A Geographer Explores a More Humane Path to Border Enforcement

Public information campaigns may lessen the need for traditional border enforcement seen above: at left, a National Guardsman stands ready at the southwest U.S. border; at right, a migrant boat being intercepted by an Australian Navy ship near Australia's Christmas Island (photo by Kate Coddington).

ALBANY, N.Y. (Oct. 3, 2019) — There is no more contentious issue globally among national political parties and the general public than border enforcement, centering today on construction of physical barriers, militarization of border zones and arrests of illegal immigrants.

But Kate Coddington, assistant professor of Geography & Planning, and a colleague from the University of Arizona are examining the effectiveness of a less expensive and less controversial method of regulating transnational migration: the public information campaign, or PIC.

Supported by a $393,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Coddington and Arizona associate research professor Jill Williams, assisted by graduate students from both universities, will trace the development of PICs as a strategy of border enforcement and determine the contexts in which PICs have proved most effective in aiding enforcement while supporting both citizen and migrant objectives.

Coddington will conduct an Australian case study, while Williams will look at the United States. “Dr. Williams and I have been colleagues for many years, working on similar issues,” said Coddington. “Her expertise is on humanitarian projects in the US/Mexico border region, and I’ve been interested in related border enforcement and migration issues in the Asia-Pacific, where Australia’s increasingly harsh treatment of asylum-seekers who arrive by boat exemplifies global trends limiting opportunities for asylum for those fleeing war and conflict.”

Coddington notes that PICs have been employed in border enforcement since the early 1990s, particularly near the US-Mexico border. “They were first used in the Tucson sector and expanded to be used by the entire U.S. Border Patrol in 2004. In the Australian context, their first use was in 1994 when Australia began a TV and radio campaign in Beihai, China, aimed at discouraging asylum seekers.”

While PIC materials vary widely across national contexts and between individual campaigns within particular countries, they’ve included:

  • Printed materials such as posters and fliers, distributed on billboards and in magazines and newspapers
  • Public service announcements aired on television, radio or in cinema venues and
  • Creative campaign content involving internet or social media advertising, graphic novels, songs, and mini-documentaries and short videos.
Kate Coddington, University at Albany geographer

Kate Coddington of Geography & Planning 

An Expanding Role for PICs

Though under-examined as an enforcement mechanism, such uses of PICs have expanded a great deal over the last 20 years.

“PICs tend to be directed at potential migrants,” said Coddington, “but my guess is that they are also meant to show nationals within a country that their borders are being enforced as well. We plan to ask questions about this in the research. The sources for the PICs tend to be at the federal-level, although in the US they did start more as local programs. Projects in recent years tend to be subcontracted to PR firms and similar types of companies.”

Among the goals of the project is a visualization of the changing nature of borders using mapping technologies. “We hope to use maps to illustrate the nature, scope and distribution of border enforcement projects when PICs are used as the enforcement tactic,” said Coddington.

“So if, for instance, you are encountering a PIC when you get an Australia-produced graphic novel discouraging asylum seeking in your hometown in Afghanistan, are you encountering ‘the Australian border’ in a new way? How does the border change when border enforcement becomes a part of your radio station, your TV channels, or your graphic novels?”

The researchers believe their study, which will include a publically available StoryMap, will increase public engagement with the geographical sciences. They hope as well that it will ultimately influence public policy, making border enforcement efforts more effective, economically efficient and humane.

Coddington and Williams are now in the planning stages of the project, which extends through February of 2023; they will be choosing graduate students this year.

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