Border security expert Ieva Jusionyte joins the Watson Institute faculty

Ieva Jusionyte, the Watson Family Associate Professor of Security and Anthropology, focuses her research on the anthropology of security, borders, crime, violence and statecraft. After earning her Ph.D. in anthropology from Brandeis University, she held faculty positions at Harvard University and the University of Florida. 

As a native of Lithuania, do you possess a dual anthropological perspective – both personally and professionally – on issues you study?

That’s a thought-provoking question. I am from a country where the history of statehood is much longer – and rather different – than in the United States. My personal perspective, informed by my growing up in Lithuania, and my scholarly approach to studying state forms and practices work together making me question what’s taken for granted in the United States.  One of the underlying principles of anthropology, as social science, is that there’s not just one way of organizing human life – social, political, economic, and cultural.

Having experienced migration myself – I am an emigrant in Lithuania, an immigrant in the United States -  and knowing the different histories of state building and state violence was definitely formative for me as a scholar and as a citizen. As a matter of fact, I realize there is still learning so much for me left to learn about U.S. history; particularly related to the making and closing of the frontier and the policing of borders. There are entire chapters of this country’s history that were not included in my high school curriculum and that I am only now beginning to understand. 

What drew you to anthropology and then, more specifically, to the issues of border security and gun violence?

As an undergraduate, I took a political anthropology class that piqued my interest in the diversity of ways of approaching questions of power and law, detaching them from state institutions and ideologies. Even then, I was working as a journalist and saw the affinity between investigative journalism and anthropology, which uses ethnography – or deep hanging out with communities – as its main method. In both vocations, one gets to spend time with people to understand specific social problems from their perspective, from the bottom up, rather than imposing top-down theories on life that is always more messy. I wanted to pursue that embedded and embodied knowledge

My interest in border issues stems from having grown up in Lithuania, where the shape of the state and its borders shifted so often through centuries. I wanted to understand what that means for people who live in the borderlands, how they see themselves as members of one political community,   and adhere to one legal ideology over another, which exists just across the jurisdictional line. The U.S.-Mexico border is central to American politics, culture, and society. Before starting my fieldwork there, I studied the role of local media in the tri-border area of South America, where I tried to understand how they determine which stories to publish and which should remain public secrets. On the U.S.-Mexico border, I first examined border security infrastructure that reroutes migrants and asylum seekers, often wounding them and killing thousands. 

More recently, my research shifted to the relationship between illegal drugs moving from Mexico to the U.S. and guns moving from the U.S. to Mexico. While it’s difficult to get guns legally in Mexico, especially for people who live far away from the capital city, where the only gun store is located, prompting them to turn to the black market. The biggest demand for high-powered guns comes from organized crime groups who supply drugs to the U.S. As security buildup on the U.S.-Mexico border continues, competition between Mexican organizations supplying drugs to American consumers gets fiercer, and those with the most firepower – most illegal guns from the U.S. – have a better chance to win control over the trafficking routes.

Tell us about your pending book project, "Exit Wounds: American Guns, Mexican Lives, and the Vicious Circle of Violence," and who the target audience is.  

This book follows American guns to Mexico and asks how these tools of violence (and sometimes tools of protection) affect communities where they circulate. My research is ethnographic and multi-sited; I did interviews with gun owners, including hunters and collectors, as well as formerly incarcerated individuals who had used guns in crimes. I visited gun stores in the U.S. and observed gun buyback programs in Mexico; I talked to American prosecutors who pursue gun trafficking cases and Mexican artists who use gunmetal in their work. I’m nearly done with my field research, but I am still waiting on the outcomes of two related court cases – one in Texas and one in Mexico – that I hope to include in my third book.  

I want this book to speak to broader audiences, not only to anthropologists and fellow scholars in academia. I hope it will contribute to our debates about the impact that American guns have beyond the U.S. borders. As complicated as public discussions about gum safety and gun regulation are in this country, the effects of U.S. laws are not limited to this country. Not only do guns – by way of Mexico, where they are used by organized crime groups trafficking drugs – contribute to drug addiction in the U.S., but they are also the cause of insecurity and violence that makes people flee their home in Mexico or Central America and seek asylum on the U.S. border. These issues are part of the same cycle of violence that the public needs to understand.

Immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border – driven in part by immigrants’ reactions to crime, poverty and climate change - is in the news yet again. What thoughts do you have on this recurring challenge? 

It’s overwhelming… but I don’t think we should be paralyzed by what may seem like an urgent crisis; the “crisis” has been ongoing for decades. It is the result of many years of our country’s approach to migration and border security, and it will take many years to undo this mess. But there are things that can be done right now to deal with the most outrageous human rights violations. We need more human, legal, and medical resources sent to communities on the  U.S.-Mexico border to help them welcome asylum seekers. We need to change the law to allow fear of retribution from criminal violence to become legitimate grounds for asylum cases

My ethnographic fieldwork with emergency responders also revealed that the safety and well-being of residents on both sides of the border depend on the ability of firefighters, paramedics, and other front-line workers to go back and forth across the border, whether to assist communities with wildland fires or floods or any other disaster situations. Shutting down borders only compounds the problems, whether we’re talking about drug smuggling, irregular migration, or public health emergencies, such as this pandemic. As for guns, most of those that end up in Mexico are purchased by straw buyers, who face only minor charges for paperwork violations, even though they are implicated in providing tools to killers.  There are small steps we can take immediately to begin to undo the harms of the U.S. approach to the border, to immigration, to gun violence. Then, we’ll have to tackle larger structural reforms.   

Are you teaching this semester? 

I arrived at the Watson in January and this semester I am teaching only one course, a graduate seminar on Violence, Governance, and Transnationalism, which looks at different ways ethnographers have been studying of violence. Our case studies range from what is happening on the U.S.-Mexico border, the intersection of humanitarianism and militarism in mental health clinics in Kashmir, and the legacies of the U.S.’s secret war in Laos. The goal is to explore how different modes of violence – from military force to more nuanced structural and symbolic forms of injury – intersect with policies and practices of governance on national, regional, and global scales, and to discuss the significance of an ethnographic perspective for understanding these matters.