Humanitarian aid and the production of spatial knowledge and practices in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands

Research output: ThesisMaster (Research) Thesis


This research has sought to understand how practices of humanitarian aid groups contest established spatial orders and normative geographies within the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and in what manner their presence and operation within spaces of migration might afford or advocate for certain rights of mobility to non-citizens. In particular, these groups are deploying water, food, and medical aid intended for migrants in transit within the space of the southern Arizona borderlands, often against the will of law enforcement agencies. At this highly localized scale in which humanitarian groups conduct the majority of their work, this space - and movement throughout it - are highly controlled by law enforcement agencies, providing few openings for contestation of processes of militarization and criminalization. This research therefore seeks to develop a method of inquiry in to the production of space within the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, concerned with multiple agents operating at different scales (from the national to the local) frequently within the same spaces simultaneously.; It was found that since 2003, humanitarian groups have moved from solely discussing their strategies in relation to the U.S. Border Patrol, to include differing law enforcement and land management agencies, along with private contractors who play a growing role in the process of migrant interdiction, incarceration, and deportation. This has resulted in the ongoing criminalization of both undocumented migrants as well as of humanitarian aid volunteers, creating a situation of increased vulnerability for both groups. Although law enforcement agencies have deployed several practices to disorganize the work of aid volunteers - including the co-optation of humanitarianism, and the use of spatial denial and containment - through the development of critical spatial knowledge, aid groups have countered such efforts to criminalize their work. Spaces of respite, safety, and resistance were constructed by the humanitarian aid groups in their efforts to maintain "death free zones" in the face of significant adversity demonstrated by various formations of power. Yet these spaces are temporary and in flux, and were frequently breached by the USBP and other enforcement agencies, as well as vigilante groups and local residents who were unsympathetic or antagonistic to the work of aid groups.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Southern California
  • Dear, Michael, Supervisor, External person
Print ISBNs9781109560480, 1109560486
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • borderlands
  • direct action
  • geography
  • humanitarian aid
  • migration
  • U.S.-Mexico border
  • spatial knowledge
  • spatial production

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