Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Remapping the Border: Geospatial Technologies and Border Activism

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Remapping the Border: Geospatial Technologies and Border Activism

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper analyzes the politics of mapping along the US-Mexico border to explore how humanitarian activists wield geospatial technologies in challenging border securitization. In addition to 'bounding' societies within delimited territorial zones, mapping technologies have recently been elevated to encompass observing, locating, and tracking mobile bodies--outcomes that, in the context of immigration control, have heightened the risk of clandestine border crossings and produced a sharp rise in migrant fatalities. As geospatial tools have been integrated into official gatekeeping strategies, activists have deployed them to protect migrants, promote mobility rights, and disrupt borders and the spatial, legal, and technical orders underpinning their materialization and enforcement. This case study considers the political implications of these interventions, and highlights how technologies traditionally aligned with state security and surveillance have been reappropriated in the service of transnational solidarity, recognition, and hospitality.

Keywords: immigration, borders, geosurveillance, cartography, social movements, United States


In designating the spatial coordinates of territorial sovereignty and political community, national borders are fundamentally products of cartographic knowledge. Their enforcement's significance in the "production of space" (Harvey, 1989) is by now well documented. Reflecting the 'spatial turn' in the social sciences (Warf and Anias, 2009), numerous works have analyzed mapping's role in bounding and producing national societies (Harley, 1988; Wood et al, 2010), as well as the persistence of boundary maintenance amidst intensified globalization. At present, emergent technologies have rendered borders visible or 'legible' (Scott, 1998) in new ways. Highlighting geospatial information technologies for tracking, sorting, and regulating movement, scholarship has documented escalations in gatekeeping and surveillance, and their role in spatializing the neoliberal state (Amoore et al, 2008).

While the nexus between cartography, surveillance, and border control has been widely considered, other trends remain unexplored. One issue deserving greater attention is the use of geospatial technologies by border activists. Drawing on literatures concerning 'counter-mapping' (Peluso, 1995), and the ambiguity and democratization of surveillance (Monahan, 2010), this paper studies how social movements have redeployed forms of spatial tracking and observation to assist migrants crossing through the dangerous terrain of the US-Mexico border. Taking Humane Borders and the Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT) as cases for analysis, it studies two of the more creative and interesting interventions: the placement of water and first aid in the desert, and creation of the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBIT). Formed in response to the spike in migrant deaths following intensified enforcement, Humane Borders is committed to maintaining water and first aid stations throughout the Sonora desert, and has utilized Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and other locational technologies to augment these practices. The TBIT is a device constructed by the EDT, an artist/activist collective at the University of California San Diego, to protect and empower undocumented migrants by directing them towards safety through the creation of customized maps of the desert environment.

Assessing both interventions uncovers how, beyond curbing fatalities and providing aid, techniques of mapping and spatial surveillance have been employed to challenge, destabilize, and subvert dominant spatial imaginaries. In place of the traditional territorial grid that divides, excludes, and selectively mobilizes bodies according to the conflictive exigencies of accumulation, sovereignty, and security (Sparke, 2006), both organizations promote radically democratic frameworks of mobility and association. …

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