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Borders: What are they good for?

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White text reading "Borders: What are they good for?" superimposed on top of a greyscale background showing the jagged border between two sides of a sand dune

White text reading “Borders: What are they good for?” superimposed on top of a greyscale background showing the jagged border between two sides of a sand dune. Credit: Original photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash. Digitally altered by Lucy Kang.

What are borders, and why do we have them? And how is violent border enforcement at the US-Mexico border connected to Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza? And what happens when borders cross living land and communities?

We’ll dig into these questions in this week’s episode with the help of Heba Gowayed, sociology professor at CUNY Hunter College and Graduate Center. And then we’ll hear a story brought to us by In Confianza, with Pulso about one time when the natural boundary between two countries changed – and what happened to the people caught on the other side.


  • Heba Gowayed, sociology professor at CUNY Hunter College and Graduate Center and author of Refuge: How the State Shapes Human Potential and the forthcoming The Cost of Border
  • Charlie Garcia, writer and producer of the story “The Border is Alive!” from In Confianza, with Pulso.

Episode Credits:

  • Host: Lucy Kang
  • Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Amy Gastelum, and Lucy Kang
  • Executive Director: Jina Chung
  • Editor: Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong
  • Engineer: Jeff Emtman 
  • Digital Media Marketing: Anubhuti Kumar

Credits: “The Border is Alive!” from In Confianza, with Pulso

  • Written and produced by Charlie Garcia 
  • Edited by Liz Alarcón
  • Original Music by Julian Blackmore
  • Audio engineering and mixing by Charlie Garcia and Julian Blackmore
  • Special thanks to Gina Hernandez at Chamizal National Memorial


  • “Documentary” by AlisiaBeats via Pixabay

More Information:

Learn More:


Lucy Kang: You’re listening to Making Contact. I’m Lucy Kang. 

On today’s show, we’re going to look at borders, the ones between countries.

And as I say these words, maybe you’re thinking about the lines on a map. Or maybe lining up for customs and immigration when traveling to a different country. Maybe you’re thinking about walls patrolled by people with guns.

Those are all aspects. But before all of that borders are first an idea, one made real by the institutions and structures used to enforce them. And by now, borders are so embedded into the fabric of our world. But it wasn’t always that way. 

So for the next half hour, we’re going to look at borders and how these colonialist constructs are imposed on top of living land and communities. And we’ll dig into the violent tactics that connect the US-Mexico border to Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza and how they uphold our system of global apartheid.

To learn more, I spoke with Heba Gowayed, a sociology professor at CUNY (that’s City University of New York) Hunter College and Graduate Center. She is the author of Refuge: How the State Shapes Human Potential, and she’s working on a forthcoming book called The Cost of Borders. 

So, let’s break it down for our listeners. How would you define a border and why do we have them?  

Heba Gowayed: So, if you look at a map, it seems like borders are sort of a fait accompli, right? That they’re always there, that the world always looked like this. But actually, if you trace the genesis of our modern border system, our modern system of nation states, it’s really a product of the post World War II period. And they result, they emerge as a part of the story of the end of colonialism. 

So in the colonial period, there isn’t really an incentive to enforce borders. Yes, people have territories. Yes, they have notions of where they belong from. But because the whole colonial system was based on interconnectedness, based on labor, based on being able really to exploit other countries on behalf of a colonizer. So there wasn’t really an incentive to close the borders. 

It was only after the end of colonialism or the end of the formal period of colonialism that now that those countries, the former colonizers, had hoarded so much wealth, that they built the borders around those countries to protect them. 

And so you get with the United Nations really the term nation-state only emerges with the formation of the League of Nations. But it’s reinforced with the United Nations and this idea of sovereignty, state sovereignty in that the countries are sort of separate but equal entities that have a right, have a right to sovereignty, meaning have a right to have borders and defend those borders.

But when we move through the world, we know that not all borders are the same. So for instance, the US-Mexico border is a very heavily fortified border. The border in entering the European Union is also heavily fortified. The Israeli border on Gaza, the so-called Iron Wall is super heavily fortified. But also borders like the border between North and South Korea or the border between Pakistan and India.

And so borders exist in this way, in this violent way, in this highly enforced way, between places where, you know, colonialism still has left its mark, right? Or the colonial process has not dissolved. And that’s for a reason, because that’s sort of how the genesis of borders happens.

Lucy Kang: I think sometimes when people think about borders, they tend to think of things like a wall, for example. But there are actually other physical structures and institutions that support them. Can you talk about what those look like?  

Heba Gowayed: Sure. So, you know, we tend to think about borders, again, if you look at a map, we think about them as walls, we think about them as these lines that define where states are. But if you ever traveled internationally, you know that your passport might be checked in the EU for entry into the United States or it used to be in London in the UK for entry into the United States. Borders can be anywhere that states determine. And the reason for that is because borders really are a fiction. 

So as Ayesha Siddiqi put it, borders imply the violence of their own maintenance, right? They hold the violence of their own maintenance. They require violence in order to be experienced as a border. And borders are externalized so they may exist miles and miles away from the borders of a country.

So for instance, you know, a friend of mine, Paulina Olvera, who runs a migrant shelter in Tijuana, one time said in a talk that, we have this understanding that Trump was trying to force Mexico to build a border wall. But instead Mexico became a border wall. And that’s a part of the story of externalization, where Mexico deports more people within the United States because it’s deporting people on behalf of the United States. 

Lucy Kang: So you’ve, you’ve touched on this idea of violence at borders, and I’m wondering if we can talk about what tactics tend to be used at borders and whether you think those violent tactics actually exacerbate displacement?  

Heba Gowayed: Absolutely. So they use drones. They use surveillance towers. They use radar. They use technology in order to surveil people’s texts, people’s phone calls. They also use traditional enforcement, right? They have guys with guns that are at the border. 

So at the border in the Aegean Sea, what this looks like is, you know, migrants will get on boats in Turkey and will start to cross the Aegean, the waters in the Aegean Sea. It’s really only a couple of miles. And Greek border guards, under what we found out actually through recent legal cases, under the auspices of Frontex or with the recognition of Frontex, will break their engines and pull them back into Turkish waters. Which is in complete violation of international law.

Lucy Kang: It’s Lucy here. Just jumping in to say that Frontex is the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

Heba Gowayed: But, you know, in the United States in 2021, we also saw people being treated that way in Del Rio by US authorities who were on horseback with whips who beat Haitian asylum seekers and pulled them back across the border. And people were really up in arms over that footage, which was, of course, horrible and, you know, echoed racial tropes that have long existed in this country.

But they also are just a way that immigration policy works, which is that enforcement relations at the border include this sort of violent repulsion, this pushing back of people. And Amnesty International has described border areas as sort of lawless zones because immigrants who are coming here, you know, without the documentation, without the legal status, really don’t have recourse for how they’re treated at the border and countries like the United States can sort of act with impunity in these border zones, repelling people, denying people. And sometimes people do die, and it is not uncommon for people to die in the desert trying to come here through enforcement interactions or in the case of the European Union through drowning.

Lucy Kang: Well, let’s turn now towards some of your fieldwork. Can you talk about the research that you carried out at the US-Mexico border and the Israel-Palestine border specifically?

Heba Gowayed: Yeah, so the research at the US-Mexico border, I was in Tijuana for several months. And I interviewed people there who had arrived from all across the world. So there are people from Cameroon, people from Nigeria, people from Haiti, people from Guatemala who had made these journeys to the United States or to the border with the United States in the hopes of being able to cross and build new lives. 

Now in the case of Gaza, you know, I was not able to do fieldwork there for obvious reasons. So instead, I’ve been using secondary sources. But the reason that Gaza is so important to my study is because it is ground zero for border tech globally. So Israel is a country about the size of Massachusetts, but it’s a top ten weapons producer, producing about 2.4 percent of the world’s weapons. It’s also a major hub of AI, of artificial intelligence used specifically for warfare.

So even in, you know, as early as 2006, it was reported that there were robots monitoring the outside of the Gaza border with automatic kill capacities. There have been drones that have been developed and use their surveillance technology, radar technology, including in the water, to the point where Israel has described Gaza as a great open air laboratory for border attack and for this kind of technology. And the technology that’s used there is the same technology that’s used in the US-Mexico border, is the same technology that Frontex uses, is also the same technology that the Dominican Republic uses to border Haiti.

You know, so it is, it is very much exported globally for border tech use, but also for other surveillance use. So, you know, the technology that Israel develops in the West Bank is exported, it’s facial recognition technology, it’s exported to, I think, over 150 countries around the world for various uses.

And what I’ve been able to collect also in secondary resources is data on, for instance, the GoFundMe accounts that we’re seeing emerge, which are just a devastating case of people desperately trying to get out, to escape from genocide. And so they’re raising money, 5, 10, $15,000 a person to be able to leave through the Rafah border, which unfortunately as we’re talking right now, has also been closed even as people are able to pay. So it is a very dire situation that again, makes the cost of borders so high, but also speaks to the willingness to impart such violence. 

You know, every child born in Gaza, because this wall has been there for 17 years, is born under this regime, is born under these conditions that assume that they’re dangerous in utero, that treat them as, you know, people to be caged and, tested on and denied basic liberties already from, from conception. So, you know, as we’re talking about this, the human cost of it is so dire, but also we have to understand Gaza to be able to understand the rest of our global apartheid system.

Lucy Kang: Yeah. And as you were talking, I was having this thought that like really what side of the border a person is born on can in so many ways dictate how much that person’s life is valued. And I’m wondering, you know, are borders inherently racist in this way?

Heba Gowayed: Absolutely. I mean, again, you know, to quote the excellent quote by Ayesha Siddiqi, that borders imply the violence of their own maintenance, right? Borders require violence. Otherwise, you’re not going to experience them as a border. They’re set up to deny people mobility and it is absolutely based on racial premises.

The same exact border can be experienced by people, who are escaping war in the same exact moment, discrepantly depending on their race. And there are examples abound globally about who’s recognized as having a legitimate asylum claim, who is seen as having a legitimate claim for reprieve, and who is denied that claim based on who they are.

And we know that there’s an interesting story here of like who you are, how you’re treated at a border, how race is used in different ways to deny. But 100%, you know, the thing that’s similar about border zones across the world, the thing that’s similar about refugee camps across the world, is that they’re full of Black and Brown people, regardless of really where you go.

Lucy Kang: And coming back to Gaza specifically, I think what we’re seeing right now is just how much US police and Israeli military tactics mirror each other. Can you talk about some of the interconnectedness of the ways that we’re seeing this type of violent repression? 

Heba Gowayed: Well, yeah, absolutely. I mean, they train together, you know, and we know that the IDF and American police train together. We know that they learn from each other. We know that American police departments have used Israeli surveillance tech. The Iron Wall is co-produced by the United States and Israel. I mean, it was a collaboration that cost about 10 billion to make.

So when we’re talking about this, it is very much, it’s not just that, you know, the United States has funded Israel to the tune of 280 billion dollars since its inception even before its foundation since World War II. But it’s also that a lot of these enforcement apparatus, whether they’re at the border or whether it’s how people are policed, are sort of co-considered and co-designed and co-created. 

And there’s a lot of exchange between industry, but there’s also a lot of deliberate exchange on the policy level. And this is not a coincidence. This is how enforcement decisions, the fact that the United States’ border and the European Union border, and Israel’s border attack – the fact that these all look similar is because they’re actually learning from each other and they’re exchanging information. 

And something that’s really interesting that happened after October 7th was that there was a lot of fear among military and among security professionals. There was a Newsweek article that reported that people were fearful because if this could happen, if a low tech foe like Hamas could cross Israel’s border wall in this very high tech exemplar of bordering in 30 different places, then what did it mean for the rest of the world? What did it mean for all of the NATO allies who are using the same technology? And so there’s very much a co-learning, a co-production that’s happening. 

And that’s why when I talk about Gaza as being and fighting for a free Palestine, fighting against apartheid and colonialism there as mattering for the rest of the world. I mean, truly, we are not free until Palestine is free not only because of the moral, you know, strength of that phrase, but also because of how Palestine and how the impunity with which Israel acts really truly does impact us all, and particularly people who are people of color who find themselves on the wrong side of borders or on the wrong side of enforcement apparatus, whether that be in our cities and our states, or nationally.

Lucy Kang: Well, turning towards the future now, I’m wondering if you could kind of describe what your hope is for what borders look like in the future.

Heba Gowayed: So borders have not looked like this forever, And I think that’s what I always try to emphasize when I talk about borders. Even in the last 20 years, border enforcement technology has gotten more dire, has gotten more, more dangerous, has become more fortified. I recently watched a clip from an Indigenous man from the US who grew up on the US-Mexico border who describes how his community has been destroyed by the fortification of the border. That means that he cannot commune with his family who are now on the Mexican side of the border. So the border continues to cross people.

And so when we’re talking about our bordered world, we need to remember that this is something that has recently been done and can be undone. And so when we imagine sort of a borderless world, when we imagine a world without that does not look the way that it looks now, surely there are incremental steps.

We could talk about reinstating asylum. We could talk about opening avenues to migration. We could talk about reprieves for people who are here. So there are interim policy measures that we can discuss.

But we also don’t have to have our border zones look like this. 

So, I would imagine a future that does not look like this, that does not impart violence on people for seeking a better life. That does not decimate asylum, that imagines and envisions borders, imagines and envisions questions of sovereignty in a radically different way. And I would imagine, I would love to see a world without borders. And I hope that, you know, we can work towards that goal by shifting, you know, our values around it.

Lucy Kang: Okay, we’re in May 2024, there are a number of student-led protests around the country, around the world. Are borders a part of those conversations that people are having? 

Heba Gowayed: Absolutely. I’m very proud of our CUNY students who’ve been in the encampments. These CUNY students are imagining a different kind of world and their demands, the top demand is for divestment, right? And divestment means that we don’t want our institutions to continue to fund genocide, apartheid, occupation in Palestine.

And again, because Palestine is a ground zero for this border attack, you know, that is a story that is fighting to fight for divestment, is to fight against these surveillance technologies, against the violence at borders, not only in Gaza, but also across the world. These students are fighting for safe environments, are fighting against the enforcement, against police on campus. And again, for all the reasons that we’ve already discussed, this is a fight for a freer world, for a world that pushes back against the security obsession that animates our borders and that extends far inland.

And similar to the students who called for an end to apartheid, called for an end to the Vietnam War, called for racial justice in the United States, students have the capacity to create the world that they want to see. And so the students have the capacity to imagine a radically different world.

Lucy Kang: Well, Heba, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me on Making Contact today.

Heba Gowayed: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Lucy Kang: That was Heba Gowayed, sociology professor at CUNY Hunter College and Graduate Center and the author of Refuge: How the State Shapes Human Potential, and the forthcoming book The Cost of Borders.

Amy Gastelum: We’re jumping in to remind you that you are listening to Making Contact. If you like today’s show and you want more information, or if you’d like to leave us a comment, visit us at There you can access today’s show and all of our prior episodes. Okay, now back to the show.

Lucy Kang: Before the break, we took a broad, global look at borders and the violence that enforce them. For the rest of our show, we’re going to zoom into one historical instance where the natural boundary of a border changed dramatically. And what that meant for the people caught on the other side. We’ll turn it over to Charlie Garcia with an edited version of the story “The Border is Alive!” brought to us by In Confianza, from Pulso. Here’s Charlie.

Charlie Garcia: Something I think about a lot is how a border by itself, holds no existential relevance. It’s just an imaginary line someone drew on a map, and one side often doesn’t look any different from the other. If you didn’t know where you were you could stumble across and not even know it. But at the same time it also holds so much relevance, because a border can decide who is free, who is not, who has opportunity and who does not. Sometimes it even decides who can live.

It feels like an immovable force, often with giant metal fences and faceless police. But actually, they can be much more flexible than some people realize. And I have a story about this that took place right on a line drawn between Mexico and the US.

So before 1848 the Border between Mexico and the US looked very different from today. That’s because a lot of the present day United States was Mexico. California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming were all originally part of Mexico. 

But starting in 1846, the US fought a bloody war against Mexico that resulted in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. And we call this a treaty, but considering that US soldiers were occupying Mexico City at the time, they didn’t really have so much choice in the matter. But this allowed the US to take more than half of Mexico’s land and essentially decide where the new border would sit. And where did they decide? Of course, the Rio Grande.

Rodney Sauter: I don’t think that they really considered the implications of what it would mean to have that free flowing river be an international boundary. It was just a good line on a map.

Charlie Garcia: This is Rodney Sauter, a park ranger at Chamizal National Memorial, a small monument that straddles that line on the map. The new border between the two nations was officially designated to be, the deepest channel of the Rio Grande River, which sounds like a great marker, except that… rivers are not fixed in place, and over the years this river started to move, until eventually…

Rodney Sauter: …there was a major flood that pushed the Rio Grande further south in the Paso Del Norte region.

Charlie Garcia: In 1864, massive flooding actually caused the river to jump its banks and carve out a new path about 700 acres into Mexican territory. 

Rodney Sauter: Citizens from the United States sort of made an assumption that because the river had shifted south they figured, okay, we can move into this land. Of course that was not the perception in Mexico.

Charlie Garcia: Mexican farmers who had been farming the land for years were all of a sudden told that they weren’t welcome anymore. And this is what came to be known as the Chamizal Dispute, since the region was referred to as El Chamizal. And 700 acres might not sound like a lot, it’s only a few miles. But remember that just 16 years before the US had essentially stolen half of Mexico’s territory, so they were naturally a little sensitive to losing any more land, and this is where they decided to draw the line. 

Over the next handful of years, there were dozens of complaints by Mexican landowners and the government around the issue. And the response from US citizens who’d come into possession of the land was more or less to stick their fingers in their ears and ignore it altogether.

So this issue stretched on and on, continuing to cause tension, until finally in 1911 it was decided to create an international panel with a member from the US, Mexico, and Canada to decide who owned the land, once and for all. And so it all came down to a tie breaking vote from the Canadian representative, who sided with… drumroll… Mexico.

The US did not agree with the decision, it was deemed not satisfactory because instead of deciding that all the land would go one way or the other, they split part of it. So the US gov’t said, nope, sorry, you don’t have the authority to do that, so we’re gonna keep the whole thing.

So for the next 50 years the area moved into very murky territory since no one really knew who was in charge. Slumlords squeezed money out of tenants, garbage dumps and slaughter houses that no one else wanted started to pop up. There was even a secret bar called “The Hole in The Wall ” that was built where the river looped back towards the US creating a little Mexican enclave on the US side. So right along the border, customers could enter the US side, where alcohol was illegal under prohibition, walk over to the Mexican side and drink a cold beer. This was quickly shut down by customs. But eventually US veterans from the Korean War began to build houses in the area with money from the GI bill and the Chamizal turned into a community of about 5,000 residents. 

Meanwhile on the Mexican side of the border people continued to become more and more upset. Now, This was all until something happened that would fundamentally change the relationship between the US and Mexico.

Archival clip: This government as promised has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island.

Charlie Garcia: During the midst of the Cold War, where capitalist USA and communist Russia were wrestling for power around the globe, a US spy plane discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba aimed at the United States, triggering the Cuban Missile Crisis. At this time, many Mexicans were actually in support of the leftist Cuban government, and believed in communism. And the proposition of a communist leaning Mexico became a major concern for President Kennedy. This is where the Chamizal saga came back into the picture. Here’s Rodney again.

Rodney Sauter: Nationalists and communists in Mexico had been making an issue basically to say that the United States could not be trusted to hold to its word. And so with the backdrop of the cold war, there was basically the right set of circumstances to finally resolve this issue.

Charlie Garcia: So with this new found motivation, President Kennedy took a trip to Mexico.

Archival clip: Today, the people of free democratic Mexico come together to welcome the president of the United States. John F. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy. We share a border of 2000 miles. Over 3 million of our citizens in the United States are descended from your citizens. Most of all, we are both children of revolution. And it is my hope that the spirit of our revolution in the United States is as alive today in our country as is the spirit of revolution here in Mexico.

Charlie Garcia: Now the plan was in motion. And the 1911 decision that had previously been ignored had already hammered out most of the details. Now the challenge was to figure out exactly how to return this land back to Mexico, now that it was home to over 5000 US Citizens, many businesses, and had been considered part of El Paso for the last 100 years. US-Mexico ambassador Thomas C. Mann and his team had to initially keep the negotiations quiet, so as to not rock the boat too much. And they found a unique strategy.

Rodney Sauter: They went to the local Esso station and purchased one of their maps. And they drew lines and took them back and forth, between the United States and Mexico. So that there wasn’t really like an official public record of the negotiations, because that was very sensitive because it was gonna impact people, particularly in the United States.

Charlie Garcia: It sounds crazy. But you would be surprised how much of the modern world was carved up by a bureaucrat with a pen. It was a big task to solidify the deal. So despite concerns from residents and business owners, the government went on to force the sale of properties in the area. The 5,600 Americans who called Chamizal home had to pack up and leave.

Rodney Sauter: Mostly Mexican American inhabitants in these neighborhoods. And many of whom were World War II veterans had just served the United States, and then, you know, within fewer than 20 years, they’re being asked to move out. Imagine if you were told by the government you had to move. I would think that’d be something pretty difficult to adjust to.

Charlie Garcia: Of course for some, leaving a home that they had built themselves was about more than the dollar amount.

Archival clip: The United States is not as big today as it was at this time yesterday. President Johnson and President Dí­az Ordaz of Mexico met at the border today and ended an old dispute.

Charlie Garcia: On December 13, 1968, in the final of several ceremonies, President Johnson who took over after Kennedy’s assassination, and Mexican President Dí­az Ordaz simultaneously pressed 2 red buttons, which actually weren’t hooked up to anything. But it gave the engineers a signal to blow a channel and allow water to be released into the brand new five mile long, concrete basin that had been co-engineered by the two nations. Essentially a big concrete scar in the earth meant to represent a river. But this was now an unmovable river, no longer controlled by nature but instead controlled by humans. And this is where we sit today.

But for me, This story is less about a dispute between nations and more about a dispute against nature. To quote Javier Loera, War Captain of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Tribe, who’ve lived along the river for hundreds of years. He says, ” to me it’s just a geopolitical division among these two relatively new nations…. It’s just a political barrier that divides two sides of the earth that have always been here.”

Lucy Kang: That was Charlie Garcia, with the piece “The Border is Alive!” brought to us by In Confianza, from Pulso. We’ll link to them in our episode page at

And that does it for today’s show. Thanks for listening to Making Contact. I’m Lucy Kang.

Author: Radio Project

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