The United Psyche of America: A Depth Psychological Inquiry into Immigration at the American-Mexican Border
 ~ by By Ipek S. Burnett

Almost two thousand miles long, the American-Mexican border runs through deserts, rivers, and rugged mountains, separating the two countries and their peoples. The border decides who belongs here and who belongs there. It dictates: This side is the United States, Mexico is the Other.

The United States spends billions of dollars to guard this threshold. In some sections tall fences and walls stand; American border patrol agents stroll with rifles in hand, seeking trespassers. Over time with the rising number of undocumented immigrants the border has become a highly critical and controversial political issue. However, if its complex psychological realities are taken into account, this crisis can perhaps become an opportunity for emotional integration and reconciliation on a collective level.

Jungian analyst Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig (1999) stated that “completeness is fulfilled through incompleteness” (p. 24). For the United States of America to claim the wholeness that is implied in its name, it first needs to witness the gaping lacunae in the borderlands of its consciousness. Lacunae and borders do not have to denote impossible absences and firm barriers. Instead, they can become openings–places of inquiry, movement, dialogue, and exchange.

This article is an invitation to enter such an in-between realm of memories and dreams, where collective historical consciousness and the unconscious meet. Its intention is to inspire a moment of reflection on the unconscious tendencies underlying our political ideologies and actions in the United States. The cultural and historical significance of the conflict at the American-Mexican border is tremendously complicated; its psychological implications are far more difficult than these few pages can address. Therefore, this piece does not claim to explain how the Mexican perspective may differ from the American concerning the border crossings, or offer an in-depth analysis of America’s social and political narratives on immigration. It only takes a modest step toward the depth perspective in the hopes of instigating a process of seeing-through, so we can begin to think psychologically about the United States’ relationship to its southern borderland.

Seeing-Through and Crossing Over

In a culture where different disciplines are disconnected from one another, approaching a political phenomenon with a depth psychological lens is crossing a border.   Here, politics belong to the congress; art belongs to a canvas; psychology belongs to mental health clinics. Politics engage in immigration debates; arts pursue aesthetics; psychology attends to dreams. Such discriminative and simplistic ways of thinking are not only limiting, but also misleading. They create false hierarchies, betray the depths of human experience, and deprive us of meaning. They severely hinder our potential for self-awareness and transformation as individuals, and as a collective.

Archetypal psychology drops in and picks up the delicate thread of imagination that weaves insights. Instead of offering one-word answers, quick fixes, and short-term solutions, it sheds light on the ambiguities, the fluidity and multiplicity of truths. With its dynamic methodology, it encourages us to see through cultural events in order to grasp the imbedded visions and ideas in them. The founder of archetypal psychology, James Hillman (1975) explained that psychologizing in this imaginative and engaging manner teaches us how to look at “the frames of our consciousness, the cages in which we sit and the iron bars that form the grids and defenses of our perception” (p. 127). We need to re-view and re-vision what we have previously taken as literal actions and descriptions so that we can be free to see psyche speaking in them symbolically and metaphorically. With this new understanding, our experiences once again deepen and meaning becomes possible.

Hillman (1975) wrote:

Psychologizing goes on whenever reflection takes place in terms other than those presented. It suspects an interior, not evident intention; it searches for a hidden clockwork, a ghost in the machine, an etymological root, something more than meets the eye; or it sees with another eye. It goes on whenever we move to a deeper level. (p.135)


When we enter the vast realm of the unconscious, what once seemed to be evident black-and-white facts crumble and collapse. From their debris deeper, inherited cultural images and themes spontaneously emerge. Ageless memories arise. The truth, in its paradoxical, contradictory, poetic, and symbolic language begins to speak and sing.

The Return of the Repressed Memories

Fences are rising higher and higher with added barbwire. Ground sensors and infrared cameras are scanning the dark. Troops with machine guns are pacing up and down. Congress is signing one bill after another–more agents; more equipment; one more allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars. The Department of Homeland Security is still searching for new names to battle the same old fears: Operation Hold the Line, Operation Gatekeepers, Operation Safeguard.

Despite all efforts, the number of undocumented immigrants in this country remains noticeably high. In the pitch black of the night they arrive from down below. They jump over the fences, go through the rivers, they hide in the bushes, they crouch and deceive the censors. If they get caught, many may try again the next day, and the next day, until they succeed. Sometimes the same people get arrested on the border or at an airport three days in a row before they finally make it into the United States. When on U.S. American grounds, in order to avoid deportation, some may acquire fake documents, often with new names and identities. Standing on the south of the border, the Mexicans call the United States “the Other side” (Hellman, 2008). Once they cross over, they become Others.

There is something uncanny about this otherness and this repetitive return. Freud (1919/2003) defined uncanny as that which leads us back to what is known of old and familiar. It feels as if the shadows across the desert come from somewhere in the past. Like repressed yet lingering memories, the rejected immigrants keep returning. They come back from the dead, embodying the solitude, darkness, and silence of this land’s past–the America that was here before the United States.

Lend an ear. Listen. Listen to the border; it has secrets and stories to tell. This border does not just speak in English and Spanish. It does not speak only in policies, statistics, and operation titles. It screams with bullets, it howls with wilderness. If you listen carefully you will also hear the languages that belong to ancient times, the native tribes. Underneath this earth we stand on, the true ancestors of this land rest. Underneath the thick cement sidewalks, these flat freeways, and the manicured suburban lawns, there are layers and layers of damp, dark soil drunk with the blood of generations. Listen carefully and behind the white noise you will hear the songs of the indigenous. You will hear how they screamed as the settlers raised those rifles and raped their women. You will hear the rage of their abandoned gods. Beneath the nationhood of the United States, atrocities American natives suffered still breathe. And above the ground, modern cities of the New World reside in amnesia.

Chicana cultural theorist, writer, and poet Anzaldua (2007) remarked that the earliest signs of human life in the United States pointed to Indian ancestors from 35,000 B.C. in Texas. In the Southwest there were evidences of 20,000 year-old campsites. These lands-Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and California-belonged to Mexico until the 1846 U.S.-Mexican War. “We were jerked out by the roots, truncated, disemboweled, dispossessed, and separated from our identity and our history,” Anzaldua wrote (p. 30).

An alternative Mexican band, Tijuana No! (1998) expressed its culture’s anguish and wrath in a song music blending rap, rock, and punk-“Stolen at Gunpoint:”

You say we crossed the borders shit the borders crossed us

. . . California, stolen at gunpoint.

Arizona, stolen at gunpoint.

Texas, stolen at gunpoint.

Nuevo México, stolen at gunpoint.

El Páramo, stolen at gunpoint.

Aztlán, stolen at gunpoint.

Puerto Rico, stolen at gunpoint.

América, stolen at gunpoint.


Many of the immigrants who cross the southern border of the United States illegally are actually indigenous (Urrea, 2004). According to Anzaldua (2007), this return to the homeland is seen as “a silent invasion” (p. 32).

The unconscious is unrelenting. It will not let go of the painful memories until they become acknowledged, mourned, and fully integrated into consciousness. As long as the repression endures, there will be acts of compromise and compensation between the conscious and unconscious. The dream is an example of this: At nighttime the censors weaken, ego’s defenses come down. That is when the secrets and repressed reminiscences creep into the night-consciousness. They jump the fences. They cross the borders.

The territory at the American-Mexican border is like an uncanny dreamscape. At night in the dark, the indigenous people enter the desert from the realm of the unconscious to return to where they once belonged. Like it happens with dream-displacement, they obtain identity cards with new names. Their foreign yet familiar presence feels like a curse for the American host. The uncanny feels frightening. It feels out-of-control.

The United States attempts to explain the nightmare of border politics in literal terms–economic concerns that come with scarcity of jobs, and the strain on education and health care systems. Increased numbers of military personnel and sensors give the illusion of maintaining power over the region. Although America’s border defense mechanisms appear technologically advanced, they are psychologically primitive. They represent mere forms of repression, projection, and disassociation. They point to a crisis in self-recognition, one that is becoming unbearably costly–both financially and psychologically.

Defending Against the Shadow

Our patriotic accounts may attempt to restore and retain a certain vision of ourselves as powerful, just, and proud.   However, the conquest of the Mexican land and the dislocation of native peoples reveal a history of arrogance, greed, and immeasurable violence. Behind the mask of the United States’ heroic narratives of Southwest expansion is the face of America’s collective shadow.

Emotionally charged defenses of the national ego thrive on projecting shadow qualities onto Others. According to psychoanalyst and philosopher Lacan (2004), the function of language is not to inform but to evoke. The derogatory language used in naming the Mexican immigrants “beaners,” “taco benders,” and “wetbacks” is crucial in evoking this sense of the Other. Moreover, all immigrants-documented or not-are stripped of their humanity by being labeled “aliens.” But isn’t the United States a nation whose people have almost all arrived from different lands?

Perhaps the very language of “aliens” and the unending immigration disputes harbor the truth of America’s self-alienation. Until the people of the United States become conscious of their historical legacy and recognize its dark aspects, unconsciously driven hostilities toward the Mexican people will continue to influence the politics and culture of this country. As Carl Jung (1983) asserted, “the shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality” (p. 91). Respectively, the collective shadow is a political, psychological, and ethical responsibility for an entire nation.

How many billions of dollars more will it take to resist a confrontation with the unconscious? How many bullets more will it take before America stops shooting at an apparent shadow? How many more others have to suffer and die?

The U.S. American Myth

Former United States Senator Gary Hart (1997) wrote “myths concern both who we are and who we tell ourselves we are” (p. 5). Surveying the prevailing U.S. American myths, in them he observed a repetition of ideologies and the affirmation of particular identities: The myth of settler, the myth of revolutionary, the myth of frontiersman/pioneer/explorer. Reflecting on the myth of Christopher Columbus and its inherited legacy, cultural critic bell hooks (1994) underscored our need to rethink issues of “origins and beginnings.” She argued that the cultural romanticizing of this myth equals romanticizing oppression, exploitation, and rape.

To discover means to make known or visible (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2010). Paradoxically, America’s myth of “discovery” covers up its true origins. It denies the priori claim of the indigenous people. It masks their massacre. With the myth of discovery, America becomes a blank page, a fresh start. It becomes the “New” World. It is this newness that reveals the illusion at the heart of the American myth. As Freud (1927/1989) maintained, an illusion is not necessarily an error: “We call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation” (p. 704). Perhaps within the U.S. American imagination, the wish is to wash the blood off, forget the violent experience, and in archetypal terms, remain in Eden, as innocent as before the Fall.

In her work of bridging depth and liberation psychologies, Mary Watkins (2009) discussed that to see through the psychic walls built at the American-Mexican border, the United States has to recover from its cultural and historical amnesia. Developing our historical consciousness and understanding the unconscious dynamics at work in the founding myths of this culture require us to reclaim a painful past. Jungian analysis has always held that regression is a necessary step for psychological progression. Therefore, before we can engage with integrity in a discussion about the very complex and real social issues of immigration reforms and immigrants’ amnesty rights, America needs to regress, remember, and mourn.


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Urrea, L. A. (2004). The devil’s highway: A true story. New York, NY: Back Bay Books.

Watkins, M. (2009). Psyches and cities of hospitality in an era of forced migration: The shadows of slavery and conquest on the immigration debate. In: Politics and the American Soul. Spring, 78, 177-201.


Ipek S. Burnett holds M.A.s in Counseling Psychology and Depth Psychology. She currently is completing a Ph.D. at Pacifica Graduate Institute and working on a novel in her native language, Turkish. She lives in the Bay Area where she has led dreamwork, poetry, and expressive arts therapy groups and workshops.



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