Residual Objects at the Border and Immigrant Trajectories
Material leftovers and abject residue are signs of the peculiar transformations . . . perversely, they show us that meaning has been made.
–Sophie Gee, Making Waste: Leftovers and the Eighteenth Century Imagination, p. 17
The photographs are a means of making “real” (or “more real”) matters that the privileged or the merely safe might prefer to ignore.
–Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 7
Susan Harbage Page photographs objects found at the international border (objects trouvés), in the Rio Grande Valley, near Brownsville (USA) and Matamoros (Mexico). The photographs, part of her Border Project, depict no immigrants, only the dried out clothes that they left behind after making it across the river. The photographs do not depict guards either, but they show bullet casings and detention gloves that remain.
|Michael Page, Brownsville-Matamoros border region, 2011.|
Harbage Page’s photographs concentrate on the beginning that the border represents and are suggestive of the trajectories that immigrants followed afterwards. The residues depicted in these photographs speak tentatively of a successful journey into the United States but also reflect the fate of those for whom the crossing meant imprisonment and deportation. Photographs taken at the border hint at the lives that migrants started in the United States, or suggest journeys truncated by border enforcement violence.1
|Susan Harbage Page, Path into the United States from the Rio Grande, 2008.|
This essay offers an interpretation of the Border Project’s intervention on the immigration public debate. By photographing the border area and the physical remnants of crossings that are not sanctioned by the law, the photographer highlights the institutions of coercion that characterize border control. The photographs offer a critical account of the danger and potential violence involved in the border crossing and, through that critique, suggest the need to come up with new imagined geographies of the border. By concentrating on the border, the photographer illuminates dimensions of this space that are hardly ever considered in a conversation that revolves around fortification, fencing, and security. The objects depicted can be identified as residues of border coercion—evidence that even tightly fenced borders offer, on closer inspection, unrounded edges, gaps, and traces. I suggest that the highlighting of these residues acts as a powerful sign of the unfinished status of even the most secured border, and by extension the possibility of changing the existing terms of the debate and ultimately the shape of the border and the options offered to migrants upon arrival.
|Susan Harbage Page, Path into the United States from the Rio Grande, 2008.|
Engaging with the space of the border through its openings and the residues of crossing and policing it disrupts the narrative of security that justifies an unending fencing. The fortification of the border is predicated on the dangers of the outside, justifying the extension of immigration policing within border spaces and into domestic areas.
The photographs do not portray the migrants; instead, they show objects such as single shoes that stayed behind, self-fashioned flotation devices, and identity cards. They do not impose identities on the migrants, but suggest their journeys and arrivals into the United States. They do not show encounters between Border Patrol officers and migrants, but they depict the rubber gloves and bullet casings. They do not follow immigrants into detention, but register the residue—detention bracelets and boxes with Department of Homeland Security tags. The objects are suggestive of the men and women who passed through the border; those who were detained, on the run, or abused in the United States; and those who sometimes returned across the border. Some of the items speak of the violence their owners went through, and their sight tells of pain and suffering produced by fortified borders.
|Susan Harbage Page, Looking across the Rio Grande to Mexico, near Brownsville, Texas, 2010.|
The clothing and personal belongings are muddy, and sometimes need to be unearthed from layers of mud and dirt. This layering and the different stages of shredding and decomposition of the clothing suggest chronologies.
|Susan Harbage Page, Clothing left behind on the US bank of the Rio Grande, Brownsville, Texas, 2008.|
|Susan Harbage Page, Buried comb, Brownsville, Texas, 2010.|
|Susan Harbage Page, Argyle sock, Brownsville, Texas, 2007.|
The photographs portray wet clothing left behind only a few hours before, as well as worn out pieces of clothing. The ground of the border is partly constituted through the accumulation of leftover clothes and personal objects and the repeated transit through the “safest” pathways. Immigrants who cross the river must change into dry clothes once they arrive on the northern side, to conceal the marks of their crossing. They carry a dry set of clothes in a sealed plastic bag, sometimes found empty and tied to the tires used as flotation devices. The actions of thousands of immigrants crossing the border are not inimical to the border but, through their passage, leave behind worn out paths and newly layered border geographies. Just as a fenced border constructs immigrants as dangerous trespassers, Harbage Page’s depiction of a layered and complex border space humanizes them.
|Susan Harbage Page, Clothes and bottle, Brownsville, Texas, 2010.|
Objects found and photographed are often private and reveal the identity of border crossers. Some have actual identifying potential, as they contain the border crossers’ DNA.
The portrayal of everyday objects makes migrants present. In contrast to prevalent images of immigrants as outlaws, the recognition of their journeys through the border and the difficulties involved are suggestive of their pain and open the possibility of a different kind of welcoming. The photographs change the framing of the border away from a security-maximizing stance and towards a depiction of immigrants as subjects. The conventional focus on the material strength of the fence and the inviolability of the border excludes immigrants as subjects of concern and of violence, preventing sympathy from those on the inside towards border crossers’ journeys. The security obsession of the immigration debate makes immigrants’ lives not grievable, not valuable. The photographed objects and the image of the border as a populated space and port of entry evoke humanity.2
|Susan Harbage Page, Yellow toothbrush, Brownsville, Texas, 2007.|
The populated border conveyed by the photographs contrasts with images and acts of humiliation.The law SB1070 in Arizona and, before that, the procession of immigrants dressed in prisoner outfits paraded by Sheriff Arpaio on the streets of Phoenix, offer photo opportunities for the news media.3 The quantification of the “success” of enforcement in number of immigrants deported and the imposition of detention quotas on immigration police also dehumanizes immigrants.4 The tires dragged by Border Patrol vehicles shown in the next photograph are used to erase tracks and identify fresh footprints. The erasure of the traces of border crossing maintains the image of fortification while marking immigrants as trespassers.
|Susan Harbage Page, Tires dragged along roads by the Border Patrol to see fresh footprints left by immigrants, Brownsville, Texas, 2010.|
The photographs of tagged Department of Homeland Security boxes represent the end of the immigrant journey. They single out the detritus of detention and deportation—traces of immigrants who have been denied spaces to live in the United States.
|Susan Harbage Page, Department of Homeland Security boxes, Matamoros, Mexico, 2010.|
|Susan Harbage Page, Department of Homeland Security box with label, Matamoros, Mexico, 2010.|
Personal belongings boxes labeled by the Department of Homeland Security still contain the information and pictures of the detainees and appear piled as trash in the street near the southern side of the Matamoros-Brownsville international bridge.5
|Susan Harbage Page, Department of Homeland Security box with contents, Matamoros, Mexico, 2010.|
|Susan Harbage Page, Garbage can with evidence bags, Matamoros, Mexico, 2010.|
Instead of focusing on immigrants detained, policed, fenced, and deported, Harbage Page shows the border as a populated space, whose shape is indebted to the people who pass through. The photographs suggest welcoming, represented in the small Guía del Migrante (Migrant Guide) prepared by Grupos de Protección al Migrante (Migrant’s Protection Groups) and distributed in border towns, whose back cover can be seen below. The leaflet, found on the Mexican side, tells a story of hope for safe passage.
|Susan Harbage Page, Migrant Guide, Brownsville, Texas, 2010.|
Clothes and objects left behind are as much traces of the identities of migrants as ID cards that non-Mexicans are keen to drop at the border to avoid being returned to more distant countries. This is the transition to a life of invisibility that the existing immigration regulations impose upon migrants without documents. Clothes left behind remind what the inauguration of immigrants’ presence in this country involves. Wet clothes are discarded as immigrants mix with the overwhelmingly Mexican-American population of border towns. The items in the photographs represent first actions taken by border crossers to hide their identity, practices that will continue to characterize their lives as undocumented immigrants in the United States.
The violence involved in border control is narrated through its residues, bullet casings, and detention gloves. Department of Homeland security boxes grant new identities to migrants who were detained—preventing their legal entry for years to come, expediting their deportation if they were to enter again.
|Susan Harbage Page, Bullet casings, Brownsville, Texas, 2010.|
The photographic evidence of official coercion—bullet casings, gloves, and detention bracelets—disrupt the impressions of fortitude, inviolability, and certainty that the border fence presents.
|Susan Harbage Page, Medical glove, Brownsville, Texas, 2008.|
The photographs question the assertion of territorial borders. Picturing these objects, tying them to narratives of the travelers who left them behind, and opposing them to the certainty of sovereign borders challenges the rules that seek to hide hesitancy, space for contestation, or room for debate.
|Susan Harbage Page, Department of Homeland Security Baggage Check tag, Brownsville, Texas, 2010.|
The addition of a map produced by an immigrant that traces her family’s trajectory adds to the welcoming stance of this project by incorporating immigrants as narrating subjects and by recognizing their journeys.6 According to the latest census data, among the top ten states in terms of growth in immigrant population between 2000 and 2009, eight were southern states.7 Even in terms of the absolute increase in foreign-born population, three out of the top ten states, excluding traditional destinations Texas and Florida, are southern: Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina.8 The increase in the immigrant and—in particular—Latino population adds a new dimension to the troubled racial history of the South. These individuals fill the ranks of agricultural and construction workers and face discrimination, vulnerability in the workplace, and racially-targeted immigration enforcement.9
|Susan Harbage Page, Map and page from Alphabet Book tracking the journeys of adult ESL students into the United States, Durham, North Carolina, 2001.|
Museums and the Upsetting of the Narrative of the "Nation of Immigrants"
If we were to rely on museum collections, we might get an impression of a much richer level of material wealth than truly was the case. This is because most museums save the unusual and the valuable object, and individuals now and in the past consign commonplace objects to the dump.
–James Deetz, Small Things Forgotten: An Archeology of Early American Life
When the objects found at the border are re-photographed in the artist’s studio their narratives are complicated by a new frame suggesting that the items now form parts of an exhibition. The stories they tell are neither confined to the past nor officially sanctioned. The objects contest the invisibility on which border coercion relies and challenge the discourse of fortification. In these images, Harbage Page chose background colors for their similarity to the palette that she encountered in her excursions in the Rio Grande Valley.
At the start of a decade that became characterized by anti-immigrant legislation, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened in 1990. Even as the museum celebrated the twelve million immigrants who went through its doors between 1892 and 1954, the US Congress passed restrictive immigration legislation and attached anti-immigrant provisions to crime, welfare, and anti-narcotics legislation.10 Ellis Island, as a space of memory, resulted from a complex interaction of actors and perspectives, including the Immigration History Society, the National Park Service, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, as well as corporate actors in charge of the architecture, oral history recollection, and the catering and gift shop concession.11 In spite of the diverse interpretations of the narratives that the Ellis Island Immigration Museum puts forward, the immigration experience of Western Hemisphere migrants and, in particular, of Mexicans is only marginally acknowledged. Moreover, the identification of 1965 as the definitive end of unjust immigration regulation (through the abandonment of the national origin quotas) obscures the fact that the Hart-Celler Act is the same law that for the first time has limited immigration from Mexico and Latin America.12
Museums, and their inclusions and exclusions of artifacts, play a central role in the “production and legitimation of historical knowledges and social identities” and in the United States’ narrative as a “nation of immigrants."13
Setting aside the question of whether the Ellis Island Immigration Museum is able to critically tackle issues of politically-motivated detention and deportation, or even the racism of popular culture in the early twentieth century, it fails to make explicit connections to the role of race, detention, and deportation in contemporary America. Its narrative carves in stone a “good immigrant” story, while evading critical awareness about the management of current immigration flows.14
|Susan Harbage Page, Archive photo, Tire, 2010.|
Invoking the Ellis Island Immigration Museum vis-à-vis Harbage Page’s photographs of the “residues of border control” highlights the connections between nostalgic narratives of a nation of immigrants and the disavowal of contemporary stories of immigration taking shape at the US–Mexico border. The re-staging of the objects picked up in the border interpelates museums and exhibitions that omit these stories. The bullet casings and detention bracelets tagged and photographed in the studio defy (and make retrospective) the inclusionary bent of the “nation of immigrants” narrative. The staging of these objects as if they belonged to an archive or a museum collection plays with the fact that these items would not be granted entry to these realms.15
In putting together the archive, the photographer asserts the importance of a marginal area and of seemingly marginal objects. The Border Project’s mundane objects do not passively back up a rehearsed story but convey the continuous flow of individuals, the encounter between border crossers and Border Patrol officers, and the deployment of state power over this liminal space. The photographs and the physical archive prompt conversation that is about the present and imagined futures.
|Susan Harbage Page, Archive photo, Bullet casings, 2010.|
The Border Project insists that immigrant identity is continuously transformed through successful and truncated journeys, newcomers, and settlement. Resisted by the mechanisms of border coercion and fortification, immigrant identity is remade by the individuals who leave their traces along the border.
|Susan Harbage Page, Archive photo, Detention Center bracelet, 2010.|
Susan Harbage Page’s photographs are welcoming not only of the individuals who are evoked through personal objects, but also of new narratives of migration and newly acquired identities. Because these photographs are too closely intertwined with the present and convey urgency, they refuse to memorialize a tightly packaged story of immigration and nationalism. By showing the residues of border crossing and the traces of coercion, these photographs invite a rethinking of the ways immigration is discussed.
About the Authors
Susan Harbage Page is an instructor in the Department of Art and an affiliated faculty member in Women's Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 2004, she received her M.F.A. in Photography from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her work has been displayed in over one hundred exhibitions, at venues including the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington DC and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art in Colorado. Susan's research has been supported in part by a faculty research grant from the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina (2007) and a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship Grant (2010).
Inés Valdez will receive her PhD in Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the summer of 2011. She has been awarded a Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellowship at the European University Institute in Italy. Her research, forthcoming in the journal Political Studies, examines questions of sovereignty, immigration and democratic theory.
The authors thank the editorial staff at Southern Spaces and anonymous reviewers for helpful criticism and guidance.
- 1. All photographs: Susan Harbage Page, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Copyright © 2009 and 2010. All rights reserved.
- 2. Judith Butler, Frames of War. When Is Life Grievable (London: Verso, 2009), 25.
- 3. Arizona Senate Bill 1070, signed into law on April 23, 2010, controversially makes it a misdemeanor to be an alien in Arizona without carrying registration documents and requires law enforcement officials to determine a person's immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the person is an "illegal alien." It also establishes penalties for harboring or transporting an undocumented immigrant and allows law enforcement to arrest any individual without warrant if they believe this person is “removable from the United States."
- 4. Spencer S. Hsu and Andrew Becker, "ICE Officials Set Quotas to Deport More Illegal Immigrants," The Washington Post, March 27, 2010.
- 5. The practice of formally detaining border crossers (as opposed to simply returning them across the border) has become more prevalent since the implementation of Operation Streamline in 2005. See ACLU and National Immigration Forum, "Operation Streamline Fact Sheet," (Washington, DC: National Immigration Forum, 2009).
- 6. The map traces the journeys into the United States of members of an adult ESL course Harbage Page taught with Lauren McGrail and Dani Moore called Project Focus. It was a collaboration between Voices and Casa Multicultural and was funded by the North Carolina Community College System and the Durham Arts Council, 2000. The image is a page from an alphabet book produced in class. The maps are Polaroid images of a large map in the classroom where each student marked their journey from their home country to Durham, North Carolina with string. The writing was done by Guillermina Flores Godinez.
- 7. Migration Policy Institute, “States Ranked by Percentage Change in the Foreign Born Population” Migration Policy Institute Data Hub (Migration Policy Institute, 2011). These figures explain why the South has been identified as one of the “new” immigration destinations, areas that, unlike California, Florida, New York, and Texas, were not traditional “immigrant states” until the last two decades. Jamie Winders refers to the US South as one of the “nontraditional” destinations for the Latino immigrant population, whose rates of growth have reached up to 500% in certain cities between 1990 and 2005. Jamie Winders, "Changing Politics of Race and Region: Latino Migration to the U.S. South," Progress in Human Geography 29, no. 6 (2005): 683-4. The 2010 census reflects this phenomenon, showing that those “areas that had been home to the most immigrants” show a flat growth in “foreign born population” while some rural and suburban areas with less than 5% of immigrant population in 2000 show increases of more than 60%. Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff, "Immigrants Make Paths to Suburbia, Not Cities," in The New York Times (New York: 2010).
- 8. Migration Policy Institute, “States Ranked by Numeric Difference in the Foreign Born Population” Migration Policy Institute Data Hub (Migration Policy Institute, 2011). The Pew Hispanic Center 2010 census tabulations of growth in Hispanic population (i.e., not necessarily foreign born) show that South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Mississippi figure among the top ten states. Immigrants from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America constitute approximately 53% of the total foreign born population. In Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina they make up 54.5%, 36.1%, and 57.3%, respectively. See Tables 3 and 13 in Pew Hispanic Center “Statistical Portrait of the Foreign Born Population in the United States, 2009” in Pew Hispanic Center February 17 (Pew Research Center, 2011).
- 9. Nicholas De Genova, "The Legal Production of Mexican/Migrant "Illegality"," Latino Studies 2, no. 2 (2004), Guillermina Gina Núñez and Josiah McC. Heyman, "Entrapment Processes and Immigrant Communities in a Time of Heightened Border Vigilance," Human Organization 66, no. 4 (2007); Inés Valdez, "Sovereignty and the City: Raiding, Detaining, and Domestic Immigration Policing" (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Western Political Science Association, San Francisco, April 3-5 2010); Mathew Coleman, "The "Local" Migration State: The Site Specific Devolution of Immigration Enforcement in the US South," Law & Policy forthcoming (2011).
- 10. Desmond King and Inés Valdez, "From Workers to Enemies. National Security, State Building and America’s War on Illegal Immigrants," in Narrating Peoplehood in Plural Societies: The United States, Canada and Denmark in Historical Experience and Theoretical Perspective, ed. Michael Bøss (Aarhus: Aarhus Academic Press, 2011).
- 11. President Reagan launched the project of the museum on occasion of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. He moved Ellis Island to the purview of the National Park Service, merged it with the Statue of Liberty and created a public-private partnership that was led by Lee Iacocca, himself the son of an immigrant and the American dream come true. Luke Desforges, "Front Doors to Freedom, Portal to the Past: History at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, New York," Social & Cultural Geography 5, no. 3 (2004).
- 12. De Genova, "The Legal Production of Mexican/Migrant 'Illegality.'", Judith Smith, "Celebrating Immigration History at Ellis Island," American Quarterly 44, no. 1 (1992): 85.
- 13. Desforges, "Front Doors to Freedom, Portal to the Past: History at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, New York," 437.
- 14. A wall with over 700,000 names (at the time of writing) exists in Ellis Island. Individuals or families can add their names for a fee of $150. Entries are received for all ports of entry and years of arrival, with the common element being the “celebration of American migration” (see the museum’s site for the wall of honor). The opening of the “wall” to all immigrants is significant and worthy of praise, yet the story that is portrayed by the museum is still devoted to the earlier migratory wave, one restricted in time and not predominantly originating in the Western Hemisphere.
- 15. The photographs in fact represent the physical archive that is being created and kept by Harbage Page.