intervening to stop all threats and hazards before they reach the border, assuming the functions of emergency governance outsourced from the U.S. As an ethnographer, I accompanied firefighters and paramedics in Sonora and in Arizona and documented how they rescued migrants, but also extinguished wildland and structure fires, participated in binational training exercises, assisted local residents in vehicle accidents and domestic violence situations, and rushed to hospitals when one of their own was injured. As a volunteer firefighter and paramedic at the Suburban Fire District in Nogales, Arizona, and at the medical aid station at the Center for Deported Migrants in Nogales, Sonora, I experienced first-hand the ethical,legal and political implications of mitigating hazards and providing medical care in the militarized border zone.

In its broadest scope, Threshold  is an insider’s look at the human and social effects of present day statecraft, security and law enforcement. In common usage of the term, a threshold is a point of  entry. It is a strip of wood, metal, or stone forming the bottom of a doorway crossed when entering. Hazardous materials manuals, used by emergency responders, define “threshold” as “the point where a physiological or toxicological effect begins to be produced by the smallest degree of stimulation.“ It is the magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon or condition to occur. This concept ties together the materiality of terrain and infrastructure, their harmful effects on human bodies, and the political and symbolic values of border crossing. Threshold is where the state begins. Spatially and legally the border is the quintessential threshold of the state. Passport control at the ports of entry, metal fences cutting through neighborhoods, X-ray machines above railroad tracks, multiple surveillance cameras and other minute practices of national governance, as well as its subversion–from tunnels to ultralight aircraft, from guns smuggled into Sonora to drugs trafficked to Arizona–form a mesh that incrementally makes the security state visible and palpable.

Emergency responders on the U.S.-Mexico border operate at the edges of two states, where their physical and legal contours are sharply defined and policed yet where their social effects ooze across jurisdictional boundaries. This book examines the politics of injury and the governance of rescue in the militarized landscape extending north and south of the international border. Emergency responders navigate the hazardous topography of the desert, as well as complex political and legal space when rescuing and treating people injured by strategies, technologies and infrastructures of law enforcement–many of them unauthorized border crossers. They work at the point of friction between security buildup and social-humanitarian policies. Torn between law and ethics, between their mandate as frontline actors in the post-9/11 security state and their responsibility as medical professionals, firefighters and paramedics occupy a position from which we can understand the practical dilemmas and the conceptual paradoxes of sovereignty and governance.


In the latter half of the 20th century first responders have been increasingly embedded into the U.S. national security apparatus. Their role in responding to 9/11 attacks, when 343 firefighters died under the collapsing towers in New York City, has further solidified their symbolic status as national heroes in the “war on terror.” Politically and administratively fire and rescue departments have been incorporated into civil defense and federal emergency management systems. Fire departments today form part of the National Incident Management System–a systematic, proactive approach which the Department of Homeland Security created to manage incidents involving “all threats and hazards.” Firefighters and paramedics are being trained to effectively respond to an open-ended list of emergencies: from industrial hazardous waste spills to terror attacks involving biological, chemical, radiological and other weapons of mass destruction to epidemic infectious disease. They regularly participate in simulations, exercises and drills that prepare them to deal with these and other emergent threats to national security. Yet the routine work of firefighters and paramedics rarely calls for such largescale mobilization. On a daily basis they respond to 9-1-1 calls within their local jurisdictions, helping people in the most vulnerable situations, where their everyday practices are nonetheless interlaced with security politics.

A firefighter slogan asserts: “We walk where the devil dances,” indicating that by the very nature of their job–to rescue, treat and transport people who are critically ill or injured–first responders live in a routine state of emergency. But they work in zones of risk that are unevenly produced by broader political and socioeconomic processes. Immigration and drug policies as well as numerous security regulations and liability questions on federal and state levels affect the lived experiences of firefighters in border towns, both limiting and expanding the scope of their work. On the one hand, it is now more difficult to maintain old commitments between communities on both sides of the border, such as assisting Mexican firefighters with large fires and other mass casualty incidents. On the other hand, first responders are often called to help people who bear the direct consequences of increased border securitization and militarization. Along the U.S. southern fringe, border-related trauma is so common that it has become normalized. In Douglas, Arizona, fire department personnel are so frequently dispatched to care for patients with orthopedic injuries–they call them “fence jumpers”–that they now refer to the cement ledge abutting the international wall as “ankle alley.”

Rescuers who work along the border are not just responding to migrant needs, but to all environmental and industrial emergencies that straddle the international boundary. Arizona is downstream, downwind, and downhill from Sonora. This means that not only wildfires and floods spread north into the United States, unless they are stopped before reaching the border, but so do chemical spills involving the release of sulphuric acid from derailed Ferromex and Union Pacific trains. A shared geography makes homeland security into a binational affair, requiring coordination between the U.S. and Mexican emergency response systems. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. What happens in Nogales, Sonora, doesn’t stay there,” says Louis Chaboya, former Santa Cruz County Emergency Manager and presently the coordinator of the federal Border 2020 Program. “When we are helping Mexico, we are helping ourselves.”

Many firefighters and paramedics in towns along the Arizona’s southern fringe, including Nogales and Douglas, are Mexicans or Mexican-Americans, who are regularly profiled and questioned at interior Border Patrol checkpoints. In an incident in 2015, the police in Tucson followed two firefighters from Nogales suspecting that they had stolen the fire truck they were driving. “No wonder! One of you looks like Chapo Guzmán, the other–like Pablo Escobar,” joked their colleagues, referencing two notorious drug traffickers. These firefighters call their town, where 93% of the residents are Hispanic or Latino, “Nogales, Arizona, Mexico.” To them, the United States of America begins north of the checkpoint on I-19. Their own fire chief used to tell these Spanish-speaking emergency responders that they were “just a bunch of overpaid tomato pickers.” Their families are still scattered across the two countries. But now these firefighters rescue people who, just like they or their parents once did, are coming for the “American dream” and instead get to live their worst nightmare. Take Alex, a firefighter in Nogales, Arizona, whose Mexican-born father crossed the border to enlist in the Vietnam War and, in exchange for service, became a legal U.S. resident. Years later, surplus panels used as portable touchdown pads for military helicopters operating in that war were repurposed to erect a metal fence that new generations would scale in order to join their kin up north, and now Alex was bandaging fingers that had been amputated by the fence’s sharp edges.

Threshold  tells the stories of emergency responders on the edges of the law, where security politics and humanitarian ethics violently collide. It provides a different perspective on the topics that are at the forefront of public debates–border (in)security, drug trafficking, unauthorized migration, and public access to healthcare. Rather than offering policy analysis, the book narrates the stories of people who meet at the scenes of emergencies in the border zone–American firefighters and Mexican bomberos, Red Cross volunteers, city and county emergency managers, and humanitarian aid workers who roam the desert in search for migrants in distress or treat them at shelters. Their stories of muddling through difficult situations and negotiating at times contradictory mandates make up the narrative of hope and sorrow, of courage and frustration, of abandonment and salvage. Having participated in training activities and rescue operations as a paramedic and volunteer firefighter on both sides of the border, I use my own experiences as a lens through which to understand what it is like to save lives under conditions of heightened security on the U.S.-Mexico border.

II. Outline

Threshold  is comprised of short chapters arranged into four sections that tell the story from the points of view of firefighters and paramedics in Nogales, Arizona; bomberos in Nogales, Sonora; first responders in the rural Arivaca Fire District; and emergency managers in southern Arizona’s Santa Cruz County. These storylines intersect throughout the book, creating nodes around themes and events. They are complemented by the interviews and ethnographic fieldwork that I conducted in other fire departments in the border zone, at the emergency department of Level 1 Trauma Center in Tucson, with the Border Patrol’s Office of Field Operations, and with the Tucson Samaritans. Threading through the book, holding its storylines together, are my own experiences as an anthropologist and a paramedic on both sides of the border, where I worked with first responders as my research assistants and volunteered alongside them in training as well as in emergencies.

Part I. First due to the border

1. Nogales, Arizona, Mexico

2. fence jumpers

3. la gorda

4. mojado

5. caught in crossfire

6. warehouse

7. downstream

The first part of the book, narrated from the perspectives of firefighters and paramedics in Nogales, Arizona, traces how security policies and infrastructures weaponized the already dangerous physical terrain of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Security buildup, which began in the 1990s and intensified after 9/11, has shaped the lived experiences and work routines of emergency responders. In Nogales, they have struggled to reconcile their role as frontline state actors with ethical-humanitarian principles mandated by their profession as well as with their status as Mexican-American residents in a predominantly Hispanic border community located in what has been aptly called a “Constitution free zone” (“Nogales, Arizona, Mexico”). Healthcare laws require that prehospital medical responders provide help without regard to the legal status of their patients, but as members of a municipal Nogales Fire Department, these rescue workers are also invested with governmental authority and its political legal functions. In what appears to be a paradoxical scenario, emergency responders are part of the same system that criminalizes and injures the very people they are called to help on the border: migrants who suffer traumatic injuries from trying to jump over the fence that separates urban neighborhoods or become dehydrated while crossing hazardous desert terrain in an attempt to avoid the Border Patrol. Ironically, when they leave the border zone, these firefighters and paramedics themselves are regular targets of racial profiling by federal law enforcement agents at the same interior checkpoints that have pushed unauthorized migrants into the wild. In order to show the ethical and legal complexity of their daily work, I focus on several emergencies (“fence jumpers”; “mojado”; “caught in crossfire”). These incidents ruptured the fabric of daily life in the firehouse, which is usually filled with such mundane tasks as washing and inspecting the trucks at the start of each shift (“la gorda”), arranging deliveries of street tacos from a Mexican vendor across the line, and participating in training (“warehouse”; “downstream”).

Part II. Backburn

1. puros compas

2. boys & toys

3. thirty

4. San Lazaro

5. simulacro

6. fight fire with fire

The second part of the book takes us across the line to Nogales, Sonora, where security buildup on the U.S.-Mexico border directly impacts on the lived experiences of Mexican emergency responders. In firefighter terminology, backburn is a method used to fight fire with fire, which involves creating a new fire in the opposite direction of the existing one in order to destroy fuels and clear the area. Here, I use this concept to refer to the outsourcing of emergency management and hazard containment from the U.S. to Mexico. From the early days of the volunteer fire department in Nogales, Sonora, the bomberos have participated in collaborative efforts to extinguish both wildland and structure fires on both sides of the international boundary (“thirty”). The ties between emergency responders in Ambos Nogales (both Nogales) are thick. “We are not associates. We are not business partners. We are not even friends. We are family,” they say (“puros compas”). Through informal peer-to-peer initiatives, firefighters in southern Arizona have been teaching bomberos in northern Sonora and have supplied them with gear and equipment (“boys & toys”). More recently, concerns with terror threats and environmental disasters have put the border on the U.S. government’s agenda and both NORTHCOM and EPA have been funding  binational programs to train the Mexican bomberos to handle hazardous materials incidents and potential chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks (“San Lazaro”). Simulated and real emergencies, from anthrax and sulphuric acid to explosions at the port of entry, have been used to extend U.S. governance over northern Sonora (“simulacro”). Unlike fire departments in the U.S., bomberos in Nogales are not a formal institution of the Mexican state. As one lieutenant explained to me, “We don’t exist in the law. We are a bunch of cabrones  who have red trucks and go fight fires.” I show how Mexican emergency responders, who accept the task to contain largescale emergencies before these threats reach the international boundary, are informally incorporated into the U.S. security apparatus. Federal programs such as Border 2020 cordon off a buffer zone in northern Mexico where risks to the U.S. are mitigated by emergency responders without any formal ties to either government. If they get hurt, the bomberos have no legal rights or healthcare benefits. They are, thus, disposable workforce– the red canaries of the borderlands. However, I argue, that instead of being trapped in backburn, they are actively choosing to be on the frontlines because this position enables them to acquire training and tools from the U.S. and make themselves indispensable for binational emergency management (“fight fire with fire”).

Part III. Dispatched for rescue, nature unknown

1. man in black dress pants

2. “we don’t do citizenships”

3. code red

4. standard firefighting orders

5. million-dollar business

6. bulletproof

The third part of the book begins with a call to rescue a border crosser in the desert on the Arivaca-Sasabe Road, in which I participated in the summer of 2015 (“man in black dress pants”). In this operation I accompanied two emergency responders from the Arivaca Fire District, a small rural department in an area intensely targeted by the U.S. security apparatus. Arivaca is an unincorporated community in the Altar valley of the Sonoran Desert, located about 11 miles north of the Mexican border in Arizona. When in 1994 the Border Patrol adopted the infamous “prevention through deterrence” strategy, it deliberately pushed migrants further away from populated areas, such as Nogales, rerouting them through Sasabe and Arivaca. Because of large traffic of undocumented migrants and drug smugglers Arivaca has been the site of increased federal security-making, which subjected its residents to the failed virtual-fence program and ongoing routine controls on interior checkpoints. Whenever Arivacans leave their town, they have to pass through a Border Patrol roadblock, which has prompted concerns about civil rights violations and led to an ACLU lawsuit.

This community has been struggling to address the tangible negative effects of unauthorized migration. The number of calls to help lost border crossers has strained the resources of the volunteer fire department, which can barely afford to pay two emergency responders per shift to cover the area of 689 square miles (“million-dollar business”). I draw on interviews with emergency responders in rural communities in the border zone, field diaries kept by paramedic Tangye Beckham in Arivaca, and my own experiences as a volunteer paramedic and firefighter to examine how rescuers’ professional mandates to save lives are inflected by concerns for safety as well as their understanding of the law and ethical-moral imperatives. Although local emergency responders used to be able to tell apart migrants and drug smugglers, these boundaries  have been blurred since more migrants are now forced to carry drug loads as a form of payment for the crossing, putting rescue workers in a difficult position to choose between their ethical commitment to help anybody and everybody and the no. 1 rule of emergency  work–scene safety (“we don’t do citizenships”; “bulletproof” ). In some departments, paramedics will not respond to areas that are known corridors used by drug and human smugglers without the escort of the Border Patrol, even if this means compromising the ethics of medical care (“standard firefighting orders”). But other times they stand up for the rights of their undocumented patients: when they go through the checkpoints, for example, they will not allow the agents to search the ambulance and question the patient because this would interrupt and delay medical care (“code red”).

Part IV. Orchestrating emergencies

1. Louie

2. radioactive

3. binational plan

4. fire in a sandbox

5. delegation

6. Rocky Point

The last section of the book approaches binational emergencies and rescue operations in the border zone on a different scale. It takes us to the back stages of emergency management, where politics and policies often depart from the practical needs of firefighters and paramedics and the social realities they deal with on the ground. Instead of direct, tactile engagement with the physical terrain, injured bodies, and immediate hazards, here hypothetical emergencies are projected onto abstract space and summarized into response schemes and plans of action (“fire in a sandbox”; “Rocky Point”). Ray Sayre, who worked as a firefighter in Tucson before becoming the Santa Cruz County Emergency Manager, explains the shift of his perspective: “Fire service is an operational standpoint, so we lay hands on, we directly mitigate the situation. Now I’m more of an orchestra conductor.” I follow Ray, as he leads meetings of the only binational local emergency planning committee (LEPC), negotiates mutual aid plans, organizes training exercises for fire departments in Arizona and Sonora, and manages donations of equipment to the Mexican bomberos (“radioactive”). This section also tells the story of Louie Chaboya (“Louie”), a bilingual police officer and the county’s emergency manager before Ray, who initially took on the task of bringing together Mexicans and Americans to prepare for all-hazard contingencies on the border (“binational plan”).

The most important vulnerabilities that the county faces are wildfires, hazardous materials spills, and flooding. They all require binational response, as do train derailments, violent incidents at the port of entry, body recoveries from the Nogales Wash, and other contingencies. In a closed-door meeting with a delegation of high-ranking Israeli emergency responders, who came to share knowledge about their experiences working with Palestinian firefighters and learn about the cooperation between rescue workers on the U.S.-Mexico border (“delegation”), the chief of one southern Arizona fire department said: “These folks will go across the border without hesitation. That’s not the issue. The issue is policy.” Despite attempts to integrate U.S. and Mexican emergency management on state and federal levels, the binational plan is most effective when it is coordinated locally. In real-life emergencies, first responders often bypass official notification channels and instead rely on their personal networks and long-term friendships to request help from the other side of the border. From the perspective of many firefighters in Ambos Nogales, policies that regulate binational cooperation usually obstruct rather than facilitate joint response.