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  • Bordering a "Crisis":Central American Asylum Seekers and the Reproduction of Dominant Border Enforcement Practices
  • Josiah Heyman (bio), Jeremy Slack (bio), and Emily Guerra (bio)


On June 5, 2014, the right-wing website Breitbart News released photos of South Texas detention facilities overflowing with women and children (Darby, 2014). The headline, "Leaked Photos Reveal Children Warehoused in Crowded U.S. Cells, Border Patrol Overwhelmed," demonstrates the role of contestation in shaping border policies. The photos show dirty cells, full of young children and women, often sleeping on the floor or with standing room only. While the surface message was apparently humanitarian, the evident agenda was to mobilize fear about a migrant invasion at the U.S.-Mexico border (henceforth, the "border"). Although the source of the photos was anonymous, it must have been taken by someone inside the Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement since photography is not allowed and few people gain access to processing centers (hence, the term "leaked"). Reported by Brandon Darby, a controversial FBI informant who infiltrated the 2008 Republican National Convention and sent two protestors there to jail, the article has limited text, but asserts that "thousands of illegal immigrants have overrun U.S. border security and their processing centers in Texas." This publicity sparked an important turn to strengthening border enforcement and provided a nationally significant political symbol, both at the time and in the 2016 election. Understanding [End Page 754] the full impact of this event and the surrounding maelstrom of humanitarian and anti-immigrant responses to the increase in Central American refugee families requires a holistic and multiscalar analysis of contending actors and how they changed and reproduced that which we call the "border."

Central Americans have migrated to the United States since the late 1970s in significant numbers, driven by a toxic mix of civil war, genocide, violence, criminality, radical capitalist change, and economic vulnerability (for example, see Jonas and Rodríguez, 2015). While they use a variety of routes and hold or seek various legal statuses, the principal path has been through Mexico, more specifically, through South Texas. Some apply for asylum upon arriving in the United States, while others attempt to cross the borderlands to the U.S. interior without detection. This basic migratory pattern has been long-standing, but the numbers increased dramatically in late 2013, with a marked peak in summer 2014, and oscillating ups and downs to the present. The composition and migration mode also changed, with increasing numbers of family groups (especially women with children) and unaccompanied minors presenting themselves to U.S. authorities and requesting asylum either at ports of entry or just inside the United States. So, while they are formally arrested, they are also initiating a legal immigration asylum case. This growth and change in Central American migration occurred side by side with a decline in Mexican unauthorized entries. Indeed, despite the Central American increase, total U.S. southern border arrests have declined, reaching levels last seen in the early 1970s. But border immigration enforcement has continued, and in some ways grown. This is the central paradox we wish to explore: In light of drastically reduced apprehensions, and the prevalence within that apprehension pool of law-abiding asylum seekers, we ask why has border immigration enforcement increased, not declined? Recent empirical evidence has linked these contending discourses about borders and immigration to niche right-wing media, and to the election of Donald Trump. The themes we raise here—contention around Central American migration of families and unaccompanied children, the political construction of border "crisis," and the symbolic and material saliency of the U.S.-Mexico border in immigration debates—continue to be central under the Trump administration. However, for this article we are focused specifically on the 2014 events, which provide an insightful antecedent to current struggles.

Our theoretical approach for answering these questions has two thrusts. One is that the social world is constructed through contentious [End Page 755] politics, though such contention occurs within a wider structural backdrop (Tilly and Tarrow, 2007; McAdam et al., 2001). Contestation involves multiple actors coalescing and conflicting to seek social and political outcomes. Such outcomes are contingent, with multiple factors and...


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