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The US Occupation of Border Communities

Alexis Mazón
Date Published: 
September 01, 2006

The recent mass uprisings demanding full rights for all immigrants have also been an expression of collective rage against the horrific abuses diverse immigrant communities have suffered for years. Millions live under the constant threat of racist harassment, workplace exploitation, round-ups, imprisonment, and deportation.

Daily living conditions for immigrants and citizens of color along the US-Mexico border have been particularly bad during the past twelve years of aggressive border militarization polices which have wreaked havoc on human rights in the Southwest. Yet any discussion of the dire consequences of the border buildup has been drowned out in the current immigration debate.

Meanwhile, every immigration-related proposal in Congress in recent years has called for further border militarization. Democrats and their cohorts in the DC immigration advocacy organizations remain unwilling to denounce the smoke and mirrors of the “border security” issue. Some within the immigrant rights movement dismiss what happens on the border as irrelevant to the rest of the country.

Yet “border security” has directly resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 migrants since 1994 and relegated both citizens and non-citizens to an occupied zone. The Tucson “sector” is said to have the highest concentration of law enforcement officers in the country. Furthermore, US history shows that the brutal policing tactics first tried at the border are eventually implemented elsewhere, primarily in the country’s inner cities. The militarized response to Katrina victims in New Orleans and the inundation of most US cities with paramilitary-style “Gang Task Force” units are two examples.

Criminalizing life

Despite extraordinary public outcry against the repressive provisions of Sensenbrenner’s HR 4437, current “compromise” immigration proposals in the Senate are wrought with similarly frightening policing measures. While these proposals have been highly praised by Democrats and the corporate media, they allow an alarmingly limited number of immigrants to gain green cards, much less citizenship. And they overwhelmingly focus on adding more law enforcement at the workplace, in neighborhoods, and along the border. These authoritarian measures threaten the rights of all who live in the US.

The “compromise” proposals reflect the increasing criminalization of life itself, especially in border communities. They call for the creation of a massive database to track all workers. They also expand abuse-ridden guestworker programs. They dramatically increase the number of petty offenses for which immigrants can be mandatorily imprisoned and deported. They eliminate the right to a hearing before deportation and would convert closed military bases into jails for immigrants. They allow most law enforcement agencies to begin acting as immigration agents. In addition, they revive the indefinite detention of immigrants, which was declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 2002.

The proposals are particularly dangerous for Latino/a, Black, and Asian youth because they would allow for the deportation of any youth the government alleges to be “gang affiliated,” with no evidentiary standard whatsoever. Police already systematically “gang profile” immigrants and other youth of color on the basis of hearsay and racist stereotypes. Such “gang profiling” was at the center of the Rampart scandal, the largest police corruption scandal in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department. Thousands of Latino and African American youth were framed, brutalized, and deported.

The US has already deported tens of thousands of Latino youth for alleged “gang affiliation” to Central American countries where they face mano dura (iron fist) policies – designed in cooperation with the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – including imprisonment and even execution by paramilitaries. Alleged gang members are like border communities: their rights are the first to be trampled on and hardly anyone balks.
Deadly policy

The provisions in the current Senate proposals relating to “border security” are among the most draconian. For example, they call for a doubling of the number of Border Patrol agents, the fortification of the border wall with increased fencing and surveillance, the construction of new immigrant prisons, and an expansion of police-Migra cooperation.

Yet border militarization is a deadly policy that has caused more than 4,000 people to die in the desert since 1994. Last year, two college students were charged with felony “smuggling” for providing water and emergency medical treatment to several migrants on the verge of dehydration and death. Each is facing up to five years in prison; their trial is set for later this summer.

Border militarization has cost taxpayers $30 billion over the last twelve years. Yet it has been an utter failure. And it is also worth noting that despite the massive outlays of agents, walls, helicopters, unmanned drones, biometric screening technology, and jails, the number of unauthorized border crossings has not decreased.

But the border has not always been militarized. Migrants have traversed today’s Southwestern US for thousands of years. The border buildup developed over the last two decades and, like migration patterns, has been closely tied to US economic policies. The World Bank and other US-led international financial institutions set off Mexico’s peso crises in 1982 and again during the mid-1990s, forcing the flight of millions northward. US-sponsored wars in Central America during the 1980’s also played a substantial role.

The most devastating change in US border policy came in 1994, when President Clinton unveiled Operation Gatekeeper. Just days earlier, he signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). His administration, along with critics of neoliberal trade policies on the left, knew that flooding the Mexican economy with US exports would result in the displacement of millions of Mexican farmers and workers. It was no coincidence then that within months, Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, dramatically expanding funding for local policing and prison construction. These policies shored up the infrastructure for a crackdown of breathtaking proportions.

For Juan Cruz Torralva, the mixture of border policing and a ballooning criminal injustice system has become a living nightmare. In March 2006, Mr. Cruz was on the third day of his journey through the desert near Yuma, Arizona with his 12-year-old daughter, Lourdes Cruz Morales. They were on their way to reunite with his wife and 2-month-old son in Oxnard, California. A US Border Patrol SUV struck Mr. Cruz and his daughter, killing her instantly and leaving Mr. Cruz with serious injuries to his spine, ribs and internal organs. He was almost immediately thrown into the county jail and held on $100,000 bond. Yuma prosecutors charged him with felony endangerment for the death of his own daughter.

The authorities did not provide him with an interpreter in his indigenous dialect to explain the whereabouts of his daughter’s body, much less that he had been charged with her death. Facing community uproar, the charges were dropped. The Border Patrol agent was never disciplined for the child’s death, and the agency refused to take responsibility. Mr. Cruz was subsequently deported to Oaxaca, Mexico.

The Cruz family’s ordeal is not unusual. Border Patrol agents have a long track record of impunity including beatings, rape, and fatal shootings of migrants. Not only is “border security” not making us any safer, it is literally killing us. And in this grotesque example, it is killing us and then holding us responsible.
Baghdad to Tijuna

In May, the Senate voted to shift $2 billion of funding earmarked for Iraq to “border security.” Democrats protested the move, but not because of the terrible human costs of further border militarization. They also did not denounce this blatant backdoor attempt to push the Sensenbrenner bill through in pieces. Instead, they argued that US soldiers would lack armor and weaponry.

Whether these billions are spent in Iraq or along the US-Mexico border, the outcome is the same: death, destruction of families, mass incarceration, and the militarization of daily life. From Baghdad to Tijuana, the US government is waging a war on the people in the name of “national security.” But both wars are a failure. Both are a boondoggle for US corporations. And the cast of characters from the burgeoning privatized national security industry in both is much the same. Dyncorp, Blackwater, Wackenhut, and others have lucrative government contracts to hunt down “suspected terrorists” in Iraq and Colombia, potential petty criminals in New Orleans, and a wide assortment of immigrants throughout the US.
Militarized borders

In April, DHS Chief Michael Chertoff announced that he would begin overseeing the privatization of border security operations, citing the inability of the public sector to stop the entry of undocumented immigrants. If the privatization of prisons and US wars are any indication, the situation will soon significantly worsen along the border. Haliburton recently won a $400 million government contract to build immigrant prisons. This is their second immigrant detention contract since 2002. Every year, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are thrown into US prisons and jails for immigration violations.

Add to this mix the growing trend, led by the Arizona legislature, to marry state enforcement of immigration laws with state criminal laws. Arizona has seen an astounding 50 bills targeting immigrants introduced in the last year, including a proposal to build a private prison in Mexico for immigrants arrested in Arizona. The state’s Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, has signed several of these bills, and recently called for the deployment of National Guard troops to the Arizona border. A former prosecutor and state attorney general, she is one of a number of governors attempting to advance their national political ambitions by cracking down on immigrants.

At this point, the so-called “War on Terror” has a virtual monopoly on public spending, which is allocated for things like building walls and waging war, be it abroad or at home. The “War on Terror” will absorb some $44 billion for the DHS budget in 2007 and another $50 billion for Iraq, while cutting back Medicaid, student loans, public housing, pensions, living wage jobs, and environmental protections. The public should be outraged about this, not about immigration.

The success of any of our struggles depends in significant part on our ability to inform the people of the US that the “War on Terror,” in its various manifestations, is at its core, an industry. Profit guides our “national security” policy more than virtually anything else. And this profit depends on the manufacturing of fear, racist scapegoating, mass incarceration, and other forms of social control.
Katrina response

Those who may not know what border militarization looks like need look no further than post-Katrina New Orleans. The state response to African Americans and border crossers reflects a similar mentality.

Hurricane Katrina exposed how militarization is the US government’s response not only to the fleeing victims of free trade policies, but also to victims fleeing other man-made disasters. As African Americans in New Orleans sought food and water for survival, police were given shoot-to-kill orders. Under this logic, people suffering mass displacement directly resulting from government policies are instantly turned into perpetrators. In the weeks following Katrina, even the American Red Cross handed over undocumented immigrants to the Border Patrol.

The Katrina response raises a bigger question for many African Americans and the immigrant rights movement: “What does citizenship really get us?” US citizens of color, especially Black men, are bearing the brunt of the explosion in prisons and policing. Immigrants and citizens of color alike are the losers in a global economic order that benefits US corporate interests and the elites of sender countries.

The demands of the immigrant rights movement should not stop with gaining citizenship, but should also include the free movement of people and economic justice on a global scale. Our survival depends on it. It also depends on whether we are successful in redefining notions of border and national security. Security should mean more money for wages, worker protections, housing, health care, schools, and human dignity—not more policing and walls.

International boycott

On May 1, 2006, Mexico observed a “Day Without Gringos,” with Mexicans boycotting McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and US products to show solidarity with family members across the border. Standing among throngs of union members and Zapatista supporters in the Zócalo, Subcomandante Marcos voiced his support for the internationally coordinated boycott. Almost no one crossed into Laredo, TX and other US border towns where Mexican shoppers spend billions of dollars every year.

As the global justice movement has repeatedly articulated, US economic dominance, with its tentacles extending to every corner of the planet, is also its ultimate weakness. No country can view migration solely as a domestic issue. Moreover, migrants around the world are ready to boycott with us. From the South Korean farmers protesting the WTO in Hong Kong to the Ecuadorian activists chaining themselves to the gates of the US Embassy to protest HR 4437, the immigrant rights movement has the potential to attain a global reach that previously seemed unrealistic.

Back in Washington, the more conservative immigrant rights coalitions are shamelessly attempting to claim that the mass mobilizations support their agenda. DC advocates have repeatedly sold out the border, cutting deals on compromise immigration proposals which included horrendous border militarization measures. This time they have caved in on not only border security, but also the guestworker program and many of the policing provisions. They are behind the curve on what is happening in the streets. In fact, immigrants placed themselves out in front of this movement in spite of these advocates, who said street protests were counterproductive.

Labor has only partially resisted the temptation to back down on guestworker programs and employer sanctions and has been silent on border militarization. Unions must do more to educate the public that immigrants are not responsible for falling real wages, lack of health insurance, outsourcing and shrinking union power. The anti-war movement has already incorporated immigrant rights messaging into its mobilizations, but needs to make the connections more explicit for white peaceniks.

Rev. Jesse Jackson told a May Day Rally of 400,000 New Yorkers, “Immigrants didn’t take your job, US corporations did.” In his speech entitled, “‘Si se puede’ means ‘We shall overcome,’” he pointed out that immigrants “share with African Americans a history of repression, of being subjected to back-breaking, soul deadening work.” In the face of the right’s divide and conquer tactics, alliances between immigrants and African Americans could not be more crucial.

The xenophobes have been largely unsuccessful in winning over the Black community. Recent polls indicate that most African Americans support the normalization of status for undocumented immigrants. The white supremacist underpinnings of the war on immigrants are evident in the Confederate-flag-toting border vigilantes and their rhetoric about the threat immigrants pose to American identity. Painful racial tensions in L.A. and other parts of the country no doubt persist, but most African Americans recognize that the ‘War on Terrorism’ is just a repackaged and mass-marketed assault on the same old communities.

African American and border communities in particular should resist the race baiting and unite with Arab Americans, Muslims, and South Asians. These communities have shared experiences with the criminalization of life and decriminalization of state terror.

LGBTQ and immigrant communities need to do more work to expose how the vicious attacks they suffer are instigated by the same groups on the far right. Many environmental organizations along the border have already joined the immigrant rights movement, recognizing that militarization is destroying vast stretches of desert habitat and national park lands.

All of our struggles share a common responsibility to alert our respective communities that the national debates about immigration, border security, gay marriage, abortion, and Iran are merely distractions to ram through a much broader far right agenda. And throughout US history, mass mobilizations have always produced the biggest gains. There has never been a better time for all of us to go for it.


Alexis Mazón does criminal defense work in Tucson, where she grew up, and is a volunteer with various campaigns against the growing police-Migra state.