Refoulement as Biopolitical Praxis: Subalternity, Ethnography, and Ethics at the Mexico-Guatemala Border

By John Kennedy

During the first term of the Trump Administration, litigation has been brought to bear upon the notion common to international refugee law of non-refoulement, or the principle of the non-removal of refugees from the nation receiving them. Law Professor Jaya Ramji-Nogales notes the legal evolution of the contravention of this principle through legal maneuvers in domestic courts through three issuances of the Trump administration:

“the administration’s bar on asylum applications from migrants who cross the border between ports of entry; its policy requiring asylum seekers to remain in Mexico pending their asylum hearing; and its asylum ban for applicants at the southwest border who have passed through a third country without lodging an asylum claim.”

These litigious efforts, which nominally engage with the principle of non-refoulement through cherry-picked assessments of procedural accordance with Mexican law and protocol and migrant safety, culminated in the creation of the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) at the end of 2018. Subsequent issuances by the Trump Administration continued to denigrate the subject position of the Central American refugee by restricting their claims for asylum laws on the basis of a criterion set nominally designed to eliminate any reasonable form of clemency, further culminating in their near statistical erasure from border entry during the pandemic. This biopolitical situation underscores the precarious conditions many Central Americans face, as asylum cases are indefinitely delayed or, more clearly, non-existent in consideration of the fatal diffusion of COVID-19 within punitive carceral environments populated by DHS, ICE, and Border Patrol units.

In this essay, I engage with the principles and techniques associated with and designed by Stuart Hall in his conceptualization of a conjuncture in conjunctural analysis. In this way, I posit that the litigious efforts of the Trump Administration to restrict migrant and refugee flows both before and during the pandemic are part of a prospicient design to revalue life in accordance with a long-standing biopolitical rationale informed by White Supremacy. Focusing on the Mexico-Guatemala borderlands of Huehutenango and Quetzaltenango where I have engaged in fieldwork, I engage with Gayatri Spivak’s articulation that the migrant is not a subaltern in her essay “from Ghostwriting” alongside the notion generally advanced by subaltern studies that the subaltern is situationally adjacent to the interpellation of biopower upon human subjectivities. By considering the contradictory space of the migrant as not being a subaltern alongside an order of logic in which the subaltern may potentially become a migrant, I consider how the refoulement of Central Americans, whether Guatemalan, Honduran, or Salvadoran, relates to a long standing tradition of the dissipation of Latinx and indigenous lands rights and indebtedness in California, Texas, Mexico, and Guatemala as a dynamic product of forms of colonial hegemony, whether Spanish, Mexican, American, British, French or otherwise conceived, as seen in Monica Muñoz Martinez’s The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (2018). What I wish to name and deconstruct here is a process that engenders forms of undocumented labor predominantly in the sectors of industrial agriculture and construction wherein conditions of precarity and statist violence sublimate the procedural realities of border policies of refoulement, deportation, and asylum disincentivization in the American southwest through a recursive process mirrored in the Guatemala-Mexico borderlands. 

Following the enactment of the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), the Mexican side of the Guatemala-Mexico borderlands has become a place of informal refoulement and militarization, as Mexican President Lopez Obrador ceded to tariff threats upon the Mexican economy by enlisting the Guardia Nacional to effectively police migration in Southern Mexico. With the arrival of several thousand soldiers in the summer of 2019, the MPP extended the logic of American border policies to a place with limited humanitarian and governmental capacity for the assistance of refugees and migrants. As I proceed in this essay, I resist the categorical imputation of a division between refugee and migrant by centering the financialization of migrant processes within communities where the causes outmigration are rooted in issues that at one time or another have been or will be understood in terms of the principles of non-refoulement; this is not to imply categorical overlay between the terms of refugee and migrant but rather to underscore the fragile space between one and the other.

During fieldwork in Huehuetenango in 2018, I spoke with a number of individuals who had spent many years or decades working on farms or in factories in the United States and who had been deported. Similarly, during fieldwork in the neighboring department of San Marcos in the summer of 2019, I spoke with several individuals who had witnessed the arrival of the Mexican military to the Guatemala-Mexico border. These individuals related how novel Mexican border securitization made passage north more difficult; others noted how expenses had increased in terms of crossing the Suchiate river. Still others pointed to blind spots in the border, and others mentioned the hard-soft dynamics present in border policies: one could bicycle, as though on errands, into Ciudad Hidalgo, the point of arrival for the infamous Central American caravans that ostensibly related to the MPP, but one could not walk into Ciudad Hidalgo because of the association of pedestrian movement with Central American migrants on the part of Mexican security. And down river, not far from the bridge connecting Guatemalan Tecún Úman with Mexican Ciudad Hidalgo, one could see the presence of drones over the banana plantations, not readily identifiable in terms of provenance but most likely military grade. What I wish to unpack here is how militarization at the Mexico-Guatemala border constituted a border security technique that for some, if not many, conditioned the material necessities for further migration: long-standing informal detention Tecún Úman was for one Nicaraguan pastor’s family fleeing political violence in Ortega’s Nicaragua a traumatic nightmare in which a college-educated daughter became a waitress at a local restaurant that had helped to feed the caravans and that provides assistance to undocumented migrants. Another Guatemalan interlocutor described how a loan of ten thousand dollars had gotten him all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border before he was apprehended and returned to Guatemala; in the summer of 2019, he resided in Tecún Úman in a state of precarity and traumatic stress. His hair had turned white in some places, he joked; he described with regret the loss of his money in his outmigration journey attempt and how it was no longer quite so easy to even get into Mexico, a common reality described by many others, even as many others sought passage. In this way, the Mexico-Guatemala borderlands supplant or reaffirm those realities present for some, if not many, at the US-Mexico border: indefinite bureaucratic processes, gendered violence, and conditions of precarity and longing. By subverting the principle of refoulement, the Trump administration has engendered a biopolitical extraction of labor that facilitates certain industrial capacities while limiting the human rights of foreign nationals long derided by US foreign policy.

Brett Neilson and Sandra Mezzadra explain that border security techniques “increasingly use technologies of temporal management” including those that seek “to slow and even block border passages through such techniques as detention, interceptions, or ‘‘preemptive refoulement”  in order to delay migrant passage and control flows of human labor and capital (133). Where Mezzadra and Neilson assert the multiplicative power of a border, I assert the rhetorical and communal function it has within a logic of immunity and turn to Donna Haraway who reminds us that “the immune system is a map drawn to guide recognition and nonrecognition of self and other in the dialectics of Western biopolitics” (Campbell 734). In this way, I see refoulement as informing a process of racialized insularity: Brown and Black people are subjected to alienization and a carceral politics of immobility to structure labor and race relations within the US.

This process of refoulement “pathologizes the foreigner,” a process that Roberto Esposito notes has roots “in the European imaginary of the last century” (Esposito 4). Following Esposito, Haraway, and Mezzadra and Neilson, I assert that through the border becomes a place of the temporal management of the abject. The pathology of the Mexico-Guatemala borderlands, whether in terms of Civil War refugee camps or outmigrants of any political ontological category, makes possible the structural elision between governmentality and refoulement. Speaking of a different moment when isthmian human mobility was still kinetically framed, Claudia Millian writes how the non-fiction reportage, The Beast:

“illuminates how migrants trying to find a place in the world become the abject signifiers of indignities, rurality, crushing poverty, underdevelopment, and instability – a projection of an iconic, peripheral Central Americanness whose derogatory status within a Global South parallels the social configurations of unwanted Latino migrants in the U.S. public sphere.”

Rather than engage with the construction of U.S. Latino identity as Millian does here, I return, again, to the question of refoulement as a recursive practice that structures the very question as to how, when, and where U.S. Latino identity becomes itself with respect to “Central American-Americans.” What I posit is that is refoulement, a politicized version of deportation that contravenes human rights, encodes in the Guatemalan highlands the mark of a procedure that incapacitates a linear design of political identifiers: one does not become a U.S. Latino simply upon entry or upon deportation or refoulement; the temporal mark of undocumented residence cannot, by any ethical measure, designate a becoming of subject-hood. By returning to the Maya highlands of Todos Santos Cuchumatanes and the cities of Huehuetenango and Quetzaltenango, I resist Millian’s descriptor of the “mega-slum” by referring to and reinscribing the polity and local semi-autonomy of indigenous communities nevertheless caught up, as we all are, in the complex assemblage of migrant politics and policies. What can be learned from/with Maya people who create forms of autonomy and center their own stories and traumas while engaged with the predacious nature of cycles of debt-migration and the politicization of the principle of non-refoulement? What do the syncretic architectures of the Maya highlands and the mansions of Huehuetenango signal about the capacity to reclaim the abject conceptualization of “Central-American-Americans,” and how do we conceived of the near-erasure of border entry during a pandemic and its aftermath in relation to indigenous autonomies and human mobilities? These are, admittedly, open questions by design, as history has yet to unfold.

Time After Refoulement

Mezzadra and Nieslon write that “we seek to demonstrate how subjective experiences of border crossing and border struggles have temporalizing effects that cannot be contained by chronological forms of measure or progressive models of history” (133). In other words, the border as mechanism and migration as lived-in affect share in existences that do not have readily available quantitative dimensions but do share in qualitatively similar functions. Whether one considers social media networks or social activism groups that impelled Central American caravans or which inform extant migration to a certain degree, it becomes clear that forms of lingering and going, belonging and unbelonging, exist in states of flux and regulation, at the same time as they exist in states described by individual and collective agency and resistance. These states, I believe, problematize any simple way in which to read a negative biopolitics or positive biopolitics through the ways in which migrants, refugees, and refoulers consider transnational journeys.

This claim lines up with Mezzadra and Neilson who clarify how passive and active forms of refoulment are an extenuation of border security practices. Indeed, my ethnographic work with migrants in Tecún Úman, Guatemala, a border town set on the border-river Suchiate, shows how migrants, refoulers, refugees, deportees, and others consider novel changes in 2019 to asylum law and border security practices as heightened aspects of familiar problems. One interlocutor[1] from Guatemala suggested that “migration will never cease, so long as there are problems in one’s home country” [translation mine]. Another stipulated that he was gauging or waiting for a momentary break in the Mexican border security apparatus to attempt to cross the river and go into Mexico to escape narco-violence and extortion in El Salvador. Another individual described his repeated attempts and plans to cross into Mexico while acknowledging how difficult it had been for him personally to be deported from the United States and detained. Each of their stories informed how the militarization of southern Mexico operates through a negative biopolitics tethered to a necropolitics in the United States: a politics in which viral death is often associated with the maintenance of industrial labor at the behest and interdiction of the Trump administration.

Michel Foucault defines the dispositif in his work on biopower as “a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions,” and more (Foucault 194). If we name the dispositif of necropolitics, a biopolitics, that is of death, at the Guatemala-Mexico borderlands as the assemblage creating the conditions for refoulement, then persistent human mobility in the face of refoulement constitutes a positive biopolitics unto itself.  

Further ethnography I conducted in Guatemala City and in Huehuetenango, near San Juan Ixcoy, illustrates how many deportees on returning to Guatemala necessarily face a lack of employment opportunities and few ways to contend with this debt, though it is not uncommon for deportees to receive remittances from the United States. Interviews with government officials in Guatemala, including those who manage migrant care at CONAMIGUA, revealed a bureaucracy with limited resources and internal division. Indeed, the governmental author of the first migrant protocol that interacts with ICE (see Figure 1) for the management of deported individuals spoke of how she had designed this protocol alone with limited assistance. Her story necessarily overlapped with Nazario’s, a man whom I had interviewed near San Juan Ixcoy in Huehuetenango and who had been detained and deported after being separated from his daughter in 2018.

The governmental protocol in Guatemala further illustrates how deportees do not have resources in Guatemala because of governmental lack and corruption. Officials in the U.S. government are, no doubt, aware of this at different levels, and yet refoulement is designed to compound structural lack in Guatemala. Compounded by recent changes to the ways in which asylum can and cannot be sought by an increasingly decreasing number of people—admittedly stochastic as a register both before and during the pandemic—it is clear that refugees and migrants from Central America are necessarily capitalized upon for pursuing safety in violation of the principle of non-refoulement: the right not to be sent back to where one cannot reasonably expect safety based on “race, religion, nationality, membership of particular social group or political opinion”. I argue that it is precisely the historic route towards the contravention of non-refoulement that extends a biopolitical maneuver, intentionally and unintentionally designed, that has as its desideratum the weakening of asylum processes as a matter of White Nationalism imbricated with capitalist ontologies in which Maya agencies, and other ethnic and racial migrant groups, nevertheless speak out.

[1] All interlocutor text was freely given with informed consent and authorized for use; all translations are mine.

Works Cited
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Campbell, Timothy C., and Adam Sitze. Biopolitics: A Reader. Duke University Press, 2013.
Esposito, Roberto. Immunitas: The Protection and Negations of Life. Polity Press, 2011.
Foucault, Michel, et al. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Vintage, 1980.
Mezzadra, Sandro, and Brett Neilson. Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor. Duke University Press, 2013.
Nemser, Daniel. Infrastructures of Race Concentration and Biopolitics in Colonial Mexico. University of Texas Press, 2017.
Vaughan-Williams, Nick. Europe’s Border Crisis: Biopolitical Security and Beyond. Oxford University Press, 2017.