Reflections from the field: Borders ARE POLITICAL

I am now back in Canada after a research trip to El Salvador and am going through a time of reflection, which I think merits to be the subject of a blog post.

When saying goodbye to the friends and family that had hosted my family, I was particularly struck by the way in which boundaries are formed in our society. It all began when my family and I crossed into Salvadoran soil after a five-hour airplane ride. As Canadian citizens, my family and I had no problems crossing into El Salvador. We were asked very few questions at customs upon our arrival, but aside from that, there were no major obstacles preventing us from entering the country.

As we left the country, however, the way in which some people are contained became clear to me. “You can only go this far,” our family and friends were told as we crossed a very real boundary at the airport which only those who are privileged can cross. Obviously we obeyed. Our friends and family stood to the side and waived from behind a glass wall as they saw us walking towards the gate where our plane stood. There are “security” reasons for separating people in this manner. Yet, I believe that the reasons are far more nuanced than this. Freedom of movement is only a reality for a fraction of the population and the logic behind preventing people from moving freely is very much political. Part of that reason is that there is a fear in the West that foreigners will somehow invade states.

During my time in El Salvador I met a man who requested a visa for what could be termed as humanitarian reasons (although this is not how he put it, I believe that it accurately describes his motives). He asked for a visa for himself, his wife and two kids, which cost over US$2,000. This is quite a lot for a Salvadoran family. As is quite common in El Salvador, his family was denied the visa on the grounds that he and his family might stay in the country. Later I found out that the reason this family wanted to get a visa is because of aging parents – they want to be able to attend the funeral when their parents pass.

This case got me thinking, who is it that decided what this family’s motives are? Beyond that, why is it that we were able to walk into a country without providing ANY information, whereas these people who happen to be from a developing country have to provide a justification for virtually every aspect of their life to be denied the right of passage in the end? Is there more to this story than simply saying that these people could potentially stay in the country that they wish to visit? Is there politics at play whereby people are purposely kept in a subordinate status? What is the purpose of borders (i.e. what is the purpose of keeping people out)?

At this point I’m asking myself a lot of questions about the relationship between developed and developing countries. Coming back to Canada after having been immersed in the everyday life of Salvadorans is doing this to me. I have many, many questions and from what I hear, this is a normal process in research. As such, stay tuned for more questions, because answers are merely conduits to more questions…

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