Heath on Slack and Martínez and Whiteford, 'The Shadow of the Wall: Violence and Migration on the U.S.-Mexico Border'

Jeremy Slack, Daniel E. Martínez, Scott Whiteford, eds.
Charles Heath

Jeremy Slack, Daniel E. Martínez, Scott Whiteford, eds. The Shadow of the Wall: Violence and Migration on the U.S.-Mexico Border. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018. xiii + 243 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8165-3559-0.

Reviewed by Charles Heath (Sam Houston State University) Published on H-Borderlands (November, 2018) Commissioned by Maria de los Angeles Picone (Emory University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52835

The Shadow of the Wall: Violence and Migration on the U. S. -Mexico Border

The US-Mexico border is an arbitrary line in the sand drawn nearly two centuries ago. Mandatory family separation, only the most recent grotesque moral crisis taking place along that line, has drawn widespread attention and justifiable outrage. Since its first days, the current administration has taken giant steps in the form of executive orders on immigration, including travel bans from majority-Muslim countries, the construction of a border wall, ramped-up enforcement and prosecution of undocumented migrants, refugee resettlement policies, and the reduction of the asylum system, all based on a belief that the United States is admitting too many foreigners. The edited collection of essays found in the book The Shadow of the Wall: Violence and Migration on the U.S.-Mexico Border examines how the social process of border crossing has changed in this era of increased border enforcement, documenting, qualifying, and quantifying migrant experiences over the course of the last decade. The work consists of a preface, introduction, ten chapters, and a conclusion, and is divided into three sections, the first of which describes the research methods deployed in each chapter. At the center of the volume’s research is the Migrant Border Crossing Study (MBCS), a unique source of data on Mexican migrants who attempted unauthorized crossing of the border in two “waves”: MBCS I (2007-09); and MBCS II (2009-12). MBCS I was, according to the authors, the first systematic survey of migrants about their border crossing, apprehension, and deportation experiences along the Arizona border. MBCS II surveyed a much longer segment, from California to Texas, and included Mexico City. Coupled with the database is a postdeportation methodology that addresses a heretofore underexplored topic, the forced removal of undocumented migrants. 

In chapter 1, Daniel E. Martínez, Jeremy Slack, and Ricardo Martínez-Schuldt provide the methodological overview of the MBCS for scholars and policymakers interested in the production of social science data. As a historian interested in migration, this reviewer appreciated that the editors directed readers like myself to chapter 2. In that chapter, entitled “Violence and Migration on the Arizona-Sonora Border,” Slack and Scott Whiteford return the reader to 2010, a particularly violent year. In Arizona, SB 1070 passed, resulting in increased harassment and racial profiling of Hispanics and Spanish-speaking residents in the state. In San Fernando, Tamaulipas, across the border from Texas, traffickers massacred seventy-two migrants, ostensibly because they refused to work for them. “Structural violence” is the array of forces, including SB 1070, that contributed to the events of 2010. Vignettes, ethnographies, and interviews expose the very real impact of violence perpetrated upon migrants. In a brief interview, “Alejandro” states that he is not a migrant, but a drug mule, exposing the complex web of structural factors and individual choices resulting from the clandestine and violent nature of undocumented migration. “Post-structural violence” describes the intensification of insecurity and crime along the border, including actual physical violence, criminality, and criminalization within the trafficking trade. An ethnography of the drug-runner “José” exposes the heightened, not reduced, level of criminality in response to intensified enforcement along the border. José is caught up in a cycle of repeated border crossings that may result in jail or death. Another anecdote introduces “Luis,” and demonstrates the violence that organized crime perpetrates upon the marginalized: having just been deported to Mexico, narcotraffickers force Luis back to the United States only to serve as a decoy for their drug-runners. Once there, Luis was sequestered in a safe house and the narcos extorted his family. The mechanisms of structural violence inflict pain, in Luis’s case, without a single shot being fired.  

Incidents of violence may affect the fieldwork of social scientists and other researchers. The escalation of the drug war and the intense turf wars between the cartels mean greater exposure and risk for research participants. For example, in 2008 a shooting took place near a shelter where students were interviewing migrants. Chapter 3, “Methods of Violence” by Slack, Martínez, and Prescott Vandervoet, includes the voices of the researchers as they recount incidents of violence while trying to balance the risks of their fieldwork with the responsibilities to their craft. Immigration and border scholars must protect themselves and their students, forewarning them of increasing risk of violence, while at the same time educating administrators so important research projects like the MBCS are allowed to continue.

The second section of the book consists of three chapters that focus on immigration law enforcement, specifically the Consequence Delivery System and Operation Streamline. According to the Border Patrol, the CDS “measures the consequences applied to persons illegally entering the country against defined alien classifications. [It] provides a process designed to uniquely evaluate each subject and apply the appropriate post-arrest consequences to that individual to break the smuggling cycle and end the subject’s desire to attempt further illegal entry.” [1] The system means to standardize the process of enforcing immigration laws. Operation Streamline is an initiative of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to adopt a “zero-tolerance” approach to unauthorized immigration and funnel undocumented immigrants into the criminal justice system. These chapters document the myriad problems arising from such short-sighted policing, aligning them with harrowing interviews of those caught up in the system. Chapter 4 (Slack, Martinez, Whiteford, and Emily Peiffer) is entitled “In Harm's Way: Family Separation, Immigration Enfocement Programs, and Security on the U.S.-Mexico Border.” Here, “Javier” recounts his experience of being caught caught up in Operation Streamline, and of being shackled with a group of immigrants while standing in front of a judge, feeling as if he were accused of murder. Shackling and mass trials reflect an absence of due process within these programs. Chapter 5, “The Geography of Border Militarization,” by Slack, Martínez, Whiteford, and Alison Elizabeth Lee, examines the “geography of increased militarization,” uncovering an unassailable correlation between increased militarization and accompanying levels of violence. Here, the state contributes to the structural violence as enforcement practices force migrants into more dangerous routes north, leading to death and increased mortality. Martínez and Slack are the authors of chapter 6, “What Part of Illegal Don't You Understand,” which details how the criminalization of largely benign, economically driven migration transforms into a threat to the lives of both those who migrate and those who reside along the border. One need only see the images today of two-year old children being carried into the halls of justice to “stand” before an immigration judge and face charges in order to grasp the reality of these mechanisms in action.

The final section examines the unintended consequences of expanded enforcement along the border. In “Coyote Use In An Era Of Heightened Border Enforcement,” Martínez provides a trove of statistics on border-crossing modes, focusing on coyotes, the guides and facilitators of unauthorized immigration. Martínez finds that more migrants now find guides at the border and not in the interior of Mexico, and that the coyotes have adapted to the increased surveillance and enforcement martialed in the shadow of the wall. In chapter 8, “On Narco-Coyotaje," Slack and Howard Campbell ask if drug trafficking has influenced coyotaje, or the evasion of bureaucratic migration channels. Their findings reveal the overlapping geographic trafficking networks of illicit goods and human beings. “Narco-coyotaje,” the authors’ phrase, reveals the complex nature of transnational criminal organizations. One-third of the chapter is an excellent history of smuggling along the border, illuminating the transition of la frontera from a set of migrant-crossing paths to illicit drug-smuggling corridors. The chapter concludes with a brief case study of the border state of Tamaulipas, where within the vacuum created by diminished political power of the state, all economic activities run into the power of transnational criminal organizations such as the Zetas. Slack's contribution for chapter 9, entitled “Captive Bodies,” includes migrant ethnographies and interviews describing disturbing tales of kidnapping, detention, and discrimination. As the title of the chapter indicates, “the body” here is the site of violence perpetrated by those who would seek to harness its power for sex or labor. The US Alien Transfer and Exit program tosses repatriated Mexican migrants unceremoniously and dangerously back into the vortex of illicit human smuggling in Mexico. The discouraging conclusion is that structures on both sides of the border contribute to migrants’ much greater vulnerability to violence. Slack concludes that a possible approach to a solution may be found in a feminist geopolitical agenda with a focus on individual security rather than national security.

The Shadow of the Wall is an excellent compilation, though minor distractions include interruptive citation formats and chapter subheadings that distract the reader, though these are stylistic norms for writing within this discipline. The title might mislead a portion of the book's possible audience: surprisingly, given the agenda of the current administration, there is hardly a mention of the physical structure. However, the compilation is not a couched as a response to a particular political agenda: the analysis included here “crosses” the present idea of a border wall. The physical wall is, however, the protagonist of many of the superb color photographs by Murphy Woodhouse that are included in the work, its “shadow” looming over the a number of the sites of research (and violence) discussed in the book. This reviewer wished for a time line that would have chronologically ordered the changes and continuities of US immigration policies. Ideally, understanding the mechanisms behind social processes analyzed in this volume would inform the creation of policies that ensure safe and legal migration and reduce human suffering and the role of criminal organizations. consequences. The distinct languages of the social sciences and politics, however, often separate the two sectors. The concluding chapter discusses how the volume’s empirical findings might help political and civic actors find a way out of the morass toward a more humane and logical solution to the problems that accompany the mass movement of human beings in search of economic opportunity. The contributors here have not called for some utopian solution. On the contrary, their research demonstrates that in order to implement reasonable immigration control, that is, a system based upon reason, a quantitative understanding must undergird any policy. Their work also elicits the voices of migrants, so often left out of the record. The book’s ethnographic work makes migrants into participants rather than objects, another perspective that policymakers must adopt in order to bring an end to the chaos and inhumanity along that line in the shadow of the wall.


[1]. Department of Homeland Security, United States Customs and Border Protection, “Border Patrol Strategic Plan, 2012-2016,” accessed October 9, 2018, https://nemo.cbp.gov/obp/bp_strategic_plan.pdf.

Citation: Charles Heath. Review of Slack, Jeremy; Martínez, Daniel E.; Whiteford, Scott, eds., The Shadow of the Wall: Violence and Migration on the U.S.-Mexico Border. H-Borderlands, H-Net Reviews. November, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52835

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.