The U.S.-Mexico border

Free trade without free people

AS U.S. astronaut José Hernández gazed back at his home planet during a six-million-mile mission to the International Space Station in 2009, this space traveler, who is also a son of Mexican immigrants, observed something peculiar. “What surprised me is when I saw the world as one. There were no borders. You couldn’t distinguish between the United States and Mexico,” he was quoted as saying.1 Like millions of others whose lives have been affected by migration, barriers, and restrictions, Hernández’s insight speaks volumes about the role of borders in the daily lives of those for whom they exist. His epiphany also sheds light on a reality that need not require a celestial journey to comprehend: the U.S.-Mexico border exists more as a social constructor of identities and less as a physical barrier that delineates and defines distinct and exclusive landscapes.

Since its inception as a boundary imposed by a war of expansion the U.S.-Mexico border has functioned in a dualistic manner. It has served both as a gateway to economic opportunity and as a barrier that creates and maintains unequal power relations. This paradox—the border as both conduit and obstacle—is most apparent when analyzing the movement of peoples and capital. For American capitalists, investors, tourists, and retirees, the border provides access. For Mexicans moving north, the majority of whom cross to seek economic opportunity in low-wage industries, the border imposes exclusion. This border duality defines the social identities of both peoples in relationship to each other—a status that manifests most starkly once one crosses into the other’s country.

The matrix of disequilibrium produced by the U.S.-Mexico border offers portable sovereignty to the American and the stigma of illegality to the Mexican when each crosses the border. Upon entry into each country, this imposed identity defines social relations. Contrary to the gravitational force of economic globalization, which ignores boundaries and obliterates barriers, the border wall socially and politically disaggregates and segregates all those who pass through it. It is the existence of the border wall more as a signifier of status than as a barrier that sustains each population in its own form of isolation on the opposite side. While the compelling forces of regional integration yearn to make two parts whole, the border forces them apart. While the border stands defiant, the world around it rapidly changes.

A border built by war
The U.S.-Mexico border has never been a static or peaceful entity. It was borne out of violence and nurtured on conflict throughout its history. As an actual boundary, it is intangible to most Americans, a nonentity in public consciousness, and a rare back-pager in the national media. The border only comes to life in the American mind through the inflammable rhetoric of Homeland Security, or through the acerbic oratory of immigration catastrophists. For most Mexicans, however, the U.S.-Mexico border is omnipresent, looming large in the national mind and casting a long and confining shadow.

The 1,993 miles of shared skin that conjoins the two nations conceals the ancient bones of history’s contenders for this region. New Spain’s northern border was not established as a frontier demarcation, but as the line of impasse imposed on the Spanish by intransigent Indian resistance in the Southwest.2 This front line of war was then reified as a permanent boundary through the American military conquest of the region during the Mexican-American War. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a document ratified by Mexico under the threat and duress of an indefinite U.S. occupation in 1848, forcefully induced America’s Manifest Destiny of territorial expansion. Hostilities (and further expansion) ceased only after the Mexican government agreed to forfeit its northern frontier to the United States, a fact already established a priori by the U.S. military occupation of that region by 1847.

While warfare may have formally ended in 1848, the border region has since become integrated as a theater of war in U.S. military doctrine—irrespective of Mexico’s official diplomatic status or of the Mexican nation itself. Since the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy doctrine has increasingly identified non-state actors as external threats to the nation. These include extraterritorial ideological formations and international criminal syndicates. This, combined with increased mobility in the era of globalization, has brought the concept of war—real or imagined—closer to home. In this context, an uncertain and potentially hostile world now exists at the boundaries of the United States. The U.S.-Mexico border is transformed from a boundary to a barrier. As a constructed symbol of war, the border wall that has come into being locates Mexico as the portal for a ubiquitous enemy, and it subsequently allows for the casting of Mexican and Central American economic migrants as a threat to the nation. This has also provided the nexus for the periodic reemergence of traditional immigrant exclusionist groups and the formation of broad, anti-immigration coalitions capable of projecting immigration alarmism onto the national stage.

In a nation at war or preparing for war since 1941, elements of U.S. domestic policy have become increasingly militarized in recent decades. The emerging border wall and the militarization of immigration enforcement strategies have become internalized manifestations of the “containment” strategy first elaborated during the Cold War. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the border-as-battleground ideology has remained. It has been repackaged in all succeeding military doctrines, from the “war on drugs” to the “war on terror,” with each new stage incorporating elements of the previous.

As a national security doctrine elaborated by then–Secretary of State George F. Kennan in 1947, containment entailed the “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”3 Containment strategy sought to arrest the spread of Soviet power in two dimensions. “Strongpoint Defense” called for the concentration of military force and power at strategic geopolitical locations abroad where U.S. interests were threatened, and “perimeter defense” called for securing of the “rim of the heartland” from enemy penetration.4 This latter component of the doctrine was institutionalized throughout the Cold War and colored national policies in all forms, including border policy.

Cold War ideology carried over into U.S. funding and support for anticommunist movements in Central America, which became a strategic region during the Cold War in places like Guatemala. In 1954 a U.S.-supported military coup toppled the reformist government of Jacobo Arbenz. This was due to its alleged socialistic ambitions in pursuing land nationalization at the expense of the U.S.-based United Fruit Company, a multinational corporation that controlled much of that country’s arable land. Central American Cold War flashpoints, in the eyes of then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, placed the threat of a “possible Communist outpost on this continent” and within striking distance of America’s southern border.5 That same year Senator Pat McCarran, a Democratic senator and vocal anticommunist and immigration restrictionist, justified his crusade for border enforcement by alleging that communist agents were among the “wetbacks” who crossed the Rio Grande.6 In response to this purported threat, Eisenhower’s attorney general, Herbert Brownell, applied containment ideology to border militarization when he initiated “Operation Wetback,” a policy for border enforcement and unauthorized immigrant removal. Brownell’s initial abortive immigration plans included the placement of a thousand troops on the border and the construction of a 150-mile border wall. His aggressive stance was illustrated by a notorious comment made at a meeting with labor unions that “one way of discouraging wetbacks would be to allow the border patrol to shoot some of them.”7

Brownell brought in a former lieutenant general from the army, Joseph Swing, to head the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the forerunner of today’s various immigration agencies housed within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Swing promised to establish a border enforcement agency along military lines, and he conducted a national deportation campaign that resulted in the expulsion in 1954 of 1.3 million alleged Mexican nationals.

Cold War ideology toward the border continued unabated through to the administration of Ronald Reagan, whose enthusiastic support for military intervention in Central America under the auspices of fighting communism led him to declare in 1986 that “terrorists and subversives are just two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas.”8 Reagan also signed a National Security Decision Directive that designated drug smuggling from Mexico a threat to national security. This paved the way for military participation in border enforcement, especially after President George H. W. Bush, who succeeded Reagan, officially declared a “war on drugs” in 1989.

Colin Powell, then general of the U.S. Armed Forces Command, established Joint Task Force 6 (JTF-6), a multiforce command designated to assist local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies and narcotic task forces in drug interdiction along the Southwest border. Author Timothy Dunn has linked this explicit militarization of border enforcement to “Low-Intensity Conflict (LIC),” a U.S. military doctrine implemented in Latin American war zones at the height of the Cold War. The doctrine promotes the “establishment and maintenance of social control over targeted civilian populations through the implementation of a broad range of sophisticated measures via the coordinated and integrated efforts of police, paramilitary, and military forces.”9 The command (now called JTF North) has completed more than six thousand missions since 1989.10 Six thousand–plus other National Guard troops would return to the U.S.-Mexico border from 2006 to 2008 as part of Operation Jump Start, another effort combining immigration control and drug interdiction. The operation’s architects claimed that their efforts were responsible for a decrease in crime and the thwarting of thousands of undocumented crossings, primarily through the construction of 973 vehicle barriers and the refurbishment of whole sections of the border wall.11

After the end of the Cold War in 1991, border containment strategy continued but replaced its primary raison d’être with a new external enemy: drug smugglers. It also began to link economic migration directly to the drug threat. The Clinton administration implemented the National Strategic Plan in 1994, a border security doctrine emanating from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The plan concluded that drug smuggling was an increasing threat in the region of the Southwest border, which was also “being overrun” by undocumented immigrants.12

The National Strategic Plan (NSP) called for an operational shift within the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now DHS) that emphasized preventative entry of undocumented immigrants and drug traffickers over an internal focus. The first two phases of the NSP allocated funding for the construction of border walls along traditional urban entry points from San Diego to Laredo, Texas, as part of operations given names such as Operation Hold the Line and Operation Gatekeeper. Along with a fixed and permanent barrier, the plan called for an increase in personnel and the incorporation of aircraft, equipment, technology, and tactical infrastructure. The U.S. Border Patrol’s goal of rerouting the unauthorized border traffic from traditional, urban routes to less populated and geographically harsher areas was a strategy to provide “agents with a tactical advantage over illegal border-crossers and smugglers.”13 While continuously touted as a success, this strategy has led to a dramatic increase in mortality rates for unauthorized border-crossers. This has been exacerbated by how the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall has occurred in tandem with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This paradox—creating a border wall while simultaneously integrating the two economies—is demonstrative of the countervailing and contradictory forces at work.

Into its twentieth year, the “war on drugs” as a border enforcement strategy has continued unabated. The most recent stage has been the 2009 Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy of the Obama administration. The new doctrine expands the purview of enforcement beyond the border wall, since the drug war has transcended the border region. The stated objective of the doctrine is to “substantially reduce the flow of illicit drugs, drug proceeds, and associated instruments of violence across the Southwest border.”14 This reflects how, while the “war on drugs” has not squelched the flow of drugs, it has encouraged the cartelization of control and distribution. Drug profitability now depends on large capital outlays to fund a drug mini-state that can match the technology and firepower of the drug enforcement agencies, with violence spilling over all along the drug corridors. While the drug war has superseded national boundaries, the border wall remains the primary focal point of transgression and prevention.

As the “war on drugs” rages, a new border “threat” now intersects it. Since the attacks of 9/11, a new war has shifted to the border region, the “war on terror.” In Appendix A of the Counternarcotics Strategy, for instance, unauthorized migration, drugs, and terrorism are linked together through the identification of smuggling tunnels. “Since terrorists have the potential to use already-established smuggling pathways—such as tunnels—to move illegal contraband, personnel, and money across borders, it is essential that tunnels be viewed as a unique and growing threat to the homeland.”15 It is the “war on terror” doctrine that has accelerated the construction of the border wall and militarized enforcement faster than the previous border strategies.

As part of the “war on terror” strategy, the George W. Bush administration inaugurated the Secure Border Initiative in November of 2005 as an effort to secure “the nation’s borders from illegal entry of aliens and contraband, including terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.”16 The initiative, enhanced by the Secure Fence Act of 2006 has led to the extension of the physical border wall from 143 to 633 miles by 2009, and the creation of a second “virtual wall” comprised of sensors, cameras, and radars, as well as “tactical infrastructure” such as fencing, roads, lighting, and command and control centers.17

Since 2005, the project has received more than $7 billion, and the Obama administration has pledged full support for the completion of the program. This entails the covering of the whole southwestern border by wall or virtual fencing by 2016, accruing another $6.5 billion in maintenance costs alone by 2029. This plan continues despite the fact that between 1998 and 2005 the government spent $429 million on two virtual fencing efforts that failed to yield more than a 1 percent arrest rate of detected crossers.18 Into the second decade of the twenty-first century, the border wall stands as a monument to a congeries of wars that haven’t ceased, only changed in content—first against subversives, then drug smugglers, then terrorists, with economic refugees caught in the crosshairs.

One economy, two nations
While the economic interrelationship between Mexico and the United States began with bloodshed, dollars and walls have sustained it. Contemporary Mexican critics of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, like dissenting legislator Manuel Crescencio, saw in its ratification the beginning of the end of Mexican economic independence. He predicted that the new boundary forged by American power would merely be a steppingstone to further economic expansion and the ultimate Americanization of Mexico. “We will never be able to compete within our own markets with the North American imports…the Treaty is our sentence of death.”19

Crescencio’s worst fears were realized almost immediately after the treaty established the new boundary. For American merchants, entrepreneurs, and smugglers, the newly established border offered a wealth of opportunity. In their seminal work on border history, Gilbert Gonzalez and Raúl Fernández identify shifting attitudes among American capitalists, who saw access to Mexican markets as a means of expansion more efficient than war. As prominent investor Edward Lee Plumb explained, “If we have their trade and development, we need not hasten the greater event [annexation].”20

Entrepreneurs flocked to the border region to engage in contraband trade with Mexican border towns, as prohibitive taxes and trade restrictions emanating from the country’s interior encouraged the growth of black market trade in U.S.-made goods. From Eagle Pass to Brownsville, Texas, U.S. border towns sprang to life as smuggling corridors that fueled the fortunes of a new class of border capitalists.21 According to border historian Juan Mora-Torres, the Mexican side of the border experienced rapid economic development as a crucial trade link between the Confederacy and Europe as a result of Union blockades of Southern ports during the Civil War.22

The years of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship (1876–1910) provided a bonanza of expansion of U.S. capital. After coming to power in 1876 through a coup backed and funded by the United States, Díaz converted the whole of the U.S.-Mexico border into a free-trade zone, opening the door to North American capital.23 The Díaz regime favored large-scale investment and eventual dominance of U.S.-based companies in the oil, mining, cattle, and railroad industries. Díaz’s strategy was based on the belief that direct foreign investment would be a more rapid path to industrialization and modernization, and one that would eventually transfer technology, training, and capital to a burgeoning Mexican capitalist class. By 1910 more than one thousand U.S.-based companies were operating throughout Mexico, signaling the rise of preponderant American influence within the Mexican economy.24 The repatriation of vast profits from these endeavors enriched the American investors and their Mexican partners, turning more entrepreneurial eyes southward. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 was a reaction to what was perceived by many Mexicans as displacement and impoverishment resulting from Porfirian corruption and American imperialism. Nevertheless, the period that followed only slowed U.S. economic expansion in Mexico; it did not stop it.25

The Mexican Constitution of 1917 laid the basis for an economic nationalism that reached its height in the 1940s with the implementation of various state-led developmental projects. Adapted from the theories of Argentine economist Raúl Prebisch (and the initial strategies of the developed world), successive Mexican governments sought to develop an industrial infrastructure through nationalization, import tariffs, prohibitions or limitations on foreign investment, and massive infusions of capital into national projects. In theory, this would produce a qualitative shift away from the dependency on the export of primary resources and spur the production of manufactured goods, raising the national income and creating a domestic market for consumption. Without this, Mexico would remain vulnerable to erratic market fluctuations, dependent on foreign markets, vulnerable to the whims of the developed economies, and underdeveloped.

Despite some tangible gains of the nationalist experiment, it petered out by the late 1970s, with a majority of the Mexican elite opting to once again partner with U.S. capital. According to Vijay Prashad,

What such developments show is that among sections of the bourgeoisie, there is a slow erosion of national loyalty and the growth of cosmopolitan extra-national sentiments that are more in tune with a global bourgeois calculation of economic interest…and therefore a political realignment among certain states whose bourgeoisie is eager for a pro-United States engagement, even as this might be counterproductive for the vast mass of its population.26

In other words, the expansion of U.S. multinational corporations and the increase in their share of the global market after the Second World War coaxed a realignment of political power in Mexico. A new elite emerged, intent on reopening Mexico along the same lines as the nineteenth-century strategy used by Porfirio Díaz—free trade, open markets, and industrialization based on foreign capital investment.

The economic realignment began in earnest in 1965 with the Border Industrialization Program, which once again opened up a free-trade zone along the border region in an effort to entice American capital back into the country. The “free trade” movement ultimately reached full maturity through the opening of the whole national economy with the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. The opening of Mexico’s economy to international capital investment through the aegis of “free trade” was scripted long before the passage of NAFTA. The antecedents to the treaty were present in loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the U.S. government to Mexico during Mexico’s debt crisis in 1982. During the economic crisis, which continued through the 1980s and resurfaced again in 1995 after the first year of NAFTA, money was loaned to Mexico in exchange for lowered tariffs and trade barriers, as well as for the privatization and sale of state-owned industries.27 The mantra of free trade was also promoted within U.S. immigration policy, ironically as a solution to immigration. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, for instance, called for the U.S. government to “expedite the development of a U.S.-Mexico free-trade area and encourage its incorporation with Canada into a North American free-trade area.”28

With NAFTA, most of the restrictions on foreign investment and capital were removed, facilitating the rapid integration of the two economies through corporate mobility and the dismantling of tariffs. The result is most visible through the increase in direct foreign ownership and increased market share throughout Mexico’s economy, especially in manufacturing, finance, and agriculture. In compliance with NAFTA’s tenets, Mexico has removed all foreign-exchange restrictions, allowing capital to move freely across the country’s borders. Most sectors of the economy are open to direct foreign investment. According to the Latin American Monitor, the Foreign Investment Law identifies 704 activities, 656 of which are open for 100 percent foreign direct investment (FDI) stakes. There are eighteen activities in which foreigners may only invest 49 percent, thirteen of which require Foreign Investment National Commission approval for a 100 percent stake, ten are reserved for the Mexican state, and five are reserved for Mexican nationals.29 As a result, American investors now account for about two-thirds of all FDI in the country,30 which reached $27 billion in 2007, $22 billion in 2008, with a total stock of $272 billion by the end of 2008.31

Mexico’s manufacturing sector consists of both foreign- and domestic-owned production facilities and assembly plants called maquiladoras. The maquiladora system was initially created to use low-wage Mexican labor as a lure to draw U.S. manufacturing to the region, allowing companies to move production machinery and unassembled parts into Mexico without tariff consequences, as long as the assembled product was returned to the United States for final sale.32

NAFTA has further reduced or eliminated restrictions on the location and movement of the plants and their goods, although most supplies are brought in from the United States and most finished goods return to markets north of the border.

As economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas have explained it, “Maquiladoras are an extension into Mexico of U.S. production of automobiles, electronics, apparel and many other goods.”33 While concentrated along a twenty-kilometer strip just south of the border, maquiladoras have penetrated Mexico’s interior. There are about 2,800 maquiladora plants employing about 1.3 million workers, incorporating this Mexican workforce as part of a regional assembly line dominated by U.S. companies. Maquiladora production accounted for 56 percent of Mexico’s total manufacturing exports in 2008, adding up to about $130 billion.34 Large U.S. companies operate both assembly and production plants across the country, and have increased their market share since the passage of NAFTA.

General Motors is now the largest auto manufacturer in Mexico and, along with the Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation, accounts for about 50 percent of total auto market share in the country.35 U.S.-based multinationals Motorola, HP, and Dell are among the foreign-owned firms that own most of Mexico’s seven hundred electronics plants.36

U.S.-Mexico integration has also transformed Mexico’s financial sector. For instance, by December 2008, the share of foreign control of Mexico’s banking system increased from 1.5 percent in 1993 to 74.5 percent after the Mexican government dismantled most investment restrictions during that decade. Foreign capital, led by the United States, Canada, and Spain, poured in. For example, U.S.-based Citibank Corporation now forms the second largest commercial banking group in the country under the name Grupo Financiero Banamex-Accival (Banacci). Even Wal-Mart, already the largest retailer in Mexico, moved into the banking industry, operating four hundred branches by late 2008. Citigroup and Merrill Lynch also operate as the country’s top two brokerage firms, while U.S.-based MetLife is the largest insurance company in operation. U.S.-based companies also control the largest market share in pension fund management and bond underwriting.37 To facilitate the easy transfer of capital between centers, in 2005 the central bank (Banco de México or Banxico) developed a program known as Directo a México, which linked its payment system to the U.S. Federal Reserve Banking system.

The two economies have become virtually integrated in terms of cross-border production, ownership, and volume of trade. For instance, the “U.S. accounted for 64 percent of the value of Mexico’s total trade activity and it received 82.1 percent of Mexico’s exports in 2008. Trade activity between the two countries totaled US$387bn in 2008 and US$364bn in 2007.”38

The interconnection can also be seen in the mass migration of Americans to Mexico. Aside from Americans comprising the largest group of investors in Mexico’s tourist industry and supplying 82 percent of its tourists in 2007 (along with Canada, the other NAFTA partner), it is estimated that one million U.S. citizens now call Mexico home.39 While there are fewer American migrants in Mexico than Mexican migrants in the United States, U.S. nationals residing in Mexico comprise a larger percentage of that country’s foreign-born population (69 percent) than that of Mexicans living in the United States (30 percent).40 These include retirees, families seeking a lower cost of living, cross-border commuters, corporate employees, and entrepreneurs sniffing for new opportunities. The migratory movement of people from the United States to Mexico is a reminder of the two countries’ integration, but it also stands in stark contrast to the enforced containment of the majority of Mexicans.

The rate of speed at which the expansive economic forces of NAFTA are forcefully displacing, rearranging, and assimilating the markets of Mexico into those of the United States is matched only by the efforts of U.S. policy makers to intensify border separation and reinforcement. This glaring contradiction at the core of the regional economy, with the forces of economic integration and segregation pushing against each other like two immense tectonic plates, has set up the border region to be a zone of conflict for years to come. This, at the same time that the U.S. and Mexican economies become increasingly integrated, the wall has become a centripetal force, preventing the social forces in tow from equal integration. Since economic laws abhor a vacuum, martial laws seek to fill it. Therefore, the militarization of the border serves to counter the forces of equilibrium, in order to physically and forcefully maintain unequal relations between the separate economic centers. It is here where inequality is laid bare in the shadow of free trade.

Free trade without free people
The potential population displacement resulting from NAFTA was supposed to be offset by new job creation. However, this failed to materialize for the majority of Mexicans.41 Aside from NAFTA, Mexico has also signed forty-four separate free-trade and bilateral agreements and twenty-seven “investment protection agreements” with other nations, making it the most open economy in Latin America.42 Economic displacement has resulted from the massive influx of capital and cheap goods from foreign sources, primarily from U.S.-based enterprise, inducing a radical restructuring of Mexico’s economy. Mexico is now identified by the World Bank as having the largest diaspora of economic emigrants in the world.43 Large-scale displacement and out-migration, primarily to the United States, is countered by intensified border enforcement efforts and an immigration and visa system that has not been updated to account for the realities of globalization. As the economic forces of displacement have been more powerful than the political actions taken to stop unauthorized immigration, instead of curtailing cross-border movement, the border zone and enforcement efforts into the interior have only made it more deadly.

According to Mexico’s National Population Council (CONAPO), the total number of Mexicans living in the United States was 11,800,000 in 2007.44 About 60 percent of this population has migrated since the passage of NAFTA, with the high point of two million workers entering the country between 2000 and 2005 alone.45 Since the United States allocates fewer than twenty thousand work visas to Mexico each year—with the majority of those going to skilled workers—most Mexican workers enter without authorization. The majority of migrants, having little resources to pay first-class smugglers, have to navigate an increasingly fortified border and hazardous terrain throughout the migrant corridor into the United States.

The original border policy of the National Strategic Plan of shifting migration away from urban centers into the interior has continued unabated. As the border-as-barrier has extended across the boundary, it has also been projected inwards. By 2009, there were 19,354 agents nationwide, an increase of 57 percent since the expansion of the border wall in September 2006. About 88 percent (17,011) were located in the nine border patrol sectors along the Southwest border. Another 4 percent were assigned to thirty-two permanent immigration checkpoints that flank the region, functioning like a second border.46 The walling of the border is further augmented by the increase in internal enforcement, although this thins out along the country’s northern boundary with Canada.

It is worth noting that the remaining 8 percent of the border patrol is assigned to the 5,525 mile U.S.-Canadian border. The 92 percent to 8 percent Mexico-Canada enforcement ratio reveals a stark contrast in the way the United States treats the two borders. According to Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, “Between the U.S. and Canada, there is almost no wall at all, nor any border line…U.S. residents can go to Canada and return without any problem. Only at the border entries are there some clear border lines.”47

While border deaths are unheard of on the United States’ northern boundary, they have become commonplace along the Mexican border. In a 2009 study on the impact of border enforcement policy on migration, research revealed that the shifting of migration into more deadly terrain has resulted in the death of more than five thousand Mexican and Central American nationals since 1994. The joint study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Mexican National Commission on Human Rights implicates the National Strategy Program (now commonly referred to generally as Operation Gatekeeper) and its approach to migration “prevention and deterrence” through urban containment. According to the study,

The strategy concentrated border agents and resources along populated areas, intentionally forcing undocumented immigrants to extreme environments and natural barriers that the government anticipated would increase the likelihood of injury and death. The stated goal was to deter migrants from crossing. But this strategy did not work. Migrants have died crossing the border every day, year after year. Estimates of the death toll range from 3,861 to 5,607 in the last fifteen years.48

The intensification of border enforcement has also been linked to an increase in human trafficking. This occurs when migrants are forced to exchange labor or sex for successful passage. According to the U.S. State Department, between 14,500 and 17,500 individuals are trafficked annually into the United States, with a large percentage of these victims originating from or traveling through Mexico.49 There are at least twenty networks involved in the trafficking of persons that target mostly women migrants and with links to organized crime rings involved in other activities like drug smuggling.50 Once across the border, undocumented immigrants encounter a further array of obstacles that inhibit their movement, economic stability, and opportunity to socially integrate.

The illegalization of movement for most Mexicans across the border has been augmented by the internal expansion of enforcement, which creates multiple “borders” throughout the interior. These include fixed immigration checkpoints, workplace raids and audits, “Fugitive Recovery Teams,” local sweeps involving local law enforcement (such as the 287g Program) and national citizenship databases—with the move away from the border shifting jurisdiction to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The DHS has rapidly expanded its detention complex and incarceration rate as a result. According to the Web site Detention Watch, the average daily population of detainees has skyrocketed from five thousand in 1994 to thirty thousand in 2009.51 This vast webbing of immigration enforcement has developed in lieu of substantive change in immigration policy.

The majority of apprehensions occurs at the U.S.-Mexico border and peaked in 2006 with the capture of 1.1 million unauthorized crossers. Nevertheless, by its own account, the border patrol intercepts and catches only 30 percent of unauthorized crossers into the United States.52 Beyond the border, the agency maintains thirty-two fixed immigration checkpoints that run the span of the border from East Texas to Southern California. Dozens of other “tactical” checkpoints (those without permanent structures) are also set up in multiple locations within the interior and change regularly. Supreme Court rulings in 1976 (such as U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte) allow border patrol agents at these checkpoints broad discretion to stop and question drivers based on the racial profile of “having apparent Mexican ancestry.”53

According to the Migration Policy Institute, 359,000 people (88 percent of whom were Mexican nationals) were arrested and deported in 2008.54 By the middle of 2009, Janet Napolitano, the head of the DHS for the Obama administration, announced that ICE has made 181,000-plus arrests of illegal nationals thus far in 2009. That’s a 6 percent increase compared with the same period two years ago, and has conducted almost 215,000 total removals of illegal nationals thus far in 2009—a 25 percent increase over two years ago.55 Overall 387,790 people were deported in 2009.56 The Obama administration announced its intention to deport more than four hundred thousand people by the end of fiscal year 2010, surpassing the Bush administration’s total of 2008 by 10 percent.57

The most common form of apprehension and removal is through “fugitive recovery operations.” The term “fugitive” can refer to three categories of immigrants: those with outstanding deportation orders for expired visas or who have been previously detained as unauthorized foreign nationals who failed to show up to court; those with outstanding criminal records; or other undocumented persons swept by immigration agents in the course of executing the arrest orders of others (referred to as “collateral arrests”).

By early 2009, ICE agents had conducted hundreds of workplace raids, detaining 6,287 undocumented workers.58 While workplace raids decreased after the inauguration of Barack Obama, the incoming administration increased “workplace audits” as an alternative. These involve the internal investigation of companies by the DHS to identify and dismiss undocumented workers and to levy hefty fines against the employers who hire them. The threat of an audit led the clothing manufacturer American Apparel to mass fire 1,500 workers in September of that year.59 The administration also ramped up the use of the E-Verify system, a federal database to be used by employers to cross-check the status of would-be employees.

By 2009, over seventy local law enforcement agencies were participating in the DHS’s 287g Program. This arrangement, which was written into the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 during the Clinton administration, began under the Bush administration and has been expanded by the Obama administration. It allows for individual police and sheriff departments to engage in local immigration enforcement as part of their other policing duties if they choose to affiliate.60 As a result of this policy, immigration officials held a record 378,582 individuals in detention (61 percent Mexican nationals) by 2008,61 detained in a vast complex of listed and secretive jails, holding centers, and field offices.62

The enforcement focus on the U.S.-Mexico border and on unauthorized Mexican and other Latino immigrants is reflected in the growth of immigrant incarceration. Nonviolent, undocumented Latino immigrants are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. By 2007, for instance, Latinos made up 40 percent of the estimated two hundred thousand prisoners in federal penitentiaries, which is triple their share of the total U.S. adult population and disproportionate to their representation in state and local jails (19 percent and 16 percent, respectively). Nearly half of the Latino population in federal prisons is immigrant, with 81 percent sentenced for entering or residing in the nation without authorization.63

The enforcement web pushes the remainder of the undocumented population to seek sanctuary in the social, political, and economic margins. All told, the immigration enforcement and detention complex is the fastest-growing sector of law enforcement, with current indicators pointing to the continued expansion of the Department of Homeland Security’s agencies and efforts.

While the different epochs of geopolitical conflict have changed the nature of the “external threat,” the policy of “containment” has continued to determine the function of the U.S.-Mexico border into the second decade of the twenty-first century. The confluence of politico-military doctrines, from the Cold War to the “war on terror,” with increased regional economic integration through NAFTA, has created a zone that combines conflict with cooperation, war with peace. The U.S.-Mexico border wall rises from within this contradiction, jostling against flesh and bone.


  1. Julie Watson, “Mexican-American astronaut calls for United States to legalize undocumented immigrants,” Associated Press, September 15, 2009.
  2. See the introduction to Paul Ganster and David E. Lorey, The U.S.-Mexican Border into the 21st Century (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008) for more detail about this form of early boundary formation.
  3. John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 4.
  4. Ibid., 58.
  5. Steven Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of an American Coup in Guatemala (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1982), 11.
  6. See Juan Ramon García, Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers in 1954 (Westport, CT: Greenhaven Press, 1980) for more detail.
  7. Ibid., 172.
  8. Timothy Dunn, The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border 1978–92: Low-Intensity Conflict Comes Home (Austin, TX: The Center for Mexican American Studies Books [CMAS], 1996), 3.
  9. Ibid., 4.
  10. Joint Task Force North Web Site.
  11. National Guard Web site.
  12. Blas Nuñez-Neto, “The Role of the U.S. Border Patrol,” Congressional Research Service Policy Paper presented October 14, 2004.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Office of National Drug Control Policy, “National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy,” June 2009,.
  15. Richard Stana, “Secure Border Initiative: Technology deployment delays persist and the impact of border fencing has not been assessed,” Government Accountability Office (GAO), September 9, 2009.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Spencer S. Hsu, “In ‘virtual fence,’ continuity with border effort by Bush,” Washington Post, May 9, 2009.
  18. Richard Griswold Del Castillo, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 50.
  19. Gilbert Gonzalez and Raúl Fernández, A Century of Chicano History: Empire, Nations, and Migration (New York, NY: Routledge, 2003), 36.
  20. See chapter 1 of Juan Mora-Torres, The Making of the Mexican Border: The State, Capitalism, and Society in Nuevo León, 1848–1910 (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2001).
  21. Ibid.
  22. See chapter 2 of John Mason Hart, Empire and Revolution: The Americans in Mexico since the Civil War (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2002), for an in-depth study of the regime of Porfirio Díaz.
  23. See chapter 2 of Ganster and Lorey, The U.S.-Mexican Border into the 21st Century, for more information about U.S. ownership in Mexico.
  24. See Adolfo Gilly, The Mexican Revolution: A Peoples’ History (New York: New Press, 2005) for more on this analysis.
  25. Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York, NY: New Press, 2007), 257–58.
  26. See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) for a full discussion of neoliberalism and its role in Mexico.
  27. Cited in David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Immigration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2008), 53.
  28. “Real Estate,” Latin American Monitor, July 6-8, 2009.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Economist Intelligence Unit Report, Country Commerce: Mexico, August 2009.
  31. Jesus Cañas, Roberto Coronado, and Robert Gilmer, “The Face of Texas: Jobs, People, Business, Change,” Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, October 2005.
  32. Jesus Cañas and Robert Gilmer, “The Maquiladora’s Changing Geography,” Southwest Economy, 2nd Quarter 2009, 10–14.
  33. Economist Intelligence Unit Report, Country Commerce: Mexico.
  34. “Autos,” Latin American Monitor, October, 6–8, 2009.
  35. “Consumer Electronics,” Latin American Monitor, September, 6–8, 2009.
  36. Economist Intelligence Unit Report, Country Finance: Mexico, March 2009.
  37. Economist Intelligence Unit Report, Country Commerce: Mexico.
  38. “Tourism,” Latin American Monitor, August 6–8, 2009.
  39. Sheila Croucher, The Other Side of the Fence: American Migrants in Mexico (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009), 6.
  40. See David Bacon, Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004) for a full discussion of the failures of NAFTA for the majority of Mexican, Canadian, and American workers.
  41. Economist Intelligence Unit Report, Country Commerce: Mexico.
  42. Roberto Gonzalez Amador and David Brooks, “México, el mayor expulsor de migrantes del planeta, dice el BM,” La Jornada, April 16, 2007.
  43. “Mexico’s diaspora grows,” Frontera NorteSur News, September 22, 2008. Frontera NorteSur News is an online, U.S.-Mexico border news site produced by the Center for Latin American and Border Studies at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico.
  44. Amador and Brooks, “México, el mayor.”
  45. Richard Stana, “Immigration enforcement controls over program authorizing state and local enforcement of federal immigration laws should be strengthened,” testimony by the director of homeland security and justice issues presented before the Committee on Homeland Security, House of Representatives, March 4, 2009. Report prepared by the United States Government Accountability Office.
  46. Dzung Do, “The border, the wall and a post-9/11 world” AlterNet, December 30, 2008.
  47. Maria Jimenez, “Humanitarian crisis: Migrant deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border,” Report of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties and Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights, October 2009.
  48. Megan McAdams, “Modern day slavery in Mexico and the United States,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, December 21, 2009.
  49. Emilio Godoy, “Slow progress against human trafficking,” Inter Press Service, August 21, 2009.
  50. “The history of immigration detention in the U.S.,” Detention Watch.
  51. United States Government Accountability Office, “Border patrol checkpoints contribute to border patrol’s mission, but more consistent data collection and performance measurement could improve effectiveness,” Report to Congressional Requesters, August 31, 2009.
  52. See Reynaldo Anaya Valencia, Sonia R. Garcia, Henry Flores, and José Roberto Juarez Jr., Mexican Americans and the Law: ¡El pueblo unido jamás sera vencido! (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2004), chapter 5.
  53. Kristen McCabe and Jeanne Batalova, “Immigration enforcement in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, November 2009.
  54. Janet Napolitano, “Remarks by secretary Napolitano at the border security conference,” Department of Homeland Security, August 11, 2009.
  55. Spencer S. Hsu and N. C. Aizenman, “DHS corrects report that overstated ICE deportations under Obama,” Washington Post, March 8, 2010.
  56. Peter Slevin, “Deportation of illegal immigrants increases under Obama administration,” Washington Post, July 26, 2010.
  57. Rogelio V. Solis, “Immigration raid spotlights rift of have-nots,” Associated Press, January 24, 2009.
  58. Manuel Valdes, (2009) “Washington raid brings deportations, mixed signals,” Associated Press, December 5, 2009.
  59. Stana, “Immigration enforcement controls.”
  60. McCabe and Batalova, “Immigration enforcement in the United States.”
  61. Jacqueline Stevens, “America’s secret ICE castles,” Nation, December 16, 2009.
  62. Mark Hugo Lopez, “A rising share: Hispanics and federal crime,” Pew Hispanic Center, February 18, 2009.
 

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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