Methods: Findings draw on 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork in and around migrant shelters across Mexico between 2014 and 2017. Fieldwork included participant observation as a volunteer within shelters and in-depth interviews (audio-recorded and transcribed) with shelter staff and migrants accessing shelter spaces. Field notes were coded iteratively during fieldwork to identify emergent themes and later refined through further analysis in conversation with the coding of interview transcripts. This process of data collection allowed for comparison between reported speech and actual practice.
Results: Shelters workers and migrants negotiate a structural tension. On the one hand, they advance a humanitarian framework of service to vulnerable individuals. On the other, the operate at the margins of human smuggling economies. To navigate this contradiction, they employ a discourse of excluding those involved in human smuggling and a practice of accommodating these very individuals, at least implicitly. They adopt tactics of identifying presumed smugglers without having to verbally label them as such. This negotiation was visible in the context of their intake procedures, through which they exchanged, presented, and sequestered material objects, such as toilet paper, donated clothing, knives, and cell phones. Embodied signs, such as blisters and bleeding wounds also became tentative indicators of collaborative and coercive relationships with smugglers.
Conclusions and Implications: When the need for secrecy and discretion limits the extent to which language operates as the core mechanism for assessment and intervention within social service work, material signs take on a prominent role in mediating the line between “safe spaces” and risky social environments. Considering how material objects and signs mediate care work is particularly important for social service providers working with criminalized populations who may avoid more explicit verbal communication, yet still seek assistance.