Border Geography and Vigilantes

September 25, 2007

The border has gotten so inflamed lately that the heat is being felt in both Washington and Mexico City. One provocation was the annual death-watch update, when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) announced in September that at least 340 people had died trying to cross into this country since last October. Many of the deaths are directly attributable to the INS "prevention through deterrence" program. Begun in 1994, it placed unprecedented phalanxes of Border Patrol agents and hi-tech surveillance gadgetry at traditional illegal entry spots, such as downtown El Paso and the urbanized area near San Diego. Block the cities, went INS thinking, and migrants would avoid the only routes left: Arizona's searing deserts, south Texas' hellishly hot ranchlands and the treacherous mountains of rural San Diego County.

"We did believe geography would be an ally," INS chief Doris Meissner said sheepishly. But geography has merely created a border abattoir. Migrant corpses are often so mummified—or so eaten by maggots—that they must be shipped back south in military body bags. All summer this year, immigration rights groups held impassioned memoriums for the dead. The press picked up the news, and people throughout the United States shuddered.

If the new geography weren't bad enough for illegal crossers, the INS program has created further mayhem by altering border culture. Before "prevention through deterrence," residents of cities such as El Paso and Nogales—who are mostly of Mexican descent—were used to seeing dark-skinned migrants dashing across highways, alleys and similar public spaces. Reactions ranged from sympathy to contempt. But seldom did people display a yen to trap and kill immigrants.

The new crossings, however, often run through private property owned by Anglo newcomers to the border. Many take literally the sign tacked on barbed wire throughout the west: "Trespassers will be shot." One south Texas landowner, recently arrived from Arkansas, was offended this spring when a migrant asked him for water after walking for days through the brush to avoid Border Patrol highway blockades. According to subsequent charges, the landowner fired on the man and calmly watched him die. Elsewhere in Texas since last November, two other immigrants have been shot by ranchers.

And in Arizona this spring, hobby rancher Don Barnett bragged of going with his brother in their SUVs to catch illegals with M-16s because migrants leave empty water jugs and soiled diapers on the Barnetts' land. Leaflets appeared, inviting tourists to join the hunts. The INS called the Barnetts' actions legal, and local Border Patrol officers confided to the press that they appreciated the help. Mexicans got so angry that even Presidential candidate Vicente Fox challenged the closed border during his campaign, and after he was elected he raised the issue with President Clinton.

With the U.S. economy booming and thirsty for cheap foreign labor, the public worries less now than a few years ago about immigrants "stealing" jobs, and is consequently more disturbed about the border body count and vigilantism. Nevertheless, the INS budget has almost tripled in the past six years to pay for "prevention and deterrence," and the agency will not easily give up this windfall.

Nor are politicians—Democrats or Republicans—likely to abandon the "stop the invasion" rhetoric that both parties have embraced for several years now, increasingly justified by the "war against drugs." So, although there is absolutely no evidence that blocking the international line has any appreciable effect on illegal drug supply or demand in the United States, the pols and the feds will justify continued border militarization with drugwar rhetoric.

It would, of course, be gross exaggeration to equate U.S. border vigilantes with the murderous Colombian paramilitaries who appear elsewhere in this issue of NACLA Report. But a connection exists that is more than metaphorical. The recently passed U.S. aid package to Colombia—with hundreds of millions of dollars slated for a brutal military and its paramilitary cronies—is also justified with "drug war" talk, even though the money will do nothing to reduce the quantity of or desire for drugs. The package will, however, create more strife, atrocities and deaths, even as it offers a free ride to U.S. war manufacturers who are supplying Colombia with weaponry, and to big oil companies looking to expand their holdings in that country.

Meanwhile back on the southern U.S. border, the new, brutal travel routes will not shut down illegal immigration. Geography and vigilantes will, however, add to the forces that keep undocumented workers cowed, non-unionized, and thus very low paid. In the age of NAFTA, with its premise of unfettered flows of everything and everybody, this is hardly free trade. But for U.S. business interests, it surely is another free ride.

Debbie Nathan is the editor of NACLA Report on the Americas.

Tags: US-Mexico border, INS, immigration, border patrol, geography

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