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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Lives on the Line : the (re)making of uneven development on the United States - Mexico border Ebner, Nina


Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in the Paso del Norte region—encompassing the cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez—this dissertation traces the evolution of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as a site of economic development built on the “comparative advantage” of low-wage labor and border enforcement. First, the thesis explores how recent restructuring pressures—such as the 2008 financial crisis—articulate with efforts of regional stakeholders to position the borderlands as a competitive node in the global economy. Key to this process is 1) the reproduction of the “maquiladora model of economic development,” built on the devaluation of labor and disinvestment in communities, and 2) the border itself, which emerges both as a key source of “comparative advantage” in development imaginaries, and as a limit to regional economic futures. Second, the dissertation demonstrates how borderland residents use cross-border livelihood strategies to make ends meet in a context of ongoing restructuring. Livelihood strategies are theorized as part of a geography of social reproduction: the range of practices used by individuals, households and communities to ensure their existence. Demonstrating how waged work and reproductive labor function in tandem to enable survival, the dissertation reveals how this relation 1) underpins the border region’s participation in the global economy, and 2) sustains the social relations of (racial, patriarchal) capitalism. It also argues that livelihood strategies, and relatedly the region’s economic development model, are inseparable from the facilitation of border crossing. This makes visible the ways in which borders give shape to an unevenly developed global capitalism. Third, this dissertation investigates the ways in which the U.S.-Mexico border, and immigration, enforcement are entangled with longer genealogies of incarceration as part of the region’s economic development model. Rooted in historic patterns of racial exclusion and terror, it 1) traces the Paso del Norte region’s political economic transformation into a carceral space, and 2) examines how borderland carcerality is experienced by borderland residents. In doing so, it argues that border controls, and systems of exclusion and containment in the name of bordering, need to be theorized as part of evolving racial-carceral regimes in the Americas.

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