Survey to Surveillance

The U.S.-Mexico border is not a line on the ground, but a network diagram drawn through bodies and databases.

Line drawing of two explorers in desert landscape, 1857.
“View towards the eastern slope of the Californian Cordilleras taken from near Carrizo Creek.” Illustration by Arthur Schott, from Report on the United States and Mexico Boundary Survey, 1857-59, vol. 1, part 1. [All reproductions from the report are via Biodiversity Heritage Library, Missouri Botanical Garden]

In February 2017, a colleague I have known for fifteen years was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in front of his house in Los Angeles; he was on his way to my house, just down Sunset Boulevard. He is a 55-year-old Californian, a Green Card holder who came to the United States more than 25 years ago, from Mexico. When he asked why he was being stopped, the ICE agent encouraged him not to take it personally; that week, the agent was working through a list of more than 3,000 people. Using a wide range of data that the Department of Homeland Security has been collecting for years, ICE arrested 150,000 people in 2017, including nearly 8,500 in L.A. 1 Most of these arrests occurred in the first six months of the year, following an executive order signed in January. 2

The ICE agent encouraged my friend not to take it personally; that week, he was working through a list of more than 3,000 people.

From the agent’s point of view, the impersonality of the DHS database seemed like a virtue. But my colleague could not experience the real-time application of data points — that is, his arrest — as anything other than violently personal. Having been detained, he was taken to a privately owned prison, where he was assigned an inmate number and stripped of his own clothes. Wallet, phone, keys, and notes — the official ICE designation for such personal effects is “pocket trash”— were confiscated. 3 After six weeks of detainment, an immigration court judge who was known for being particularly robotic reviewed evidence presented by my colleague’s lawyer, and flipped the legal switch to permit posting of a $25,000 bond. My friend paid the bond, collected his possessions, and tried to settle back into his own skin. Four years later, as he awaits a deportation court hearing, he remains literally and symbolically caught up in the legal, technological, and political immigration system. He is in a kind of bureaucratic limbo. But this does not imply a simple waiting on his part, nor is it a symptom of failure in the system. The situations in which he and millions of other people find themselves are deliberately designed and implemented as laws, procedures, and protocols.

Taken together, this system of systems— laws, procedures, protocols, lists, limbos, technologies — comprises the U.S. national border.

U.S.-Mexico border fence, from the U.S. side, south of San Diego, 2012. [Hillary Mushkin]

U.S.-Mexico border fence, from the U.S. side, north of Tijuana at the Pacific Ocean, 2015. [Hillary Mushkin]

As people who live with the daily pressures of immigration status know, the border is not a line drawn on the ground. It isn’t necessarily a specific place at all. The border is written on bodies living their daily lives even as those bodies and their activities are logged in bureaucratic databases. The historical, political, and regulatory demarcation between the United States and Mexico is typically characterized in fixed spatial terms, as a line laid out on the terrain plus the infrastructure both architectural and technological along that line, including walls, electronic and networked surveillance, and detention centers. In fact, however, even considered in strictly spatial-territorial terms, the border is much broader than the line. Since the 1940s, federal agents have been permitted to detain anyone, without a warrant, within 100 miles of any U.S. border, including the Canadian borderline and Pacific and Atlantic coastlines. 4 Last year, the 100-mile permission expanded to encompass all U.S. national territory. 5 Border policing also occurs in foreign countries, through partnerships between United States law enforcement agencies and those in other nations, as well as with airlines and other private entities that cooperate to detain migrants en route to the U.S.

The southwestern border is built through physical structures, and through boundaries drawn in administrative and epistemic terms.

An understanding of the border as exclusively spatial cannot be comprehensive, then, because definitions of who or what belongs (or not) in the United States are inscribed across a sprawling collection of rocks, waters, plants, and animals — including humans — that assemble and circulate within an ever-mutating environment; the southwestern border is built in part through physical structures on the land and in part through boundaries drawn in administrative and epistemic terms. Indeed, the United States has been developing deterritorialized datasets with which to fix and defend its territorial boundary with Mexico ever since that boundary was established.

Accordingly, we might picture the border not as a single line but as a network diagram. In this diagram, points are connected by lines and clustered in groups. If we zoom in on any single point, we find that each is itself an amalgam of bits of information about the things accounted for inside the system. These things — animal, vegetable, and mineral — are represented by illustrations, written descriptions, nomenclature, numerical coordinates, mathematical equations, maps, and measurements, each associated with its own evaluative criteria.

Aided by such interpretive instruments, governmental authorities are removed, by design, from the complex on-the-ground consequences of policies they enact and legitimate: the provision of such overviews is, after all, a key function of such taxonomies. In this country, practices of scientific survey and executive summary have structured understandings of the network-that-is-the-border for nearly two centuries, from the time when the region was first surveyed to the technocratic regimes that enable contemporary border surveillance. Scientific policing practices along the border became increasingly robust from the early 20th century onward, as migrants were subjected to medical inspections, quarantines, delousing, vaccination, and photographic surveillance; today, the project of maintaining national boundary control through the cataloguing of living beings is operative in data-collecting and tracking systems, databases registering criminality and gang membership, and immigration law enforcement software through which such data meet state and local policing and the courts. 6 Along the way, contradictions, differences, and inconsistencies are sublimated in order to rationalize the “line” into existence.

John Disturnell, Mapa de los Estados Unidos de Méjico, California &c.: segun lo organizado y definido por las varias actas del congreso de dicha Républica y construido por las mejores autoridades  (“Map of the United States of Mexico, California and etc.: as organized and defined by the various minutes of the Congress of said Republic and assembled by the best authorities”), 1847. Disturnell’s map was appended to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and reflects geographic misunderstandings that were renegotiated in later treaties. [Library of Congress]

Jena Lee, Usha Lingappa, Sarah Zeichner, and Cecilia Sanders descend at Carrizo Badlands Overlook, 2020. [Gina Clyne]

A founding document in this epistemological and political endeavor is the Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey, published in two volumes between 1857 and 1859. Created by teams of scientists, engineers, and artists working under several presidential administrations, the report includes geological analyses and illustrations cataloguing botanical and zoological specimens, from cacti, herbs, shrubs, and trees to mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. Mutatis mutandis, such observational and analytic practices continue to underwrite contemporary data-based border policing, including the use of Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology, or HART. HART is one of the largest law enforcement databases in the world, a tool through which the Department of Homeland Security organizes biometric information culled from immigrants and their family members, including U.S. citizens.

As an artist who works with data, I consider the border as a conceptual proposition, discursive and malleable.

Governments rely on data-and-analytics tools like the boundary survey and HART to authoritatively sublimate natural complexity and human bias. The results, inevitably, both reflect and reinforce the culture from which they derive. As an artist who works with data, science, and technology, I take this fact of cultural production as an opportunity not only to reckon with the southwest border as it actually exists in biopolitical life, but also to imagine alternative conditions. To put it another way, I consider the border as a conceptual proposition, discursive and malleable. This approach gives rise to uneasy gestures of hope and refusal, fueled by a perhaps strategic amalgam of wishful thinking and denial. Unlike the regimes of science and engineering — which are understood to rely on and confine themselves to verifiable facts — artistic license affords me (and artists with related practices) a certain leeway or alternative authority, a cultural sanction to imagine radically and to assert the countervalues of ephemeral, anomalous, sensual, and affective phenomena. 7 Such practices do not eradicate systemic injustice; art rarely has such direct culture-wide effects. Yet all solutions start in processes of creative envisioning.

So, with these histories, definitions, and impossibilities in mind, let us consider the national boundary as a problem in representation, at once semiotic and political.

“Relative positions of Rio Grande near El Paso between 1852 and 1907.” Cartographer: W. W. Follett; creator: International Boundary Commission, United States and Mexico, 1911. [Courtesy Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center, Boston Public Library]

Report of the United States and Mexico Boundary Commission

The U.S.-Mexico border as we know it was first drawn in 1848, in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. But this was a legal description, not yet fixed on the landscape. Indeed, the treaty’s abstractions were so removed from geographical reality that they contained significant inaccuracies, which were renegotiated in subsequent agreements, most significantly the Treaty of 1853, known in the U.S. as the Gadsden Purchase. 8 To operationalize the border as described in these documents, U.S. and Mexican survey parties of scientists, engineers, artists, and soldiers traveled to the southwest in several sorties between 1849 and 1855, sometimes working separately and sometimes together, to locate coordinates on the ground. In the process, the U.S. aimed to take an inventory of what lay in the path of American settler-colonialist expansion. 9

The 19th-century teams collected meteorological, astronomic, magnetic, zoological, botanical, geological, and paleontological data.

Under direction of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was tasked with collecting specimens and measurements reflecting the “character” of the southwestern landscape and its inhabitants. The topographers aimed not only to establish where the boundary line lay but, more materially, to understand what aspects of this land and the people living on it could be brought under U.S. sovereignty. The goal was for White men to develop agriculture, mining, roads, canals, and railways in the region. To this end, survey teams collected and analyzed astronomic, geodetic, meteorological, and geological data. Along the way, they recorded botanical, zoological, paleontological, magnetic, barometric, and thermometric observations. The surveyors also recorded observations of Indian populations from Texas to California. 10 The defining document of this research, authored by the astronomer and civil engineer Major General William H. Emory, carries the full title Report of the United States and Mexican Boundary Commission, Made Under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior, published in two volumes between 1857 and 1859.

Title page of the Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey: Made Under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior, vol. I, 1857.

In the report’s first volume, written accounts by the surveyors are accompanied by astronomical, geodetic, and meteorological measurements, and diagrams of geological strata. When it comes to the Indians, the report’s descriptions of encounters largely focus on the threat these people were understood to pose to U.S. territorial control, as well as their perceived inferiority to Whites. Across the borderlands, the surveyors noted details about tribes whom they identified mostly with names inherited from Spanish colonists, rather than indigenous self-designations: Pimo, Lipan, Comanche, Kioway, Pueblo, Papago, Areneño (“a subtribe of the Papago”), Coco Maricopa, Diegeño, Cuhcano or Yuma, Cocopa, Maricopa, Apache, and Seminole. These imposed names and the general term “Indian” persist to this day as the language of record, carrying legal power in federal administrative contexts — for instance, in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 11

The second volume of Emory’s survey, which in turn is bound in two books, contains written descriptions and hundreds of scientific illustrations of mammals, fish, reptiles, birds, mollusks, fossils (mostly shells), and plants. One of the books in volume two is entirely devoted to cacti (cactaceae), which would have appeared exotic to men from the eastern part of North America; cacti and other natural resources were of course familiar to the local native peoples, yet their knowledge is only superficially referenced in the report. 12 Instead, the survey team labeled their finds with new, eponymous Latin names, so that we now have fossilized species and desert plants named in honor of Emory, field artist and naturalist Arthur Schott, and others. Many of these names also remain authoritative today. 13

The report is nearly 1,000 pages long — yet it delivered an overview, not unlike a modern-day executive summary.

Emory’s report was distilled for the sake of clarity and efficiency. It is nearly 1,000 pages long — yet it delivered an overview for commanders who were not in the field, not unlike a modern-day executive summary. Despite the survey’s suppression of indigenous knowledge and perspectives, the team amassed such a diversity of materials that, after publication, Emory recommended the burning of his team’s field notes and maps, fearing that these incomplete or contingent documents might cause confusion. Multiplicity was a bug, not a feature; disorganized data had the potential to undermine operational authority. 14

Yet multiplicity can be a feature, too. What if, instead of deliberately regularizing, overwriting, and consolidating the varied ways of being and seeing in borderlands, we had a national boundary system that embraced complication, peculiarities, polyvocality, and indeterminacy?

“Noco-Shimatt-Tash-Tanaki (Grizzly Bear), Seminole Chief” (left), and “Papagos.” Illustrations by Arthur Schott from Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey, volume I part I, 1857.

DHS Data

The Department of Homeland Security is a vast agency established by the George W. Bush administration in the wake of 9/11. It houses many of the federal immigration law enforcement agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE; the Customs and Border Patrol, or CBP; and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS; as well as the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard, and the Secret Service. Each of these organizations collects and shares data on people moving across and within borders in the U.S., Mexico, and beyond. They also share data with the FBI and virtually every other law enforcement agency within and outside this country, including national services in Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Greece, and Italy. 15

DHS softwares enable agents to organize individual human profiles and draw connections between them, profiling entire communities.

In 2018, Northrop Grumman, one of the world’s largest military contractors, joined forces with Amazon to develop HART, which is the largest cloud-based biometric database to be developed in U.S. history. 16 To manage and analyze all this material, ICE and its affiliates rely on two suites of software, both built by the data-mining company Palantir: the Investigative Case Management, or ICM system, and FALCON-SA (the “SA” stands for “Search and Analysis”). ICM enables agents to organize data into individual human “profiles,” and FALCON-SA “draws connections” between these individual dossiers, thereby profiling entire communities. 17 Such data-and-visualization practices enable ICE to target and arrest large groups of people. More than 440 family members of children who had crossed the border unaccompanied were arrested in a 90-day period in 2017, for instance, and the number of workers arrested on the job during planned workplace raids increased nearly 650 percent from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018. 18

Connections among the Twitter users who had recently tweeted the word Palantir when queried on October 10, 2011, scaled by numbers of followers (with outliers thresholded). Connections were created when users reply, mention, or follow one another. [Marc Smith, via Flickr under license CC BY-2.0]

“Section along the valley of the Gila to the Pacific Ocean” (foldout), from Report on the United States and Mexico Boundary Survey, 1857-9, vol. 1, part 1.

Analogies can be posited between the digital profiles assembled by DHS algorithms and the illustrations of plants, animals, and fossils (as well as the verbal depictions of indigenous peoples) that were compiled in the U.S. Boundary Commission Survey report, in that the scientists and illustrators who assembled the survey also honed their observations of diverse natural specimens — including human beings — into models of regularity that could be sorted into dossiers and parsed as actionable information. The boundary survey, too, is a tool for profiling.

What, then, is a profile?

The term originates in the artistic practice of drawing an outline, typically as a form of portraiture; despite (or in service of) its usefulness in creating a likeness, an outline deliberately omits the complexity of detail within its margins. 19 Scientists, like artists, are professional observers; technologists, like artists, are professional makers of techniques and artifacts. When we as observers and makers go to work, we fill our minds with basic sensorial perceptions, which we then analyze and organize. These are creative processes, whether they confess themselves as such or not. Land surveys and policing surveillance are not only authoritative, but authored; they are produced by people working in particular traditions, within particular cultural, political, and epistemological frames. Thus, when I think about the national boundary as an organized system of categories, I conclude that it is possible, at least in principle, to organize and categorize — that is, to represent, to profile — differently. To imagine what this might mean, however, we need to further describe the tangle of systems that comprises the border as it stands.

Scientists, like artists, are professional observers; technologists, like artists, are professional makers of techniques and artifacts.

In the historical boundary survey as in contemporary border surveillance, a profile is built from disaggregated, measured, and sorted anatomical traits, and authorized in part by the assumption that non-Anglo subjects are predisposed to criminality. To see what such notations of traits or (alleged) dispositions mean in practice, today, let’s look more closely at one of the nodes in the border-as-network, namely HART. HART is itself a hairball of nodes. Zoom in to a single node, and it reveals the notation of a single anatomical trait in a single person.

In traditional drawing and painting classes, students are trained to observe live models and to capture a range of physical attributes that reflect something idiosyncratic, vital, unique — a tilt of the head, the set of the mouth, the gesture of a hand. The link between such visually rendered characteristics and the truth of the sitter’s psychology or experience are of course elusive, perhaps especially so when the model is a stranger. This means that, when depicting another person —and particularly someone not intimately known — the portraitist projects a story about the subject.

Hillary Mushkin, “DHS/ICE Data Network Diagram,” ink and graphite on paper, 2020. [Hillary Mushkin]

HART makes hundreds of thousands of profiles. They are composed of fingerprints, latent fingerprints (i.e., traces of oil, sweat, and other bodily fluids), and palm prints; photographs of faces, scars, tattoos, and other skin marks; DNA records; facial-recognition scans, iris scans, and voice prints. But despite the apparently objective truth of these details, HART is also engaged in promulgating stories about its subjects. Policing biometrics do not indicate if my colleague who was arrested, for example, is kind, generous, careful, or optimistic. But they do suggest that he is a potential “threat” to the United States. 20 This impulse to narrativize data is not new. Indeed, the historic boundary survey also includes observations regarding native people’s bodily characteristics — skin color, height, relative athleticism, and the sizes and shapes of noses, lips, cheek bones, chests, breasts, arms, hands, legs, ankles, and feet, as well as varieties of posture and manner. Racialized behavioral characteristics are cited in descriptors like “wild,” “savage,” “semi-civilized,” “half-breed,” “the lower and darker colored races,” etc. 21

Profiles are composed of fingerprints, palm prints, voice prints; photographs of faces, scars, tattoos; facial-recognition scans, iris scans; DNA records.

Each profile in the HART database can be connected to others by the tracking of “relationship patterns,” “non-obvious relationships,” and other linkages, including the attribution of gang affiliations. 22 (These attributions are notoriously inaccurate. The New York Times recently reported that a 2016 audit of CalGang, a database that monitors gang membership across California, found that the system “included 42 ‘gang members’ under the age of one. According to the justification entered into CalGang by law enforcement officers, 28 of these babies had ‘admitted to being gang members.’”) 23 HART currently indexes data from more than 260 million people, including U.S. citizens, and the system isn’t yet completely built out. 24 When it is completed this year, the system will include data from the legacy IDENT biometric system built by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1994. 25

1973 logbook, San Diego Sector, U.S. Border Patrol, 2014. [Jena Lee]

Handwritten entries in logbook.
1973 logbook, San Diego Sector, U.S. Border Patrol, 2014. [Jena Lee]

Given these expanding capacities for collecting, storing, and transmitting increasingly large files, as well as artificial intelligence capability in pattern recognition, DHS is seeking to expand its legal reach as well, by drastically extending the scope of its collection. A regulation passed in January by the Trump administration’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and frozen by President Biden soon thereafter, would permit DHS officials to enrich their profiles by including so-called “measurable behavioral characteristics,” based in the recognition of particular, idiosyncratic patterns — gait when walking or keystrokes when typing; heartbeat patterns; geolocational and navigational habits, and more. Collection of these kinds of data is particularly invasive, not only because the most personal aspects of individuals’ everyday lives are tabulated, but also because the data can be collected and used without those individuals’ knowledge or consent. (At least in a live-model drawing class, the model has agreed to be scrutinized, in the nude, for hours on end. Moreover, the resulting “records” do not carry the authority of legal evidence; do not penetrate beneath the skin like iris scans or DNA sequencing; do not track the model’s movements or social connections; and are not kept on file by or shared between government authorities.) If the DHS proposal is accepted, it would vastly enlarge the biometric database, not only through the new pattern-recognition systems, but through broader and more frequent collection of existing data types. The new rules would require immigrants, including children, who are applying for visas, residency permits, or citizenship, to supply DHS with representations of their bodies in the forms of iris, face, voice, and palm prints, as well as samples of DNA. Family members or sponsors who are legal U.S. residents or citizens would have to submit this material too.  26

Automation obscures officials’ discriminatory decision to tabulate data about immigrants in the first place.

The accuracy of forensic biometric pattern-matching has been questioned for decades. Techniques involving older data types, such as photo-matching of skin and facial features, have been shown to be severely flawed. ProPublica found in 2019 that “the weakest pattern analysis fields rely more on examiner intuition than science”; according to a former member of the National Commission on Forensic Science, “their conclusions are, basically, ‘my hunch is that X is a match for Y’ … Only they don’t say hunch.” 27 More recently developed face-recognition tools are known to be particularly unreliable in identifying people with dark skin. 28 While some technologists are working to improve face-recognition algorithms, increased efficiency brings other problems, and automation obscures officials’ original, discriminatory decision to tabulate data about immigrants and their “associates” in the first place.

We have zoomed in on the hairball that is HART. Let us turn now to another element in the network: the DHS Law Enforcement Information Sharing Service. In a diagram of networked collaborations between ICE and the police, LEISS is the hub, a back-end system that connects a broad array of federal, state, local, tribal, and international law enforcement agencies to ICE databases. 29 Using Forensic Logic’s COPLINK platform, regional police, sheriffs, and other agents help ICE to create searchable models of entire communities. 30 In addition, COPLINK’s affiliate database, the CLEAR platform developed by Thomson Reuters, scrapes yet another mountain of data from public records: social media activity, phone records, addresses for individuals and (again) “all known associates,” as well as DMV records, business relationships, employment applications, documentation of wages, property ownership and rental histories, car-rental contracts, consumer and credit bureau data, banking data, and information about healthcare providers. 31 LEISS also provides its members access to the FBI’s National Data Exchange or N-DEx, a repository that tracks anyone, nationwide, who has been caught up in the criminal justice system. All these databases possess highly detailed profiles of innocent people.

Hillary Mushkin, “After the Palantir Interface,” ink and graphite on paper, 2020. [Hillary Mushkin]

Jim Barry, “View of Carrizo Creek,” watercolor on paper, 2020. [Hillary Mushkin]

DHS is striving to create a master compendium of data on migrant society, something akin to a naturalist’s atlas of specimens in that both aim to create a totalizing view. 32 Like the 19th-century land surveyors in the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, the aim for contemporary law enforcement is to create a comprehensive index that will protect the “homeland” — which, like the border, is a cultural concept, this one inscribed on Anglo bodies and the histories understood to belong to them.

DHS is striving to create a master compendium of data on migrant society, something akin to a naturalist’s atlas of specimens.

Granted, the 19th century survey is different from the DHS system in myriad ways, including form, content, and geographic and legal reach. However, from my point of view as an artist, a core similarity remains — and this is the expression of a persistent will, on the part of the U.S. government, to make and remake the border as a set of putatively self-evident data points. All the procedures and command-and-control protocols involved, structuring both the analogue and the digital compendia and extending to the very premise of specimen collection and the law itself, are founded on a discourse of scientific objectivity, a belief in standards understood as fair, verifiable, and universal. Herein lies not only a moral authority, but also a moral appeal.

Epistemic Virtue

Morality, epistemology, and authority are intertwined in the history of western science, yielding a value that historians Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have called “epistemic virtue.” As they put it, “epistemic virtues are virtues properly so-called: they are norms that are internalized and enforced by appeal to ethical values, as well as to pragmatic efficacy in securing knowledge.” 33 In their 2007 book Objectivity, Daston and Galison track the emergence of objectivity as an epistemic virtue to the making of scientific atlases in the 17th and 18th centuries; their study examines the tightly interrelated notions of the self and the authority of scientific knowledge. “To be objective,” write Daston and Galison, “is to aspire to knowledge that bears no trace of the knower — knowledge unmarked by prejudice or skill, fantasy or judgement, wishing or striving.” 34 How should the unmarked knower guarantee this purity for the “scientific self”?

The scientific self of objectivity … was realized and reinforced by specialized techniques of the self: the keeping of a lab notebook with real-time entries, the discipline of grid-guided drawing, the artificial division of the self into active experimenter and passive observer, the introspective sorting of one’s own sensations into objective and subjective by sensory physiologists, the training of voluntary attention. … Scientific practices of objectivity were built by a scientific self which was articulated — built up, reinforced —  through concrete acts, repeated thousands of times in a myriad of fields in which observers struggled to act, record, draw, trace and photograph their way to minimize the impact of their will. Put another way, the broad notion of a will-centered self was, during the nineteenth century, given a specific axis: a scientific self grounded in will to will-lessness at one pole, and an artistic self that circulated around a will to willfulness at the other. Forms of scientific self and epistemic strategies enter together. 35

As Daston and Galison explain, in order to create atlases, naturalists devoted themselves to judiciously classifying, illustrating, and labeling specimens’ key characteristics; expert judgement allowed for the selection of model specimens from a basically infinite array of subject populations, each shaped by differing weather and climate patterns, richer or more meager nutrients, and other variations. For Daston and Galison, scientific illustrations of such “typical,” “characteristic,” “ideal,” or “average” specimens amount to what the pair call “reasoned images.” Sometimes these rationalized depictions would represent an actual specimen, and sometimes an idealized composite. In either case, scientific observation allowed practitioners to schematize a seemingly natural order governing the disposition of humans, animals, plants, geologic formations, and other natural resources.

But nature is disorderly. “Natural order” does not emerge naturally.

Cecilia Sanders sketches at Carrizo Creek,” 2020. [Gina Clyne]

Sarah Zeichner sketches at Carrizo Badlands Overlook, 2020. [Gina Clyne]

In fact, in the production of “reasoned images,” tension arose between naturalists with their “wills to will-lessness” and the illustrators they employed, who were presumably subject to the artist’s “will to willfulness.” Scientists sought to eliminate the “wayward judgement” of their artists; to differentiate their illustrations from types of image-making more wholly subject to imagination, such as religious and historical painting. 36 The tension recalls Emory’s wish to burn his surveyors’ field notes and thereby to establish the authority of a clear, singular perspective.

Scientists sought to eliminate the ‘wayward judgement’ of their artists; to differentiate their illustrations from types of image-making more wholly subject to imagination.

The artistic skills of visual and graphic interpretation were shunned by the atlas-makers. Drawings produced with the aid of grids, measurements, and the camera obscura were understood to furnish efficient and accurate means for recording proportions and perspective, but such drawings were also virtuous in superseding subjective inclinations, such as an expressive focus on a particularity or peculiarity that would distract from the central taxonomic task. Later, scientists enlisted photography to capture traces of nature that the human eye and hand could not; in the present, scientists rely on computational modeling and simulation to increase efficiency and efficacy while trying their best to reduce subjective distortion. The U.S.-Mexico border is a product of this cultural history. Its makers, from topographical engineers working on the 19th-century survey to Northrop Grumman software engineers developing HART, keep faith with the epistemic virtue that grounds their work in scientific practices. In the process, they create the boundary as a technologically impersonal system rather than a discursive and flexible one.

Nikko Mueller, “Detail of Carrizo Creek Area,” watercolor on paper, 2020.

Usha Lingappa, “View from Carrizo Badlands Overlook”, watercolor and graphite on paper, 2020. [Hillary Mushkin]

Systems and Stories

The potential power of lines, points, and other marks drawn on two-dimensional surfaces astounds me. Diagrams assembled by cartographers and software engineers in the name of national security can mean life or death, while the images artists draw are, in comparison, received by the culture at large as signs of mere frivolity, child’s play, nonsense. Yet we know that no line speaks for itself.

So, what do we learn from looking at the border as a cultural construction? I am loath to give a straight answer. Instead, I will tell a story of one attempt to draw the line differently.

It seems like a lifetime ago now, but in February 2020, a few weeks before the pandemic lockdown began in Los Angeles, I took a team of artists and Caltech scientists on an overnight trip to the U.S.-Mexico Boundary Commission base camp area at Carrizo Creek. This California site lies seventeen miles north of the international borderline, in the Anza Borrego desert, on the traditional lands of the Kumeyaay Nation. Remote though it is, it is the most extensively illustrated California landscape in the U.S. Boundary Commission Survey report. The purpose of our trip was to make our own surveys and images in response to the two image regimes — historical-scientific and contemporary-technological — that underwrite U.S. authority in the borderlands. 37 We focused specifically on two groupings of source imagery: the geological schema and botanical illustrations published in the boundary commission report, and aerial surveillance footage shot from CBP drones and distributed by DVIDS, the U.S. Department of Defense Visual Information Distribution Service.

Our trip followed in the footsteps of the 19th-century survey team, and traversed a territory now monitored by Predators and other drones armed with automatic target-detection tools. Our team of eight used a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a prosumer quadcopter drone provided by the Caltech Division of Geology and Planetary Sciences. We also brought watercolors, ink, and gouache — slow media one might stereotypically associate with grandmothers (read: feminine and weak) that require the practitioner to sit in one place and face a subject directly, without mechanical intervention, for far longer than it takes to snap a photo.

We were exercising an episteme quite different from that of virtuous objectivity.

We didn’t do anything loud or wild; we were not staging a political protest, nor an historical reenactment. We recorded our observations of geological formations in both schematic diagrams and plein-air sketches; we made painterly, graphic, scientific, technological, and analytical studies, in conscious dialogue with such practices as pursued by the past and present makers of the border. What emerged were representations developed from our wills to willfullness and will-lessness joined and cross-pollinating. We felt the weight of history and our absurdly small place inside it.

“View from Monument no. XVII on the Cerro de Sonora, looking west towards monument no. XV on the Sierra del Pozo Verde” and “View from Monument No. XVII, Looking East towards Monument No. XVIII” (left); “View from Monument XVIII, in the Puerto de la Sieera del Pajarito, looking west towards Monument XVII, on the Cerro de Sonora,” and “View from Monument XVIII, in the Puerto de la Sierra del Pajarito, looking east towards Monument XIX.” Illustrations by Arthur Schott from Report on the United States and Mexico Boundary Survey, 1857-59, vol. 1, part 1.

Sarah Zeichner, “Stratigraphic Column at Carrizo Creek,” watercolor and ink on paper, 2020. [Hillary Mushkin]

Nikko Mueller, “Detail of Carrizo Creek Area,” ink on paper, 2020. [Hillary Mushkin]

Our video footage looks uncomfortably like that harvested by the CBP — aerial views of arid landscape. But in the binary of surveillers vs. surveilled, those making the representations vs. those represented, we played both roles, being at once the drone operators and the tiny bodies-as-dots recorded by the drone’s eye. We were obviously not in the imperiled position of migrants — crossing the desert without water or official sanction. But as the drone looked down from its seemingly omnipotent technological perspective to record us standing in the sand amidst the creosote bushes, it could not register this crucial difference. Our drawings in pen, pencil, and ink traced the same ridgelines as the etchings of the 19th-century surveyor and illustrator Arthur Schott — dry and folded, linear and hard. But our drawings are not destined for presentation to Congress.

Like the survey and surveillance teams before us, we discussed and analyzed the images we collected. Yet we were exercising an episteme quite different from that of virtuous objectivity. Our survey rested, in part, on a skillful practice of iterative adaptability and critical reflection on righteousness; on conceptual interpreting and undoing systems; and on developing previously unimagined logics. If epistemic virtues are, by definition as virtues, practiced with a sense of duty, then it seems to me that they must intersect with a duty to protect not just some humans and their territorial claims, but all humanity and the natural world. Our survey creatively envisions the national boundary expanded in this way, while attending to the histories, limitations, and powers of drawing lines, making profiles, and telling stories.

Author's Note

This essay is indebted to ongoing dialogue with Jena Lee, immigration lawyer Taiyyeba Safri Skomra, and my colleague whose story starts this essay. (I have withheld his name and other details to protect his privacy.) I am also indebted to early conversations with borderlands historian Mary E. Mendoza and discussions with many other friends and colleagues whose lives and work are challenged by the border system. I am grateful to Sarah Zeichner and Jim Barry for their indispensable help in organizing my survey travel logistics and team, and for all of the team’s thoughtful contributions. Thanks, also, to the Southern Methodist University’s De Golyer Library for supporting my research, and my colleagues at Caltech Joe Kirschvink and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal for supporting the survey travel. Many thanks to Frances Richard for her expert edits and guidance.


  1. ICE By the Numbers FY2017, U,S. Department of Homeland Security / ICE (updated 02/10/2021).
  2. Kristen Bialik, “ICE immigration arrests increased in 2017,” Pew Research Center (February 8, 2018). In addition to undocumented people, legal residents were detained and deported; some U.S. citizens were incorrectly deported, while others were placed in denaturalization proceedings. See Cassandra Burke Robertson and Irina D. Manta, “A long-running immigration problem: The government sometimes detains and deports U.S. citizens,” The Conversation (July 8, 2019).
  3. Privacy Impact Assessment for ICE Investigative Case Management, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (June 16, 2016).
  4. S. Deborah Kang, “Border Fiction Made Real: How Search and Seizure Laws Degrade on the 100-Mile Border Zone,” KCET (November 12, 2019).
  5. Designating Aliens for Expedited Removal,” Federal Register, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Register, (July 23, 2019). This is why people are asked for ID at random times on buses; checkpoints are set up far from the U.S.-Mexico boundary; and people can be picked up by ICE outside their homes. It’s also why border agents were sent to police Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland in the summer of 2020. See Steve Vladeck, “What the Heck Are Federal Law Enforcement Officers Doing in Portland?,” Lawfare Blog (July 17, 2020).
  6. Celeste Menchaca, “Crossing the Line: A History of Medical Inspection at the Border,” KCET (June 24, 2014).
  7. I am not alone in these interests, of course; artists working in this realm include Francis Alÿs, Ana Teresa Fernández, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Ron Rael, and Lúz María Sánchez, among others.
  8. Renegotiations of the line continued well into the 20th century. Take, for example, the Chamizal Dispute, concerning Chamizal and Cordova islands, two floodplains of the Rio Grande near El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo places the international boundary in the Rio Grande’s deepest channel. However, the river’s path changes when it floods. Each time the river moved, it became unclear which country’s laws controlled whom, where. The Chamizal Dispute lasted more than 50 years. Finally, in the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers channelized the Rio Grande, fixing its deepest point in law-abiding concrete. See “A winding river and two nations,” in “Bending Lines: Maps and Data From Distortion to Deception,” a digital exhibition at the Leventhal Map & Education Center, Boston Public Library (May 2020). As architect and planner Dilip Da Cunha reminds us in The Invention of Rivers: Alexander’s Eye and Ganga’s Descent (Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), rivers are not lines, and riverbanks are not naturally fixed. The mapping and engineering of rivers is a Western imperial practice.
  9. Boundary disputes and related surveys have continued ever since, albeit typically at smaller scales. Most notably, a survey and remarking of the boundary west of the Rio Grande took place between 1891 and 1896 under the direction of the U.S.-Mexico International Boundary and Water Commission. This agency was established in 1889, and continues to handle boundary disputes  today.
  10. “Indian” remains the general term for all recognized Native American tribes. Political scientist Joely Proudfit (Diegeño) explains that she uses the term “Indian” because, in official documents, “Indians” are federally recognized tribes with sovereignty rights. “Native Americans,” however, do not necessarily have land rights as recognized by the U.S. government.
  11. Division of Land Titles and Records,” U.S. Department of Interior, Indian Affairs; William H. Emory, Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey, Made Under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior (Washington, D.C.: A.O.P. Nicholson, 1857-1859), vol.1 part 1.
  12. Indian knowledge regarding the medicinal and nutritional value of native plants is noted, but only in so far as surveyors observed the plants being used.
  13. Botany and colonialism are historically intertwined in many contexts. See, for example, Daniela Bleichmar, Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), which describes thousands of botanical drawings produced by Spanish expeditions to Latin America.
  14. Paula Rebert, “A Civilian Surveyor on the United States-Mexico Boundary: The Case of Arthur Schott,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 155, no. 4 (2011): 450.
  15. Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology System (HART) Increment 1 PIA, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (February 24, 2020).
  16. John Bowden, “DHS moving biometrics database to Amazon Cloud,” The Hill (May 7, 2020); “Biometrics,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security (Updated: July 13, 2020).
  17. Privacy Impact Assessment for ICE Investigative Case Management, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (June 16, 2016),
  18. “The War Against Immigrants,” Mijente / National Immigration Project / Immigration Defense Project (August 2019); Chantal De Silva, “ICE Sees 650 Percent Surge In Workplace Arrests Under Trump Administration’s Immigration Crackdown,” Newsweek (December 12, 2018).
  19. profile,” Online Etymology Dictionary.
  20. “Northrop Grumman Wins $95 Million Award from Department of Homeland Security to Develop Next-Generation Biometric Identification Services System,” Northrop Grumman (February 26, 2018).
  21. Emory, 67-70, 107-112.
  22. Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology System (HART) Increment 1 PIA, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, February 24, 2020,
  23. Stefano Bloch, “Are You in a Gang Database?New York Times (February 3, 2020).
    See also the promotional video “Prison Management Systems” posted on YouTube by Praescient Analytics, 2012.
  24. According to the census service, the current U.S. population is just over 330 million. On HART, see “Comments of The Electronic Frontier Foundation Regarding Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on The Collection and Use of Biometrics by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,” Electronic Frontier Foundation (October 13, 2020).
  25. Privacy Impact Assessment for the Automated Biometric Idenfication System, IDENT, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (July 31, 2006).
  26. Comments of The Electronic Frontier Foundation…” [Note: This proposed rule was withdrawn by DHS on May 26, 2021, consistent with the Biden administration’s Executive Order “Restoring Faith in Our Legal Immigration Systems and Strengthening Integration and Inclusion Efforts for New Americans.” – Editors]
  27. Ryan Gabrielson, “The FBI Says Its Photo Analysis Is Scientific Evidence. Scientists Disagree,” ProPublica (January 17, 2019).
  28. Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 6-9.
  29. LEISS includes law enforcement in the key southwestern border states — Arizona, Texas, and Southern California — as well as in Washington state, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C.
  30. The platform enables searches by “categories such as race, hair color, eye color, complexion, build, ethnicity, and country of origin, as well as employers, associates, hangout spots, and gang-related information.” See “Who’s Behind ICE: The Tech and Data Companies Fueling Deportations,” Mijente / National Immigration Project / Immigration Defense Project (October 2018).)
  31. CLEAR Investigation Software, Thomas Reuters.
  32. DHS also has a platform called ATLAS that is used to check immigration applicants’ biographic and biometric data across several databases. See Privacy Impact Assessment for the Continuous Immigration Vetting, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
  33. Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (Princeton, NJ: Zone Books/Princeton University Press, 2007), 40-41.
  34. Ibid., 17.
  35. Ibid., 38-39.
  36. Ibid., 79, 198.
  37. The team included artists Jena Lee and Nikko Mueller, who are experienced in the challenges of in-situ drawing, having traveled with me to other militarized sites as part of my art-and-research project Incendiary Traces; Jim Barry, a plein-air watercolorist who is also a faculty member at Caltech; and photographer Gina Clyne, who comes to her practice via painting. The team’s scientists, who also maintain their own artistic drawing and painting practices, were Caltech graduate students in geology Usha Lingappa, Cecilia Sanders, and Sarah Zeichner.
Hillary Mushkin, “Survey to Surveillance,” Places Journal, April 2021. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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