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The Logic of Elimination in the Deserts of the Southwest

Authors: Hilary Malson*, University of California - Los Angeles
Topics: Political Geography, Human Rights, Human-Environment Geography
Keywords: housing justice, decolonization, settler colonialism, homelessness, migration, human rights
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


I seek to highlight the settler colonial logic underpinning two seemingly unrelated human rights crises in the American Southwest: the deaths of people crossing the international border in the Sonora Desert, and the growing number of unhoused residents eking out an existence in the Mojave Desert. While settlers in the Southwest developed the ever-adaptable strategy of containment to neatly organize their inconvenient subjects, in institutions ranging from missions to prisons (Gilmore 2009, Lytle Hernandez 2017), the current conjuncture demands that we analyze settler colonialism with a different lens: elimination. The crime of the wrong people occupying land that is valued on the speculative market (or, as is the cause with unauthorized migrants, intending to do so) is met through elimination: a legal execution, carried out in these cases through the environment.

Drawing from Wolfe’s framing of settler colonialism as a structure, rather than an event (Wolfe 2006), I treat these parallel crises in the region's deserts as planned outcomes of a larger state objective: using the terrain to eliminate and disappear noncitizens. If the current crisis in housing justice must be situated within its settler colonial context, it is vital to foreground decolonization as a means to cultivate life. Tuck and Yang insist that “decolonizing the Americas means all land is repatriated and all settlers become landless (2012: 27). Through Indigenous repatriation, “planning without property” (Dorries 2019), “radical dispossession” (Moten 2008), and other means, we can dismantle the structures of settler states that execute unhoused people in the desert.

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