Is the dehumanization of illegal immigrants justified?

Violence of the border. Ethnological perspectives on violence against migrants on the border between the USA and Mexico



1.1. Ethnological theories on violence
1.2. Ethnology of the border

2.1. Historical-structural development of both states
2.2. Technologies of the limit

3.1. Economic violence
3.2. Political violence
3.2.1. Security policy
3.2.2. Transmigration in Mexico
3.2.3 . Prevention Through Deterrence
a. Invisible places
b. Hybrid collectif
c. Necroviolence and Necropolitics
3.3. Racism and xenophobia



Figure not included in this excerpt1


"I am going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities!" - Donald J. Trump (2016)

La linea, the American-Mexican border, contrasts multilateral opposites in categories such as power, economy and living conditions with impressive clarity.

The border has not only been one of the most important political issues in the USA and its neighboring country Mexico since the election campaign and inauguration of the current US President Donald Trump. For some time now, the US government has tried unsuccessfully to put a stop to the illegal immigration of Mexican and Central American migrants using a wide variety of political strategies. The phased opening and closing of the border area is meanwhile a historically recurring political and social issue. US President Donald J. Trump, like other presidents before him, promises to end violence, drug smuggling and illegal immigration by building a wall. In fact, around a third of the border is already walled and fenced, and the effective use of these walls has been questionable. The expanding physical and virtual security and militarization of the border failed to produce long-term success because, as is so often the case, only the symptoms were addressed instead of working on the cause of illegal immigration to the United States. As a result of the increasing expansion of the border, violence at the border and in the border area is also increasing, with the resulting phenomena of violence primarily directed against Mexican and Central American migrants on their way to the USA. This work deals with these phenomena of violence and their possible causes. The literature I use consists primarily of ethnological texts, books and compilations. Although my research covered a wide range of ethnological authors, the course of my work was significantly influenced by Jason De León's ‘book" The Land of Open Graves "(2015). Other notable authors are Elwert (2002), Smith & Kuper (2013), Scheper-Hughes & Bourgois (2004), Schlee (2002), Maguire (2012) and Henderson (2011).

In order to determine the meanings and interactions of violence against migrants, I will first outline a theoretical framework on the topics of violence and borders in ethnology. Central topics in the first chapter are the different forms of violence, how they are embedded in society and the motivation for individual and collective violent behavior. With regard to the border issue, I proceed in a similar way, examining the characteristics of borders and relating this to social and ethnic parameters and dynamics.

Building on this, I will deal briefly in the second chapter with the structural differences between the two countries. In particular, the history as well as the political and economic relationships are at the center of my analysis. The aim of this chapter is to substantially supplement the previous theoretical framework in order to finally present the phenomena of violence against migrants, including the special role of the border, as precisely as possible through a synthesis of theory and facts.


1.1. Ethnological theories on violence

Although numerous authors from various academic disciplines have already dealt with the topic of violence, it has not been possible to formulate a clear and comprehensive definition of the term to date. A definition of violence is always dependent on the social and historical context, which results in a range of definitions and characteristics. The following, predominantly ethnological perspectives on violence therefore do not aim to provide a definition that is as universal as possible, but rather serve as a foundation for the analysis of various phenomena of violence on the American-Mexican border.

In ethnology, the narrow concept of violence (according to Riches 1986) describes violence as targeted and undesired physical damage to others, whereby the targeted nature of an act of violence is particularly important. In addition to direct physical violence, there are also indirect structural and cultural phenomena of violence. In the following, I will define those different forms of violence more precisely and expand the narrow concept of violence to include various ethnological perspectives.

I'll start with one of the most popular ethnological models on violence, David Riches ’'Triangle of Violence’ , in which he makes special reference to the differences in the point of view of perpetrator, victim and witness. Riches refers to the subjectivity of violence as a category of action, since each of the parties involved has a different view of an act of violence. Accordingly, the perpetrator may consider a violent act to be legitimate and justified, while the victim is likely to consider the same act to be unjustified and illegitimate. The category of witnesses plays a special role. In contrast to the opposing views of victim and perpetrator, witnesses have a multitude of different points of view, depending on their relationship to perpetrator and victim as well as their social and moral standards and personal interests (Riches 1986: 8). That legitimacy aspect of violence was then taken up by other ethnologists and will continue to be of central importance in the course of this work.

Riches also deepens his model, which is focused on individual action, by including collective action. Perpetrators, victims and witnesses can therefore not only be individual actors, but groups of people. There is also the possibility of transforming witnesses into perpetrators, victims, or both (Riches 1986: 11). This expansion of the perspective is intended to show that a given configuration of perpetrators, victims and witnesses is only one moment in a larger process. After all, it is not always clear who is the perpetrator and who is the victim. Mutual violence is the basis for order (order) and clutter (disorder) and is both destructive and creative. Their expression encompasses both emotional aspects and aspects of practical intention. However, Riches puts the practical use of an act of violence, in terms of underlying intentions for the execution of an action, over emotional aspects. He even further reinforces this assertion with the assumption that no act of violence would be carried out without an instrumental purpose (ibid .: 26).

Riches definition is thus a pragmatic and situational view of individual and collective acts of direct, visible violence, with the legitimacy of violence at the center of his analysis.

The ethnologists Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew J. Strathern refer to Riches and his in their ethnography on violence Triangle of violence, where they describe Riches ’concept of violence as a“ form of rational action with regard to a goal, as opposed to an emotional, irrational impulse or to genetically determined tendencies towards violence ”(Stewart & Strathern 2002: 6).

According to Stewart and Strathern, violence localizes the differences in the perception of appropriate and appropriate behavior in different conflict situations. Because of the different perceptions of violence, the authors, like Riches before them, raise the question of the legitimacy of violence, since an act of violence is always ambiguous. For example, whether the use of force or power can be viewed as violence or not also depends on the reactions of the actors involved. These reactions can in turn be the result of ethnic and cultural predispositions. The question of the legitimation of violence is therefore closely related to the problem of evaluation as well as the problem of definition. The authors note that the evaluation decides on the definition (ibid .: 156).

The extent to which societies or states regard violence as legitimate or illegitimate becomes clear, among other things, in the control measures and the expression of 'positive' acts of violence (ibid .: 3). Those 'positive' acts of violence that migrants also fall victim to. Stewart and Strathern differentiate between functional and symbolic motivations for violence. Based on Riches' concept of violence, they describe violence as functional because it is in connection with law and order understood, whereby violence can have both corrosive and creative effects. Thus, Stewart and Strathern understand violence and order as subjective concepts. Because of its corrosive nature, violence is subject to control and coercive measures (Stewart & Strathern 2002: 5).

Meanwhile, symbolic violence explains subjective experiences and cultural meanings of acts of violence that drive or promote the use of violence. “The prerequisites, conditions for the emergence and maintenance of violence are therefore variable depending on personal positions in society and personal perception” (ibid .: 7). In connection with this, Stewart and Strathern also come to the conclusion that violence occurs both within individual milieus and across cultures between societies and states (ibid .: 3f). Violence thus also occurs on a national and global level, which is made clear, among other things, by structural phenomena of violence such as state migration policy.

In order to make the global dynamics of violence visible, the analysis of structural phenomena of violence is indispensable. In ethnology, Johan Galtung is usually referred to as the theoretical author of the Structural violence designated. Galtung names structural inequalities, especially in the distribution of power, as the basis for structural violence, which makes the concept ideal for analyzing violence against migrants.

"Structural violence shows as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances" (Galtung 1969: 171). In this sense, violence is always visible when, for example, people starve to death although this is objectively avoidable or the life expectancy of wealthier countries or population groups is twice as high as that of poorer countries or population groups. If the decision-making power over the allocation of resources such as income, education or medical care is unevenly distributed, structural violence occurs, which becomes visible in direct phenomena of violence (ibid .: 171f).

The ethnologist Paul Farmer also dealt intensively with the subject of Structural violence. In his 2004 paper, he writes about the drastic spread of diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis in Haiti as a result of structural violence. He explains his understanding of structural violence with the help of Bourdieu’s habitus - Concept:

"Bourdieu uses the term" habitus "as a" structured and structuring "principle. Structural violence is structured and stricturing. It constricts the agency of its victims. It tightens a physical noose around their necks, and this garroting determines the way in which resources - food, medicine, even affection - are allocated and experienced. Socialization for scarcity is informed by a complex web of events and processes stretching far back in time and across continents (Farmer 2004: 315).

Again, violence is placed in a global and historical context when Farmer speaks of the economic inequalities and grievances within Haiti. In doing so, he refers to the competition-driven market that predominates in neoliberalism, which in his eyes contributes massively to the global and local power imbalance. According to Farmer, neoliberalism as an ideology is not interested in improving social and economic inequalities; instead, it represents a further possibility of exerting pressure on economically weaker nations (Farmer 2004: 313). As with Galtung, the main reason for structural violence is the historically grown social, political and economic imbalance promoted by neoliberalism. The not directly visible effects of structural violence include racism, sexism and extreme poverty in view of the unjust distribution of wealth.

In summary, occurs Structural violence in the absence of an actor at the collective level. It works in an environment in which underlying political, economic and social structures limit the ability of individuals to act and increase the risk of “tragic fates”, such as illness or political violence, for those disadvantaged people. The affected individuals usually belong to the poorer sections of the population (Farmer 2005: 41).

Galtung also uses the term Cultural violence for his analysis. It is made up of the relevant basic attitudes and views on violence that have been taught to us since we were children and that still surround us today in everyday life. Cultural violence also decides which forms of structural and direct violence are legitimized and thus accepted in a society. In contrast to direct violence, both structural and cultural violence are usually not directly visible (Galtung 1990: 291f). In order to clarify the interactions between the aforementioned forms of violence, Galtung also designed a violence triangle consisting of structural, cultural and personal violence. Personal violence is made up of physical and psychological violence2 together. Viewed together, structural and cultural violence are the cause of personal violence, but conversely, structural and cultural violence can also be intensified by personal violence (ibid .: 291). The direct phenomena of violence against migrants on the American-Mexican border are therefore both a consequence and a driver of structural and cultural violence on a national and global level.

In order to shed more light on the cultural concept of violence and to further diversify the associated motives for violence against migrants on the Mexican-American border, it is worth exploring the relationship between violence and Ethnicity to represent.

For this purpose, I will first go into Georg Elwert, who commonly claims that violence is a collective and individual option built into social structures and therefore always exists as part of a social order of violence. Elwert also notes that violence can be located both as legitimate and illegitimate (Elwert 2002: 333).

Through his Cohesion theory He is now expanding the concept of violence to include ethnically centered conditions for collective violence. Here, violence arises and exists through the demarcation of a collective with positive values ​​ascribed to 'different', which can occur within and between all types of societies. A prerequisite for this organized form of violence is a demarcation between ethnic groups, states or cultural communities, for example between Mexican migrants and US citizens. So if violence within groups can have a classifying effect with regard to group affiliations of the members, every conflict also strengthens the cohesion of groups. This also goes hand in hand with the re-creation or revival of norms. In the sense of the cohesion theory, a violent conflict always shapes and strengthens society (ibid .: 334). Even if human societies are always both homogeneous and heterogeneous, the members tend to homogenize in their self-portrayal. If violence serves the interests of society, it can also be used against people or groups identified as foreign. As a result, violence can also create strangeness. Against this background, strangeness can become a mobilizing argument for collective attacks (ibid .: 334f).

Another suitable theory for the analysis of violence against migrants on the American-Mexican border can be found in Elwert's thesis violence-inducing heterogeneity. It illuminates how societies and their contact institutions deal with strange individuals, other societies and new ideas. According to this, violence is “an option for action built into social structures. Every society has an order of violence in which violence has expected - legitimate and illegitimate - places ”(ibid .: 362). Order and sanctions serve to ward off potentially harmful behavior by individuals or groups because their behavior follows foreign rules.Elwert's gaze is therefore directed towards the institutions of a state that control and perpetuate violence. Violence is embedded in those institutions through norms, sanctions, control measures and targets. For this reason, the level of violence can rise if the embedding loses its stringency. Elwert also concludes from this that violence will increase when institutions fail or when the demands on institutions increase without changing them (ibid .: 363). Using American institutions such as the border police, this thesis becomes clear in the course of this work.

Since the Thesis of violence-inducing heterogeneity Although the way societies deal with different kinds of external influences is illuminated, but does not bring societal phenomena of violence in connection with ethnic identities, I now turn to the one developed by Leo Kuper and Michael G. Smith Concept of plural societies a. Smith and Kuper assume here plural societies3 an immanent potential for conflict at the local and national level, which manifests itself in the ethnic competition for economic, political and social resources (Smith & Kuper 2013: 311). Thereby, ethnically identifiable actors within a state compete for the named resources. Smith and Kuper's concept makes special reference to colonial and post-colonial societies such as the United States and Mexico. In my opinion, however, your concept can also be applied across states to migrants from Mexico and Central America who try to share in the resources in the USA. The following applies: "The greater the concentration of resources that are significant for society as a whole in a certain ethnic group or perceived in this way by other ethnic groups, the greater the likelihood that there may be violent competition for these resources" (ibid .: 311). Based on Galtung and Farmer's concepts of violence, Kuper and Smith also mention structural imbalances between the center and the periphery as possible causes for direct and indirect phenomena of violence. A largely one-sided accumulation of economic, military, political and technological resources in the center means that the exchange between the center and the periphery is characterized by inequality. It is therefore possible that the population of the peripheral areas is trying to compensate for the structural deficits by force. Conversely, the center can also specifically promote conflicts in the periphery in order to protect its own resources. This happens through the material support of certain groups or ethnicities, or the instrumentalization of ethnic identities. Thus, for example, the transfer of weapons from the center can contribute to the exacerbation and longevity of violent conflicts in the periphery, as can be seen in the drug war in Mexico or the current wars and conflicts in the Near and Middle East (ibid .: 313). That factor that Ethnicity, as self or external ascription to identity groups, is always to be seen in connection with other interests, whereby the functional aspect of E thnicity Poses a risk of abuse and overvaluation of ethnic identities. “With those in this ethnicity process

Stereotyping is associated with the images of self and others that arise, which often exaggerate one's own group in terms of their abilities and status. The consequence of this can be a subjectively perceived or objectively comprehensible devaluation, denigration or humiliation of the neighboring groups, which in extreme cases condenses into a mutual enemy image ”(Smith & Kuper 2013: 312).

Smith & Kupers Concept of plural societies illustrates how violence is used within and across society to extract and protect various resources. Violence is thus dichotomous in terms of its origin and its functional character.

This is where the 2004 monograph by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois comes in when the authors claim: "Violence is a slippery concept - nonlinear, productive, destructive, other reproductive. […] Violence gives birth to itself ”(Scheper-Hughes & Bourgois 2004: 1). Therefore, in the context of the reproduction of violence, the question arises whether state violence as an instrument to combat illegal migration is legitimate or beneficial in the long term.

With regard to the legitimacy of acts of violence, the authors note that violence is formed by a dichotomy between legitimate and illegitimate as well as permissible and impermissible actions (ibid .: 2). In other words, the individual and collective assessment determines the legitimacy of an action if, for example, state violence against demonstrators is differentiated as "legitimate" from the violence of a mob of demonstrators, which has been condemned as "unlawful". Ultimately, the individual and collective evaluation of violence depends on one's own social, political and economic positions in the world order. Violence is just as much a part of human nature as the rejection of violent behavior (ibid .: 2).

With regard to the delimitation of violence, the authors are of the opinion that violence includes all forms of control processes that threaten fundamental freedoms and individual or collective survival (ibid .: 22). Scheper-Hughes ’and Bourgois’ direct concept of violence therefore not only includes the use of force, through attacks or the infliction of pain, but also attacks on the victim's personality, dignity or self-esteem. Those social and cultural dimensions give violence its power and meaning (ibid .: 1).

In their book, the authors draw parallels between violence in times of war and times of peace, whereby state violence can also be used in times of peace as a basis for internal peace and stability. Such “stabilizing” phenomena of violence are often directed against minorities and can take the form of structural “strangles”, similar to the “noose” described by Farmer (2004: 315). Peacetime crimes can include impoverished communities in the deserts of the southern states, the US becoming an industrial prison complex, or mass raids against illegal migrants. Governments have a great interest in keeping the resulting violence as secret as possible from the population (Scheper-Hughes & Bourgois 2004: 20).

Since the social and cultural dimensions of violence are difficult to see and easy to implement in everyday life, they are suitable for the mobilization and legitimation of state violence during times of peace in order to maintain internal peace and stability. For example, the political, media and public dissemination of negative stereotypes against ethnic minorities can contribute to a political and public discourse based on fear (ibid .: 20). As a result, a Continuum of violence (violence continuum), which is characterized by social exclusion, dehumanization, depersonalization and objectification of ethnic minorities and normalizes violent behavior towards 'others' (ibid .: 21). Violence is therefore anchored in all areas of social life through, among other things, racism and xenophobia. Meanwhile, warning signs of a social consensus against the devaluation of certain forms of human life and forms of life are emerging (ibid .: 22). Those signals range from the denial of social support and care, to the endangerment of so-called “social parasites”, to militarization and securitization4 of everyday life and the limit (ibid .: 22). The resulting “small wars and invisible genocides”, as files symbolic violence 5, are barely visible because they permeate almost all aspects of our daily life and are therefore often taken for granted and harmless. Nevertheless, they represent a preliminary stage to mass violence and genocide (ibid .: 21).

In their presentations on violence in times of war and peace, Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois point out the special function of political, media and public discourse for the legitimation of violence. This becomes particularly striking if one takes Michel Foucault's discourse theory into account. The post-structuralist Foucault dealt intensively with the social and political significance of discourse, describing it as a specific constellation of knowledge that relates to scientific, literary and everyday expressions as well as non-linguistic aspects. Through the discourse it becomes possible

To relate “institutions, economic and social processes, forms of behavior, systems of norms, techniques, types of classification and modes of characterization” to one another. Foucault therefore sees the discourse as a kind of link between government, Security arrangements6, Knowledge, population and Technologies of the Self7 (Lemke 1997: 68). It is therefore in the interests of every individual and group who wish to exercise power in a state to dominate the discourse. The current global debate about “fake news” is an ideal example of this.

For Foucault, power and violence are directly related, with power instrumentalizing violence and violence being primarily functional. When asked from whom power in a society emanates, Foucault replies: “Neither the ruling caste, nor the groups that control the state apparatus, nor those who make the most important economic decisions have the entire power and thus functional network of one Society in hand. The rationality of power is the rationality of tactics [...] which are linked with one another, mutually evoke and spread one another, find their support and condition elsewhere and finally find overall dispositions ”(Foucault 1983: 116). Consequently, power acts not only as an instrument of oppression, but also on the rulers themselves. Foucault illustrates that the distribution of power in modern societies is horizontal as well as vertical, which also means that the responsibility for direct and indirect acts of violence is borne by the State and its representatives are both political representatives and the population as a whole (ibid .: 116f).

Foucault by no means denies discipline and sovereignty as components of power, but rather represents the different ones Technologies of PowerThat means law, discipline and security techniques are at the center of his power analysis. They represent the functional aspect of power and thus also of violence. This new form of power, as a continuation of disciplinary power, is what Foucault describes as Biopower. The one emanating from it Biopolitics tries to control the social, demographic parameters such as health, hygiene, birth rates or life expectancy in such a way that the largest possible part of the population lies on or along an imaginary normal curve. The social norm is therefore derived from the "normal". The 'normal' is the consensus of what is generally regarded as 'normal' in a society, favored by the government and various power relations (Lemke 2012: 21).

With the genesis of Biopower and Biopolitics, closely related to modern liberalism, life becomes a biological factor and demands political and economic solutions. Within the Biopolitics is not the subject but the total population is the governmental target8 Acting. The economically and politically oriented Biopolitics also promote violence against individuals and groups as long as it is in the interests of the general population (ibid .: 22). This can lead to the fact that those who decisively determine the discourse of a society, with the spread of negative stereotypes, classify ethnic groups, deliberately or unintentionally, as "others" and thereby normalize or legitimize direct violence against minorities.

1.2. Ethnology of the border

The structural complexity of the American-Mexican border, which is considered to be the most frequently crossed, testifies to the multilateral dimensions of the understanding of borders. Ethnology regards borders primarily as geopolitical dividing lines, identity-creating cultural borders and social borders that decide on the inclusion and exclusion of individuals and groups. The territorial, political, cultural and social dimensions of borders always interlock instead of excluding one another. In their interaction, however, they can also contribute to the development of violence. To prove this, I will outline relevant ethnological theories on the topic of borders, starting with political borders.

In politically oriented border ethnology, the interplay between state borders and the construction of social, symbolic borders is of central interest. Some authors attach significant importance to the state as an authority in this process. The control of borders by the state and its institutions therefore plays a central role in dealing with political borders. In this context, Josiah Heyman and Hilary Cunningham call for the ethnological view to focus on the practices of 'demarcation' (enclosure) and 'Mobility' (mobility) should direct. "Enclosure and mobility offer valuable tools for exploring the interplay of power, resources, and ideology in the contemporary world, especially (but not uniquely) at state borders. Enclosure, for example, draws attention to the ways that conceptualized sets of people, commodities, and information are attached to, bounded by, or able to span politically constructed territories ”(Heyman & Cunningham 2004: 293). Thus, 'demarcation' refers to processes that limit and prevent the movement of goods, people and information, while 'mobility' deals with processes that stimulate or enable movement. Through these two contrasting functional properties, Heyman and Cunningham show that border crossings are structured in a context of unequal political and economic power relations. With regard to farmers and Galtung, this again shows how structural inequalities influence migration on a global level.


1 Image source:

2 Psychological violence describes all forms of emotional damage and harm to a person, for example through direct psycho-verbal threats, insults or intimidating and controlling behavior. (Source:

3P l uralism is an empirical term in political science that describes the diversity of social forces that play a role in the political community. The fact that power is not centralized, but distributed among different, relatively independent groups in society, is in contrast to the rule or hegemony of a particular social class or elite. (Source:

4 With securitization, something valued is perceived as existentially and acutely threatened. That is why extraordinary (political) measures are required or implemented. (Source:

5 Symbolic violence is a term developed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and means misunderstood and thus socially recognized violence, with the help of which the prevailing view of the social world is legitimized. (Source:

6 In sociology, following Michel Foucault, one understands a dispositive as a set of certain conceptually comprehensible preliminary decisions within which the discourses and social interactions can develop, which are expressed in pragmatically relevant aspects of recording, describing and shaping the lifeworld of a society. (Source:

7 “This is understood to mean known and wanted practices with which people not only set the rules of their behavior, but also transform themselves, modify their special being and try to turn their life into a work that carries certain aesthetic values and corresponds to certain style criteria. "(Foucault 1993: 18)

8 With the concept of governmentality, Michel Foucault endeavored to develop a historical and systematic theory of governance that explores the connection between the techniques of governance ("gouverner") and the way of thinking and the practices of "self-governing" of the subjects (" mentalité ”) recorded and analyzed. (Source:

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