The Wall as Weapon: Border Emergency Responders
As a journalist who has reported on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, I found Ieva Jusionyte’s look at the role of emergency responders who defy official boundary lines to save lives not just compelling, but timely. Threshold: Emergency responders on the US-Mexico Border illuminates the work of paramedics and firefighters in the context of increasing immigration enforcement.
Her description of a woman who used a ladder to climb the border fence and then fell 24 feet when she lost her grip embodies the contradiction, the “politics of wounding and rescue” that runs through out the book.
“Lying supine on the strip of concrete that stretches parallel to the rusty metal fence was a young woman, whom I will call Araceli. That is not her real name, but leaving her without one would erase what little was left of her dignity after the steel barrier maimed her body,” writes Jusionyte.
That medical emergency at the border fence dividing Arizona and Sonora is part of the tactical infrastructure, along with the harsh terrain, that is used by Border Patrol to slow, if not stop, those who would breach the borderline.
Jusionyte’s book is set along the stretch of borderland where the desert landscape, she argues in numerous examples, is wielded as a weapon designed to deter—one that can also prove deadly. Border Patrol check points on highways are another layer of enforcement that has pushed migrants to dangerous remote routes.
“It’s not about all-out war. It’s about tactical advantage in the never-ending game,” she writes.
I have reported on the consequences of that “tactical advantage” measured in both the unclaimed bodies in morgues and the untold number of missing migrants who disappear on the way north fleeing poverty and violence or trying to reunite with a loved one in the United States.
While reading this book, I wrote stories about two migrant children who died in Border Patrol custody in December.
A seven year-old girl from Guatemala and her father had crossed the border near the remote Antelope Wells port of entry in New Mexico. They were part of a group of Central Americans seeking asylum who turned themselves into Border Patrol agents. Jakelin Caal was unconscious at the end of the hour-and-a half bus ride to a Border Patrol station in Lordsburg. She died after being airlifted to an El Paso hospital. On Christmas Eve, eight-year old Felipe Gómez Alonso, also from Guatemala, spent his final hours of life in a Border Patrol holding cell with his father after being shuttled back and forth to the hospital.
Their deaths only served to underscore the remarkable life-saving rescues performed by emergency responders on the border in both the United States and Mexico. “Looking at space through the lens of threats—both natural and man-made—is a perspective I wanted to bring to this book,” writes Jusionyte.
Her descriptions of emergency responders at the scene of deadly accidents, fires and flash floods are devoid of both medical jargon and emotion. This can be jarring for the reader, but Jusionyte explains, “I could not change what may appear like a cold, detached tone, a methodical description not soaked with anger or empathy.”
If she sounds like the paramedics and firefighters in her book offering sterile descriptions of a patient’s condition, it is not by accident. Jusionyte is one of them. She has trained and volunteered as an emergency medical technician, paramedic and wildland firefighter in Arizona, Florida and Massachusetts.
That personal perspective informs her writing. She is not a bystander observing but a member of the emergency responder “family.” And she writes matter-of-factly with the precision of a paramedic who can’t waste time during an emergency.
The scenarios of injured fence jumpers and fires that jump the border speak for themselves. In recounting the stories of rescued migrants, she puts a face on the people driven to make the perilous journey north. Emergency workers see the best and worst of humanity, including migrants who refused to carry drugs hung from the border fence “like piñatas,” as a sheriff described it.
A paramedic in Rio Rico recounted the story of an undocumented immigrant who found a seven year-old boy who survived the auto accident that killed his mother on a remote road. The migrant turned himself in to Border Patrol agents in order to save the boy’s life.
Her time with firefighters on both sides of the border demonstrates their brotherhood (and sisterhood in some cases) and shared sense of mission in the tight-knit ambos [twin] Nogales, that like many sister cities, are separated by a border but beat as one heart.
“In Nogales we are not associates. We are not business partners. We are not even friends. We are family,” Louie Chaboya, tells Jusionyte. He administers the Border 2020 program designed to address environmental and public health problems in the border region.
The firefighting bomberos in Mexico who are part of “proteccion civil,” a civil proteccion service, demonstrate the same determination and skill on the job. They participate in joint hazmat training and simulated emergency exercises with first responders in the United States. But they often work with poor equipment for low pay.
Even so, they often serve as the first line of defense in a region where the border blurs during an emergency.
“Bomberos know they are a human shield that the US federal government won’t hesitate to put in harm’s way to stop a threat, whatever it may be–a brush fire, an ammonia leak, a bioterrorism attack—from advancing north,” Jusionyte explains.
Others are reminded of the official dividing line when off duty. One firefighter who helped combat blazes on the Arizona side was rejected when he tried to renew his border crossing card. A Mexican-American first responder complains about being “profiled” by Border Patrol agents at highway checkpoints who send him to secondary inspection even when he’s driving a vehicle with firefighter license plates while his sister’s boyfriend—“a typical white guy”—is not questioned after the man declares he has three handguns and a shotgun in his vehicle.
A woman firefighter in Arivaca with an anti-Obama bumper sticker on her vehicle dutifully transports undocumented border crossers she describes as lawbreakers to a hospital when they break bones or are dangerously dehydrated after being abandoned in the desert by ruthless smugglers known as coyotes.
In this remote area, Jusionyte writes, “wounding takes time. So does rescue.” And the paramedics and firefighters in small isolated communities who respond can only afford to treat and transport migrants if they’re reimbursed by the federal government. The line between immigration enforcement and emergency medical blurs “the latter often become contingent on the former,” Jusionyte observes.
First responders are often “caught between the state’s two hands, the one that enforces order, in this case the border, and the one that provides care,” she explains.
The accounts are mostly set in 2015, before Donald J. Trump ran for president but the issues spotlighted are more relevant than ever as the president fights to fund construction of his promised “big, beautiful border wall.”
The argument for the wall as a weapon to stop illegal immigration and drug trafficking does not reflect the reality of those who save lives for a living.
“Emergency responders cannot be consigned to only one side of a political division. They are always crossing the line,” Jusionyte argues in her book. “Emergency responders take the side of the people—residents and migrants, Mexicans and Americans, those with and those sin papeles.Everyone has the same red blood and a heart that is a muscle the size of a fist,” Jusionyte beautifully explains.
Against the backdrop of the push for more border enforcement, and in these nativist times, I and others who call the border home, benefit from the shared sense of duty and binational commitment of emergency responders who rush to the scene, and when needed, across the line.
Angela Kocherga is the Southwest border reporter for the Albuquerque Journal. Her award-winning multimedia stories have appeared on major television stations. She is a border dweller living on the edge of New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua.
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