Episode 184: Nativism in Media (Part I) — How Dehumanization and Militarization Manufactured a “Border Crisis”

Citations Needed | July 12, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
54 min readJul 12


Credit: David Peinado Romero


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: “What one photo from the border tells us about the evolving migrant crisis,” reveals the Washington Post. “The US immigration crisis through the eyes of a border town mayor,” reports Boston’s NPR station. “Everyone can now agree — the US has a border crisis,” proclaims CNN.

Adam: There’s a seemingly endless stream of warnings in American news media that the US is being met with a quote unquote crisis at the US-Mexico border. This crisis according to the press — whether it’s called a border crisis, a migrant crisis or an immigration crisis, or some variant thereof — is a movement of people away from countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and elsewhere towards the United States. This phenomenon will supposedly distort, strain and burden the US labor markets, social services, housing and the economy in general.

Nima: But contrary to media framings, the movement of people isn’t per se a crisis. Nothing is inherently harmful about the movement of human beings from one place to another. The crisis, rather, is the militarized and inhumane response to the movement of what the US government deems surplus and unwanted populations. It’s US policy toward the people especially from the Global South who seek refuge here. It’s the history of imperialist violence, the existence and enforcement of the border and the deflection of responsibility away from the United States. And on to the dehumanized and demonized asylum seekers, that is the crisis.

Adam: On today’s show — part one of a three-part episode on media’s coverage of immigration — we’ll explore the media’s World War Z-conjuring “border crisis” narrative, looking at how it obscures the US’s role in creating the conditions so many people have no choice but to flee; how it reinforces false notions about immigrants and asylum seekers; and how it retcons the wealthiest, most powerful country in the history of the world and to an innocent victim too fragile to support the people in dire need of escaping the violence that this country helped unleash.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll speak with Heba Gowayed, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University. Her writing about the lives of people who migrate across borders and the unequal and often violent institutions they face has appeared in academic journals, including Gender and Society and Ethnic and Racial Studies, as well as outlets like Slate, Al Jazeera and Teen Vogue. She’s the author of the book Refuge: How the State Shapes Human Potential, published by Princeton University Press in 2022.

Heba Gowayed: The word “crisis” evokes this need for a solution and if the crisis that we’re most concerned about is the crisis of people, you know, and usually we hear these terms that I definitely circle in red when they’re written in student papers, right? Things like flows, hordes, masses, swarm, flood, right? All these terrible water metaphors that completely deny and gloss over and reshape people’s humanity and agency into this faceless mass of folks who are here to take our jobs and potentially invoke violence, then the response becomes violent.

Adam: So on this episode, we will not be getting into the general history of the racist antipathy towards immigrants because it’s something we’ve covered before on the show. If you’d like more about that, listen to Episode 93: A 100 years of US Media Fueling Anti-Immigrant Sentiment with guest Shannon Gleeson, we recorded that live in October of 2019, before the event, so definitely check that out. Much of the ground is covered there today, we’re instead going to focus on the crisis framing around immigration, which we think is interesting, because it’s sort of like the way people — we’ve talked about this with how people talk about homelessness, where they’ll say there’s a homelessness crisis. And one person says that it sounds like, great, we need to bring in the police to go round them all up and put them in a camp somewhere in the desert, or kill them. And the other person says ‘homelessness crisis’ and they think, oh, that’s a crisis of society that’s failed, right? ‘Immigrant crisis,’ ‘migrant crisis,’ ‘border crisis’ are a really great way of kind of avoiding responsibility and to talk about two different things at once. Because on the one hand, Nima, if you say ‘border crisis,’ I think, oh, it’s a humanitarian crisis because of the hypermilitarization of the border, right- or left-wing or liberal.

Nima: And because of policies that would demand that people move and migrate and try and shift the space in which they are in, being for safety, because of inequity, all of those things. Rather, what is so often meant by border crisis, or, as you said, homelessness crisis, it is the existence of these people — the visible existence of these people in spaces where powerful segments of our own society would rather not have to deal with them, would rather not have to see them.

Adam: Yeah, and as we’ll argue in this episode, is that that kind of stigmatizing language around a border crisis and aside from kind of flattening responsibility really is meant to speak to the latter, it’s meant to kind of allude to the fact that there’s a lot of unwashed masses here we don’t want. This is therefore a crisis that is putting a burden on our social resources, our economy, our “culture,” and that this is in urgent need of fixing.

Nima: Right, and all too often deliberately omitting any references, again, to the root causes of the movement of people toward something potentially safer things like warfare, or counter-revolutionary militarization and mercenary groups, sanctions, coups, other acts of violence, many of which, not all of which, but many of which are orchestrated by the United States and its allies itself, thereby forcing people to flee their homes and then the people themselves, not those causes are deemed to be crises. So let’s dig into some of the history of this media framing. Warnings of a “crisis” relating to immigration in the US date back to at least the 1850s. For example, an 1852 letter to the editor published in the New York Tribune warned that the ratification of Sioux treaties in Minnesota which granted more land to the United States government would attract further “emigration of drinkers, loafers and black-legs.” The author opined, “I therefore regard this year with its immigration, a crisis in the history of Minnesota.” Crisis language like this began to ramp up in the early 20th century, especially as immigration grew in the years preceding World War I.

Adam: Let’s look at an example from the Philadelphia Inquirer from February of 1905. The headline read, “A Dumping Ground for Europe’s Paupers.” The piece was written in response to a bill that would have capped the number of immigrants in a single year from a given country in the US to 80,000. Inquire supported that bill, but argued for even more restrictive policies stating, “In plain words, European authorities are systematically making a convenient dumping ground of America for their pauper and turbulent elements. And it rests with Congress of the United States, to determine how much longer we shall stand for this sort of thing. This country is grand and great and can assimilate large numbers, but we cannot go on forever in a way that we are going on now. Unquestionably, a grave crisis is not far ahead of us unless some changes can be made. So here we have this idea of a crisis based on Europe dumping its paupers at our door. And this, of course, is this sort of Southern European Italian Irish type, sort of Catholic swarthy races.

Nima: Right, the swarthier of the paupers.

Adam: The swarthier, yeah is what it was.

Nima: Less Dickensian, more, I don’t know, Catholic and Jewish. Later in the 1930s and 40s, we saw similar frames used to depict internal migration inside the United States regarding people fleeing the drought and other dangers of the Dust Bowl era. One of the earliest such examples comes from the November 15th 1938 issue of the San Francisco Examiner. A headline from that edition reads “NEW SENATOR CALLS MIGRANT CRISIS GRAVE,” and the article quotes interim California Senator Thomas Storke as saying this, “Among such people, the word is spreading, ‘Go to California!’ They expect things here which this State cannot give them. Either their own States must be made to take care of them, or some nationwide solution under Federal supervision, must be found.” Now mind you, Storke didn’t use the exact term “migrant crisis” in the speech that is quoted by the San Francisco Examiner but the writer of the Examiner piece introduced that phrase “migrant crisis” into this media lexicon. The term “migrant crisis” would reappear in California newspapers well into the 1940s as increasing numbers of people fled the Dust Bowl to perform agricultural labor across the state plagued by low wages, unemployment, exploitation and a lack of housing. Their plight, of course, was the inspiration for John Steinbeck’s legendary 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

Adam: It wasn’t long, of course before right-wing “solutions” were opposed to this migrant crisis. Here’s another example from the San Francisco Examiner, January of 1940. That piece relayed the prescriptions of Pastor Julian McPheeters, who recommended work requirements for all who are coming into California. The headline reads, “Pastor answers ‘Grapes of Wrath.’ Dr. McPheeters Gives Programs to Meet Migrant Crisis.” McPheeters cautioned that people migrating into California were “becoming a constantly harassing burden on the state and its communities” and added the following quote:

It is a plan of production and not just ‘gimme, gimme’ — of work and not idleness — of honest toil and not drawing checks for doing nothing. That will curse a Nation. Under present circumstances, California’s migrants form the seedbed for radicalism and Communism and all kinds of wild economic schemes.

Julian McPheeters

Nima: So this idea of migrants either moving from state to state or crossing our borders from other nations continued to be warned about, the terminology spread throughout the media. Throughout the 20th century, as immigration to the United States increased, by the 1970s, media warnings about “illegal immigration” started to bloom. The crisis framing here was primarily being applied to the immigration of people from Mexico and to a lesser extent people from other nations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Adam: At the time, the population of Mexico had been growing quickly as had immigration, including undocumented immigration to the US between 1970 and 1980 the number of Mexican-born immigrants to the US increased by some estimates from roughly 760,000 to nearly 2.2 million. The number of Mexican citizens apprehended in the US, which may reflect the number of Mexican undocumented migrants rose from about 55,000 in 1965 to about 1.5 million in 1986.

Nima: Now, according to historian Ana Raquel Minian, the overwhelming majority — 86% of this migration — was circular, meaning people, usually men, would travel from Mexico to the United States to work temporarily, then return to Mexico to bring money back to their families. This was a holdover from the exploitative Bracero Program of 1942 through 1964 in which millions of Mexican men were “permitted” to perform agricultural labor in the United States on short-term contracts and promised a guaranteed minimum wage, though, whether they actually received one dependent on their employer, of course. The program was meant to supply cheap labor during World War II, and was thereby designed for the benefit of US industry rather than the benefit of Mexican workers themselves, of course. When the program ended in 1964, Mexican workers’ legal rights to work in the US were stripped away but their need for income, of course, remained. Left without safety nets or job guarantees or legal cover, most had little choice but to continue to seek work in the US, regardless of whether the government considered them to be, “legal.” Speaking about her book, Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration, Minian, a historian at Stanford noted this in a 2018 interview: “Up to the 1960s, Mexican officials discouraged emigration, but by the 1970s, those same officials encouraged the departures of working-class men as a solution to high unemployment and population growth in the country. Simultaneously, the U.S. government attempted to address these problems by fortifying the border and conducting raids in Latina/o communities.”

Adam: Rather than centering the plight of Mexican workers and families caught up in the precarious low wage labor, traps, media overwhelmingly reinforced the US’s nativist response, news outlets invoked long-standing racism against Mexican and Latin American people in general, complete with handwringing and outright fearmongering about what Mexican immigrants would do to the US. This narrative would advance the false notion that the US was somehow resource-starved, a victim of an onslaught of dependent immigrants it just can’t possibly support. For example, UP International published a syndicated article in January of 1975 with a headline “Millions of Illegal Aliens Stream into U.S.” The piece would state, “At least 4.5 million illegal aliens are living in the United States and more are streaming into this country in such numbers that have virtually crippled the Immigration and Naturalization Service.” The piece would continue,

According to Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Leonard F. Chapman, Jr., ‘They are occupying jobs that are needed by unemployed citizens. They are not paying their fair share of taxes and often pay none at all. At the same time they are using public services, educating their children in our schools, and often collecting welfare and even unemployment payments. Unless adequate resources and legislation are forthcoming immediately, the flood of illegal entries we are now experiencing will become a torrent. In many parts of the country officials neither have the money to detain illegal aliens nor the money to send them home.’

What this piece didn’t point out was that there were much larger economic changes that resulted in unemployment at the time — say, the fact that industrial jobs were being moved abroad to cut labor costs, and that the service sector jobs replacing these paid less. Nor did it bother to mention the fact that, as many of us know by now, immigrants were often forced to take low paying jobs that most of US-born people wouldn’t even consider or didn’t want to do. And regarding the comments on welfare, as Minian notes, “Although unauthorized migrants paid for social services such as Social Security and taxes, few — 1 to 3 percent — filed for benefits or tax refunds even when money was due to them because of fear of apprehension.”

Nima: Still, the fearmongering continued throughout the decade. An article in the April 1978 issue of The Atlantic was headlined “Immigrants: Whose Huddled Masses?” and had this sub headline: “An estimated 8 million illegal aliens now live in the United States. Can anything — should anything — be done about them?” Later that same year in August of 1978, the Capitol Journal of Salem, Oregon ran the following headline, “US must face its immigration crisis.” The following year, in April of 1979, The Washington Post chimed in with this, “Now with everything from budget air fares to boat people to burgeoning Latin American populations, we have an immigration crisis.” And during that same year 1979, the book The Golden Door: International Migration, Mexico, and the United States was published. One of the book’ authors was Paul Ehrlich, who made his name warning the public about overpopulation, something we discussed at length in Episode 155 about conservation narratives and overpopulation.

Adam: And of course, ignored in all these articles and all this fearmongering is the US’s role in creating the immigration crisis in Latin America to a great extent at that time. So in addition to the aforementioned Bracero program, the US had waged all sorts of warfare against many of the countries in these regions largely in order to suppress any threat to US hegemony and corporate power. There are far too many examples to mention, but just a few in 1954, the CIA executed a coup in Guatemala, ousting democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz after Arbenz’s moderate land reform policies threatened the power and profits of the United Fruit Company, now Chiquita. Almost 20 years later, in 1973, President Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to overthrow Chilean President Salvador Allende who nationalized the US-dominated industries such as copper, after he enacted many pro-worker reforms, and then they installed a fascist dictator, Pinochet. And of course, with the 1980s rise of Reaganism, the US went to horrific extents to squash left wing movements in Latin America. This took the form of arming, training and funding the right-wing Contras in Nicaragua and the death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala, all of which had long lasting effects. So we see from the get go in this “immigrant crisis,” rhetoric really starts to ramp up in the mid to late 70s. The US’s role in creating instability in some of these regions and contributing to the conditions that make people leave their homes is omitted entirely. And into the 80s and 90s, with the end of the Cold War and the rise of “globalization,” the WTO, the IMF, and “free trade” deals like NAFTA, we see how this contributes to the migrant crisis. But we’ll save that for episode three of this three-parter.

Nima: So stay tuned for that. But for now, let’s fast forward to the 2020s headlines cautioning about some version of “border crisis” still persist into the present day, of course, as do many, if not all of the themes that we’ve already been discussing. In late winter, early spring of 2021, following the 2020 presidential election, media were again sounding the alarm about a “crisis” brought on by a “surge” — one of news media’s favorite scary terms — of immigration that the US would need to “curtail.” Examples of this can be seen from a New York Times headline in February of 2021 that read, “Migrant Families Force Biden to Confront New Border Crisis.” David Leonhardt, writing for the New York Times newsletter in March of 2021, worried that “Central American migrants, sensing that the U.S. has become more welcoming, are streaming north in the largest numbers in two decades.” Leonhardt seem to suggest that the Biden administration was ill-equipped to handle this “surge.” What exactly did Leonhardt fear would happen? Well, he doesn’t say in the newsletter, perhaps because he felt like he didn’t need to. The answer was implicit. The same month, March 2021, The Wall Street Journal had a piece headlined “Migrant Surge at U.S. Border Prompts White House Talks With Mexico, Guatemala.”

A New York Times newsletter from March 2021 deemed it a “problem” that some Democrats were too “welcoming” to immigrants.

Adam: And in September of 2021, an editorial in the Washington Post showed the cruelty of presenting immigrants as the cause of the crisis. The editorial headlined Biden’s mixed messaging on immigration brings a surge of Haitian migrants to the Texas border. I wrote about this for the substack at the time, which you can check out in the show notes. The piece condemns the president for incentivizing migrants to come to the border by appearing to welcome too many refugees. So after some like liberal box checking about the humanity of the immigrants, it would read, “The sight of federal officers from the western hemisphere’s wealthiest country corralling and deporting migrants from the hemisphere’s poorest one is a wrenching tableau and nothing for Americans to be proud of. That is what is underway now as US Border Patrol agents unleashed a show of force against thousands of desperate Haitians and other asylum seekers camped on the banks of the Rio Grande in South Texas.” The first words on the site show what the real problem is for the Washington Post, basically that it makes the United States look bad. So this next section really is a testament to kind of mindless cruelty of how we talk about immigration. The editorial would read,

This episode is a distillation of Washington’s immigration policy dysfunction, tweaked in some ways for the worst by the Biden administration’s incongruous messaging. Those Haitians, who make up the majority of some 14,000 migrants packed along the border near Del Rio, Texas didn’t arrive by accident. What led many or most of them toward the border — in addition to unscrupulous smugglers — was what has turned out for most to be the false promise that a new president, publicly committed to a more humane approach, would relax the previous administration’s draconian policies. Large numbers of them had been living for years in South America, having fled their home country after it was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2010. That’s largely what Mr. Biden has done for others, especially Central American families with children, tens of thousands of whom have been admitted to the United States this year. And he did so even as administration officials urged them not to attempt to cross the border illegally. That glaring disconnect, between official dissuasion and on-the-ground leniency, has been received by Haitian and other migrants as an invitation to take their chances on reaching the U.S. border.

So this is an endorsement of Trump’s policy of cruelty, right? Remember, cruelty is the point, this is sort of a very fashionable buzzword. Whether or not it’s the point sort of really doesn’t matter, right? Whether or not it’s the point is kind of a childish way of viewing this issue because the cruelty as we will discuss more in Operation Gatekeeper, which is de facto American policy for the past 30 years, is to deter them, right? So the Washington Post is condemning Biden for appearing too nice, right? For appearing to not have the same kind of naked bloodthirsty cruelty as Trump. And this is the supposedly mainstream liberal editorial board position. That the problem with the US is that we’re just too nice to immigrants.

Nima: There was a similar spike in border crisis warnings earlier this year in May of 2023, right around the time of the expiration of Title 42, an utterly callous Trump-era policy of restriction and mass expulsion of immigrants from the US that was built upon the transparent pretense of preventing the spread of COVID. So it was enacted in 2020 and then expired earlier this year, which set off a torrent of media hand-wringing. Now, Julie Hollar, who is a writer for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), wrote a really good piece on just the same border crisis narratives. In a June 2nd article on the FAIR website, which you should check out. We’re gonna go over some of those things but also some things that are not in that piece. Now, here’s a little context, Title 42, instituted in March 2020 right at the beginning of the global COVID pandemic used junk science about transmission rates in order to specifically target, further stigmatize and deny entry to undocumented immigrants into the United States, with the stated rationale being that migrants and asylum seekers would normally be held by Customs and Border Protection, that is, CBP in “congregate settings” for prolonged periods of time. No similar restrictions were applied to say, tourists arriving by plane or ship of course, but since this policy was instituted, of course, former CDC officials, epidemiologists and over 1300 medical experts have denounced the implementation of Title 42, proposing different ways to safely allow this migration to continue into the country. And according to the National Immigrant Justice Center, “These expulsions stand in clear violation of domestic and international asylum obligations. Tragically, the Biden administration increased Title 42 expulsions, turning people away more than 2.3 million times between February 2021 and March 2023. The expulsion program led to a dramatic increase in repeat crossing attempts, fueling criminal networks preying on migrants forced into dangerous conditions.” The Center continues, “Title 42 expulsions have resulted in nearly 13,000 documented cases of kidnappings, rape, torture, or other acts of violence for the people expelled. Title 42 has also served as a de facto family separation policy — thousands of children, including children as young as 10 years old, have arrived unaccompanied in the United States as families are separated trying to find safety.”

Adam: Now, one might argue that Title 42 and its policies that informed it are a crisis. But according to the media, the crisis is in fact Title 42 has ended. The New York Times ran a story on May 11, 2023 headlined, “What’s Driving Record Levels of Migration to the U.S. Border?” It stated: “The United States is trying to curtail border crossings as a Covid-era immigration policy lifts this week, but it has little control over the crises in Latin America that have upended the lives of millions.” Obviously, the notion that the U.S. has little control is demonstrably false, considering many of the examples of U.S. imperial violence throughout the decades, which will set aside again, a lot of the IMF, WTO policies, which we’ll save for episode three. One of the main drivers something that the Pod Save America guys have just kind of got on board with after years and years of supporting it is the brutal sanctions regime in Venezuela that we know is driving much of the Venezuelan immigration, pretty much destroyed their economy by a third, led according to one super report from a few years ago to tens of thousands of excess deaths. But according to the New York Times, the U.S. is just sort of, you know, bumbling around in the dark, doesn’t know what’s going on. However, it did blame the immigration crisis on the pandemic and on the recession. It blames Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It blamed vague smugglers of migrants and it did in pushing “misinformation,” and a quote “a conflict between armed groups [festering] in once relatively peaceful countries and [raging] in places long accustomed to the terror.”

Nima: Violence from nowhere, apparently.

Adam: Yeah. Who are these armed groups the Times is referring to? Well, we’re not really told outright, but the article links to a story from 2021 about repression of protesters in Colombia under the far right regime of Ivan Duque. There is no indication in the original linked article of any historical or current US involvement in stoking violence in Latin America, or its supportive right-wing elements in Colombia, or its supportive right-wing “anti-drug war” policies and the militarization of police in various countries. This is all kind of hand waved away as something US has no control over. Thus, according to The New York Times, we are again, once again, a sort of beleaguered innocent victim sort of just doing their best.

Nima: Yeah, and put in quite a tough spot Adam, right? Like, we’re in a pickle here. And we have, you know, no control over how we got here. We’re just, you know, just dealing with all these people at the border suddenly. And so the article says this, quote, “This accumulation of grim factors means that when a pandemic-era border restriction known as Title 42 lifts this week, the United States will be confronted with an immigration challenge even more daunting than the one it faced when the measure was first imposed.”

Adam: And so what we get time and time, again, is this idea of a resource burden that the US simply cannot afford to take care of these migrants, which is important to establish up front. That is 100%, absolutely not fucking true. We are a country that rubber-stamps an over $1 trillion military budget every year, we have several trillion dollars hiding in tax havens overseas, the U.S. has the ability to use deficit spending to address all kinds of crises. And as far as cost goes, the resource burden that these migrants put on in terms of, you know, feeding and housing them — by the way, much of the resource burden comes from the fact that we don’t allow the people who come here to actually work. So that’s kind of a —

Nima: Right.

Adam: But even setting that aside, is really not a lot of money. It’s not a lot of money compared to what the US routinely spends and waste money on. But this kind of resource burden framing, especially because of the scam of federalism in the United States, right, where we say, oh, the federal government’s not gonna pay for it, therefore, the city and states have to pay for it. And it’s true, though cities and states can’t deficit spend, they actually do have limited resources. But the idea that the federal government would help fund what is by definition, a federal issue, right? Immigration is a federal issue. It’s just kind of taken for granted as just never going to happen. Right? And so then the cities and states get to use this bogus false scarcity, austerity, resource burden framing to say, look, these immigrants are taking your welfare, these immigrants are taking your money, they’re taking your food and housing and shelter and police resources from you. Therefore, they’re the problem. So instead of lobbying the federal government to do more to help with this “crisis,” which again, it is, in many ways responsible for, we use the scam of federalism just as we do in the bunch of other instances to create a sense of false austerity where none really exists. And so we see this framing of burden all the time. In TIME magazine May 8, 2023, “Why the U.S. May Be Days Away From a Border Crisis.” New York Times, May 10, 2023, “Open-Armed Chicago Feels the Strains of a Migrant Influx.” BBC from the same day, US border crisis: El Paso readies for rise in crossings as end of Title 42 looms. CNN, from May 12, 2023, US border communities declare disasters as Title 42’s expiration sets the stage for a migration rush. CBS News from May 21, 2023, Mayor Eric Adams on migrant crisis: NYC carrying “burden” of “national problem.” which is in some senses true, right? But the idea that there’s this burden in our economy, we simply just don’t have the resources. And of course, the White House, the federal government, Congress, it’s never presented: well, what are you going to do about this from a federal perspective? It says, oh, that’s a city and state problem. Well, of course, again, they can’t deficit spend. They’re not the ones writing trillion dollar checks every year. They don’t necessarily have — especially like a city like Chicago, for example, has a limited and fixed budget. And the way that plays out in a lot of these cities, and I know it did in Chicago, is it becomes poor black residents versus immigrants. That’s the way the media loves to frame it. That, why should they get $65 million from the city coffers when we are shutting down public schools, rec centers, potholes, you know what I mean? And so then you have this kind of race to the bottom where people at the bottom are fighting for these limited resources, all based on this totally false austerity. And again, that helps fuel anti-immigrant sentiment, because suddenly, when it comes to supporting human beings that have crossed an artificial border, and they’re not permitted to work, and they of course, have their you know, largely they need health care, they need food, they need housing, all these kinds of things, the sort of cost of transitioning to a new place. Suddenly, all we’re sorry, out of money. Oh, and by the way, we’re going to dump it onto the cities, and then they’re going to have to use their by definition, limited resources to pit these competing people at the bottom rung against each other.

Nima: Right, because then you just get this kind of poor versus poor sparring.

Adam: Which, any time you see that, someone’s picked your pocket, right? Any time you see people yelling at each other in a city council meeting saying, you know, why can’t this poor community have this and the migrants? Like, guys like you’re on the same side.

Nima: This is deliberately done. And so these narratives play into fictions. It’s also useful to think about how much media coverage this generates consistently while also realizing that undocumented immigrants in the United States represented only 3% of the population as of 2021. And that number has been decreasing since at least 2010. Moreover, in the United States, as has been the case for decades now, undocumented immigrants are far from an economic strain as we often hear, paying an estimated $11.6 billion a year in taxes, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Now, simultaneously, undocumented immigrants are less likely to take public benefits than the native-born population for a number of reasons, including all the barriers to eligibility that are put in their way, as well as a fear of being too on the grid, right? And risking arrest, detention and deportation. So even the horrors, right? The like fear mongering that we hear all the time in our political rhetoric, in our news media about the strain on our economy caused by undocumented immigrants, right? The numbers clearly don’t bear that out, which is why this is such a powerful narrative that drives constant coverage, constant talking points, constant handwringing, constant racist and discriminatory rhetoric and policies and realities and violence toward immigrants in this country. This is such a valuable and vicious narrative that has persisted in this country since at least 150 years ago, and much longer in reality.

Adam: And all this talk about resource burden when the militarization, the hypermilitarization of the border has cost tremendous resources. In 1994, there were roughly 4,200 federal employees charged with enforcing “border security.” By 1999, that number had doubled to 8,400. And by 2012, it was 21,391 people. So it had increased by 5x. The budget for border security when adjusted for inflation — keep in mind that I’ve already adjusted for inflation for 2023 dollars — was $755 million. By 1999, it was $1.7 billion and today’s money, it’s over $5 billion, or over five times the amount of money we spend on border security. So how much of that money, what percent of that money could go to providing immigrants who are “resource burdening” the U.S. could go to finding them jobs, homes, providing them health care upon entry? Again, the money is there. The money is there. There’s a lot of money there. The question is, where do we spend it and by pawning them off on the local municipalities and states, we create the appearance of artificial scarcity. But anyone who knows anything about DHS grants knows is that there’s an endless fucking pot of money for drones, cops, cages, batons, guns, and “border enforcement.”

A Mexican National Guard soldier patrols near the Mexico-US border fence in Tijuana, Mexico. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Nima: And yet, we just don’t have the resources, Adam.

Adam: Exactly.

Nima: To talk more about this, we’re gonna be joined by Heba Gowayed, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University. Her writing about the lives of people who migrate across borders and the unequal and often violent institutions they face has appeared in academic journals, including Gender & Society and Ethnic & Racial Studies, as well as outlets like Slate, Al Jazeera English, and Teen Vogue. She is author of the book, Refuge: How The State Shapes Human Potential, published by Princeton University Press in 2022. Heba will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


We are joined now by Heba Gowayed. Heba, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Heba Gowayed: I’m so glad to be here.

Adam: We want to start off by talking about the kind of broader term we’re interrogating in this episode, which is that of a border crisis. A very strange and popular and we think kind of casually racist media cliche that effectively equates the existence of unwanted humans as per se a crisis in urgent need of what typically, why does one respond to a crisis? With guns, whips, cages, etc. But of course, people existing in a specific time and place is not inherently a crisis, right? This isn’t an invading army. It’s just a bunch of people. Right? And these are normal guys and children and women being normal. And the thing doesn’t become a crisis until you have a border regime that needs to keep them out vis-à-vis violence, starvation, famine, cages, arresting. So I want to sort of talk about how this idea of a border crisis equates the existence of humans as a per se urgent national security threat. And how does this framing in your opinion, kind of stack the deck and orient the audience to a particular set of policy solutions?

Heba Gowayed: Yeah, I mean, you know, the word crisis evokes this need for a solution. And the crisis that we’re most concerned about is the crisis of people, you know, and usually, we hear these terms that I definitely circle in red, when are written in student papers, right? Things like flows, hordes, masses, swarms, flood, right? All these terrible water metaphors that completely deny and gloss over and reshape people’s humanity and agency into this faceless mass of folks who are here to take our jobs and potentially invoke violence. Then the response becomes violent, the response becomes deterral, the response becomes pushbacks, the response becomes the physical beating back and removal of people at the border. And so the way that I like to rethink this or respond to is to ask, you know, whose crisis? And one of the answers, the answer that is perhaps most interesting and most humane, are the crises, the individual crises that cause people to get to the border in the first place. So these are crises of people like women like Joy, who fled the Cameroon, because in her role as a nurse who ran a small pharmacy, she had two militants who showed up in that pharmacy escaping soldiers and who were injured, and they held a gun to her head and they said, you know, we need you to treat us, we need you to bandage the wound. One of them was shot. And she does, she bandages the wound and then she gets implicated when the soldiers, when the military comes in to her pharmacy after the fact. They say, well, you helped the dissidents, you helped these people. And Joy starts on a journey that takes her you know, almost over a year and a half to the US-Mexico border because she’s forced to flee after being imprisoned, tortured, having a harrowing sort of escape from prison, being sex trafficked in Nigeria, arriving in South America and having to sort of fight her way, you know, pay her way up through the Darién Gap, which is this treacherous, treacherous terrain all the way north to the US Mexico border, in her hopes to secure asylum, to be recognized as a mother of three, as a person who just isn’t safe anywhere else. And that’s the crisis. That’s also a crisis, right? That’s also a tragedy that gets washed away with these metaphors of waves, hordes, flows that need to be beaten back by the authority of the state.

Nima: Yeah, there’s this idea, I think, that the crisis label really flattens humanity on purpose, so that no longer are there individual people with individual stories and individual histories, moving as humans do, as human beings have done for millennia, moving to be safe or moving to do a thing differently or moving because they want to be closer to family or moving because climate is changing. All of these things, you know, basic, natural, normal human movement for all of these different reasons, gets completely flattened under this crisis label that turns natural human migration again, for all sorts of reasons into a national security threat that then relies on borders, relies on surveillance, relies on more militarization. So in your work, because you do tell these personal stories, how do you see this idea of the flattening of humanity playing out in the stories that then we hear and we receive through media or through political speech through policy? And in what ways can we maybe break that down and start seeing that humanity again?

Heba Gowayed

Heba Gowayed: I mean, I think you’re absolutely right. In all of the information that we’re getting, all of the ways that we’re generating data and statistics at the US Mexico border, and you know, borders across the world that operate in similar way to the US-Mexico border are statistics of expulsions, how many people are there, right? We hear about for instance, the fire that happened in Ciudad Juárez that, you know, on the 27th of March that killed 40 people we’re always hearing about even when we are hearing it from advocates, we’re always hearing about these aggregate numbers, right? Numbers that are like 2.6 million expulsions, for instance, under Title 42, at the US Mexico border where people are just sort of picked up and put back on the other side of the border. And what that ends up doing, whether it’s on the right or the left, and because this is a crisis, I would say it’s a humanitarian crisis, right, of denial of exclusion of additional traumas added to the lives of people who are definitionally traumatized. Whether they’re moving because of you know, in the case of Joy, who I mentioned earlier, state persecution or whether they’re moving due to a lack of economic opportunities or the impacts of environmental degradation, coalescing with other aspects, right? These are people who have experienced notable trauma, trauma enough that they left their countries and made these difficult journeys to places where they know they’re going to be denied, right? They know they’re going to be rejected. So rather than thinking about what would compel someone to do that, what it takes, what resources they’re expending, what grit it takes, what determination it takes to actually make those journeys, we’re instead seeing them as these aggregations of denials, of expulsions, of attempts, which is flattening. And that sort of that’s our policy, right? You know, you have Joe Biden who stood up and said do not come. This is our policy is of this flattening and denial and dehumanization. And unfortunately, it’s the policy of a lot of countries in the Global North that are these coveted immigrant destinations.

Adam: Yeah, the implication is that, like Kamala Harris saying “Do not come” and Biden saying “Do not come” is that like, they’re like, okay, no problem. I’ll just, you know, everything’s good. It’s just sort of a choice.

Heba Gowayed: Yeah. Thanks for giving me the heads up. In that case I’m gonna just stay home.

Adam: You like vanilla, I like chocolate.

Nima: Hopefully I can get a refund on the flight.

Adam: “Don’t come,” of course, is meant to be a menace. It’s meant to be a threat, right? And this has been the basis of U.S. immigration policy for at least 30 years now. And I want to talk about that. You’re right how often the logistics of border security aren’t just about “national sovereignty,” but are in and of themselves modes of punishments and deterrence. This fact has been explicitly stated by U.S. policymakers since the mid 90s with the creation of Operation Gatekeeper under Bill Clinton, where they explicitly said, and they don’t speak about it in these terms anymore, but in the 90s, they just they didn’t really worry about how it sounded so they were pretty explicit that the overall architecture of U.S. policy enforcement was to create basically zones in the desert where people starve to death or die of dehydration as a form of deterrence. And then, of course, once undocumented people get here, there’s, of course, a very severe punishment regime, caging regime, etc. I want to talk about if you can, border enforcement as a form of kind of prejudicial punishment as an ends in and of itself, and especially in light of the kind of whiplash, I don’t want to get too partisan here, but it seems like there’s a lot of whiplash around the Trump-era discourse around immigration versus the Biden-era discourse, where many of the same things and many of the same continuities with an understanding that like, rhetoric does matter, but in many substantive ways, nothing really changed, and how that kind of, the cruelty is the point. And it’s like, well, the cruelty has been the point since Operation Gatekeeper became policy, quite explicitly. Can you talk about “border security” as a form of punishment and deterrence and prejudicial punishment across both parties?

Heba Gowayed: Yeah, you know, Adam, I think about this a lot. And it’s one of the motivations for the next project that I’m working on, which I’m tentatively calling The Cost of Borders. And one of the things that I’m looking at with the cost of borders, or what sort of compelled me to do this research is all the expenditures that people make to get from place A to place B, and all the ways the different smugglers that have to be paid. the different fees that have to be paid, in order for somebody, for instance, to leave their home in Haiti and arrive to the US-Mexico border or even arrive to the Mexico-Guatemala border, which effectively serves as the US Mexico border, though, I think we could get into that a little bit more in detail throughout our conversation. But the other aspect of this that’s really fascinating to me, is the expense to keep people out. So the amount of money, the amount of technology, the amount of investment and you were talking like dog drones, I mean, have you guys seen these videos of dog drones? Oh, yeah, they’re literally like these Robo dogs that they want to unleash. I mean, what we’re talking about is like, there’s so much money. And you know, the way to think about it is that there are whole industries, right? There’s whole — I mean, you know, the CBP budget just like gets more and more astronomical, right, with every year that has — I mean, there’s just so much money that so many people are benefiting, so many people are making money off of this border violence. And in order for this border violence to persist, right, the crisis, which we began the, you know, our conversation with the humanitarian crisis has to persist, right. It’s sort of mutually constitutive. So when we think about what this actually is right? It is a economy of violence. It’s a system that is specifically meant to harm people. I mean, you know, there’s so many different examples of this, that I’m just, I feel like my brain is all over the place. But like the CVP, one app, for instance, that’s introduced, there was just an article about how the Haitian Creole on the CVP, one app is even worse than Google Translate, right? I mean, it’s like the intentionality of creating systems that actually work for people is so, so, so limited, and it’s very clear that there’s just no attempt to make this system work for people, you know, in terms of its humanitarian aspect, but the actual technologies that are put in place where if you touch the border wall, two CBP show up, and you know, two CBP officers show up and sort of are meant to deter you or push you back if you cross the border wall during Title 42, you are just sort of placed back. I mean, Title 8 is a whole other story, right? How our deportation system actually works long term and how it’s always worked. And so yeah, so violence and injury, and cruelty is at the heart of the story. And it’s a very lucrative violence and cruelty that shapes our border policies. And it’s not just us, right? The European Union looks pretty similar at its periphery as well.

Nima: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I kind of want to take the conversation to discuss something that you touch on in your book so well, your book Refuge, speaking more generally here about border crises throughout the world and you write that, “National borders are the cause of the crisis. It is these national borders, you know, at which people must wait sometimes for years for the green light to travel to refuge.” And then you know, after noting the role of colonialism, exploitation, capitalism that generate these inequities, you add this, “Those seeking refuge are often moving towards countries in Europe and North America that while only containing 17% of the world’s population account for 45% of its wealth, wealth gained at their expense.” So can we talk about this? Because yes, it may seem abstract, but I think the point is really essential. Here you cite in your book Harsha Walia, another amazing writer on exactly these issues who expands on this in her own work, the idea that massive inequalities, inherited mass migrations in the face of hardship and tremendous violence would seem to be like perfect evidence of a world economic system that’s only serving a select few people, and clearly at the expense of billions of other people. So how is this point, this kind of, you know, the migration of people from colonized states and oppressed states into these, you know, wealthier Global North countries, how is that point a really useful way to frame this conversation about as you’ve been talking “border security?”

Heba Gowayed: Yeah, I mean, there’s really interesting recent work about, you know, the notion of state sovereignty, and that the notion of state sovereignty is how we think about our borders. It’s this idea that states have a right to protect their borders. This is how our international laws work. But this is a really myopic and really ahistorical way to think about rights, right, and to think about injury and to think about borders. And so when you actually take a longer historical trajectory, you begin to see a different kind of story. So for a long time, the way that people talked about the creation of modern borders, is to talk about the Treaty of Westphalia, right? This is something that happened in the 1600s and 1700s that, you know, as European states tried to have war with other states, they needed to consolidate resources within their territories, and therefore they constructed borders, but the way that we’re actually thinking about it, and there’s a lot of historians who have pushed back on that narrative to say, actually, the borders that we see today are actually the product of decolonization.

The Swearing of the Oath of Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, by Gerard Terborch, depicting the settlement of the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648.

And the way that that makes sense is that prior to World War II, and you have these, you know, post-World War II, right, when you have these vast colonial systems, you know, when you had imperialism, basically the state, the center, right, could exploit the periphery, right? But what became the Global North could exploit the Global South by virtue of these colonial relationships, which were defined by exploitation. But as these kinds of relationships ended, well, now you need a way to protect your wealth that has been earned at the expense of other countries. So and we’re not talking about a little bit of wealth here, right? I’m talking about like Britain stole 45 trillion from India, the story of Haiti, and if any of the listeners have not read about, you know, what’s been called the greatest heist in history, which is how Haiti owed France for its own independence, right, to the order of like, billions, 20 to 30 billion in today’s dollars, right? This is not figurative, this is not like a theoretical idea. This is actual dollars and cents have been taken and have been documented in paperwork and in the policies. And so when we talk about that, but we can even get more modern with it, right? And when we talk about the environmental crisis, and we talk about displacement that’s resulting From the environmental crisis, and I would say that a lot of the times our land degradation, you know, the degradation of our resources is not completely distinct from these other economic aspects. Because if you think about it, if a wealthy country is hit by, you know, a climate disaster, there are the resources to sort of help support folks or help sort of mitigate against this climate disaster. But a country like Yemen, that have experienced this, like long term exploitation, that has a hobbled economy that’s had a lot of fighting. When they experience, you know, drought, or they experience the erosion of their resources, there’s much fewer resources there to sort of mitigate against that. So when we think about these things, and with the environment, what’s really important is that, for instance, the United States has caused $1.9 trillion in climate damage to low and middle-income countries between 1990 and 2014, even while profiting in countries like Canada, Germany, and Russia from carbon polluting industries, right?So what we’re talking is still happening. This is still the story. And so borders are wealth-hoarding mechanisms, like plain and simple. It’s keeping the resources earned at the expense of other people here so that they cannot actually participate in the wealth that’s gained.

Adam: Yeah, cause I think some people listening to this would say that these concepts are all kind of theoretical, like, yes, it was evil in the past, and maybe even some today. But they would say all countries have borders, right. All countries have an immigrant restrictions of some kind. Right wingers often, one of the things they do is they show kind of the border between, you know, Mexico and other Latin American countries, or even Latin American countries versus other Latin American countries saying, look, they also have borders, and are they racist towards themselves? That’s kind of their clever comeback. But I think as you make clear that, first off, these are downstream effects from the U.S. border. And again, we want to be careful not to blame, you know, the United States for everything or its allies in the Global North for everything, but they’re responsible for a lot, like you said, the history of colonial extraction, climate change. Even today, as our guest, Jason Hickel, has pointed out a number of times just how the IMF and the WTO have robbed countries. I know countries like Lebanon, one third of their budget goes to just paying off the loans from IMF loans. So it’s not as if these things stopped, right? And of course, there are currents of reaction within other countries that the US isn’t to be blamed for. But you know, stealing 7 billion of Afghanistan’s money is creating poverty there. U.S. supporting the bombing of Yemen, et cetera, we could sort of go on and on and on. That there actually is a sense of of harm in cause and effect. And that that is one of the things fueling the border crisis, even when it’s very acute, very close, like, for example, just now the Pod Save America guys are now, they suddenly woken up to the fact that these horrible sanctions on Venezuela are not a good idea cause they’re driving the quote “border crisis.” They’re completely gratuitous, you know, sort of very, very blanket, right? Because it turns out, you can just destroy an economy and just attack the bad guys.

Heba Gowayed: Imagine that.

Adam: It’s the classic, you know, there’s not 22 million Saddams in Iraq kind of thing, right?

Heba Gowayed: Surprise.

Adam: That this is a form of siege warfare effectively and that has negative downstream consequences, etc., etc. It reminds me a lot of crime discourse where people say, well, if you can’t do the crime, don’t do the time. It’s like, yeah, but there are factors that inform those decisions that are based on inequities and racism and all these historical currents. And it’s sort of path to say, well, everyone has a border, because again, it sounds sort of simple. Everyone has a border, it’s like, yeah, but there’s a reason why there’s millions of people at our border are heavily militarized, heavily racialized border, which really doesn’t have a lot of organic constituencies. It’s largely based on a sort of land grab in the 19th century.

Nima: Colorado was Mexico, folks, so…

Adam: Right. And that sort of strikes me as again, without blaming the Global North for everything, but it’s like most of it probably? Like, how is that useful, how is that a useful way to kind of start the conversation without it? Because again, it does, it may seem abstract. Let’s say, like, a politician is running for office, they’d say, well, you know, I, you know, abolish ice is too radical, blah, blah, blah. Can you sort of talk about how this is not some sort of PhD pontificating? But it’s actually like a real thing that has downstream effects?

Heba Gowayed: Yeah, I mean, you know, I feel like there’s a resistance to sort of looking at the numbers. So like, there’s all this sense on the right, or all this sense, even in the center-right, as you said earlier, like, these are policies that are not policies that are just Republican policies, they’re also Democratic policies. And there’s this idea that, well, you know, stick to the money and how much do things cost, and we can’t afford this. And it’s like, then you point out all these numbers you point out about, you know, how much is actually being spent on enforcement, who is actually benefiting from these industries at the border. And the costs are astronomical and the externalization you know, what you you describe, and people have argued that the U.S. border actually extends deep into Mexico, right and Tapachula, more people are deported than they actually are at the US-Mexico border. But that’s because, right, the border has been externalized in that way through the relationship with the United States and Mexico. And so when we think about this, right, when we when we think about what it actually costs to do this, the numbers are crazy. And so it’s not just me saying, you know, as a PhD or pontificating, it’s not even just me as a you know, I do subscribe to, I am a leftist, right? I do think that there is a humanitarian and there is an ethical story to sort of be told here. But even if you just sit down and sort of like look at the money, I don’t think that the story that we’re telling is one of economic conservatism, right? I don’t think that the story of the US-Mexico border is one of economic efficiency even. I think it’s an expensive way to do real harm to people. But to get back to your earlier question about the borders, yeah, everybody has borders. This is how our world is sort of structured right now. But it’s no coincidence that 90% of everybody displaced in the world is in the Global South, is in a country proximate to the country that they fled. I mean, the vast majority of the human crisis of displacement is shouldered by other low-income countries, it’s not a story that we are not dealing with the bulk of folks at the US Mexico border, or even in Greece, right, most people can’t afford to get there. And the other thing to think about is that borders vary in their permeability. So just because you see a line on a map doesn’t mean that it’s an actual, it’s the same kind of weight of water as is any other kind of line on the map. It matters about enforcement, matters about expenditure, matters about whether people feel like they want to cross that border or not. And so there’s a story to be told about, like, which borders are enforced. And what kind of violence is used at which borders in the US-Mexico border, does have this narrative of being one of the most violent borders in the world. And so that’s also another way to answer this. But the third way, and this is something that I think gets missed a lot in discourse in general about borders is that this is not a story of osmosis. It’s not like, you know, if there were borders were removed that everybody would, you know, like, just like, be sucked into the United States. It’s a pretty racist country, right? It sucks, kind of, to be brown and black here. People know it’s gonna be a hard life. Jobs at the lower end of the economy are not great. You’re gonna struggle. You probably won’t have legal status. And so the decision to come here is not one that people take lightly. And it’s not one that people make if they are living charmed lives in other places. And so as we think about this, we really have to think, again, about what was taken from people, and what sense of security and sense of belonging and sense of stability was taken from people to sort of compel them to make this journey here, across all of the other borders that you describe that, again, vary in their enforcement. And so I think that the story is a lot more complicated than that sort of policy cast makes it out to be.

Nima: You know, you mentioned labor, I want to pull that thread a little bit here. You know, the idea that immigrant labor is used, especially here in the U.S., and also in the EU a lot to both fearmonger about mooching, welfare-receiving immigrants, but also simultaneously paint them as like, really hard working laborers who don’t complain that much and can be exploited, used to undermine domestic labor, right? There’s this kind of contradictory thing. It’s like, the superior is terrible. And there’s, you know, in such small portions, like immigrants are so lazy, and yet such diligent, hard workers that they’re taking good ol’ American jobs, right? But it doesn’t matter that these two narratives are in direct contradiction. That’s kind of the point. And they’re like, self-reinforcing and the fact that it doesn’t make sense really just helps these narratives move through our society because they’re so malleable, right? It basically just shows how having a constant stream of exploitable labor can really be instrumentalized in a number of ways. Can we talk about how immigration and you know, especially in the United States context cause we are here is used to attack both this idea of like a welfare state while also simultaneously undermining labor solidarity?

Heba Gowayed: When people have these conversations, and I think there’s an impetus to say, well, immigrants are so productive and look at how much taxes immigrants pay. And, you know, here are the kinds of jobs that these immigrants work. And I think there’s like this attempt to be defensive with like, actual empirical facts. But those facts end up not mattering in the policy discourse, because the point is to sort of make it you know, the point is to use immigration as a boogeyman in order to fracture social services. And guys, this is not new, right? This has like been centuries of this shit. And it’s not just immigrants, right? It’s Black people too. And then north of the United States being like, well, they’re coming to take your jobs and being excluded from unions, right? The story of race and unionization and labor and welfare policy, right, anti-Black racism is why we get the 1996 welfare reforms and why our welfare system looks the way that it does. And this you know, image which is completely untrue in the specific and general of the welfare queen with the rims and the six kids. I mean, this is what Reagan used and then but Bill Clinton implemented those welfare reforms. And so when we think about it, it really doesn’t matter what the facts are. It’s never mattered what the facts are. What matters is being able to instrumentalize and use racism, you know, in a white supremacist context, to use racism in order to further fracture the already abysmal social benefits and labor, you know, protections that we have in this country. And so, you know, this is just another chapter not even like a particularly creative chapter of a very, very long book and a very, very sad book.

Bill Clinton signs “welfare reform” legislation in 1996. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

Nima: Well, this idea also of labor, and, you know, as you were saying earlier, like, dollars and cents, right, the actual kind of cost and there are humanitarian costs or also the actual colonial financing of all of this stuff. How does this come into play in the new book that you’re working on The Cost of Borders. We’d love to hear about that, and also, what else we can look out for from you in the future.

Heba Gowayed: I’m still working on that project. And I, you know, I’m in a data collection phase. So it’s kind of an early stage project. But I have done fieldwork in Greece, and I’ve done field work at the US-Mexico border, Greece being sort of the what Ursula von der Leyen, called the shield of the European Union against sort of the unwanted migrants. And the idea for that project really came to me when I was doing research for Refuge in Germany. And I was talking to folks who were talking about all the different expenditures that they had to make in order to leave Syria and get to Germany. And it struck me that these money amounts were quite different depending on who you were. So they could differ week to week, depending on the policies and the relationship between Turkey and Greece, whether there were people being pushed back in the water, usually the Greeks sort of pushing back people’s boats back to Turkey, or whether, you know, Greece and Turkey had had a deal for a while that the Turkish government was going to stop people from moving across the Aegean. And so you know, these policies that differed, you know, moment to moment, but also differed depending on who you were. So, if you’re a woman who could become a victim of sexual assault, if you are somebody who does not represent in ways that are within the gender binary, you are more subjected to assault into violence, and you had to make different decisions about your mobility. If you were a family with young kids, you had to make different decisions. And so I began to think about, you know, what borders are, if there are these expenditures that people are making, there are the expenditures that we’ve talked about in terms of colonialism, environmental degradation, et cetera, these like macro level economic processes. There are also expenditures on like, you know, these border technologies, right walls, etc., expenditures on enforcement apparatus as we’re talking about sort of the story about abolition and policing and deterrence. So it’s a story of money. And it’s a story of a lot of different costs. And those costs are what forms the border. So away from this notion of state sovereignty, away from a notion of like lines on a map, these costs differ across time and across people. And it means that the border permeability actually differs. So I started to think about the border as a series of transactions that are always quite expensive and often also quite deadly. And so the recasting of how we think about and imagine borders and talk about them. And it starts with the story of the Global South and North, you know, where, as Gloria Anzaldúa had put it, “The Third World grates against the first and bleeds,” but it extends to sort of a lot of the themes we’ve been talking about today, which is about, you know, how borders are constructed globally and how borders sort of look around the world based on this friction and on this injury.

Nima: I mean, it’s amazing. You mentioned that line about Greece being a shield for Europe — the head of the EU saying that — and it just reminds me of Zionism and how that kind of pro-colonial language that is used. This idea, in 1896, Theodor Herzl, one of the Zionist leaders said that creating a state in Palestine would “form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” And it’s like, you’re just seeing that again and again, these replications of new states or border walls, you know, being used as these bulwarks of oppression, but also not only racial and ethnic and financial but also ideological, right? These ideas that there’s this conflict, again, this sort of age old conflict of civilizations language that you also see here. And you see that play out, as you’ve been saying. Yes, from continent to continent but also directly across lines in the sand or across a river.

Heba Gowayed: Absolutely. And I think, you know, the story of dehumanization extends there, too, right? I mean, we see it all the time, you know, with the bombing of Gaza and the open jail. I mean, there’s a story of environmental degradation there as well, right? And the need for border walls because the Palestinians are “terrorists” because their children are being sent out to be suicide bombers. I mean, the same kind of rhetoric, right? And it’s the same story of we need to protect ourselves, we being the civilized, white, Western world need to protect ourselves against the barbaric brown, black people who are dangerous in all these different ways and to get to the labor point economically but also physically and to state security. And so this is, again, it’s an age old story, right? And it’s a story that is particularly weaponized and has very, very serious dollars and cents, but also human life consequences when we talk about it in relation to borders and in relation to sort of how it comprises and constitutes our post-colonial world, post-colonial being like in the biggest quotes ever?

Nima: Right, exactly.

Adam: I like to think we’re all just in the front car, the Snowpiercer. And we’re like, hey, what’s wrong with those guys in the back? These guys are such assholes. Anyway, moving on. We need to work on better security.

Nima: Exactly. ‘Anyway, in other unrelated news…’

Adam: Yeah, it’s like if there was a huge wall I had to build up because a bunch of people like really hated me or are really poor and like needed some fraction of the money, I think that would call in more existential questions, right?

Nima: Questions about you, rather than who’s on the other side on the wall.

Adam: Oh, there’s always been borders. And it’s like, yeah, there’s always been borders, always been a US-Mexico border to some extent or not always but obviously, since the foundation of these political, you know, sort of entities but like, the fact that it gets more militarized every single year, may correlate with some inequities that are increasing every single year. And perhaps there’s an underlying problem there that is not to do with sending in more drones, helicopters and guys with wraparound Oakleys and Tom Cruise haircuts.

Heba Gowayed: Exactly. You know, and you’d think this would be like, obvious, right? Like you’d think, so it’s kind of like somebody’s telling you a story where they’re always the victim, right? And where everybody’s like, being nasty to them, or everybody’s cheating them, or everybody’s, you know, attacking them, or everybody’s coming for them. And you’re like, okay, by the fifth or sixth story, I’m like, well, I mean, like, let’s like, think about, like, you might be the problem.

Nima: You see, like the annoying one.

Adam: Yeah. It’s called the Murder, She Wrote problem, because everywhere, Angela Lansbury goes, someone gets killed and it’s like after the 30th time, maybe she’s the problem. Right, like you see, like, again, it reminds me a lot of the policing prison discourse, where it’s like, well, everyone has prisons, everyone is policed. It’s like, Yeah, but they don’t have five times the amount of incarcerated people, as you know, they don’t have the amount of state-sanctioned violence, they don’t have the like, hundreds of police shootings a year like so clearly, these things are not like value-neutral, cultural, sort of staples of every culture on Earth, like, clearly our border is more violent, aggressive, and the borders of Europe are more violent, aggressive than other instances in history. So it’s like, clearly there’s something different here.

Heba Gowayed: And the other thing is, is like we’re the same, right? So like, the “we” here is the same, right? It’s the same policing forces right at the US-Mexico border. And it’s the same policing forces in the city. But they’re different people, right? And it’s all the same conclusion. So it’s like, it’s like people from all around the world at the US-Mexico border. And then it’s like people of color in the United States who are Americans, right? And somehow, it’s the same patterns, right? It’s the same carceral patterns, the same kinds of violence. And it’s like, you know, are they the problem, or all these other people the problem? Or is the system that you have in place, and the way that you imagine people in the security theater that you have, you know, constructed — is that the problem?

Nima: Well, I mean, I think that’s also why your work winds up being really powerful, because, yes, you’re talking about the systems, but then you’re also talking about the lives of the people who are really affected by them. These stories are human, and not just what I think is often kind of dismissed or deemed as like political.

Heba Gowayed: Yeah, thanks so much for saying that, Nima. I mean, that’s really the goal of my work, I feel like, is to take these ideas that get abstracted when we talk about these aggregations, and just really center humans who are, in the end at the heart of all these systems and policies and also these demands. And when you see people as mothers and fathers and children and artists and poets and doctors and engineers and lawyers in all these different aspects of their lives, all the different things that characterize any individual you know, any one of us right and begin to see a different sort of story when we think about the word “crisis,” right? Crisis for whom is sort of what I want people to think about when they hear that word.

Nima: Well, I think that’s a great place to leave it. We’ve been speaking with Heba Gowayed, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University. Her writing about the lives of people who migrate across borders and the unequal and often violent institutions they face has appeared in academic journals, including Gender & Society and Ethnic & Racial Studies, as well as outlets like Slate, Al Jazeera English, and Teen Vogue. She is author of the book, Refuge: How The State Shapes Human Potential, published by Princeton University Press in 2022. Heba, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Heba Gowayed: Thank you so much for having me, Nima. This was lovely.

Adam: Yeah, I think these regimes of dehumanization really aren’t possible without these rhetorical regimes, not to sort of beat the dead horse. That is the entire theme of our show. But I don’t think normal people can adopt this level of caging and abuse. And you saw those images that came out where they were whipping the Haitian immigrants. That calls for, even though of course, it’s just a more extreme version of what happens every day, without this kind of desensitized language. That’s why editors kind of ultimately settle on this kind of border crisis, immigrant crisis language because it it really does speak out of both sides of its mouth. It is both a, hey, there’s a humanitarian crisis so the liberal goes, yeah, that is that’s bad, you know, or our heart bleeds, whatever it is, what liberals do, your heart bleeds, right? And the conservative listens to that, or the kind of anti-immigrant, centrist or whatever, listens to that, and goes, yeah, there’s a lot of unwanted people. That’s a crisis. And this really helps kind of sanitize who is responsible for what.

Nima: Yeah, and there’s like a security crisis.

Adam: And no one’s really responsible for anything. And that’s why the New York Times always goes out of its way to say, you know, the U.S. is doing the best they can, right? Sort of, you know, this is out of our control, these people just showed up. And if there’s one take home lesson that you know, we want you to get from these three-part episodes is that that’s not really true, there’s actually quite a bit the U.S. contributes to it, there’s quite a bit the US can do to alleviate it beyond just sending more money for cops down to Guatemala and that these are not things outside of our control. But these are, in fact, decisions and policy decisions that have been in motion for decades and have gotten more acute in recent years. And that the dehumanization and the militarization and the violence required to cross these borders is the result of human choices with very obvious consequences as our guest laid out, I think, quite well.

Nima: Yeah, and stay tuned for the next couple episodes. In this three-parter. Next week, we’re going to be discussing the notion of the deserving and undeserving immigrant, right? The refugee label versus the migrant label and the origins of this linguistic trick and who it actually serves. So stay tuned for that. But that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Before we end however, Adam, there is someone leaving the Citations Needed team after a very long time, Morgan McAslan, who I read out in every single episode, credit sequence, credit block. Morgan has been with us since the beginning of 2018. We started the show in July of 2017. As soon as we started regularly doing transcripts, Morgan was on our team and has handled every single transcript that this show has done since what is it, Episode 27, 28, something like that. Morgan, she is a huge part of this team, a huge part of what we have built together here at Citations Needed. She is moving on to actually commit herself to her full-time job more fully. She has been doing this very graciously and generously for years and years and years so she has been incredibly busy. But she finally was like you know what guys, enough. So, so she is moving on and leaving the Citations Needed team and we are sad to see her go but thrilled that she stuck with us for so long. She has been so important to this team, of course.

Adam: A lot of people do actually read the show. And so they’ve sent letters being grateful that we have transcripts and a lot of podcasts, even podcasts with a lot more money than we have don’t do them. And so she’s done them. And she’s done them very quickly. And the people who do use them and do need them or have been very grateful so we’re very appreciative of her help throughout the years. And we wish her the best on her new ventures, which are just her old interests but not doing this. Right.

Nima: Exactly. So thank you so much to you, Morgan. And best of luck for everything. So now that will actually do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Of course, you could still follow the show on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/citationsneededpodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we say again and again. And it’s true. And we mean it because we are 100% listener-funded. That’s why you don’t hear any commercials. That’s why we don’t have any corporate sponsors. It is because of listeners like you and an extra special shout out goes to our critical-level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams.

Producer is Julianne Tveten and production assistant Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, July 12, 2023.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.