All the Border’s a Stage: Humanitarian Aid as Expressive Dissent

Jason A. Cade, University of Georgia School of Law

Forthcoming in Studies in Law, Politics, and Society.


Decades of stringent immigration enforcement along the Southwest border between United States and Mexico have pushed migrants into perilous desert corridors. In the last two decades, over 7,000 migrants have died in border regions, out of public view. In response to this humanitarian crisis, activists from organizations such as No More Deaths trek deep into the treacherous desert, seeking to expand migrant access to water, to document and honor the human remains of those who did not survive the journey, and to influence public opinion about border enforcement policies. No More Deaths’ speech acts, directed at the heart of the deadly areas where migration has been pushed, aim not only to save lives but to convey the message that all lives—including those of unauthorized migrants—are worth saving. The Trump Administration has escalated repressive tactics intended to silence these forms of border-policy dissent. Some federal land managers now blacklist No More Deaths, preemptively denying requests for access permits. Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney’s office has aggressively prosecuted members for humanitarian activities. Because the context around No More Deaths’ expressive work puts it within the First Amendment, however, government attempts to restrict or punish it demand constitutional scrutiny. At the least, government actors—including land managers implementing permit schemes, prosecutors considering criminal charges, and judges overseeing such prosecutions—should give much more weight to the free speech concerns raised by citizen dissenters’ humanitarian activities in the borderlands.