Nov. 9 marked both the 29th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s official fall, and coincidentally, Ieva Jusionyte’s discussion on her book “Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border” at the Harvard Bookstore. The Harvard anthropology professor, recognizing the connection, noted, “It appears that history’s lessons are short-lived and now walls are popular again.”
Drawing on her experience as one of these responders working on the brink between two countries and ways of life, Jusionyte’s book examines the specific tensions faced by these courageous paramedics and firefighters. She balances personal anecdotes and specific cases faced by these workers with the academic insight of an anthropologist. Considering the tense immigration issues on America’s mind, the Trump administration has influenced the way she views and handles her latest project.
“In the light of everything that is happening in this country right now, it is very difficult for me to take this book out of the immediate context and to talk about it without reference to the current political moment,” Jusionyte said.
When the Harvard Book Store’s owner Jeff Mayersohn was asked why he invited Jusionyte in particular, he expressed a similar sentiment about her work’s timeliness.
“I think this book has a very immediate and very important topic,” said Mayersohn. This event was part of the bookstore’s weekly “Friday Forum” series, created to allow Cambridge residents and Harvard students alike to hear from influential, local authors.
Facilitating discussion, these events expose the community to new ideas. “It is one of the important services that the bookstore provides…,” Mayersohn said. “We try to have diverse voices and a diversity of topics, but also, we strive to find books that are of immediate interest.”
Starting with some opening remarks about “Threshold,” Jusionyte then gave the audience a little sneak peak by reading some hand-selected quotes. She recounted reports of helping immigrants who had broken limbs trying the scale the border wall, of a trivial, bureaucratic argument regarding the simple administration of an Advil tablet, and of the overall conflict faced by responders knowing that their patients will soon be detained and deported. After this presentation, she opened the floor to questions from the audience about her research, career, and opinions about this complex issue.
In response to a question about how she, as an anthropologist, became involved in providing aid along the US-Mexico border, Jusionyte explained that she had actually initially trained as an emergency responder, volunteering in Cambridge and also Florida. “I was more attracted to this project or interested in this problem because I was an emergency responder rather than vice versa,” she said.
However, this double identity as both a researcher and paramedic presented its own unique obstacles for her. “As an emergency responder, you sort of have this tunnel vision of treatment...and as a scholar, you need the distance to reflect. When I was at the border, my time was basically divided.”
Rebecca E. Pries, a Cambridge resident and member of the audience, attended the event in order to gain some insight from this author. “I was very interested in her research about treatment of people who become injured as they try to cross the border, and I’m very concerned about how the United States is responding to illegal border crossings,” Pries said.
Addressing these specific concerns, Jusionyte also argued, “[The border walls’] ineffectiveness has nothing to do with their height. The size of the border fences have actually doubled since the 1990s, but they failed to stop illegal drugs or deter unauthorized migrants because fortification does not address the root causes of these phenomena. What it does do, and what my book shows, is that walls have been consistently successful as a mechanism of injury.”