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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 407 | Junio 2015
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Central America

The Mexico-US border: The Border Patrol’s empire: Solid and liquid border vigilance, part 2

It’s preferable to be undocumented in Washington than to be a citizen in the border city of Brownsville. Living on the US-Mexico border can also mean living on the border of citizenship, with a low-intensity exercise of rights, deteriorated by the Border Patrol’s arbitrary and prejudiced power, which is equipped with a full range of “solid” vigilance mechanisms such as walls, radars, drones… and armed with “liquid” vigilance: an array of “illegal” profiles developed with information technology.

José Luis Rocha

The over 2,000 miles that divide Mexico and the United States make up the most extensive binational border and have the greatest movement in the world. Its natural barrier of rock and sand and its artificial, 687.3-mile wall reinforce the division of two zones already separated by one of the world’s most gigantic income gaps. In a given year, 350 million cross this border legally and an unknown number cross without documents.

A vast, changing border
under super vigilance

In a not totally failed attempt to shape the surroundings and migration flows, US immigration authorities have divided the southwestern US border with Mexico into 9 sectors and 71 Border Patrol stations in order to manage the surveillance of this vast and diverse territory. From west to east we have the San Diego sector (60 land and 114 coastal miles with 8 stations including San Diego, the sixth most populated city in the United States); El Centro (70 miles and 4 stations), Yuma (126 miles, 3 stations, sand dunes and military reserves); Tucson (260 miles, 8 stations including the cities of Tucson, Phoenix and Nogales); El Paso (268 miles including 88 miles along the Rio Grande, which at that point starts being the border line, 11 stations, some in New Mexico and others in Texas); Big Bend (whose 510 miles of land border make it the largest sector and 10 stations), Del Río (210 miles and 9 stations, dotted with farms and ranches); Laredo (171 miles and 9 stations, which includes the city of Dallas and numerous rivers that flow into the Río Grande); and Río Grande Valley (currently the most transited by Central Americans, with 316 miles of border between river and coastline on the Gulf of Mexico, 9 stations and the cities of Brownsville, Río Grande City, Corpus Christi and Kingsville).

The dividing line, which at times is no more than a line in the sand, a row of stones painted with white quicklime, a wire fence, a series of rusted bars or a concrete wall, is the heart of the border region, that battlefield where individuals and government agents test the limits of state authority and national identity. As Rachel St. John maintains in Line in the Sand, the border “is a critical site for understanding the evolution of government priorities and the negotiation of state power in Mexico and the United States more broadly.”

But this dividing line is informed by the chronotope [how configurations of time and space are represented in language and discourse]. To understand the strict vigilance exercised in the United States via the panoptic (surveillance, control and enclosure, including everything visible in one view) and banoptic (through profiling using computer technology), it’s important to visualize the diversity of borders. The border is a social construct that changes in space and time. The US-Mexican border changed drastically following the 9/11 attacks and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on November 25, 2002 and the beginning of its operations on January 24, 2003. According to Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute, no other region of the United States paid a higher price than this binational border, which had nothing to do with the attacks, its intellectual authors, executors or terrorist groups in general.
This border has seen outstanding changes in its geographical, political, administrative, commercial and cultural dimensions. They are visible in the cities that lie on both sides of it; cities that, though guillotined by a wall, are an urban continuum: among others Matamoros/Brownsville in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas and in Texas; the two Nogaleses in Sonora and in Arizona; Mexicali/Calexico and also Tijuana/San Diego in Baja California and in California; and Ciudad Juárez/El Paso in Chihuahua and in Texas.



Mexican cities grow, US cities Latino-ize

Those who live on the US side of the border prefer to live in cities. Since 2000 urban agglomerations have housed 92% of the border population in contrast with a 79% urban US population overall. The majority are found in San Diego County, where 2.8 million of the 6.3 million border residents live. As a result, all these cities have rapid demographic growth and are becoming progressively Latino, largely due to migration.

Mexico’s border cities are growing and the US ones are becoming more Latino. Fifteen million people live in the cities, towns and villages along the border. Ciudad Juárez, which surpassed 425,000 inhabitants in 1980, hit 1.3 million in 2000. El Paso, its Siamese twin on the other side, grew in migrants. Permanent residence was granted to 5,261 migrants in the El Paso area in 2013 alone. There were also 2,652 new naturalized citizens, a marked reduction from 4,436 in 2008. In 2004-2013, the DHS granted 46,514 new residencies and 25,462 residents were granted citizenship. These figures are symptomatic of the ethnic and pigment transformation border cities are experiencing. By 1970 half of the city of El Paso was Latino, a highly pejorative condition in a territory where the narrative “all poverty is Mexican” is so entrenched and permeates so many visions and interpretations. A decade later, 62.5% of the population was Latino and only 33% was Anglo-Saxon. By 1990 the Latino population had reached 69% and by 2000 it was 76.6%. The 2010 census registered 80.7% of the population as Latino.
Many people from Juárez have dual nationality, living in El Paso and traveling to Ciudad Juárez only to collect earnings from their businesses, which are frequently subject to extortions. One mayor of Ciudad Juárez even lived with his family in El Paso during his term in office. Forming an uninterrupted urban mass with San Diego, Chula Vista went from 23% to 37% Latino in the 1980-1990 period, and reached 50% by 2010. Populations such as Calexico, Eagle Pass, Nogales, Brownsville and McAllen, which currently have 97%, 95.5%, 95%, 93% and 85% Latino populations, respectively, have followed similar trajectories.

Does this mean that migrants crossing the border have better camouflage? On the contrary; it means that even native-born and authorized Latino residents are regularly treated as if they were undocumented.

“Communities are afraid”

Many of the cases defended by Jaime Diaz, a Brownsville migration attorney with Jones and Crane Attorneys at Law, are of US natives whose identity documents have been questioned and seized by Border Patrol agents.

“Practically everyone on the border says the same: it’s a mess; migration detains everyone, including people born here. Communities are scared. Local police are increasingly more abusive of people. The situation is becoming more difficult. The Border Patrol is grabbing people who’ve lived here for a long time, whose families are here and who are no longer from there. It doesn’t even help to be married to soldiers. Before, you just said you were a US citizen and they let you cross the border. Some continued to do it during this period: they said they were citizens and they weren’t. They were processed after living here for many years. These people are never going to be pardoned because they’re accused of having committed fraud. This is a problem specific to the border. You don’t have such cases in the north of the country. There are also many problems with citizens born here with midwives; they’re often denied a passport and even those who do have one are detained on the bridge. When they present their documents, they’re returned. All of them are mistreated when they cross the border, even if they’re a citizen or a resident. At times I think this has gotten out of the government’s control. The DHS does what it wants and it doesn’t matter who’s at the head of the government.”

“What happens here is incredible”

“I have thousands of stories of what has happened to citizens,” Díaz continues. “They’ve put them in cold rooms, taken their papers, sent them to Mexico… And we’ve sued DHS, winning the return of clients’ papers but I’ve never seen a change on their part, where they say, ‘How is it possible that we have officials who put a woman in a cold room for 13 hours, telling her she doesn’t have the right to an attorney until she admits that her daughter wasn’t born in the United States?’ And once she does ‘admit’ it, they run her out of the country, take her children’s papers and leave them all on the other side.

“It’s utterly incredible to think this occurs in a country that supposedly has rules. And if it only happened once… but I can tell you I have 50 passport cases, 10 of which had this sort of problem. I’ve had people whose passports were canceled without them even knowing it. They’re only told their passport is canceled when they get to the bridge. And if this happens to citizens, what can we expect happens to those without documents and even legal residents? If one day someone in the United States writes the history of this period we’re living right now, they’ll see that the government justifies everything with security. And this seems right to everyone until you’re the person they run out of the country.

“The State Department doesn’t get why there are so many Mexicans, so many Latinos here. They aren’t aware that many people don’t speak English because they haven’t needed to, as in Puerto Rico. Since there have been many fraudulent passports, they began to review all passports issued previously and identified those that had something questionable. How is it possible that they can cancel your citizenship just because they found a document they don’t even know is yours because it could be a homonym? They talk about Russia, Cuba and China… I don’t know how things are there but given what they report, it sounds a lot like here.”

“Revitalize, not militarize”

The abuses committed by migration authorities on the border have sparked the emergence of networks and movements. Southern Border Communities Coalition, Border Action Network and Río Grande Valley Equal Voice Network are some of the most prominent. They promote demilitarization of the border and supervision of and accountability from Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The first is made up of 60 organizations including the legendary American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The last, a cluster of 10 groups, works under the motto, “Revitalize, not militarize border communities,” which is stamped onto posters and T-shirts accompanied by a drawing of a military helmet turned upside down, cracked by roots and crowned with a flower: the military symbol metamorphosed into a springtime planter.

The spokesperson for this network, Michael Siefert, spoke to me about the impotence of signature campaigns against the installation of the giant metal walls that divided backyards, farms and lives. It’s not just one wall but several parallel barriers that convert the border into a labyrinthine belt, segmented two and sometimes three times to create territorial reserves where only the Border Patrol has permission to circulate: “The cost: between US$3 million and 5 million per linear mile, right here, in the poorest municipality in the United States.”

Expensive walls and a worsening economy

Sieferts’ calculation is correct: the US Army Corp of Engineers estimated a cost of US$1.3 million per linear mile, not including the cost of land acquisition. But, as the Brownsville wall was made in triplicate, the cost was greater. And it gets even more expensive if we add in maintenance costs: a study by the Corps of Engineers estimated maintenance costs for the wall at between US$16.4 and 70 million per mile for a 25-year period. The university, ringed by one of these costly walls, fought for a more friendly and aesthetic design. Fortunately they succeeded because an Alma Mater shouldn’t look like Alcatraz. Common citizens, however, couldn’t prevent their back gardens from being expropriated and turned into patrol zones.

The region is being punished economically by the surveillance obsession. Prolonged and unpredictable waiting periods at customs have impacted the competitiveness of many border industries and some have opted to relocate in Asia. The consequences are multiple. Bilateral trade grew at a rate of 17% between 1993 and 2000, then dropped to just 4.5% between 2000 and 2008. In the midst of a depressed zone with unemployment rates higher than the national average (11.9% versus 9.6% in 2010), unemployment in Imperial Valley reaches almost 30%. The percentage of people living under the poverty line in these border states is also higher than the 15.3% national average: New Mexico 20.4%, Texas 17.9%, Arizona 17.4% and California 15.8%.

Insults to indigenous communities

Another point of contention is the treatment of indigenous communities, which are subjected to repeated insults by border patrol agents. They are the brownest of the brown in a region where being brown isn’t just perceived by skin color but also by language, clothing, social life, places frequented and other practices and customs.

Inhabiting a nation that includes 76 miles of border with Mexico (29% of Tucson’s migratory), their lands have been identified as among the most vulnerable areas for non-authorized entrance onto US soil and as a total threat to national security.

Investigating beyond the words of official policies, journalist Todd Miller finds that members of the Tohono O’odham indigenous group are treated as foreigners and their sovereign rights over southwestern Arizona, dating to pre-colonial times, have been violated in the name of the war on terrorism and illegal trafficking in drugs and humans, concepts foreign to their culture but ominously incarnated in the presence of the Border Patrol since 1933 and massively expanded in 2001. They have hung banners with the same motto used by other border networks: “Stop militarization on indigenous lands now.”

“Brown skin doesn’t make me bad”

Pressure from Border Patrol operations in other border regions has driven undocumented migration toward the Yaqui and Tohono O’odham nation’s territories. According to Tohono O’odham representative Ned Norris, an average of 15,000 non-authorized migrants crossed their territory every month in 2008. He mentioned this statistic to Congress and stated that the annual cost of providing health services and implementing migration laws was US$ three million. Arguing that migration policies are a federal matter, Norris requested financial support from Congress for his nation, which has 35% unemployment and an annual per-capita income of US$8,000.

The Department of Homeland Security asserts that drug cartels want to recruit indigenous youth. Suspected of running drugs and migrants, these “desert people”—the etymological meaning of Tohono O’odham—are required to identify themselves every time they encounter a patrol. Some members see the Border Patrol as an occupation army because it’s perceived as a foreign element whose presence has contributed to the fact that one out of every ten tribal members is in prison, according to calculations by reservation authorities, detained with no explanation of charges against them. Miller observed that if the Fourth Amendment seems weak in other areas of the border, it’s metaphorically blown to smithereens on the reservation.
Amnesty International, in a report titled, “In hostile terrain,” reports that indigenous people are constantly considered to be undocumented migrants, insulted, beaten, handcuffed, doused with pepper spray, separated from their children, detained without charges and forced to sign deportation orders in Spanish then sent to Mexico when they only speak O’odham. One victim of Border Patrol excesses concludes with an indictment that delves deep and exposes one of the roots of the problem: “Just because my skin is brown doesn’t make me a bad person.”

Violation of indigenous tribal sovereignty

Tribal identity cards issued by the Tohono O’odham nation authority are repeatedly disrespected by Border Patrol agents. The federal government wants to require cards with microchips for border crossing, a requirement that many tribal members cannot meet because they don’t have birth certificates.

This situation, affecting both the Yaqui and Tohono O’odham nations—30,000 and 28,000 citizens, respectively—is an open, everyday violation of article 36 of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted in the 61st session of the UN General Assembly in New York by a vote of 143 countries, with the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand originally opposed and finally ratifying it in “segundas nupcias”: “Indigenous peoples, in particular those divided by international borders, have the right to maintain and develop contacts, relations and cooperation, including activities for spiritual, cultural, political, economic and social purposes, with their own members as well as other peoples across borders.” It also violates Supreme Court rulings including the 1975 United States v. Mazurie decision that determined, “Indian tribes are unique aggregations possessing attributes of sovereignty over both their members and their territory.”

The widespread violation of these legal instruments is symptomatic of an erosion of tribal sovereignty over its territory, which has a long tradition in the State’s relations with indigenous communities. A culmination point of this infringement on sovereignty was the 1830 congressional resolution that made into law what Andrew Jackson had already put into practice. Its most bitter legacy was the 1840 “Trail of Tears”: the forced removal of more than 70,000 Native Americans to west of the Mississippi river. Many died of hunger, sickness and exhaustion, among them 4,000 Cherokee. Jackson was so cynical as to declare to the displaced indigenous: “Say to the chiefs and warriors that I am their friend, that I wish to act as their friend but they must, by removing from the limits of the states of Mississippi and Alabama and by being settled on the lands I offer them, put it in my power to be such—There, beyond the limits of any State, in possession of land of their own, which they shall possess as long a Grass grows or water runs. I am and will protect them and be their friend and father.”

Drugs, terrorism and migration
threaten territorial sovereignty

United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Alexander Aleinikoff has pointed out that tribal sovereignty precedes that of the Constitution and that the legitimacy of this claim is not based on the fact that indigenous were true Native Americans, but rather that they had prior sovereignty. However, the powers of the US Congress have collided with tribal customs and regulations.

This clash is expressed in a series of regulations and verdicts that at times restrict and at times expand the powers of indigenous government. The basis of these legal fluctuations is the concept of sovereignty as a territorial concept or as an issue of membership. There are legal decisions such as Montana vs. United States (1981), establishing that an Indian tribe’s inherent, sovereign powers do not extend to the activities of non-tribal members. This is a very delicate issue because there are non-native Latinos living within a reservation who have a piece of land on which they produce or lend services requiring local regulation.

Taking note of these circumstances, the Court established two exceptions that return to the territorial concept of sovereignty: 1) The tribe may regulate contracts and other arrangements between members and non-members of the tribe and 2) The tribe may regulate the conduct of non-Indians on private lands when their conduct threatens or has a direct effect on the political integrity, economic security or health and welfare of the tribe. This territorial sovereignty was already weakened given that it did not permit regulation of all activities, rather only potential or actually harmful ones, and that the very interference of the Court itself and compliance with its decision operate on the basis of a tacit assumption that the tribe exercises powers that are delegated, not inherent. The best proof of this is the impotence of tribes regarding state or federal agents who abuse their members with an impunity granted them in Montana vs. United States.

This territorial sovereignty is what has suffered the greatest erosion with the three DHS struggles: drugs, terrorism and migration. Sovereignty was nullified with the imposition of strict, militarized border vigilance. DHS has plenary powers on the border and its agents don’t have to bother with presenting an accusation or witnessing a crime in order to seize documents and detain people.

It’s enough if someone is brown
and doesn’t speak English

The testimonies of Jaime Diaz, other migration attorneys and citizens—indigenous, Latinos and even Caucasians—who live on the border as well as the declarations of activists who, like Michael Siefert, promote demilitarization of the border reveal various transformations.

First is the application of the banoptic: being brown and non-English-speaking are the factors that most alert the border vigilance bureaucrats. Application begins in public spaces with street bureaucracy. In this terrain of its first application, new technologies are not needed. The banoptic is in the memes—replicators of human conduct—of the Border Patrol agents, whose racial prejudices, at times exacerbated because they are members and seek to distinguish/distance themselves from the ethnicity that so torments them, put in motion a process in which a certain feature becomes a stigma. The citizenry’s genotype is somewhat hidden. The Border Patrol agent has before him only a phenotype of brown. On the basis of this preverbal presence, the first unfavorable hypothesis is formed. When an identity document is shown on demand, the authenticity of the genotype “citizen” is investigated.
The first indicator is language. More scrutiny is applied if the person carrying the identity document speaks defective English. If investigation reveals that the person came into this world with the assistance of a midwife, not in a properly accredited hospital or clinic, the suspect has now passed the threshold of a lengthy legal process that can result in expulsion.

Only in the second moment does the banoptic consist of a review of documents passing through the screen of identification statistics based on particular, potentially criminal, behavior and features: not speaking English, born with a midwife or in hospitals where registries were lost, can’t explain their situation, parents aren’t native-born, etc. The system receives this information with the automation of a soda machine dispenser, emitting cancelations of citizenships.

“Colorism” is more resistant than racism

The second transformation of the border is the combination of browning and the 9/11 attacks. The browning of the border—the sustained increase of the Latino population to the point of becoming the majority, a feature all US border populations have in common—has been accompanied by a deterioration of the treatment for native-born, legal residents, tourists and undocumented alike. Some academics, among them Tony Payán, have concluded that the issue of security and the resultant vigilance has injected more vulnerability and loss of rights into the US migration legal system than ever before and has given rise to a generalized caste system among various social groups, where whiteness and money are key factors.

Tijuana/San Diego and Ciudad Juárez/El Paso, which are sites for maquilas [assembly plants for re-export across the border] and residences for workers and administrators, are and have been points of numerous and everyday border crossings. But these crossings are accompanied by inspections at the border and its surrounding areas. This means daily discrimination and a distrusting use of urban spaces: streets, buses and shops are sites where one risks being taken for undocumented. Color, associated with race and social class, carries more weight than ethnicity. There are academics who consider that ideas about race, class, ethnicity and nationalism are fluid categories that have changed with time, while the color hierarchy has been passively and silently maintained since colonialism: “colorism” is more resistant that racism.

The “Mexican Brown”
are the most suspicious

The prison of color persists in our times with a long tradition that reinforces the stigma. Visitors’ common compliment to the border’s inhabitants is mention of their whiteness.
History books emphasize that not only on the gringo side but also in Sonora there were women famous for being tall, white and the most beautiful in all of Mexico. Nineteenth-century visitors such as Marie Robinson Wright contributed to this image, writing that Sonoran women had “light colored hair, predominantly blue eyes and many beautiful heads full of brown hair like Cleopatra.”

Historian Kelly Lytle Hernández coined the expression Mexican Brown as a rhetorical and conceptual tool to underscore the fact that “regardless of immigration or citizenship status, it was Mexican Browns rather than abstract Mexicans who lived within the Border Patrol’s sphere of suspicion.” According to Hernández, all documents related to the Border Patrol, from correspondence and official archives to cultural artifacts—humoristic vignettes, jokes and autobiographies—reflect the tacit distinctions of gender, class and complexion that constitute the Border Patrol’s target.
In the sarcastic words of one agent: the primary objective of the Border Patrol is “a Mexican male; about 5.5” to 5.8"; dark brown hair; brown eyes; dark complexion; wearing huaraches… and so on.” One line from a cuttingly humorous migration ballad titled “Superman Is an Illegal” contrasts migration agents’ treatment of Superman with wetbacks: “…he is blond, blue-eyed, well-built/and I am dark, chubby and very short.”

The obvious predominance of brown skin and the Mexican Brown phenotype among border inhabitants has become the basis for a discriminatory treatment that took on epidemic proportions after 9/11. Only the combination of both factors explains the proliferation of mistreatment, searches and raids.
The black/white dichotomy shaped the biased distinction between legals and illegals. The obsession with vigilance joined with colorism to produce demoted citizenships, preparing the way for the complete denial of rights for the undocumented.

The dramatic case of Mark Lyttle

A third transformation of the border: the plenary powers granted to the DHS have resulted in a degradation of the sovereignty of local powers and ethnicities with the most dramatic effect being the expulsion of citizens.

The fact that local documents are worth little to nothing to the statistical filters of border vigilance not only relegates the state authorities that issue these documents to second place as effective governors and guarantors of the official identity of citizens but also nullifies the authority, credibility, actions and words of other bureaucracies: police who opt not to collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), churches bearing witness for members of their congregations and giving shelter to the homeless regardless of migratory status and law firms representing the cases of their clients, among others.

The upshot of applying the banoptic—a brown border in the post 9/11 era and the nullification of local bureaucracies—is the expulsion of one’s own people who haven’t been entirely incorporated. Based on interesting case studies, Payán sustains that citizenship makes those who possess it immune from deportation: even if they are carrying drugs, trafficking arms, “they will never be deported,” but we can establish the contrary: even full-blown citizens with a Mexican Brown phenotype are far from immune in a region subjected to racial prophylaxis.

There are many citizens in name only, like the nightmarish 2008 case of 32-year-old Mark Lyttle, of Puerto Rican descent but born in Rowan County, North Carolina. Even though immigration officials had criminal record checks showing he was a US citizen, also had his Social Security number, his parents’ names and his own sworn statement that he had been born in Rowan County, and knew he was bipolar and had a learning disability, they arrested him on the border as a presumed undocumented Mexican, renamed him “Jose Thomas,” detained him in Corrections Corporation of America and deported him to the border town of Reynosa, Mexico. Not recognizing him as a Mexican citizen, Mexican authorities deported him to Honduras where he was arrested and subjected to abuses—the proverbial modus operandi of the General Direction of Migration—then expelled to Nicaragua.

The drama of life on the border

Lyttle’s case is not as rare as it seems: in 2010 Jacqueline Stevens, a researcher at Northwestern University, discovered that of 400,000 people detained by ICE as undocumented foreigners, 4,000 were US citizens.

Local authorities were unable to do anything to support those people’s citizenship and they were subjected to the “absolutely pervasive unpredictability” that Hannah Arendt finds in violence, but is also present in the banoptic: it doesn’t matter how you identify yourself, the electronic combination of your data has the last word. If you’re built like a Mexican, you’re Mexican. If you don’t fit those proportions, you’re a Central American. Once the banoptic model categorizes you, you’ll be subjected to the treatment and all the consequences that go along with it. You deserve it.
Here resides a paradox of the US legal system: immigrant rights increase and those of citizens and non-citizens decrease. When Michael Siefert asked me to share the preliminary conclusions of my border visit, I told him it’s better to be undocumented in Maryland than a citizen in Brownsville. Living on the territorial border may also mean living on the border of citizenship, with a low-intensity and deteriorated exercise of one’s rights.

The militarized border that’s not spoken of

The fourth transformation of the border is militarization. The banoptic, war on crime and persecution of the undocumented couldn’t exist without militarization, which is blatant in the growing use of drones and other military technologies. Clausewitz points out: “Fighting has determined everything appertaining to arms and equipment, and these in turn modify the mode of fighting; there is, therefore, a reciprocity of action between the two.”

In the military sphere, means shape the end and the nature of the actions. More than an official declaration, the military implements and the number of troops and their conduct are what advise us of war and militarization. The perception of the Tohono O’odham people of the Border Patrol as an “occupation army” finds an empirical base in its implements, prerogatives and determination to subordinate local powers.

The militarization of the border as if it is a war zone, with the de facto suspension of civil rights, warrants scrutiny. While CNN and other big television networks turn their cameras and microphones to abuses committed by Putin in Russia, Castro in Cuba and Maduro in Venezuela, the critical situation of people living on the southwestern border of the United States is not newsworthy, becoming as foreign as Ugaritic Bible to the average US citizen. The war being waged on the border barely captures major media attention even though—or perhaps because—it compromises real democracy and is linked to financial interests that want to prolong it.

1924: The birth of the Border Patrol

The US Border Patrol was created by the US Congress on May 28, 1924, as an agency of the Department of Labor and was given a US$1 million budget, according to Kelly Lytle Hernández. In 1940, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), created seven years earlier as a consolidation of two other institutions, was moved from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice, taking the Border Patrol with it. Then on March 1, 2003, in the wake of 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established, INS was dissolved and some of its operations, including Border Patrol, were moved to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a component of DHS that takes pride in being its largest law enforcement agency and one of the largest in the world. Other INS operations were given to the new ICE, which was also put under the DHS and is its largest investigative arm.

Even before the Border Patrol was created, anti-immigrant forces had made legal advances in this direction with the prohibition of “coolies” in 1862, of the entrance of prostitutes and criminals in 1875, and of lunatics, idiots, convicts and anyone susceptible of becoming a public burden or infected with contagious disease in 1882. A 1903 law added epileptics, anarchists and beggars to the long list of those unwelcome, and in 1907 lengthened it further by adding imbeciles, fools, those with physical defects or tuberculosis, children unaccompanied by their parents, anyone admitting to the commission of a crime involving moral scandal and women with immoral intentions. Within another ten years the list excluded all Asians, illiterates, prostitutes, criminals, master masons, unaccompanied children, idiots, epileptics, mentally insane, indigents, sick and defective, alcoholics, beggars, polygamists, anarchists and many others.

In 1882 migrants had to pay 50 cents apiece to the structures in charge of screening them, which climbed to US$4 by 1907. In 1903 Congress put the then-immigration office under the Department of Commerce and Labor. A decade later, Commerce and Labor were separated and immigration stayed with the new and independent Department of Labor, where it was when the Border Control came into being.

Migration was first a labor issue

This placement indicated the mindset and treatment of migration: it was a labor issue, which was reasonable given the dependence US agro-industry had developed on Mexican labor when Porfirio Diaz’s modernization onslaught extended the railroads to El Paso in 1884 and dispossessed hundreds of thousands of peasants from their land.

The agro-industrial boom linked to the new migratory corridor that provided quiet, diligent and docile workers—according to their pleased bosses—made it possible to dispense with the more rebellious Asians whose entry was thus blocked by successive waves of anti-immigrant legislation: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907—an international treaty requiring the Japanese government to significantly restrict Japanese migration to the United States—and the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, cutting off the Filipino migration that began after the Spanish-American war in 1989, resulting in a spike in California’s Filipino population from 5 people in 1900 to 30,000 in 1930.

By the twenties, Mexicans were between 80% and 95% of the agricultural labor force in the most productive border valleys. Their comparative advantage wasn’t just their real or supposed docility, but also their temporary status. A review of the crops at that time—melon, cotton, peas, alfalfa, asparagus and citrus—reveals that they required a lot of manual labor at harvest time and a minimum for planting, fertilizing, thinning, pest control, irrigation and other tasks.

Mexicans were ideal
migrants for many years

For a long time Mexicans were those ideal migrants now applauded in United Nations forums as “circular migrants.” They were the meek, well behaved migrants who came alone, worked and went back home before the proverbial three days when, according to popular wisdom, one begins to stink. Demand for them grew during the Second World War, when manual labor was urgently needed to replace vacancies created by the Army’s recruitment of workers and farmers. The flow was facilitated by the signing of an agreement between the US and Mexican governments titled “Temporary Migration of Mexican Agricultural Workers to the United States,” more generally known as the Bracero Program, which brought nearly 4 million Mexican workers between 1942 y 1964.
Many of these temporary contract workers began to stay, however, and by the end of the war they became a source of concern, in part because they competed with returning soldiers. In the early postwar years, “guest” workers who entered without correct documentation were captured by border patrols and turned over to the Texas Employment Commission, which took charge of fumigating them, legally certifying them and sending them to Texan plantations, a process sometimes referred to as “wetback drying.”

Mexicans are now the
archetype of the illegal foreigner

That commission dried 142,000 wetbacks between 1947 and 1949, by which time the majority of new ones were neither welcome nor dried because of the growth in their numbers. A presidential commission sounded the alarm that latter year by announcing that at least 400,000 of the 1 million migratory workers were wetbacks. Deportations went from 29,000 in 1944 to 565,000 the year after that announcement. In 1954 the apprehension of undocumented persons surpassed a million: an average of 3,000 per day. Mexicans were established more than ever before as the archetype of the illegal foreigner.
Central Americans have been stuffed into this archetype by force and “assimilated” as children of Moctezuma, a classification from which they have only recently been freed with the category OTM—Other than Mexicans—which includes everything from those originally from the isthmus, to Cubans and Ethiopians entering the United States by way of its southwestern border.
The institutionalizing of suspicion regarding citizenship authenticity on the border dates from that time. Since 1954, as part of Operation Wetback, the Border Patrol has dedicated itself to an intense search for “fraudulent citizenships.” In 1957 it identified only 181 people with false citizenship documents, 181 needles in the haystack of cities full of Mexican-US citizens, undistinguishable at a glance from Mexicans without US citizenship. This search was bureaucratized with the creation of the Fraudulent Document Center in Yuma. By 2014, 76 fraudulent documents were identified each day.
Judging by the number of apprehensions, either these operations had an effect or the expulsion/attraction conditions changed. In 1960 the Border Patrol registered only 21,022 captures on the southern border. By 1970 its efforts had reached a significant new volume with 201,780 detentions, then dizzyingly increased to 512,264 in 1975 and 690,554 in 1980, and a record 1,615,844 in 1986 due to so many Central American migrants fleeing war in the eighties. To this date, that peak has only been surpassed by the 1,643,679 apprehensions in 2000. Curiously, this was achieved by a group of just 8,580 agents, less than half the number of troops currently stationed on the southern border.

The case of Inspector
Clifford Alan Perkins

The Border Patrol’s modest origins were a trend that continued during most of the 20th century. At the beginning its ranks were filled by young people with no professional preparation seeking high salaries. One of these was Clifford Alan Perkins, who went to El Paso looking for work in 1908. He was 19 years old with no work history. He first found a monotonous, poorly paid job in the post office, which he soon left for a more exciting and more lucrative position with the Immigration Service. As inspector of the mounted guard in charge of apprehending Chinese, he doubled his salary. His beat was to patrol border towns from Nogales to Brownsville.

In 1920 Perkins was appointed head of the Chinese Division, and with the creation of the Border Patrol in 1924 he was put in charge of over 2,000 miles crossing 5 ecological zones, 4 states and 28 US counties. Today’s 9 border sectors stem from the 3 districts into which Perkins divided his territory: the Los Angeles district running from the Pacific Ocean to 50 miles east of Yuma and north to San Luis Obispo; the El Paso district extending from the east of the Los Angeles district to Devils River in Texas; and the San Antonio district from Devils River to the Gulf of Mexico in Brownsville. But despite the fact that between 1952 and 1954 power circles in Washington were saying that illegal immigration from Mexico had reached a critical point, the border patrol still only had 200 agents.

The unstoppable border patrol budget

As late as 1980 the Border Patrol still had a budget of only US$78 million, less than that of the Baltimore Police Department and much less than half that of the Philadelphia Police. But the next 12 years did not pass in vain. By 1992 its budget had reached US$326 million and the following decade it increased an average of US$109,000 a year, hitting US$1.4 billion in 2002. The next substantial jump occurred in just one fiscal year (2005-2006), going from US$1.5 billion to US$ 2.1 billion. The financial crisis didn’t prevent it from increasing to US$2.65 billion in 2008-2009, then to US$2.95 billion in 2010 and US$3.55 billion in 2011. In 2014 it reached a peak that the most talented analyst equipped with a crystal ball could never have predicted, given its humble beginnings: US$3.635 billion. It’s a luxury that this county of over 300 million inhabitants can afford, nearly $12 per head. Meanwhile, in 2008, five years after ICE was created, its budget was US$5 billion, a rapid advance from the US$3.2 billion budget of its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, in its last year of existence.

The incentive for these budget hikes were the specific operations Congress assigned to the Border Patrol. First came Operation Blockade (later renamed “Hold the Line”), applied since 1993 in El Paso. It was followed the next year by Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, which was soon replicated the year after that with Operation Safeguard in Arizona and Operation Rio Grande in Brownsville.

In 2001 the Patriot Act ordered a tripling of Border Patrol personnel. The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention law authorized the contracting of 2,000 new agents per year for the following five fiscal years. In 2005 the Real ID Act authorized the DHS secretary to propose laws necessary for the expedited construction of border barriers and pertinent infrastructure. All were steps aimed at taking back the reins of national sovereignty by maximizing border controls.

When was the “Border Patrol nation” born?

In his essential book, The militarization of the US-Mexico border 1978-1992, Timothy J. Dunn documents the increasing investment in border control by the US federal government during the eighties to stop Central American migration. Between 1978 and 1992 the Border Patrol team grew from 2,580 to 4,948, while its funding increased from US$78 to US$326 million. Of that, the funding for border patrol agents increased by 92%, for border patrol by 317% and for deportations 355%. These operations and new laws produced even greater growth. Between 1992 and 2005 the number of Border Patrol agents doubled, reaching nearly 11,000, of whom 9,633 were on the southern border and only 1,031 on the northern border.

There was another 83.5% increase in Border Patrol members between 2005 and 2014 on the southern border alone, where the legion grew to the 18,156 agents it currently has. In the 21 years between Operation Blockade and 2014, the number of Border Patrol agents on that border increased 427%, almost four times the 111% increase it registered in the 44 years between 1941 and 1985.

Militarization of the border isn’t really new, but it was very gradual for most of the 20th century, making a substantial jump only in the early 90s, right after the fall of the Soviet bloc marked the end of what Eric Hobsbawm designated in his 1994 book by the same name “The Era of Extremes: The Short 20th Century. In quantitative terms, 9/11 and the measures that followed were events that made a previous trend more visible and pronounced by expanding the panoptic and banoptic starting in 1992, which Hobsbawm views as the beginning of this century. But there is no doubt that 9/11 was a qualitative point of inflection, making the “Border Patrol Nation” something more than a catchy journalistic title.

“Border Patrol Nation” can be a concept indicating a transformation that goes beyond reinforcing border guards and increasing budgets. The United States became a Border Patrol Nation when the institution responsible for immigration issues, originally under the Department of Labor and later of Justice, became a central component of the Department of Homeland Security, signaling that immigration had moved from being a labor issue to one of national security.

All migration is considered a threat

The classification of migration as a national security issue assumed that not only those conspiring to attack were to be considered a threat, but all migration in general. The federal government assumed plenary—in other words meta-constitutional—powers over migration issues, which in legal terms translated into the State no longer granting non-nationals the constitutional rights reserved for nationals or being bound by the principles of international agreements.

This concession has had numerous abuses and exclusions throughout the history of the United States, but only now has the willingness to exclude been granted substantial bureaucratic reinforcement—and not just provisionally—with the relocation of migration issues to the DHS and a legal mandate. The legal backing came with the Attorney General’s regulation permitting the deportation of foreigners requesting to be admitted into the United States—excluding only those already admitted—even when there’s no repatriation agreement with the country of origin.

This legal interpretation changed the universal application of Zadvydas vs. Davis, which prohibited, without exception, the deportation of people from countries of origin without a bilateral repatriation agreement. Now, those not admitted can and are being repatriated in the absence of repatriation agreements or via ad hoc agreements arranged by governments compliant with US migratory policies even though they harm their migrants’ interests. These same governments, however, are diligent in arranging trade agreements for elite agro-exporters. From this legal position, it was possible not only to exclude, but even to “repatriate” non-repatriatables and remove US citizens—some indigenous and others not, but all with Mexican Brown features—to Mexico.

What! Is this globalization?

The preeminence of vigilance over the rights of citizens and non-citizens converts the verbalization of bourgeois panic into an act formulated with ironic intent by historian Jules Michelet: “‘What! Is this the people?’ exclaimed the voice of the timid bourgeois species. ‘Quick! We must increase the number of police, arm ourselves, close the doors and bolt the latch! ’”

Parodying that heated bourgeois exclamation, we have: “What! Is this globalization? This work force without borders? Quick! We must make it illegal; oppose it with an immense barrier monitored by radar, patrols and drones.”

The border is a Hobbesian region on a national scale. DHS operatives deployed there confirm Hobbes’ defense of his theory, identifying the human behavior that gave him empirical evidence, and that, according to what we observe, the US state apparatus reproduces on the border: “Let him therefore consider with himself, when taking a journey, he arms himself, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there be laws, and public officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall be done him; what opinion he has of his fellow-subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow citizens, when he locks his doors; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions, as I do by my words?”

Terrified sheep and a
government of wolves

There’s no doubt about the accusation the United States has launched against entire nations to justify its “virtuous wars.” It’s a strategy of careful intellectual construction and physical destruction of the enemy, in which media, academics and think tanks play a role just as crucial as Congress, the generals and the tanks of war played so effectively during the Cold War.

But, in the case of the Border Patrol Nation, unlike the Hobbesian homo homini lupus, suspicion of other nations and stigmatization of their inhabitants turn it against its own citizens. Even arch conservative John W. Whitehead, in his book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Policy State, sounds the alarm of a nation he describes as one of terrified sheep created by a government of wolves, a police State that operates above the law, while the law becomes no more than another instrument of submission and control.

José Luis Rocha is a member of envío’s editorial council and of the Institute of Sociology at Philipps-University Marburg.

In the third part of these reflections we’ll examine why this police State and its obsessive vigilance exist and we’ll put the Border Patrol managers on the bench of the accused because of poor results that have no relationship to their excessive pretentions of submission and control.

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