Publication Title

Law and Society Review


border-crossing deaths, smuggling

Document Type



Drawing on fieldwork and political theory with Lacanian psychoanalytic influences, this article analyzes how fantasy and fetishes help sustain strategies shown to be no solution to U.S. border control problems. More than a decade after the official launch of the border control paradigm of "prevention through deterrence," predicated on the assumption that ramping up walls, barriers, policing, and the human costs of border crossing would deter, there has been scant evidence of deterrence and much evidence of diversion of migrants to more dangerous crossing points where death rates have soared. Attempts to mitigate the cost to life have also proved ineffective but have persisted alongside the policy of diversion. [para] The article is based on research in a region where the reality of diversion and death instead of deterrence was lived but where people still pursue projects of barrier-building and death mitigation that they know to be ineffective. The article analyzes how fantasy fuels action despite knowledge and occludes a traumatic element around which the symbolic order of border law is structured: the foundation of "good life" with its bounty of rights, privileges, and opportunity on the exclusion of basic life denuded of the entitlements that make the good life sweet. The article also examines how fetishes are used to cope with unrealized hopes and to diffuse the impact of the traumatic knowledge that good life is undergirded by the exclusion and even death of basic life.[para] The first part of the article, "Query and Approach," frames the question at the heart of the study and delineates the approach taken to examine the issue. Finding instructive Zizek's insight that objects enacted by people can materialize and disclose a deeper "truth" that people and ideology cannot afford to acknowledge, the article's analytical narrative is organized around the enactment of two forms of objects: private border fences and water tanks. These objects and projects of civil society engaged in political action mirror in miniature the larger projects and objects of the state and its border law and are entryways for analysis.[para] The second part of the article, "Fantasy and the Law," analyzes the incidents and interviews during fieldwork that show the work of fantasy in sustaining and regenerating policy, law, and political action that people know to be dysfunctional. [para] The third part of the article, "Why Fantasy?" analyzes how people use fetishes to cope with the traumatic knowledge that the good life is undergirded by the exclusion of basic life.[para] The study is based on 53 interviews during seven weeks of fieldwork and additional informal conversations and interactions. Interviewees were identified by observing border activism-related activities, such as fence-building, border-watching "musters," water tank servicing trips, and a meeting between a migrant rights activist and the mayor of a nearby Mexican town. I also talked to ranchers and other residents who lived close to the border, contacted people referred to me by others, and met people at community venues. Much of the fieldwork consisted of observation rather than participation, so as to remain open to studying people from different perspectives. Participation was limited to filling water tanks and checking water levels while riding along on water tank-refill trips. While interviewees relied upon for this article graciously gave their names and backgrounds along with their perspectives, I have decided to omit names for purposes of this article.



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