Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 413 | Diciembre 2015


Central America

Challenging mental barriers and physical boundaries

Although the State builds walls to prevent entry, they unite the undocumented immigrants circumventing them without needing to belong to an organization or a movement. Breaching walls and fences sends an empowering political message: We know it’s forbidden to cross but we have the right to and we can. Those who cross borders demonstrate massive civil disobedience: they are denying the State the right to stop them.

José Luis Rocha

In his interesting review of new forms of social change and political struggle, the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells argues that “power relationships are consti¬tutive of society because those who have the power construct the institutions of society according to their values and interests.”

Power that persuades and represses
and counter-power that defies

From this premise, Castells distinguishes two areas of change and struggle between power and counter-power: “Power is exercised by means of coercion (the monopoly of violence, legitimate or not, by the control of the State) and/or the construction of meaning in people’s minds, through mechanisms of symbolic manipulation.” These dual aspects of power—persuasion and coercion, hegemony and violence, manipulation and physical subjection—mostly work together.

According to Castells, overcoming both mental and physical borders is in itself counter-power’s deployment and confrontation with power, i.e. an exercise in “the capacity of social actors to challenge the power embedded in the institutions of society for the purpose of claiming representation for their own values and interests.” How do people come to consider that the imperative of improving their living standards preempts the ban on crossing several borders and settling in another country without the requisite authorizations?

Unquestionably, the State’s power to monopolize legitimate violence is an indispensable core element of power. However, as Castells notes, “the construction of meaning in people’s minds is a more decisive and more stable source of power…the way people think determines the fate of the institutions, norms and values on which societies are organized. Few institutional systems can last long if they are based just on coercion. Torturing bodies is less effective than shaping minds.”

When people change their thinking in a way that contradicts the State’s norms and values, the implementation of policies faces an impasse and produces social change, although, as Castells points out, not necessarily in the direction and manner expected by the agents of change. In any case, this change can achieve the neutralization Italian philosopher of law and politics Norberto Bobbio, a liberal socialist, spoke about: it renders the State unable to achieve its objectives.

In its tiresome proliferation of “development” programs that criminalize migration by presenting it as inextricably linked to AIDS and organized crime networks trafficking in people and drugs, the US Agency for International Development uses campaigns, studies, research and films to infuse terror, working on minds rather than bodies and promoting an anti-trafficking approach at the expense of migrants’ human rights.

The first barrier to overcome:
Loyalty to the homeland

This isn’t the first or most ideologically resistant barrier migrants have to overcome, although it’s very significant and results in well-planned action. The first is usually internalized and reinforced by “organic” intellectuals in what German sociologist Ulrich Beck calls “the national outlook.” The life project of teachers, priests, pastors, development project promoters and political party activists, among many others, is contained within the limits of the nation, parish or village. Their work and often their utopic projects are territorially circumscribed and don’t extend beyond the nation-State’s borders. Their project is to build a better society within the reduced geographic space assigned to them by their church, party or NGO.

Migrants have to break away from this perspective. Through talking with many of them I’ve seen that this break means understanding that loyalty to the homeland—the mythology of which is cultivated in Central America through the extremely fervent independence celebrations—doesn’t exclude seeking other horizons to improve their living conditions. The conviction that we belong to the place where our umbilical cord was buried or, put another way, where Providence destined us to be, doesn’t entirely disappear but migrants perceptibly struggle to break with the hegemonic rationale that anchors possibilities within the boundaries of their original nation-State.

This isn’t about celebrating migration per se, but rather about considering the creative potential of new possibilities resulting from mobility that transcends borders; the willingness to overcome what Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls “the limited horizon of possibilities.” Santos maintained that “considering the three modal categories of existence—reality, necessity and possibility—hegemonic rationality and knowledge focus on the first two and neglect the third entirely.”

Honduran migrant Ernesto Serna:
“I was watching and considering”

Migrants dare to exceed their horizon of possibilities in a space forbidden to them. To better show the agony and reflections involved in this endeavor, I collected the testimony of Ernesto Serna, a 40-year-old Honduran immigrant with two sojourns in the United States: the first from 2005 to 2007 and the second from 2013 to date, both times in Fairfax, Virginia, a county with 58,591 Central Americans, 8,898 of them Honduran. Both times he shared a 9 x 6-foot room with a brother and sister, maximizing austerity to stretch their savings.

When travelling he stayed in Mexican religious communities, where he received room and board, telephone calls and money. On his second trip he was responsible for two 16-year-old boys who were fleeing from violence.

Ernesto is a peasant from the mountains. He was born in Dulce Nombre de Culmí, department of Olancho, and grew up in Minas de Oro, department of Comayagua. He handles a machete with the skill of someone who has worked with one all his life and can husk a coconut in a blink of an eye. He has a candor that’s raw and unrelieved. In Honduras, he was a development project promoter in a Catholic NGO and his wife directs a vocational training school for the same Catholic congregation.

“Why did you decide to emigrate?” I asked him. “Normally, you can look at people’s environment and see it in them,” he began. “I had two people as reference points on work issues. I looked at them and thought: ‘when I get older, I’m gonna end up just like that, with no economic base to survive on.’ And I told myself: ‘I have to live from my own resources and work because I want to.’ I don’t like being forced to do a job because I need money so I can eat and whenever the boss feels so inclined, he says that’s it and I’m out on the street, drifting where chance takes me or takes pity on me. If people feel compassion, that’s fine, but normally they feel pity and ask you to do a day’s or half a day’s work, chopping out and cleaning a piece of land. That what got me thinking and I made up my mind.”

“They taught me to smell reality”

“I had to work on my family gradually, explaining to them that things were tight economically and we didn’t have enough to live on. Both my wife and I were earning but it wasn’t enough. She earned 7,500 lempiras (US$375) and I earned 8,000 (US$400). But both of us were studying in the university, my daughter Vilma was in fifth grade and Marcela was in third grade. We also helped my son Alfonso. The money wasn’t enough for educational expenses, food and the house. We had enough to survive on but the global economic crisis came and they had to let some people go in our workplaces. Furthermore, there was the threat that those funding the social projects were looking to Africa where there are droughts, famines and wars.

“You know, they teach you to smell reality and on that basis to make decisions. Also, I don’t think my decisions were so hare-brained. I had my study plan. I wanted to get a degree in sociology but because I had to take distance courses I had to study pedagogy. Anyway, I needed to know some pedagogic issues for my work. I studied on Saturdays after 2pm and on Sunday mornings. But this distance education takes a really long time. I had only finished 3 out of 50 subjects.”

“They want to keep me with
my hand outstretched forever”

“When I told my colleagues I was going to the United States again, they criticized me. The strongest comment was: ‘Curses! Now this one’s going! Instead of forming him we’ve de-formed him.’ They thought there was a “deformation” in the accompaniment they had given me…

“You’d have thought those who said this were discerning people since the administrator made this comment in front of the deputy director. At the time you feel annoyed because you know they have their life all set up; they have visas and can go to the US whenever they want; they can go to Spain because they have a visa and have built up an economic base that enables them to move about. They can travel whenever they plan to. What I’m really sure about is that it isn’t de-formation. Quite the opposite, it’s the training they’ve given me that enables me to see reality as it is. But they want to keep me like the blind man of Jericho, with my hand outstretched forever. They’d prefer not to let this guy go find out if he can build what his perspective is telling him to do.

“I used the NGO’s motorbike to get around but when the crisis hit they sold it to me so I had to do the maintenance and put in the fuel. I had activities in some very distant communities, even on weekends and I paid for all the fuel. Then I saw that contracted intellectuals were coming and began earning US$1,000. This really annoyed us Hondurans who’d been working there some time. Just look how it’s going for me here. Dreaming costs nothing, it’s realizing those dreams that costs.”

The context motivating Ernesto’s emigration was repercussions from the economic crisis on the NGO where he worked, the cutbacks they made and were anticipating making. Ernesto was one of many thousands of Hondurans who emigrated in 2013 and also one of the 36,526 of them who were deported from the US that same year. Some—like Ernesto—didn’t wait long before heading north again.

He had also been one of 2,173,746 unauthorized immigrants who managed to enter the United States between 2006 and 2013. For them the crisis wasn’t a factor that made the US less attractive; it didn’t mark a turning point in the migratory cycle, interwoven into the recipient country’s economic phases. The effect of the crisis on the Eurozone, the funding source for the NGO Ernesto worked for, rebounded on a sector very dependent on external cooperation.

Ernesto didn’t lose his job and his salary was over the 6,822 lempiras (US$341) assigned to his sector (which was communal, social and personal services). But he made a forecast peppered with class unrest: his salary compared to that of his intellectual colleagues made him unhappy given his level of expenses and he was also unhappy with the staff cutbacks affecting his class, those he rightly identifies as his reference points.

The “social commitment” test

Over the course of our interviews, Ernesto talked again and again about the class conflict with a countryman’s freedom of speech and with a test—I’m going to call it “the social commitment test”—to which he subjected even the NGO’s director. “I wanted to see if you can really count on people who say they’re intellectuals and practice social accompaniment. I did an experiment to see if they walk the walk or just talk the talk. I’m not convinced by talk for its own sake. I like to see whether they really try in practice. That’s why I invited them to the hill where my mother lives. There’s a road for vehicles, but I took them on foot in order to evaluate them better. There’s a man called José who walked up carrying a 100-lb. sack of corn, while we were only carrying a little backpack. You can’t make it with just a little backpack yet you say reality has to change, has to transform; that we need commitments? Transform how, from an office? Or visiting people from the communities on a motorbike or in acar, forgetting about their reality? I don’t think so. I think that we have to know the reality of the people who live there to be able to make real proposals.”

The subject of the harsh reality of real men and women compared to the comforts and inconsistences of the NGO’s best-paid officials—with an “economic condition that enables them to move about”—was too recurrent a theme to take a back seat in Ernesto’s decision. This class struggle, which Ernesto could only openly engage in with his social commitment test, usually took place in whispers among similarly situated employees. The test was his response to an institution that applied the neoliberal model of reducing costs through outsourcing while demanding conscientiousness from its employees. It was his “experiment” to expose inconsistencies in an institution that’s progressive in some aspects but engages in markedly unequal treatment. But it only offered a fleeting moment of denunciation that distanced him from the thick and thin versions of false consciousness. Ernesto refused to consent or resign himself to the subordinate position of the blind man of Jericho.

A decision with an inner conflict

Ernesto couldn’t change this situation but he wanted to broaden his horizon of possibilities and break with what Nicaraguan political scientist Andrés Pérez-Baltodano calls the “resigned pragmatism” rooted in Latin American culture.

Migration was for Ernesto a pivotal moment where the struggle resulted in a decision, but still not one free of inner conflict, as is apparent from the fact that he is committed to philanthropy and an interest in community development, because he’s been instilled with the Christian and leftist idea that decisions for personal gain are selfish and despicable. The conflict arising before and after taking the decision is that there’s an uncertainty at the very heart of that ethos, which isn’t based on conforming to binding and well-nigh universally accepted norms but on the enormous personal cost of resisting them.

Lest Ernesto start forgetting the lesson, his bosses reminded him. His senior colleagues in the NGO couldn’t understand the needs of a man like him and made him pay for his “de-formation” with comments before he left.

When Ernesto told them he had arrived safely in the US they told him “Remember, don’t forget your family” and other comments loaded with undisguised disapproval: “The first time I came they were certain I had done so because I wanted to leave my wife. They actually said I didn’t have the guts to leave her back there and came here to separate from her. I get the impression they still think I came because I wanted to avoid responsibilities, when it’s quite the contrary.

“I came here because I want them all to get a university degree and if at any time my family has to leave the country, it be because they want to and not out of economic need. I want to give them a foundation so they can study as far as they want to go. I don’t want them to leave their family to come to make money.”

He broke the mind control
with the “wind of thought”

The desire for independence, the Aristotelian ideal of liberating oneself from the forces of mere compulsion—and in Ernesto’s case of liberating his daughters and son—launched him into a maelstrom. However, it also showed a critical independence that German-born US political theorist Hannah Arendt identifies with: “The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge; it is the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And this indeed may prevent catastrophes, at least for myself, in the rare moments when the chips are down…. The consequence of this peculiarity is that thinking inevitably has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements for good and evil, in short on those customs and rules of conduct we treat of in morals and ethics. These frozen thoughts, Socrates seems to say, come so handy you can use them in your sleep; but if the wind of thinking, which I shall now arouse in you, has roused you from your sleep and made you fully awake and alive, then you will see that you have nothing in your hand but perplexities, and the most we can do with them is share them with each other.”

By daring to think beyond the boundaries set by his NGO and against some of its values, with the cool wind of thought, Ernesto broke the mind control, the “governa¬mentality’ as French philosopher Michel Foucault called it, that limited his horizon of possibilities to a national universe. His mainstay was the contrast between the ideals they preached and what he calls the reality of actual people.

In Ancient Greece, the concept of parrhesia (freedom of speech) was homonoia: consensus, literally “same-minded-ness.” Although held in high esteem by the Athenians and valued by Demosthenes as a core social virtue, homonoia implied that all citizens thought alike and their social and political differences were submerged in a unified community of interests—such as in nationalism with its false homogeneity and neoliberalism when it reduces problems to technical issues and denies class conflicts. The State could then function as if one mind and will.

“They’ve no right to stop us”

As the US classical political theorist Josiah Ober warns: “Homonoia is the very antithesis of freedom. When the citizenry was ‘of one mind’ there was no need for freedom of speech, thought or action…. But perfect and long-term political consensus was not only impossible but dangerous. If the citizenry is of a single mind, debate and discussion become irrelevant.”

Automatism, the acritical acceptance of customs and rules, is the most apolitical and depoliticizing. Ernesto broke with that homogeneity of mind and his independent criteria led him to formulations against the sovereignty principle: “I believe that they’ve no right to stop us. It’s been said that borders shouldn’t exist, that there should be free transit of people, just like the free transit of rice, beans, sugar, soap and produce. I think they should be concerned about whether a person wants to cause harm or not. That of course should be prevented. But who comes here from our countries to cause harm? Those who come usually only want to improve their economy and their life, for themselves and their families. And this is being frustrated. There are thousands of frustrated people. Those of us who were lucky enough to not be mistreated, raped, killed, kidnapped or deported… here we are.”

Ernesto’s statement, that of a mountain man from Olancho, is very similar to that of the Dutch-US sociologist Saskia Sassen. It shows the spread of a counter-hegemonic way of thinking about migrations that clashes with policies and ideologies. Sassen says: “The clash of two very different regimes—one for the circulation of capital and one for the circulation of immigrants—poses problems that cannot be solved through the old rules of the game.” For Ernesto that clash is another form of inconsistency: in Honduras it was propounded by officials who didn’t know the reality of the people they said they were working for; in the US it embodies a set of rules that are unevenly applied. This is the basis of his disobedience: he can’t obey what isn’t consistent. Inconsistency invalidates the law.

Salvadoran migrant María Garcia:
“This is a country of immigrants”

María García, a Salvadoran immigrant, gave me an historical argument to justify her disrespect for US migratory law: “This is a country of immigrants. The only natives are the Indians. All the rest have come from somewhere else. California, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego were part of Mexico. All were taken from the Mexicans by trickery, just as they took Alaska from the Russians.” María reveals another aspect of this counter-hegemonic thinking being spread to ideologically underpin the entry and stay of unauthorized immigrants.

Ernesto and María justified their entry into the United States by appealing to the illegitimacy of nation-States’ sovereign control principle and questioning the “native” population’s right to consider itself as such. They didn’t ask for asylum, which is the right of those coming from extremely violent countries such as theirs; they knew they don’t qualify under the refugee law’s strict criteria.

In 1985 María didn’t apply nor even think of applying for asylum, even to get legal residence for her daughters, who were brought in two by two. Neither did the young men Ernesto was responsible for in 2013. They were granted the shelter they needed, believing that their action could be motivated by values they placed above those of the State. They made their determination independent of the ideological forces that confined them in one country and rejected them in another. Like Thoreau, the immigrants placed what was right for them above what is legal.

How groups of rebels are formed

María García’s disrespect for migratory law was based on the dictates of her conscience, which many share. This series of group convictions opposes the very principle of territorial sovereignty.

In this case the group to some degree precedes the act and to some degree succeeds it. It precedes it in a Marxist sense: these individuals share a series of positions in the productive system and consequently there’s a coincidence in their convictions about the law that helps them and the needs driving them. It doesn’t matter that Ernesto was a promoter and had begun studying for a degree in pedagogy. The fragility of his economy was more akin to that of a bus conductor than that of his professional NGO colleagues. They belong to the same group.

But this group also comes afterward because not all those who share this fragility migrate. The non-movement of undocumented immigrants only holds until the series of disparate decisions converge in actions whose similarity and coincidence in time and space confers on the actors a group character. In this sense, the group of disobedient migrants only manages to “meld” a posteriori.

The overwhelming success of barbed wire

According to Israeli historian Reviel Netz, “areas enter into history through impeding movement.” Areas are politicized in the sense Max Weber meant: power is exercised by administering the ways space is used and some manage to impose limits on others the location of their bodies in an “inside” and “outside.” Barbed wire has played a fundamental role in this administration of spaces.

In the US barbed wire was an instant commercial success. Just six years after being patented, 100 million pounds of barbed wire already fenced in some 50,000 miles. At the far southern end of the continent the situation was no different: “It’s estimated that in 1907 there was already enough barbed wire in Argentina to wrap around the perimeter of the republic 140 times.” According to Polish historian and journalist Ryszard Kapucinski, the barbed wire surrounding the Soviet Union formed a tangled mass “so thick that not even a mouse could squeeze through” to Poland, China or Iran. Its continuous replacement was an endeavor that enabled Kapuscinski to “assume that a major part of the Soviet metallurgical industry is only dedicated to the manufacture of barbed wire.”

Noting the overwhelming success of this and other enclosures, Netz added: “The enormous scope of barbed wire throughout history (ranging from agriculture to war and human repression, and from one end of the world to the other) is due to the simple and immutable equation between flesh and iron. Flesh necessarily yields to iron and its inevitable consequence is pain. The history of violence and pain transcends species, and also did the history of modernity.” It’s that violence and pain that undocumented immigrants must overcome. The history of crossing borders is one of overcoming pain and that’s why it’s a history of the ploys to avoid pain and circumvent fences, walls and enclosures.

Walls to keep them in
and fences to keep them out

During its 28 years of existence, the Berlin Wall was the setting for the killing of only between 86 and 126 people, according to different, never exact estimates. Three quarters were shot when they tried to escape and the rest died in the crossfire or by accident. The 1960s were the worst years: 1,000 wounded and 72,000 confined for trying to escape.

But the Berlin Wall was also the setting for successful escapes. It was breached by thousands of people who attempted illegal crossings by excavating 39 tunnels, flying balloons and homemade planes, piloting a submarine, buying fake passports, hiding in compartments of vehicles, availing themselves of pulley systems or crashing trucks, trains, excavators and armored buses against the wall.

It was a wall that served the panopticon. Intuitively, Ronald Reagan knew the difference between panopticon (to keep locked inside) and banopticon (to exclude and keep out) and in his memoires, before he lost his memory to Alzheimer’s, he recalled saying to Gorbachov that the US barrier “was meant to stop illegal immigration by people who wanted to join our society because it offered democratic and economic opportunities—that was hardly the same thing as building the Berlin Wall, which imprisoned people in a social system they didn’t want to be part of.” Reagan didn’t mention that the zeal of the US barrier’s banoptic surveillance—intended to keep out and prevent the entry of those who wanted to enjoy the democratic and economic opportunities—has been much more lethal than the Berlin Wall.

Death on the US-Mexican border

There are hundreds of deaths every year on the Mexican-US border. There’s enormous violence and pain there. Just in the area covered by the Medical Examiner’s Office of Pima County, Arizona, they have examined the mortal remains of 2,413 people, presumably immigrants, who perished crossing the border between 1990 and 2013.

One study estimated there had been 1,034 deaths in the five years from 1993 to 1997 along the whole southwestern border. The study covering the most remote period calculated 3,676 deaths between 1984 and 1998. If we add to those the 5,766 deaths Border Patrol recorded in 1999-2013, we get a total of 9,442 deaths from 1984 to 2013. The principal and immediate causes of the deaths between 1999 and 2003 were primarily heat exposure (35%), drowning crossing the river (21%), car accidents (11%) and exposure to cold (3%). As the main cause of death is hyperthermia, most of the deaths occurred between May and August (55%).

These are the material causes. The policies and surveillance are the efficient causes, to use Aristotle’s term.

Others perish beyond the border, as did 19 migrants who died in 2003 from asphyxiation, dehydration and heat in a trailer trying to pass the second border: the checkpoints between the border line and cities such as Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and Los Angeles. To these dangers must be added aggression by immigration agents: physical abuse (4.76% of immigrants), verbal abuse (12%), permanent confiscation of their belongings (3.17%) and the less common but existing cases of sexual abuse and use of lethal force. Then there are the dangers in Mexico, which the expelled doubly endure when the US Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) deports them to areas controlled by drug traffickers, as it often does.

Routes to circumvent the borders

Very few of the Central Americans I interviewed said they had passed through the desert. Perhaps they’re avoiding its dangers, which is why we see that only 7.5% of those apprehended in 2014 in the Tucson sector—where the desert is the scariest—were Central Americans. On the other hand, it’s where 30% of Mexicans detained on the southwest border fell into the immigration authorities’ hands.

Among Mexicans, at least since 2000, this sector remains the primary unbeatable port of entry into the United States. It only attained percentage significance for Central Americans between 2008 and 2011, years when it peaked at 32% and didn’t drop below 24%. For Mexicans the San Diego, El Centro and El Paso sectors have a diminished but persistent importance: respectively 12%, 5.5% and 4% of Mexicans were captured at these points while less than 1% of Central Americans were picked up in any of them.

This means that Central Americans don’t blindly follow the Mexican migration routes or follow them in different volumes. Most arrests of Central American took place in the Río Grande Valley (76%), one of the two sectors—the other is Del Río—where in 2014 more Central Americans were detained than Mexicans: 192,925 versus 63,468, a number that was decisive in making 2014 a milestone as the first year when total apprehensions of Central Americans exceeded those of Mexicans: 252,600 versus 226,771.

The evidence provided by my interviewees shows that many Central Americans travel almost exclusively with Central American coyotes or else risk it alone. Central Americans have also switched their entry points more. Perhaps because Mexicans comprise a large number of temporary workers who have entered and left several times, they are more faithful to their routes and less likely to change their entry patterns, which often rely on accumulated knowledge and contacts.

María García’s first time

Changing routes doesn’t avoid all the dangers, which are multiple and also metamorphose, but it is one of the many strategies that avoid and reduce their impact and one of many ways immigrants make the banopticon ineffectual and neutralize the forces denying them entry. In response to the fabulous resources deployed to block their entry, immigrants use tactics that have managed to wrest control of the border from the State: coyotes, false documents, clandestine routes...

María García used one such tactic to cross the border. She always went through Tijuana/San Diego, a less dangerous area than most women immigrants must now pass through.

Neither the Border Patrol before nor the wall today are impassable barriers, although immigrants have to make many attempts, just as this Salvadoran woman did. María arrived in the US 40 years ago when she was 29 years old, fleeing from the war, and has been living there ever since. Back then the Mexican police levied a toll on Central American immigrants: every time a police officer stopped the bus she was travelling in with other Salvadorans she paid $20 and continued on her way.

“Do you know how much they charged you to cross the border then? US$200. Now it costs$5-10,000. The first time I couldn’t pass because they left me lost in the middle of the night and we’d only got about halfway there, two and a half hours. It was night and cloudy. I’d wanted to go pee and they gave me permission, but when I got back, the group was gone. They thought I’d fallen asleep on the way. But I hadn’t. My God, you come from El Salvador and know nothing about how it goes; what to do. I knew the US was ahead and Mexico was behind. I decided to go back. It began to rain and I suffered a lot alone but I walked and walked.

“Day caught me and I was alone. I could hear the helicopters: they went up and down, like now, but today they have cameras everywhere so it’s worse. I remembered the neighborhood we’d stayed in and the house number. As it was already dawn, I hid behind some little trees. I waited all day without eating, without water to drink. It rained and I opened my mouth and drank. I waited until night and walked another two hours. I went through puddles, into holes full of mud. Suddenly I saw a road and in the distance were some signs in Spanish: here is Mexico. A taxi passed and I made a sign. It was about two in the morning. I told him a lie: I came to visit an aunt and got lost. He didn’t believe me. He saw that I was all muddy. When I got to the house everyone was amazed.”

“The children I left
behind gave me courage

“The next night we crossed the border again. Immigration authorities caught us all because they were in helicopters and the trucks came. I didn’t give them my right name. I kept really quiet. Back then they used to send you back to Tijuana, not to El Salvador.

“The third time, the same thing: they caught me again. By now they knew me. I was well-known in the immigration offices. I knew where to sit. ‘Are you back here again? Here’s your chair,’ they told me. I said my name was María. When they called me, they said María García. Even when I was sleeping, I knew that was me. I had learned.”

“I also said I was Mexican. I was very smug and even said I’d lived in Chapultepec. The problem was that one day I said I was from Guasaca. Write ‘Oaxaca’, they said. I still don’t know how to write. One of the immigration officials took me aside and said: You aren’t Mexican. I want you to know you haven’t fooled me. You aren’t Mexican and your name isn’t María. I kept quiet. By then I had begun to lose my fear of them and I said: ‘I can’t read much. I don’t know how because I come from the country. I didn’t learn to read much.’

“I was very humble, fearful; I wasn’t brave but, as God is my witness, the five children I had left behind gave me courage. They caught me four times and let me go. After each attempt I had about three days’ rest because I suffered a lot: going like that, running, diving down, coming back… it’s horrible. Crossing is horrible. The fourth time I managed to get through. It wasn’t through the backcountry, but through the immigration checkpoint, with false papers, a false resident’s ID we used to call the mica, which could be a driving license or a social security or green card. They made them with your own photos. They had all that back then. They put your photo on top of another’s or of someone similar. They were real IDs but for someone else. That’s how they do passports now. I had to say what the card said my name was while they were looking at me.

“I managed to pass but then I stupidly stayed looking to where the coyote was and made signs to him. I know it was really foolish. I don’t know how I picked myself up again afterwards, perhaps through the knocks life gives. It was nerves that got me caught again, the fourth time. They put me back in the office and even laughed. All the immigration officials knew me by then: Here’s this girl back again, María García. I have to cross, I thought. After borrowing the money and with five children, you have to cross...”

Maria Garcia’s fifth time:
“I’d lost my fear”

“The fifth time we went through the backcountry, always at night. We passed through some barbed wire and I got cut. I was bleeding. The coyote came and took off his shirt and I put it on. I was bleeding but I got through on the fifth try.

“After that I lost my fear. I went back to El Salvador to see my children every two years, always wetback, but by then I went through the immigration checkpoints with false documents. When I came back I brought two others who wanted to come with me. I already knew the way and told them what to say. The first time I brought two women, a friend and a cousin. I told them everything because I’d noticed everything and had my strategy: don’t think we went straight to Tijuana; we said we were going elsewhere; we made detours but came back to the route to Tijuana. Every two years I brought more people. Many paid me for the trip.

“On my second visit to El Salvador it was already wartime and I brought my three oldest children. I’d already lost my fear by then and if they caught me, so what? If anything happens to you, you have to say ‘So what.’ That was my mantra and it gave me strength. If they caught me, it didn’t matter; it’s not the end of the world, they aren’t going to kill me; they aren’t going to do anything to me. Of course, if those who thought I was a coyote had caught me, I would have got about five years in prison. Now I look on those interviews with immigration as a game: they interview you and you have to answer. Now that I’m older, I see it as a game. I was gaining experience in all this and that’s why it was easier for me to bring in other people. You know how to read what I said between the lines and can imagine the rest, the truth.”

From a timid immigrant
to an experienced coyote

Maria doesn’t boast of her audacity nor is hers an exceptional case in migratory history. However, she didn’t take long to become an unrepentant rebel. She made an unusual transition from being a timid first-time immigrant to becoming an experienced coyote who knew and even created stratagems to circumvent the Mexican and US immigration authorities.

She became expert in the least risky method of crossing: using the green card or passport of a relative, friend or even stranger who rented it to her. At first she succumbed to small pitfalls but only two years later was ready to become a guide for other immigrants. In her theatrical game with immigration—in a typical hidden discourse tactic—she first played a stereotypically dominated role (inhibited, illiterate and ignorant) to later give them the slip.

In her first attempts she could have repeated the same answer as that given by an immigrant about to cross the desert where one day earlier they had found a friend’s body: “Our needs are greater than our fears.” Later she could almost have sung along with Vicente Fernández: “Immigration can’t get the best of me.” María’s justification for her repeated disrespect of migratory law is that the United States is a country of immigrants who dispossessed the real natives and today the real natives aren’t the ones stopping her from entering. Having laid her fears to rest, bringing in more immigrants became her mission.

María played with Immigration

In saying she eventually saw the immigration interviews as a game, María García concurs with the Spanish philosopher María Zambrano: “Especially history, if it’s tragic, has an aspect that belongs to the same tragedy, which is the game. Although surprising at first glance, the most serious history has at times been made by playing. Games and seriousness aren’t incompatible.”

Zambrano added: “Many children’s games have vestiges of very old decisive situations in human life. There are certain games that consist in going from one square to another without stepping on a line, in a kind of grid drawn on the ground. They’re undoubtedly symbolic of human life, where you go from one stage to another, from one age to another, one situation to another: in short, symbolic of human life as history. They also indicate that history isn’t always something a person wants or invents, but something spontaneously generated by one’s own life. And the more spontaneous life is; the more it’s full of stories, the more immersed and determined it is by history.”

María García’s life is full of stories, which she’s thinking of putting in a book. She already has the title: That’s the way it was. She’s certain the game with immigration enabled her to pass from one stage of her history, in which she stopped being a “foolish” 29-year-old girl to become the woman who married a US citizen, gradually brought her five children to the US, was widowed early and became a pivotal figure so that the immigrant non-movement could mobilize many more rebels.

With her rebellion, María stopped being carried away by the wind of thought, a situation diametrically opposed to that of those who follow with blind faith, as Hannah Arendt describes them: “If your action consisted in applying general rules of conduct to particular cases as they arise in ordinary life, then you will find yourself paralyzed because no such rules can withstand the wind of thought.” In María’s case, this wind of thought had effects on body control. Her experience is significant because it shows us how immigration multiplies upon defeating the power’s control devices.

A voluminous mass of rebels

The groundwork for this defeat was laid decades ago and is still working, yielding remarkable results. In 2013, on the border with Mexico, Border Patrol knew about 171,050 successful illegal crossings. The previous year they recorded 103,811. Between 2006 and 2013, there were a total of 549,380 known non-authorized crossings just in the Río Grande Valley sector.

According to their own records, in these same eight years, not even all the Border Patrol sectors bordering with Mexico could prevent the entry of 2,173,746 unauthorized immigrants. Those 2 million-plus immigrants succeeded in making an area—bodies, to be more precise—that escaped state control.

Such control is unviable because it’s impossible to prevent the existence of blind spots and to thoroughly check the enormous number of vehicles, people and documents that cross every day. And since crossing the border isn’t the only way to circumvent body control, the success of disrespecting the principle of territorial sovereignty is far greater.

To these more than 2 million unauthorized immigrants who successfully crossed the border in 2006-2013 must be added those who not only evaded the jails of ICE and its subcontractors, but also its statistics: those who entered without Border Patrol having any idea they had passed over the border. And we must also add the “overstayers”: those who entered legally and stayed on after the period expired that had been assigned them on their visa or on entering. A prepared statement by Bernard L. Schwartz, a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, titled “Measuring the Effectiveness of Border Enforcement,” which was commissioned by the US Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in 2013, estimates that over 40% of unauthorized immigrants living in the US that year hadn’t illegally crossed the border but had arrived legally with a tourist, student, business or other visa then violated the terms of the visa by staying on in the US.

Another, more recent study, titled “Border Security: Immigration Inspections at Ports of Entry” prepared by the Congressional Research service and dated January 2015, calculated the overstayers at 30% and 50%. These figures give an idea of the success of the undocumented immigrant non-movement. It’s based on their networks communicating information about reliable coyotes, less dangerous routes, shelters, churches, etc., and repeatedly resorting to certain infrastructure, which is its assets, the migratory chains’ material base. These channels of communication enable coordination and emphasize the spontaneity of the coordinated chain.

The non-movement is that critical mass created—and strengthened by—accumulated migratory processes that develop stable networks. Therefore transnationality doesn’t lead only to “new standards of action, cultural environments, local economies, social networks,” but also to a new social subject, one that refuses to remain like the blind man of Jericho with his hand outstretched waiting for the US government to give him asylum.

There are millions of Ernestos and Marías

If in the breaking away from mind control we were seeing the questioning of hegemony, in illegally crossing the border and staying without authorization we’re witnessing what Castells calls challenging the bureaucratic norms on the use of space.

In a sense, the border acts like the revolutionary movements’ barricades: they can’t really stop the enemy but they do define an “us” and “them,” an “inside” and “outside.” As the experience of dealing with border control contains the inclusion/expulsion relationship, considering the border an area of marginality can show its political aspect, because it’s a strategic place where there’s transgression and resistance.

Although the wall is erected by the State, it also fulfills the function of uniting the undocumented immigrants in circumventing it, with no need for them to belong to a movement or organization. Getting around the wall and dodging surveillance, for all that so many stories emphasize its biological and psychological dimensions, has a political aspect in which crossing is the message: we know it’s forbidden, but we have the right and we can. From a political standpoint, overcoming physical obstacles matters because of the attitude it has toward laws: an attitude of civil disobedience, of denying the State the right to stop them.

This disobedience occurs massively because the undocumented immigrants’ non-movement is numerous and, while spontaneous, acts as if it were implementing a series of concerted acts. It’s made up of millions of Ernestos and Marías. The undocumented immigrants undertake these crossings in a relatively fragmented way, generally in small groups. However, these individual actions—implemented without agreement and in some way as rebellious as those of the conscientious objectors—add together to acquire a public character and a potential for changing the law, as if they were concerted acts of rebellion.

The political clout of civil disobedience

When the Iranian political sociologist Asef Bayat developed his non-movement concept, he said he “had in mind the protracted processes in which millions of men and women embark on long migratory journeys, scattering in remote and often alien environs, acquiring work, shelter, land and living amenities.”

Bayat mentions that “refugees and international migrants encroach on host States and their provisions, the rural migrants on the cities, the squatters on public and private lands or ready-made homes, and the unemployed, as street subsistence workers, on the public space and business opportunity created by shop keepers.”

According to Bayat, this epidemic of the political use of public spaces triggers surveillance and repression by the authorities. But these flows can’t be stopped unless the State normalizes the use of violence, erecting walls and check points, which is what the US government has done. But it doesn’t work either.

The liquidity and solidity of surveillance have combined to make the crossings more arduous but have failed to prevent them. The State’s alarm and reactions testify to the political clout of the migrants’ disobedience.

Castells argues that for a movement (or a non-movement of undocumented immigrants) to be influential the state actors have to consider it capable of facilitating or hindering their own objectives. All the security gadgetry shows is that the undocumented immigrants’ non-movement has set off an alarm and is indicative of the resonance—in some cases negative, in others positive—of its actions. Immigrants remain in the global surveillance spotlight. Only by understanding what this implies can we know the dimensions of their challenge, which isn’t limited to border crossing. Also—and especially—their challenge takes place in the terrain of everyday life, in their sustained rebellion of staying to live, work, pay taxes, use public services… in a terrain not so controlled by a State that wanted to block their entrance and could expel them today, verily as you were reading this article.

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

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