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  • A Collapsing Division:Border and Interior Enforcement in the US Deportation System
  • Hannah Gurman (bio)

On a hot spring day in 2011, Barack Obama waved to a crowd from his podium at the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso, Texas. The president had come to the memorial to deliver a major address on immigration, in which he would unveil his broad vision of immigration reform, the central legislative ambition of his second term. It was a fitting site for the occasion. El Paso sits directly on the border between the United States and Mexico, and the Chamizal memorial marks the peaceful conclusion to the last official dispute over the placement of the sovereign boundary between the two countries. When the park first opened in 1966, US president Lyndon Johnson and Mexican president Adolfo López Mateos met in Chamizal for a formal unveiling of the new boundary marker.1

Forty-five years later, Chamizal became the site of a different kind of border negotiation. In characterizing his vision of immigration reform, Obama first invoked the celebrated nation of immigrants that gained widespread appeal during the 1960s: "That's the promise of this country, that anyone can write the next chapter in our story. It doesn't matter where you come from … in embracing America, you can become American."

Literally interrupting this thought, Obama then turned to border enforcement, offering a very different vision of the nation, one that privileges the state as an agent of exclusion and boundary policing: "And yet, at the same time," he said, "we're here at the border today, we're here at the border because we also recognize that being a nation of laws goes hand in hand with being a nation of immigrants. This, too, is our heritage." As proof of his commitment to border security, the president recited a detailed list of his administration's achievements: "They wanted more agents at the border. Well, we now have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history."2

To secure immigration reform inside the country, Obama insisted, he would continue to secure the nation's external border. A cruder version of this dynamic [End Page 371] helped define the US Senate's immigration reform bill. The Democratic senators in the "Gang of Eight" that drafted S. 744 agreed to make the legalization of about eleven million undocumented individuals currently living inside the country contingent on further securing the border.3 And a similar division between the border and the interior structured the reform attempts of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In 2011 ICE announced a sweeping program of administrative reforms in which immigration judges were directed to reduce excessive levels of interior deportations in order to focus on criminals and border enforcement.4

This basic paradigm is not new. Efforts to distinguish between the "border" and "interior" are embedded in the legal and institutional roots of the modern nation-state system. If, as Hannah Arendt said, individual rights derive from one's membership in a nation-state, then at the border these rights are pared down to a bare minimum.5 These tenets serve as central organizing principles of US border enforcement law. Regardless of residency status, the bodies and vehicles of US border crossers can be searched without warrant; property is subject to random seizure; and the state can detain or expel individuals without due process. Conversely, in the interior, border crossers have several due process rights, whether or not they are legal residents. Over time, they may even be granted citizenship in the nation-state.6 The US deportation bureaucracy similarly distinguishes between "border" and "interior" enforcement, characterizing the former as "returns" and the latter as "deportations," and maintaining a separate branch of personnel dedicated exclusively to border enforcement.

Despite its deep historical roots, profound policy influence, and common-sense status, the divide between "inside" and "outside," "border" and "interior," has been in a continual state of collapse since its very inception. Moreover, the distinction between these two spaces of enforcement has become increasingly blurry in the context of modern deportation. This blurriness is...


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