Birth of the Prison: A Military-​Medical Gaze and the US-​Mexico Border

[…. In The Politics of Health in the Eighteenth Century, Michel Foucault traces the historical shift in medical perception towards the poor by which the poor became no longer the objects of a charitable, ecclesiastical concern for justice but instead an economic, political and medical liability of the nation-​state. For Foucault this transition from an ecclesiastical model of care based on justice in the 17th century to our more familiar economic, security-​centric model of care that emerged in the 18th century thus forms the politics within which our perceptions of the poor are circumscribed today. In The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault had observed that this peculiar economic-​political analysis of the sick poor also extended to the relationship between the examiner and the examined where, in order to be cured, the sick patient must submit to being objectified, her suffering made a spectacle for the benefit of public health and the economic interests of the nation. This implicit contract between the doctor and patient created in the space of the clinic, Foucault observed, was a “tacit form of violence” foisted upon “…a sick body that demands to be comforted, not displayed.” [4] The modern medical gaze, for Foucault, was thus constituted from the moment that the sick poor were transformed into a useful asset and economic liability for the liberal state.

In the context of US-​Mexico Border Patrol, perceptions and policies towards immigrant refugees fleeing the poverty and violence of Mexico and Central America had, in the 1990s, for the most part resisted the transition Foucault marks between a more humanitarian and security-​centric model of care. Indeed, throughout the 1990s, Border Patrol adopted what was referred to as a “Good Samaritan” policy towards the sick and injured, wherein agents were restricted from taking into custody subjects who were sick or injured, and were prevented from attempting to establish alienage (undocumented status) in cases where injury or illness was suspected. As political geographer Jill Williams has documented, pre-​9/​11 Border Patrol security policy and attitudes towards undocumented immigrants had, in general, respected the boundary between enforcement and the humanitarian concern for helping the sick and injured asylum seeker.[5]Before 9/​11, Williams notes, border patrol agents viewed sick or injured border crossers as ‘off-​limits’, since the unofficial “hands-​off” approach to migrant care adopted by the border security apparatus prevented agents from getting involved in the responsibility of delivering medical care to the undocumented border-​crossers. Rather than attempting to establish an injured persons’ alienage – and thus begin the process of removal and repatriation – Border Patrol policy in the 1990s held that “(W)here an alien’s injured condition precludes our determination of alienage or deportability, or where an alien’s injured condition renders the alien unlikely to escape, we cannot and do not take custody at the scene.”[6]Medical care, in the eyes of 1990s border security, was the responsibility of non-​governmental humanitarian and church-​based organizations. In short, the sick or injured 1990s border-​crosser remained for the Border Patrol off-​limits to the security apparatus of the state….]

Read the full article | Critical Legal Thinking



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