When Deterrence and Death Mitigation Fall Short: Fantasy and Fetishes as Gap-Fillers in Border Regulation


  • For invaluable guidance, insights, and advice, many thanks to Marilyn Strathern, Yael Navaro-Yashin, LSR General Editor Carroll Seron, and the anonymous LSR reviewers. Thanks also to William J. Aceves, Kif Augustine Adams, Daniel Kanstroom, and commentators at the 2008 Law & Society Annual Meeting for helpful insights. I am also very grateful to the Gates Cambridge Trust and St. John's College, University of Cambridge, for fieldwork funding grants and to the people who shared their views and experiences with such hospitality and graciousness.

Please direct correspondence to Mary D. Fan, American University Washington College of Law, 4801 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20016; e-mail: mfan@wcl.american.edu.


Drawing on fieldwork and political theory with Lacanian psychoanalytic influences, this article analyzes how fantasy and fetishes help sustain strategies shown to be no solution to U.S. border control problems. More than a decade after the official launch of the border control paradigm of “prevention through deterrence,” predicated on the assumption that ramping up walls, barriers, policing, and the human costs of border crossing would deter, there has been scant evidence of deterrence and much evidence of diversion of migrants to more dangerous crossing points where death rates have soared. Attempts to mitigate the cost to life have also proved ineffective but have persisted alongside the policy of diversion. The article is based on research in a region where the reality of diversion and death instead of deterrence was lived but where people still pursue projects of barrier-building and death mitigation that they know to be ineffective. The article analyzes how fantasy fuels action despite knowledge and occludes a traumatic element around which the symbolic order of border law is structured: the foundation of “good life” with its bounty of rights, privileges, and opportunity on the exclusion of basic life denuded of the entitlements that make the good life sweet. The article also examines how fetishes are used to cope with unrealized hopes and to diffuse the impact of the traumatic knowledge that good life is undergirded by the exclusion and even death of basic life.