Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Constructing Border Security

When one thinks of law enforcement, one often instinctively conjures up images of police officers. In many ways, the work of other law enforcement officers, such as border security officials can be overshadowed. Border security officials play important and legitimate roles. For example, they keep out unwanted materials (such as firearms, controlled substances) and/or persons (including those seeking to import unlawful objects/possessions) from entering the country. They also serve as agents in the enforcement of other immigration rules and norms. In other cases, they conduct raids on workplaces to ensure that those who are working in the country are lawfully employed. 

Despite the lesser presence of border officials in popular culture, they are not invisible. In Canada, Force Four Entertainment has produced Border Security: Canada's Front Line, a "documentary" television show which features the work of Canada Border Security Agency (CBSA) officials. The show was created in 2012 and modeled off a rather successful show depicting their Australian counterparts - Border Security: Australia's Front Line - which was created in 2004. As CBSA officers confront travelers on a daily basis about their possessions, what they are bringing (back) in and the purposes for traveling from or entering the country, such interactions are showcased and made visible. 

On some level, such aired interactions may provide viewers with a certain level of assurance that without these law enforcement officials, any number of individuals would enter our country with prohibited or undeclared materials. As part of these displayed and visualized inspections, some interactions provide a level of entertainment while showing many travelers at their worst or at the very least less flattering selves. Such persons are of course caught off guard by the camera and expected to consent to being videotaped. These moments are not unproblematic. To what extent might people feel comfortable declining to be on video as they are about to be questioned. As Harsha Walia (2016) contends: "people are turned into unwitting actors during an interaction with law enforcement. Such an inherent power dynamic makes it impossible to give free and informed consent."

By contrast, border officers are always depicted as being at their best behavior. They know in advance that they are going to be on camera. On our screens, border security officers are typically cool, calm and collected individuals and apparently never really rude (if at all) unless provoked. As Peter Hughes (2010) observes in the context of the Australian Border Security show: "Border Security is characterized by calmness and reason. The staff of the different border protection agencies are generally portrayed as calm, reasonable, methodical and polite." The show presents an idealized version of reality with respect to the behavior of border officials. 

There are reasons why border security officials are always presented so positively in contrast to errant travelers. First, with respect to both the Canadian and Australian Border Security shows, the relevant government agencies have veto and editorial control over what is ultimately aired (Farrell, 2015; Hughes, 2010; Pottie-Sherman & Wilkes, 2016). Through such curatorial powers, the agencies can ensure that only the conduct they want to have shown and made public will see the light of day. This goes both for the behavior of their own officers but also those of travelers. The more abusive and intemperate the conduct of travelers, the more sympathetic the officer becomes.

Second, and connected to the first point, viewers are not privy to the less benign interactions that may not even be captured on camera. As we have seen in recent years with police interactions in the United States captured on video, many involve the use of lethal force by law enforcement officials. There may be moments where conduct of border security officials may not always be sweet and civil. As an aside, one thinks of the words of Officer Lorenz (though not a CBSA official) from the seminal Supreme Court of Canada case, Baker v Canada

What we see on screen is not purely for entertainment. What we see can have influence, particularly when it is repeated week after week, year after year. As Orit Kamir has observed in the context of law and film more broadly, visual depictions are 

overwhelmingly influential, playing a key role in the construction of individuals and groups in contemporary societies. They reach enormous audiences and, combining narratives and appealing characters with visual imagery and technological achievement, can stir deep emotions and leave deep impressions.

In a similar vein, Harsha Walia (2016) articulates :

Media representation is not neutral; those who control our media are key influencers of our cultural frames and societal values. At a time when the systemic violence of policing is being challenged every day across this continent, these shows are a propaganda tool and publicity stunt for enforcement agencies while simultaneously reproducing stereotypes of racialized and vulnerable people. 

Through the show and the agencies' editorial powers, border agents are constructed as the country's defence force. As noted above, border officials are portrayed as controlled and polite. In the Canadian version of Border Security, the CBSA is represented as a front line of defence against unwanted American migrants seeking to bring in contraband in addition to Chinese travelers bringing a variety of exotic foods (see Pottie-Sherman & Wilkie, 2016).

The more pristine and sanitized view of immigration and customs officials depicted in Border Security is not shared by other observers or travelers off camera. This includes concerns about treatment and security of individuals in detention (McMartin, 2014) to improper questioning and treatment of travelers on inspection more generally (McGregor, 2012; Canadian Press, 2012; Barmak 2010).

Critics in Canada will rejoice at the cancellation of the Canadian iteration of Border Security. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association initiated a complaint with Canada's privacy commissioner who found that "the Canada Border Services Agency breached the Privacy Act by allowing production company Force Four to film the agency's examination of the migrant labourer [Oscar Mata Duran]" (The Canadian Press, 2016). Meanwhile, the Australian version of Border Security is still going strong.

Television shows that represent and work hand-in-glove with government officials should be viewed with great circumspection.  While they may represent some aspect of reality, they are heavily curated ones. They no more represent reality than would solely depicting law enforcement at their worst or travelers at their best.



Peter Hughes, "Governmentality, blurred boundaries, and pleasure in the docusoap Border Security" (2010) 24:3 Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 439, online:

Orit Kamir, "Why 'Law-and-Film' and What Does It Actually Mean? A Perspective"(2005) 19:2 Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 255, online:

Yolande Pottie-Sherman & Rima Wilkes, "Visual media and the construction of the benign Canadian border on National Geographic's Border Security" (2016) 17:1 Social and Cultural Geography 81, online:

Emma Price & Amy Nethery, "Truth-Telling at the Border: An Audience Appraisal of Border Security"   (2012) 142:1 Media International Australia 148, online: 


Sarah Barmak, "Border rudeness: Maybe the jerk method doesn’t work" The Toronto Star (2 May 2010), online:

"Border Security TV show canned after federal watchdog finds privacy violation" The Canadian Press (13 June 2016), online:

Paul Farrell, "Border force and immigration officials have final say on reality TV show" The Guardian (22 September 2015), online:

Glen McGregor, "'Are you having your menstruation?’ and other bizarre questions asked by airport border guards" Ottawa Citizen (8 July 2013), online:

Pete McMartin, "The Canada Border Services Agency crosses the line" The Vancouver Sun (3 June 2014), online:

Ian Mulgrew, "Border Security is tabloid television at its worst" The Vancouver Sun (15 March 2013), online:

"Report details encounters with rude, accusatory border employees" The Canadian Press (3 September 2012), online:

Zool Suleman, "Privacy Commissioner slams Canadian Border Agency for 'Border Security' TV" The National Observer (13 June 2016), online:

Harsha Walia, "Good riddance to Border Security reality TV show" Vancouver Sun (19 June 2016), online:

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