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  • The Neoliberal Underpinnings of Prevention Through Deterrence and the United States Government's Case Against Geographer Scott Warren
  • Geoffrey Alan Boyce


Scott Warren is a political geographer and a volunteer with the Arizona humanitarian organization No More Deaths. On January 17, 2018, Warren was arrested in Ajo, Arizona, along with Kristian Perez-Villanueva and José Sacaria-Goday, two Central American migrants to whom he was providing care. The United States has since charged Warren with two counts of felony harboring under 18 USC § 1324(a) and one count of conspiracy related to harboring. When combined, these charges carry a potential penalty of up to twenty years in prison. Following a seven-day trial in June 2019, a jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict, resulting in a mistrial. The United States Department of Justice has decided to pursue the charges against Warren a second time, with a new trial scheduled to begin on November 12, 2019.

This essay seeks to place the Scott Warren case in context. First, it situates the charges against Warren within a longer genealogy of Prevention Through Deterrence (PTD), the overarching enforcement strategy pursued by the United States along its border with Mexico since 1994. Next, I discuss how the charges against Warren reflect a doubling-down on PTD and its underlying logic. This involves a policy agenda being pursued by the Trump administration on multiple fronts, designed to forcibly dismantle long-existing networks of community, care, and solidarity across difference in the transnational U.S.-Mexico border region. I then argue that at stake in this policy agenda is an aggressive neoliberal worldview that would reduce all human relationships to pure competition, dividing the world into rigid categories of winners and losers. For this agenda to succeed, it must first rend the social fabric that holds us all together. I conclude by discussing several cases where the tactics of the Trump administration appear, thankfully, to be having precisely the opposite effect.

prevention through deterrence and the deadly logic of u.s. boundary enforcement

Since 1994, the United States Border Patrol has pursued an enforcement strategy that uses the difficult climate and terrain of the U.S.-Mexico border region as a weapon against unauthorized border crossers. Titled [End Page 192] "Prevention Through Deterrence," the strategy is premised on the belief that concentrating enforcement resources in urban areas would force unauthorized migration out into remote desert areas "less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement" (Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS], 1994, p. 7) As a result, individuals would "find themselves in mortal danger" (INS, 1994, p. 2), and it was believed that the resulting hardship would eventually lead would-be unauthorized migrants to simply abandon the effort.

The environmental contours of PTD have been widely discussed (Martínez, Reineke, Rubio-Goldsmith, & Parks, 2014; De Leon, 2015; Slack, Martínez, Lee, & Whiteford, 2016; Boyce, Chambers, & Launius, 2019; Provenzano & Nevins, 2019). Less frequently considered are the underlying assumptions about human behavior on which PTD is premised. As with "Mutually Assured Destruction," the deterrence strategy that drove the United States' nuclear policy during the Cold War, these assumptions are drawn explicitly from game theory, a body of work developed by the RAND Corporation that relies on a model of human beings as calculative individuals, constantly monitoring our environment in order to undertake informed and rational decisions about risk and reward (Lebow & Stein, 1989). Expanding on this model, game theory reduces all social relationships to adversarial interactions, whereby each individual seeks to maximize the benefits they can expect to obtain while minimizing their exposure to harm. In the context of border policing, this model of human behavior requires bracketing out all of the other dynamics involved in peoples' lives and in their decisions about whether or not to migrate. Such dynamics include the vicissitudes of political economy, the transnational bonds of affection, the desperate hardships or dangers experienced in a person's community of origin, and peoples' selfless desires to provide opportunity and support to those they love. By bracketing out these and other complex human relationships, the border can then be approached essentially as an engineering problem–merely awaiting a sufficient mixture of enforcement infrastructure, technology...


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pp. 192-201
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