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“Is it worth risking your life?”: Ethnography, risk and death on the U.S.–Mexico border


Every year, several hundred people die attempting to cross the border from Mexico into the United States, most often from dehydration and heat stroke though snake bites and violent assaults are also common. This article utilizes participant observation fieldwork in the borderlands of the US and Mexico to explore the experience of structural vulnerability and bodily health risk along the desert trek into the US. Between 2003 and 2005, the ethnographer recorded interviews and conversations with undocumented immigrants crossing the border, border patrol agents, border activists, borderland residents, and armed civilian vigilantes. In addition, he took part in a border crossing beginning in the Mexican state of Oaxaca and ending in a border patrol jail in Arizona after he and his undocumented Mexican research subjects were apprehended trekking through the borderlands. Field notes and interview transcriptions provide thick ethnographic detail demonstrating the ways in which social, ethnic, and citizenship differences as well as border policies force certain categories of people to put their bodies, health, and lives at risk in order for them and their families to survive. Yet, metaphors of individual choice deflect responsibility from global economic policy and US border policy, subtly blaming migrants for the danger - and sometimes death - they experience. The article concludes with policy changes to make US-Mexico labor migration less deadly.

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