Voices of the Border: Testimonios of Migration, Deportation, and Asylum
The U.S.-Mexico border is one of the most policed stretches of land in the world, with the militarization of the border only increasing with each successive political regime. Too often, the stories of migrants from Latin America are abstracted and quantified into statistics that are then used to tell sweeping narratives about who migrants are and why they are coming to the United States. Voices of the Border, edited by Tobin Hansen and Maria Engracia Robles Robles, ME, re-humanizes the experiences of migrants, presenting a curated volume of testimonios (personal narratives of lived experiences). Readers of Voices of the Border are invited to witness the testimonios of “the forgotten people,” with chapter introductions written by migrant advocates who spend their lives supporting those on the margins (p. xii). Voices of the Border offers an intimate, emotional view into the migrant experience, and it is an excellent read for scholars and the public alike.
Chapter 1 introduces us to Nogales and the Kino Border Initiative, and further discusses the importance of testimonios in the current border climate. Nogales itself maintains a bordered reality – a portion of the city exists in Mexico, and a portion in the United States. Because of its location, migrants come to Nogales at varying intervals and for varying stays – some staying for an afternoon, some staying for weeks, and some residing in Nogales long-term after being deported (p. 3). This “come and go” reality in Nogales is exacerbated by the ever-increasing policing of the border, forcing migrants to rely more on complex smuggling networks and dangerous desert crossings (p.13-14). The border can seem timeless and permanent, with no room for a hopeful future. Hansen argues that testimonios allow us to “rethink borders and bordering” by humanizing individual migrant stories, showing how the border is “produced or performed in little acts all the time” (p.14-15). Testimonios not only highlight the diversity of migrant experiences but capture the “tremendous capacity of people and the limits that are imposed on them” (p.17). The following chapters are organized around eleven themes salient to current conversations on mobility and migration.
Chapter 2, again introduced by Hansen, highlights testimonios that touch on experiences of migration borne out of financial hardship. Latin America has a long history of wealth inequality, spurned on by European colonial oppression and entrenched through ongoing resource exploitation by the United States. Testimonios from the chapter narrate several stories of migration sparked by desire and need to provide a better life for themselves and their children. Readers hear the story of migrants such as Santiago, who embarked northward after his mother died, spending more than three decades working as a cook in California before being deported to Mexico. Yesica never made it to the United States – after taking out a loan to pay for a coyote, she was robbed in Agua Prieta and left with nothing. She still plans to journey north and try to cross the border (p. 23-24).
The third and fourth chapters take a visceral turn, focusing on migrant experiences of violence. Chapter 3 showcases stories of those who came to Nogales after experiencing brutal gang violence. The Maras, frequently referenced in this chapter, are not a unified gang, but a series of rival factions that control much of Central America and have considerable influence along major migrant corridors (p. 34-35). Ana Carolina’s children were murdered after she refused to continue paying extortion money to Maras-affiliated criminals. Even after several violent encounters, she continues to apply for asylum in the United States (p. 38-39). Chapter 4 tells the stories of women who experienced horrific sexual violence in their journeys up to Nogales. Summarizing these stories in this review would be doing a disservice to the women courageous enough to speak their stories.
The fifth chapter tells stories of migrants who had their families ripped apart by their migration journeys. The family, argues Robles Robles, is the most intimate grouping that human beings can create (p. 61). While international agreements like the U.N.’s Right of the Child protect migrant families in most countries, the United States refuses to be a signatory, a choice felt strongly by immigrant families at the Southwest border. For Robles Robles, the horrors of family separation run counter not only to Latin America’s deep familial bonds but to her Catholic faith. Quoting Pope Francis, Robles Robles describes the family as one of two “essential components” for a full life (p. 62). Estrella was deported to Mexico along with her three U.S.-born children, and after unsuccessfully trying to return several times, she made the heartwrenching choice to send them back to the U.S. without her. Estrella ends by begging for the U.S. to reconsider its child-separating border policies (p. 69). Marisol still lies to her children about her deportation. They think that she is just “visiting” their grandmother in Puebla (p. 73). The testimonios in Chapter 5 bring to light the confusion, pain, and suffering brought about by the unjust treatment of migrant families in the United States.
Chapters 6 through 8 document testimonios that convey the intense danger of the northbound journey across Mexico. Chapter 6 captures moments of brutality and resilience from migrants along their journey. Migrants spoke of gruesome physical injury from the harsh desert conditions approaching the border, and several testimonios narrated horrific choices of self-preservation made by walking groups to abandon those too weak to continue. Chapter 7 introduces the reader to several anonymous migrants in the United States who faced physical and emotional abuse from authorities in Mexico. Migrants were shot at, had helicopters land directly on top of them, and were extorted by corrupt officials for toll fees. One anonymous Mexican migrant detailed how Central Americans that had shared a bus with them had their legal documents seized by Mexican authorities and how they narrowly avoided the same fate despite his citizenship status. Chapter 8 continues to examine Mexico’s new status as a “new southern border” for the United States, and how government officials permit organized crime to operate indiscriminately as a deterrence for Central American immigrants (p. 119-120). Ivan and Jorge’s testimonios show that police officers regularly participate in organized rings that target Central Americans for kidnapping and extortion. The introducing authors of all three chapters beg readers to witness the humanity of migrants in transit and implore them to break the cycle of abuse perpetuated by authorities.
Chapters 9, 10, and 11 provide an on-the-ground look at how the United States makes the process of migration increasingly difficult through a combination of increased criminalizing and the destruction of legal asylum. The reader is exposed to testimonios in Chapter 9 that demonstrate how the United States turns petty crimes into deportable offenses. The chapter’s introduction reminds the reader that “criminal” is a reductive category and is used by border officials to justify otherwise unconscionable enforcement policies (p. 139). Rafael and Mike’s testimonios both relate how they paid for their crimes twice, being convicted on the actual petty crime itself, which then became a justification for deportation. Chapter 10 illustrates the deep societal tears created by the deportation machine. Ramón was diagnosed with skin cancer ten years ago while in the United States. Being deported not only stripped him of his family but left him without essential cancer care. As of the recording of his interview, Ramón has no idea how far his cancer has progressed. Chapter 11 shifts the gaze from the expulsions of individuals towards the dismantling of access to the country at all through the restriction of asylum. Testimonios from Guadalupe, María, and Nicole all tell of clear, unambiguous threats to their lives had they stayed in their home countries, and how legislative changes to asylum threaten their journeys. Taken as a whole, these three chapters call for a rethinking of the violent, destructive restriction of immigration into the United States.
The final two chapters re-emphasize the importance of portraying and witnessing migrant voices. The deep Catholic spirituality of the Kino Border Initiative and Robles Robles saturates the 12th chapter, committing the prayers of migrant participants to text and joining them in communion. Hope and gratitude take center stage, punctuating this otherwise heartbreaking text with prayers of thanksgiving and grace. The concluding chapter, written by Hansen, emphasizes the importance of testimonios and their place in inviting readers into a “reorientation to the world,” weaving emotional narratives into their consciousness and calling them to action (p. 195). Hansen finishes by positioning Voices of the Border as an educational primer into the world of immigration on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Voices of the Border represents a different and refreshing form of critical academic work. Very rarely in scholarly discourse are stories allowed to stand on their own. Rather, they become distilled, coded, and analyzed into theoretical contributions. It is impossible to read these testimonios from that comfortable academic distance. They will keep your heart and eyes pointed to the systemic injustices that activists and scholars call out at the beginning of each chapter and knock at your soul’s door to ask for action and solidarity. There are sections of this critical work that broke my heart to read, and I found myself feeling the desperation, pain, and loneliness conveyed by many of the migrant storytellers. Additionally, Voices of the Border demonstrates the critical interventions that radical community-oriented praxis affords academia. Hansen’s partnership with Robles Robles (and the Kino Border Initiative writ large) not only provided him with the impressive archive of Robles Robles’s story gathering, but it also informed every aspect of this text’s construction. The choice to retain the original languages of the testimonios alongside their English translations highlights the care taken to present knowledge from migrant perspectives rather than US-oriented perspectives, with the translator (David Hall) leaving much of the geographical and cultural language untouched, even if confusing to a U.S. reader. Any academic seeking to do community-focused scholarship will find Voices of the Border invaluable as a case study in local partnerships.
Voices of the Border is an exemplar for scholars, activists, and allies committed to transformative work on the U.S.-Mexico border and represents the incredible potential for academic partnerships with community organizations. The testimonios contained within will tear your heart apart and refashion it with renewed purpose regarding border enforcement and militarization. I hope to see more testimonios and more stories that are allowed to stand on their own in academic writing.
Michael Klajbor-Smith is a Graduate Fellow and Instructor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.