English Tiededebatti

Dangerous border – but for whom?

Lukuaika: 7 min.

The original research article can be accessed here. Nielsen, H.D. (2020). Perception of danger in the southern Arizona borderlands. Fennia – International Journal of Geography, 198(1-2), 74-90.

The US-Mexican border has been debated for many years and during that time its perception has changed. Yet, post-9/11 the border mainly has been portrayed as a weak link in the American security chain and generally as a very dangerous place to be. It has become a central topic that, alongside abortion, defines US politics and spilts the voters into two camps.

President Trump for instance built his successful 2016 presidential campaign on a platform that drew heavily on the narrative of the US-Mexican border as a dangerous place and of undocumented migrants as hardened criminals. While a sound and well-informed debate, with differing opinions is healthy, the border question in the US has become a shallow and polarized shouting match based on entrenched ideological positions and differently-interpreted ‘facts’.

A quick google search will suggest to you that the US-Mexican border is one of the most dangerous borders in the world. Yet at the same time it also will provide information that some of the safest cities in the US are located on the border, although they are divided from cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez only by a fence. The explanation is simple; the border is not a single border but 3000 km of diverse landscape. Additionally, it is filled with social, historical, legal, cultural, environmental, and economic differences, making it much more complex than how it appears. Still, people use simplified arguments that they believe are accepted as universal truths.

My recent article “Perceptions of danger in the Arizona borderlands” (2020), aims to map out the different perceptions of danger that exist in the Ajo, Arizona border area. Rather than presenting definitive conclusions, the study attempts to depict a more nuanced border with first-hand experience of the presented dangers. By doing so, it also invites further debates and research to re-think how arguments that support our own beliefs shape perceptions of danger.

The Ajo border area

The Ajo border area is a far cry from the US capital, Washington D.C. Nevertheless, the people living in the border region have had to adjust to the laws that are imposed upon them by politicians from the other side of the country. Some of these laws are carried out differently along the southern border than in other border areas of the US. One point in case is the so-called ‘100 mile zone’, which is almost omnipresent with checkpoints surrounding the town. Meanwhile most people in New York City probably are unaware that they also live inside the border zone.

Ajo is a town with very noticeable tensions. It is a microcosm of national divisions played out in a small space.

Within this zone the Border Patrol has extensive rights that conflict with the constitution, which has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to rename it the ‘constitution-free zone’ (ACLU 2012). In Ajo the opinions about the border zone, undocumented migrants, the Border Patrol, and the securitization in general are many and diverse. Some find all the security necessary and it makes them feel safe from undocumented migrants. At the same time others experience it as an attack on their civil rights and violation of their human rights, thus making them feel unsecure.

Example of one of the signs found in the desert. Photo: Henrik Dorf Nielsen

On either end of the spectrum, there are people who chose to act. Several aid organizations, with the primary goal of preventing undocumented migrants from dying in the desert, operate in the area. On the other hand, there are those who take it upon themselves to help the Border Patrol keep undocumented migrants out. Being a small and relative isolated settlement with little more than 3000 inhabitants, Ajo is a town with very noticeable tensions. It is a microcosm of national divisions played out in a small space.

The danger and the threat

The perceptions of what is dangerous and who or what is threatened by the danger also differs vastly, with one exception – the desert. Outsiders who are unfamiliar with the border area and some of the locals, who are split on the matter, take the Border Patrol’s position portraying undocumented migrants as the danger. They are considered to threaten the locals and subsequently the rest of the country as they move inland. Countering this perception are the aid organizations, human rights organizations, and some of the locals. They see the Border Patrol and border policies as dangerous and the undocumented migrants as being the ones in danger.

What they all have in common is the attitude to the environment. Everyone recognizes that the Sonoran Desert is a dangerous place. Paradoxically they also agree that the same desert is at risk but point towards different culprits. While none of the perceptions can be dismissed as wrong, the desert does stand out as the largest danger, as it claims hundreds of lives per year of both undocumented migrants and Border Patrol agents alike. It was a strategy to use the danger of the desert as a natural scare tactic to keep undocumented migrants out and it is the reason why the aid organizations are there.

Different perceptions of dangers and threats

 Who/what is the danger?Who/what is threatened?
Outsiders, Border Patrol, and localsUndocumented migrants and the environment


Local residents and the environment



Aid organizations, Civic and human rights organizations, and localsBorder Patrol, (border) policies,
and the environment

Undocumented migrants, civil/human rights,
and the environment

Regardless of political conviction, opinion towards the border and undocumented migrants, it should be recognized that the undocumented migrants are the ones most at risk. They are much worse equipped to survive days in the desert than anyone else. Moreover, on the border they are stuck between armed cartels in Mexico and armed Border Patrol officers in the US, while being unarmed themselves. This realization, despite being partly reached through actions, is unlikely to manifest itself and mend the gap between the different actors. The current political climate has, if anything, pushed them further apart to a point where they are unable to see each other’s realities.

HENRIK DORF NIELSEN

The header picture: Volunteers on a water drop. By: Henrik Dorf Nielsen

Henrik Dorf Nielsen

Henrik Dorf Nielsen is a doctoral candidate in Human Geography at the Department of Geographical and Historical Studies, University of Eastern Finland. His research interests include borders and boundaries both internal and external, cross-border interaction, mental borders, perceptions, minorities, and border theory. He is especially, but not only, interested in borders and boundaries in the context of Finland, Denmark and the US.


Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera is Associate Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Her areas of expertise are Mexico-US relations, organized crime, immigration, border security, and human trafficking. Her newest book is titled Los Zetas Inc.: Criminal Corporations, Energy, and Civil War in Mexico (University of Texas Press, 2017).

Perceptions of danger, border enforcement
and migration ethics

The extraordinary study of Henrik Dorf Nielsen (2020) explores the contrasting perceptions of danger connected to the US-Mexico borderlands (the region of southern Arizona), in an era of strengthened border enforcement. Making use of a phenomenological participant-researcher approach, Nielsen describes very accurately the tensions that exist in the Ajo, Arizona border area.The study also depicts the deep and complex national divisions regarding border security and the US immigration policy.

The greatest merits of this account are its objectiveness and rich details obtained via firsthand experience. Nielsen joined a humanitarian aid group in the Ajo region to experience and observe the borderlands on the ground through active participation. By doing this, he was able to provide a very balanced account of the perceptions of danger of two groups of actors: i) outsiders:Border Patrol and locals, and ii) aid organizations:civic and human rights organizations and locals. He concludes that the desert is the greatest danger for the two groups, while the actors most at risk are undocumented migrants.

One aspect that should be further analyzed, and that comes to mind after reading this exceptional piece, is the role of human smugglers and drug trafficking organizations in this complex region. Extreme border enforcement measures do not only put migrants at great risk and lead them into very dangerous terrains, but also benefit a set of actors that profit from the needs and vulnerability of undocumented migrants. Nielsen’s account opens the door for further research on opportunistic organizations and actors that benefit from a human tragedy.

Another valid, but perhaps controversial debate is the fine line that sometimes exists between human smuggling and some forms of human mobility facilitation. This is a very complex subject that requires objectivity and serious investigation. The direct involvement of drug trafficking organizations (e.g. the Sinaloa Cartel) in migrant smuggling at the Arizona-Sonora borderlands put migrants at great risk. These actors facilitate human mobility but at a very high cost for vulnerable people in an era of increased border enforcement. They also benefit from the good work of humanitarian aid groups.

The criminalization of humanitarian aid is unacceptable. The Scott Warren’s case is emblematic in this regard. But also concerning is the alleged role of Irineo Mujica of Pueblo sin Fronteras (a key player in the mobilization of migrant caravans) in this episode.

Humanitarian aid should not be equated to human smuggling. However, we need to do further research on the intended or unintended consequences of the work of organizations that do not just provide aid or water to migrants in the desert, but that have played a crucial role in moving mass migrations in the recent years. The false promises of some caravan organizers in a context of extreme border enforcement break the fundamental premises of migration ethics and have put migrants at great danger or have even led them to death.

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