A little-known paradox in debates on immigration reform is the ongoing fortification of the United States-Mexico border, which is occurring at the same time as the number of official ports of entry between the two countries is expanding. Not lost on residents on both sides of the border is the irony that the US is building a wall while simultaneously constructing more gateways through it.
After 9/11, George W. Bush’s Department of Homeland Security prioritized the construction of an astonishing array of fortifications along the Mexican border, including almost 700 miles of walls. The number of Border Patrol agents doubled in seven years to over 21,000. And interior enforcement was expanded to identify, detain, prosecute, and deport undocumented migrants. Today, Border Patrol apprehensions have declined to their mid-1970’s levels, largely because of the Great Recession and a surge in the Mexican domestic economy, not because of tightened enforcement.
President Obama continued most of Bush’s programs but emphasized deportations, in 2012 over 400,000, their highest-ever levels. Two principal agencies, Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, spent nearly $18 billion in 2012. Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, said a “no-nonsense” approach to immigration was necessary so that voters would support comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented migrants.
Our national obsession with border security has created a Kafka-esque world that threatens the well-being of cross-border communities.
Americans balked when Homeland Security intervened to fortify and militarize their homeland. In Texas, the preponderance of private land-ownership led to a flurry of lawsuits which documented “massive violations of human rights” that accompanied the walls’ construction. Barriers were disproportionately located in poor and minority communities. One fence terminated abruptly when it reached the edge of a millionaire’s property.
Along the river boundary, the wide meanders of the Río Grande/Río Bravo made it impossible to build a continuous, straight-line fence typical of the land boundary. The river’s contorted curves meant that fences were erected north of the river, heedlessly slicing off part of a nature reserve here, a few holes of a golf course there, and cutting a university campus in two. People stranded on the “Mexican side” of the interior divide wondered if they now lived in Mexico.
Inside Arizona, check-points were established on major freeways. Posted signs recorded the number of arrests made and kilos of narcotics seized, but commuters were simply irritated by delays. Government agencies arrived to enforce immigration law, and Arizonans took to welcoming visitors to their “police state.” They lost patience with a pilot project to build nine surveillance towers north of the borderline, complaining that the cameras pointed at them, not toward Mexico. Members of the Tohono O’odham Indian Nation (whose territory is bisected by the international boundary) were especially aggrieved by what they experienced as a re-occupation of their lands by federal agents.
In California, during the peak fence-building frenzy, I met a Border Patrol agent and project engineer at Smuggler’s Gulch, a deep canyon west of Tijuana where a $16 million landfill had been shoveled to prevent access from Mexico. The canyon stream still flowed across the border, so engineers incorporated a tunnel under the landfill to permit the water’s passage. The tunnel entrance and exit were gated, but the agent predicted that migrants would soon use the tunnel to cross, and the engineer sighed: “Ninety-five percent of this is politics.”
Over time, borderlanders adjusted to this topsy-turvy world. People visited their relatives on the other side less frequently, and managed without fresh produce they usually bought in Mexico. Crossing times at the border doubled then tripled, but people simply factored the hold-ups into their commute times. TV channels reported crossing delays along with the weather report. People got on with their lives. Some of them actively resisted.
Sanctuary cities offered safe haven for migrants, and cross-border self-help groups flourished. After 9/11, most informal river crossings fording the Río Bravo were closed, causing several Mexican villages to lose tourist income. Texans began collecting fabric for Mexican neighbors to sew into quilts for sale in the US, returning the money realized from such sales to offset the quilt-makers’ hardship.
Uproar over the hideous fortifications persisted until windows and perforations were inserted into the walls, allowing people to see through to the other side. Community anger spilled over to implicate private security firms contracted with the DHS. In 2008, Blackwater Worldwide abandoned plans to open a training facility east of San Diego after locals objected to anticipated increases in noise and traffic levels, but also because of Blackwater’s sullied reputation as military contractor in Iraq.
Anti-immigrant forces, themselves frustrated by delays in fence construction, responded by building a symbolic fence affixed with aluminum plates engraved with cogent homilies addressed to passing migrants, such as ‘Drop Dead.’
And in a moment of exquisite farce, the Border Patrol cancelled a contract worth $30 million for Mexican-made uniforms in 2004. Officers pressed for a Buy American strategy, discomfited by labels bearing the words Hecho en México.
Confronted by the DHS occupation, border people demonstrated remarkable resilience. They are staunchly independent, with diverse loyalties. Yet mutual interdependence has always been a hallmark of cross-border lives. People get along with those on the other side, but distrust far-distant national capitals.
Residents on both sides of the line regard parts of Mexico and the US as their home. For them, the border is a connective membrane, not a line of demarcation. They have more in common with each other than with their host nations, describing themselves as “transborder citizens” oblivious to which side of the border they’re on. This place is distinctive enough to warrant the title of “third nation,” slotted snugly in-between two countries.
Besides sentiments of belonging and shared destiny, the third nation is bolstered by synergistic local economies. Border states are among the fastest-growing regions in both countries. Ciudad Juárez, once a city of 1.5 million, lost about a quarter-million inhabitants who fled from drug cartel-related violence to various destinations across Mexico. Yet the city’s industries continue to add jobs, and trade between Juárez and Texas rose almost 50 percent in 2010. In El Paso, the arrival of 30,000 sanctuary-seekers from Juárez created a boom in real estate and restaurant businesses.
Cross-border institutions also reinforce bi-national ties. For more than a century, the International Boundary and Water Commission in El Paso has shared responsibility with its Mexican counterpart for maintaining the boundary line and supporting joint development projects. The Commissions make vital contributions to bi-national stability and prosperity.
Border communities have been placed in an untenable situation. They are obliged to host an enforcement infrastructure that undermines their well-being. In return DHS has offered little, creating instead a bizarre world of splintered lives, occupying armies, drones, and pulverized landscapes awash with the detritus of partition.
The walls separating Mexico and the US are manifestations of failed diplomacy. They do not work, and will come down. The Berlin Wall was demolished virtually overnight, its fragments sold as souvenirs of a calamitous Cold War; and the Great Wall of China became a global tourist attraction. Left untended, the US-Mexico Wall would collapse under the combined assault of avid recyclers, souvenir hunters, and antagonistic residents. Nevertheless, we should preserve sections of the Wall to commemorate that fraught moment in history when the US lost its moral compass.