Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

"Between the drug war policy and immigration policies, we have created the conditions for this humanitarian catastrophe along the migration route.”

Noelle Brigden, postdoctoral fellow in international studies at the Watson Institute

Beyond Border Crossings

Migration Is Shaped by Policy, and Shapes Society

In 2010 the Mexican military raided a ranch controlled by the Zetas drug cartel in San Fernando, less than 100 miles south of Texas. Inside they encountered a horrifying scene: the bodies of 72 migrants from Central and South America piled together, the victims of a massacre. The migrants, traveling north to the US, had been abducted and ordered to pay a ransom. They could not afford to pay so they were brutally murdered, sparking global outrage over the treacherous conditions migrants face in their long and dangerous journeys.

While the massacre renewed scholarly, journalistic, and human rights interest in Central American migration, Noelle Brigden, a postdoctoral fellow in international studies at Watson, was already on the scene. At that time she was completing fieldwork along migratory routes in Mexico and El Salvador, studying politics not from an institutional perspective, but at the level of everyday people and practices. She admits that this ethnographic approach, typically associated with anthropology or sociology, is uncommon in political science. But it’s right for her. “What really interests me are issues that have a great effect on human security but are nevertheless outside of where we normally look for politics,” she explains. “Ethnography is the right tool for that in so many ways.”

As a PhD candidate in government at Cornell, Brigden initially wanted to study the flow of money in Central American migration. But as she spoke with migrants she realized how violence, such as the 2010 San Fernando Massacre, was central to their daily lives. The recent escalation of the drug war has put migrants in the crosshairs of both governments and cartels, making their already tortuous journey even more perilous. While the immediate threat typically comes from criminal outfits, government policies indirectly incite such violence. Brigden acknowledges that the “consequences of government policies are often unintended and driven by other political logics,” but says the reality is that “between the drug war policy and immigration policies, we have created the conditions for this humanitarian catastrophe along the migration route.”

Brigden’s current research focuses on how migrants cope with these conditions and on the state’s role in perpetuating such violence. Migration, she stresses, is fraught with “great risk, but also uncertainty.” Navigating bureaucracy, law enforcement, and gang violence calls for migrants to “improvise rather than plan,” and Brigden passionately advocates for understanding migration as an “improvised practice” that creates a “dynamic but stable transnational social space along the unauthorized route.”

While current rhetoric in the US paints migration as a solely border issue, Brigden argues nothing could be further from the truth. She is intent on uncovering how migration routes “cut through nation states, not just across their border” and the way citizens respond to and interact with the flow of people. “This is not something that just happens at the margins of society,” she says, “this is a long-distance trade route that plays a role in the construction of society.” Through her work, Brigden is making space for ordinary people in the discussion of international relations. “We can learn some important lessons by following in the footsteps of everyday people,” she insists. Migrants are more than abstract data points; they are “consumers, workers, friends, fathers, lovers – not only in places of settlement but in transit.”

The undocumented nature of migration makes numbers difficult to ascertain, but Brigden estimates that each year hundreds of thousands of Central and South Americans make their way north in the hopes of crossing into the United States. Migration, then, is “not at the periphery, it is fundamental to the nation state and democracy.” This has profound implications on economies and political structures, and even reveals the limitations, and possibilities, of the nation-state. Because of this, Brigden is intent on not treating migration as a discrete and local issue, but as a global concern. On May 17 and 18 she will host a workshop at Watson on the intensive ethnographic fieldwork being done on clandestine migration routes and human security around the world. Thirteen researchers from institutions in the United States, Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Mexico, Turkey, and Australia will attend.

 -- Matthew Gannon