The Everyday Mistreatment of Transfronterizo Commuters on the Mexico-U.S. Border: A Q&A with Borderlands Scholar Estefanía Castañeda Pérez
Crossing the border everyday brings the normalization of surveillance and interrogation, but what happens if you refuse to comply with the CBP facial recognition camera?
In Tuesday’s State of the Union, President Joe Biden began his comments about the U.S. border and immigration system by saying, “If we are to advance liberty and justice, we need to secure the border.” According to research done by fronteriza scholar Estefanía Castañeda Pérez, this statement does not reflect the experiences of the country’s fronterizos, or people who live near the U.S.-Mexico border, especially those who have to cross the border regularly, sometimes everyday under ever-increasing, invasive border surveillance. No other scholar has looked into the experience of border commuters with as much depth and precision as Castañeda Pérez, who—as she explains below—has surveyed more than 2,000 people since 2017.
In this interview she talks about some of her surprising findings, and she challenges the media narratives that legitimize growing border budgets. She also talks about how growing up constantly crossing the border from Tijuana to San Diego, and the daily injustice of this experience, inspired and compelled her to do this work. Indeed, while in the State of the Union Biden talks about deploying even more “cutting-edge” and “new” technology to the border, Castañeda Pérez details her own refusal to allow CBP to take her picture when she enters the United States for their facial recognition database. Please read on, you won’t regret it!
Castañeda Pérez is a PhD candidate at UCLA, currently at work on her dissertation. She can often be found traveling the borderlands near El Paso/Ciudad Juárez, San Ysidro/Tijuana, or southern Arizona/northern Sonora where we first met in person.
Can you explain the term transfronterizo?
There are multiple definitions that I use depending on the context. The condition of being transfronterizo, or being a transborder commuter, means engaging in cross-border mobility through the Mexico-U.S. border. This can be a person who resides in a Mexican or U.S. border city and crosses to the opposite side of the border for work, education, commerce, or family or doctor visits, among other reasons. It can also be someone who used to cross the Mexico-U.S. border on a regular basis in the past but has moved to another city or country outside the border region.
Transborder identity on the other hand would refer to a sense of self and a cultural expression that relies on either the condition of crossing the border or simply living in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands, even if that mobility is not frequent. This is both a cultural and a political identity tied to the conditions of living under surveillance and militarization on both sides of the border.
However, transfronterizo (or fronterizo, which is more commonly used) is just one of the multiple possible identities for people in the borderlands, and it can mean many different things based on gender expression, sexual orientation, and ideologies that either reject or accept nation-state-bound notions of belonging. My research primarily focuses on transborder commuters rather than transborder identity.
Did you have to constantly cross the border yourself while growing up?
My research is deeply inspired by my own experiences crossing the border from Tijuana, which I have done since I was a child, particularly after observing the changes in border militarization that occurred after 9/11. During years immediately after 9/11, tougher border controls delayed traffic up to five hours, forcing me to wake up at 3:00 a.m. to cross the border and go to school in San Diego. At ports, I also noticed more presence of military officers and K-9 dogs, which would inspect people and vehicles. Surveillance technology and bomb detectors were also placed at ports of entry. Around this time, I began to lose sleep and developed anxiety because of fear of arriving late to school or being inspected in secondary inspection. As a teenager constantly navigating this militarized space, I learned that before I was a U.S. citizen, I was a suspect.
Thus, from a young age, I was deeply motivated to understand and bring attention to the suffering at the border that the media and academic research failed to understand. Instead, the media often focused on political pressures facing border cities to legitimize border militarization, such as insecurity, femicides, and the War on Drugs, without connecting them to U.S. involvement and imperialism in Mexico and Latin America broadly. The omission of transborder lives and the suffering of migrants effectively contributed to our dehumanization, which still persists today, giving way to continued support for militarization and virtual borders by policy makers from across the U.S. and Mexican political spectrum.
Was it these experiences that drew you to this research?
My life experiences became the impetus to study the effects of border enforcement as both an undergraduate student at San Diego State University and now as a PhD candidate at UCLA. My dissertation research focuses on the normalization of violence at the Mexico-U.S. border, with a focus on land ports of entry in Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Nogales. Additionally, I examine the consequences of enduring state violence from CBP officers on transborder commuters’ mental health, sense of belonging, and sociopolitical behavior (specifically responses to displaced communities along the border). My research draws from extensive research I conducted from 2017 to 2022, including an original survey that I administered to about 2,070 transborder commuters from Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, and over 100 in-depth interviews with transborder commuters from Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Nogales.
What has struck you about your research, and what does it say about border enforcement? Has there been anything surprising?
The data that I have collected has been eye-opening, but one of my most interesting and unexpected findings is that while there were many individuals who recognized that they had experienced human and civil rights violations by CBP, the vast majority perceived these violations as “normal.” In other cases, many even went as far as legitimizing and internalizing the negative treatment from CBP officers. From this puzzling finding, I decided to shift my research focus on the normalization of violence and its consequences, which has implications for understanding how oppressive systems such as carceral spaces and surveillance become so internalized that people police themselves even when no one is watching.
That is a compelling finding. Can people read more about your research anywhere? And is there anything else that you want to highlight based on your surveys and interviews of border commuters?
There are countless stories from individuals whom I’ve had the privilege of interviewing that highlight the systematic nature of discrimination from CBP officers. It is often hard not to feel impotent when my role at that moment is to listen and document. The vast majority of people I have interviewed end their testimonies by describing how the whole process [of giving testimony] felt like therapy, especially because they were able to recall and make connections between the border and the different types of inequalities they have endured throughout their lives. What often stands out from these interviews is their complex understanding of how their lives are shaped by the border. Many recall with sadness how many years of their lives they have spent simply waiting to cross the border, especially when they perceive that CBP deliberately slows border traffic. Thus, time is just another commodity for CBP to exploit.
At the same time, so many individuals are indifferent to or even justify the suffering endured by asylum seekers and other individuals who are displaced at the border. These individuals tend to use the language of meritocracy and deservedness to justify state violence against migrants, which is greater in magnitude compared to what the average transborder commuter endures. For example, one common response is that asylum seekers should wait until they have a visa or that they do not deserve legal protections, even though seeking asylum is an internationally protected right. Some resort to xenophobic comments about them and instead blame them for longer wait times at the border, when in reality, CBP has deliberately slowed down traffic to dissuade people from crossing under the Covid border restrictions.
Others, however, are acutely aware of their privileges and of having documentation to cross the border, and they participate in solidarity actions to not only hold CBP accountable but to protect the rights of everyone using an abolitionist lens.
Although unsurprising, these stories highlight the vast contradictions that exist in the transborder experience, where the line between oppressor and oppressed become blurred.
Currently, I am still working on my dissertation, but I have previously written analytical pieces for NACLA on the psychological effects of border closures, the misrepresentation of migrant suffering in the media, and other academic pieces available through my Google Scholar profile.
Can you explain what you do when you go through the port of entry and officials ask if they can take your picture?
In recent years, CBP officers have increased surveillance technology at ports of entry, specifically facial recognition cameras, under the pretext of verifying identity and legitimacy of crossing documentation, such as passports or visas. But these technologies normalize the invasion of privacy and minimize concerns of civil liberties and human rights, including how long this data is stored in the databases of DHS and possibly other intelligence agencies. Additionally, these technologies do not speed up interactions with CBP officers, especially since, according to research, CBP has the discretion to draw from subjective and behavioral factors to decide who should be inspected.
Although having your picture taken by CBP seems compulsory, given that there is no indication about the right to opt out at the inspection facilities, U.S. citizens are allowed to opt out. When I cross through the pedestrian ports of entry, CBP officers usually point to the camera so that I stand in front of it and have my picture taken. When this happens, however, I ask to opt out. Although this request is accepted, there have been situations in which CBP has still taken my picture by force and ridiculed me for asserting my rights. On one occasion, while crossing through Nogales, I was detained in secondary inspection for over an hour for refusing to answer questions unrelated to my legal status and travel and for opting out from the picture. In El Paso, an officer ridiculed me by stating that the U.S. government already had a lot of data on everyone, and on another occasion an officer took my passport and placed it in front of the camera to take a picture of the card.
There have been cases in which CBP has probed further or flat out denied this right, as was the case of an ACLU lawyer, Shaw Drake, who had his picture taken by a CBP officer at an El Paso port of entry even after he asserted that he had the right to opt out. In an inspection zone where there are multiple cameras and other technologies surveilling transborder commuters, it is easy to understand why most people are not willing to opt out, even when they have the right to do so, especially if people are traveling with more legally vulnerable family members with visas. There is also the legitimate fear of retaliation, being sent to secondary inspection, and being frequently targeted by CBP simply for asserting their rights. This highlights the lack of accountability and the systematic nature of rights violations.
If you were put in charge of the border, what would you do, how would you change things? What would it look like in 10 years, in 50 years?
I strongly believe in the power of collective and global solidarity as a response to confront state violence at the border and in other carceral systems. Specifically, the prison industrial complex and the military industrial complex at the border are deeply connected to each other, both nationally and globally. We need to center the voices of marginalized communities, including Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities, who have historically called for the abolition of these structures and systems, which have displaced and dispossessed them for generations.