Review of Dying to Live
|Book: Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration In an Age of Apartheid|
ZNet Book Page
Publisher: City Lights
A review of Dying to Live: a story of U.S. immigration in an age of global apartheid. By Joseph Nevins, photographs by M. Aizeki
City Lights Books | Open Media Series www.citylights.com 225 pp. $16.95 paper. ISBN: 978 0 87286 486 3.
Dying to live is a powerful examination of the messy politics and human consequences of US immigration policies. Joseph Nevins skillfully weaves the personal story of Julio César Gallegos, a migrant who died attempting to cross the US-Mexico boundary, together with detailed historical research to explore the boundary’s ideological construction, the USA’s ‘race-class-nation hierarchy’, and the role of law in shaping Americans’ geographical imagination. Mizui Aizeki’s striking black and white photos of boundary scenes and Gallegos’ family scattered throughout the book punctuate Nevins’ arguments. Despite some overlap in arguments between this book and Nevins’ Operation Gatekeeper (2002), Dying to live is quite worth the attention of scholars for the distinct approach it takes, and for additional topics it addresses, such as capitalist control of labor, the imperial nature of US settlement, and growing inequality within and between nation states. Geographers, including instructors assembling upper-level undergraduate and graduate-level syllabi, will be particularly interested due to Nevins’ emphasis on the importance of place. Though much of the subject matter is historical, it is a timely work because the conflation of immigration and terrorism is illustrated in the context of the current political obsession with security.
For being so packed with information, Dying to live reads fairly fast, largely because when it starts to feel dense with historical facts, Nevins brings readers back to Gallegos’ captivating story. The book is organized into fi ve chapters. Chapter 1 begins with the grisly discovery of Gallegos’ body (along with six others) in California’s Imperial Valley desert in 1998. Nevins then explains the book’s structure, which revolves around the idea that:
Just as places, like any social construct, are dynamic, so, too, are the boundaries that defi ne them. And while bounded, no place exists in isolation. It is connected and shaped by other places, and by the individuals, collectivities, and institutions associated with them. (p. 27)
The next three chapters focus on places important to Gallegos’ story, as parts of the ‘geographical web that shaped his life and death’ (p. 27). Chapter 2 dissects the divergent histories on both sides of the USMexico border in the Imperial Valley to show how race, class, and nation intersect in the construction of specifi c places. It also touches on the boundary’s role as a labor regulator, the portrayal of migrants as security threats, and racial policing. Chapter 3 illustrates how the US-Mexico boundary has been made increasingly ‘real’ (p. 98) in the country’s geographical imagination by detailing its historical development and increasing enforcement. Nevins shows how immigration and boundary enforcement are linked to the modern nation state, racist imaginings of America, and labor subordination. Chapter 4 looks at highly unequal transnational and translocal relationships between the Mexican county of Juchipila and the US Los Angeles area, highlighting ways in which the boundary is present in everyday life.
In Chapter 5, Nevins likens immigration enforcement in the USA and European Union to an apartheid system, arguing that violence is inherent in boundary making and policing around the world. The chapter also traces US ‘security’ discourses back to 1798, pointing out that security-based rhetoric has long been linked to race and ideas of what is ‘American’. Nevins expands on an important argument of Gatekeeper – that the power of ‘the law’ can be used as an ‘ideological smokescreen used to legitimate [immigrants’] exclusion’ (p. 176) – by discussing the discursive and political links made between terrorism fears and border enforcement since 9/11. The book concludes with a strong call for fundamental changes in the USA’s immigration approach, contending that the just alternative to boundary enforcement is to allow freedom of international movement, and to assist those suffering from inequality. Here, I wish Nevins had gone further in his call for change by suggesting more concrete ideas. What would freedom of movement look like? How could it be achieved? How and what should be done to combat inequality? Providing a more specifi c alternative vision would help readers envision the future Nevins advocates, and perhaps dampen criticism of such radical immigration reform.
It is interesting to note that Nevins has, quite intentionally I believe, left discussions of theory out of his analysis. For example, in Chapter 2’s discussion of capitalist development, Nevins barely mentions the word ‘neoliberal’. In Chapter 5, the author states that the way in which organizations like the Minutemen and conservative politicians twist migrant deaths to justify more fencing reflects a narrow definition of life (p. 171), but he does not mention Giorgio Agamben’s concept of bare life. This observation is not a criticism; though some scholars may be disappointed by the omission of theory, I would argue that this approach has resulted in a refreshingly accessible book that will attract an audience beyond academia. It also means that Dying to live will be made all the richer by putting it in conversation with more theoretical texts.
Even before I had finished reading it, I found myself recommending Dying to live to colleagues as well as anyone outside of academia interested in issues of migration and security. For the scholar, the book helps ground theoretical discussions of bounded spaces, inequality, and human mobility. For the instructor, it is a powerful tool for inspiring passionate scholarship. Importantly, in Dying to live, Nevins and Aizeki bring into focus the people for whom unjust political boundaries are no abstraction.