(Photos by Mark Karlin)
This is the first in an occasional Truthout series on viewing the US "immigration" and Mexican border policies through a social justice lens, focusing on the lower Rio Grande Valley. Brownsville, Texas, area. Mark Karlin, editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout, visited the region recently to file these reports.
The physical Mexican-American wall starts as a newly fortified metal barrier extending 300 feet into the warm, balmy waters of Southern California and ends up some 2,000 miles later just east of Brownsville, Texas. But it would be wrong to think of it as continuous, because only about a third of that distance has some form of visible barrier running like a scar across the US border with Mexico.
The origins of the billions of dollars spent on the largely symbolic, highly visible wall really starts much farther north with US organizations and people advocating for a white political power structure, groups like one recently represented at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which contend that a multicultural society is a danger to America. The wall also begins with the efforts of states like Arizona to erase Mexican-American culture from the textbooks in state schools, even in districts where the vast majority of students are of Mexican descent. It begins with Republicans such as Mitt Romney welcoming the endorsements of white nationalists who campaign at his side. It starts with draconian Alabama's, Arizona's and Georgia's harsh anti-"immigrant" laws that are spreading to many state legislatures, born of racism and self-serving industry lobbies such as privatized prisons.
The construction of the "barrier" wall - accompanying large-scale militarization (the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI, the military etc.) - is on America's southern border, and there is meaning in that. Its location is prima facie evidence that the "immigration issue" is really a euphemism for keeping poor brown-skinned people out of the US - as well as creating a "practice" zone for protecting American economic and political interests in Mexico and Central America.
Migration Is Not About Opportunism; It's About Survival
The overwhelming majority of migrants from Mexico who seek undocumented entrance to US are desperate, not gold diggers. They are often victims of an indigenous subsistence agricultural and rural economy that is disappearing, due to NAFTA and US subsidies of American farmers, who can sell for lower competitive prices "south of the border." Often facing an arduous, dangerous trip up from southern Mexico or Central America, they are willing to confront possible death in the deserts, sometimes relying on treacherous "coyotes" (guides), who claim to offer them safe passage to the US in return for exorbitant fees, and professional criminals, who abuse and steal from them as they head to the border.
The strong anti-"immigration" laws of many states and the harsh enforcement of the federal government, however, may be backfiring, because migrants in dire economic need will work for very little under squalid conditions - and, therefore, are a valued "commodity." A 2011 Christian Science Monitor article notes that in Alabama, "farmers fearing a labor shortage are protesting recent immigration laws they say are too harsh, forcing undocumented workers to flee to prevent deportation." The farmers say, "US workers are unwilling to endure the rigorous conditions of farm work and that" local farmers may go bankrupt. But the proponents of white American exceptionalism have no tolerance for a multicultural society, even if such a stance hurts the US agricultural (and other low-pay labor areas) financial penchant for labor exploitation.
Can the US Wall Off a Culturally Diverse Society?
"It seems to me that the notion of a literal wall between Mexico and the US signifies both the physical and existential threat that many white Americans perceive from those with darker skin," Timothy Wise, an expert on how the fear of power being shared in America by its diverse population is creating racial anxiety in many whites, told Truthout. "On the one hand, there is the sense that such persons are literally going to harm us - through crime, the mythical overuse of taxpayer funded services or some other thing - and on the other, the larger paranoia that they pose a threat to the cultural and social survival of America as 'we have known it'."
Recently, I stood in downtown Brownsville on a sliver of land ironically called "Hope Park." I read about how ferries used to cross the narrow stretch of the Rio Grande there, making it easier for the citizens of both nations to move unimpeded from one country to another. Instead, as I looked toward Mexico, there was a high fence of vertical bars in front of me, one of the more "attractive" versions of the wall, which varies in construction design from location to location (in some places it is just corrugated sheets of metal and in others it may be three consecutive physical barriers). "Hope," the celebration of a blended heritage and opportunity, had literally been fenced off from this wedge of land.
The border wall divides people of common culture and heritage, including not just Mexicans, but also Native Americans. Just to the west of Brownsville, is the town of El Calaboz, an indigenous community where Lipan Apache, Tlaxcalteca, Nahua, Comanche and Basque colonists have had extensive interactions since the Spanish colonial era. Margo Tamez, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia - who holds a cross-appointment in indigenous studies and gender and women's studies - grew up there, learning the history of native oppression from her Lipan Apache elders.
Tamez, like Wise, views the wall as a physical symbol of oppression of peoples who are not white. Talking with Tamez, one gets a sense of the richness of her heritage and what a toll that squashing out diversity - instead of embracing it - takes. Tamez wants her lineage to be clear. She is a member of the Lipan Apache Band of Texas, or in their language, of the Konitsaaíí ndé ("Big Water Clan") and Cúelcahén ("Tall Grass People Clan"), the southernmost of the Athabascan peoples, who stretch from British Columbia to Tamaulipas and Coahuila, Mexico. The Athabascan peoples span three borders, as does their common culture.
Indigenous peoples along the Texas border wall were also the first peoples, according to Tamez, with whom the Spanish colonial government entered into land grants. Tamez's mother, Eloisa García Tamez (whose family was granted a plot in 1767 by Spain), is lead plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit against the federal government claiming the wall's construction is a violation of Texas land law; Crown land grant and riparian laws; treaties among Lipan Apaches, Texas and the US; and international law.
Tamez told Truthout that the wall is representative of the "genealogy of hate and an entrenched worldview which is based upon contempt and disdain for indigenous peoples globally. The wall represents the legacy of that particular world view - a 'deathscape' which is a means of continuing to colonize through mechanization of cages and walls at a vast scale, and which demands its own existence through indigenous peoples' containment in open air prisons in our homelands, our traditional territories." Tamez maintains a web site about the Apache struggle for indigenous rights and lands in which she writes,"Apachean peoples still have a deep sense of being cloistered, imprisoned, contained, detained, and displaced in fractured ways by those visibly militarized architectural features on our territorial spaces."
Lower Rio Grand Valley Is a Cage for Many
Indeed, the lower Rio Grand Valley is literally a cage for many. If you travel north by car on the only highway out of Brownsville, Route 77, after about an hour, you come to an immigration checkpoint. If you are undocumented, you will likely be apprehended here and deported, unless you have some foolproof, forged papers. If you are an American citizen (of brown skin color) and are suspected of being an "illegal alien," you may be searched and harassed. In short, without a passport or a driver's license, many residents of the lower Rio Grande Valley are trapped.
Oddly, not only does the wall currently only run along a portion of the border with Mexico, but there are often literally holes (cutouts) in it. Some of the lower Rio Grande Valley residents involved in a losing battle against wall construction say that these gaps prove that its construction is for symbolic political purposes. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has countered that there is an "electronic high-tech" wall that covers the cutouts, which were allegedly built so that the ubiquitous white Border Patrol vans, emergency vehicles, farm workers and residents could access the south side of the wall.
Why would people need to access the south side of the wall? Because of a combination of factors - including an international flood plain agreement and political influence that was brought to bear on where the wall was built - there are US residents and agricultural fields south of the wall. Remember that the barricade is supposedly being constructed in order to protect Americans from illegal immigrants and narco trade violence. The people living or working on the "other side" of the wall, if you accept the official version of the intent behind its construction, have been abandoned to marauders.
The Brownsville area home of family farm owner Tim Loop ended up on the south side of the wall, according to an article in Texas Monthly (reprinted in The New York Times). Loop's horizon view now consists of "imposing sections of 15- to-18-foot-high rust-colored steel bars, some less than 400 feet from Mr. Loop's front porch." But what most concerns Loop is that the DHS has plans to close the "cutouts" in the fence with keypad controlled gates.
"Mr. Loop wonders," Texas Monthly writes, "if possessing a secret pass code could make him a target for anyone desperate to gain access to the other side. This is, after all, a familiar area to desperate travelers."
"They tore down hundred-year-old trees to put up a fence," a neighbor of Loop said. "You think they care about how using a keypad is going to affect us?"
Absurdities Do Arise
When a project as large as the wall takes place for reasons of psychological reassurance rather than for its officially stated purpose, absurdities do arise.
One morning, I drove over a humped ridge into the historic Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course, which appeared filled with seniors, all white from what I could see - a scene from a morning retirement community in Florida. Despite University of Texas at Brownsville efforts, the 18-hole course ended up on the south side of the wall - although the barrier was modified in appearance to cross the campus here as a low, chain-link fence with white brick posts and a driveway opening. I drove along what looked like an access road that serviced the links, when in no short time, I turned and saw someone putting up laundry. I was looking over the Rio Grande at Matamoros in Mexico - Brownsville's sister city.
Within a few seconds a Border Patrol van was racing toward me. After reviewing my media credentials and passport, the agent warned me to leave the area because it was "dangerous." I looked to my right and there was a foursome teeing off, just a few yards from the river.
Obviously. it wasn't too dangerous to golf. In fact, on a web site that features golf course reviews, one player at Fort Brown wrote, "this is a very scenic and historical course. It also is a place to enjoy - while you play, native birds and animals [abound]."
Yes, there are real issues of jobs being lost in the US, of narco violence and more. But a wall will not stop these problems; the loss of American jobs is primarily due to the shipment of the manufacturing sector to lower-cost countries, and the appetite in the US for illegal drugs will not be halted by a physical barrier. Time magazine reports on one of the latest narco evasions of the Mexican border wall (and the vast array of border enforcement strategies), the successful use of submarines manufactured in Colombia for the express purpose of drug transport. A multibillion industry is, like a global corporation, able to financially find a way of getting its product to market.
Easing White Racial Anxiety at What Cost?
According to a 2011 New York Times (NYT) article, DHS had spent $21 million per mile to build a fence near San Diego (although the costs of construction in Texas are estimated to be lower). Estimates of building a full Mexican border fence range up to $40 billion dollars - and then there are several billion dollars in maintenance costs over the next few years. But Richard Cortez, the mayor of McAllen - just down the road (Route 83) west of Brownsville - told the NYT, "It is a winding river [the Rio Grande]. Where in the world are you going to put fencing? To propose that suggests ignorance of the border and the terrain."
Then what is the physical wall, whose continued construction became a big issue early on as part of the "immigration" debate among GOP candidates, for? In some ways, it's a political curtain that's a backdrop for appeasing racial resentment and job losses. It's the way of giving the illusion of an American-gated community for whites. But the wall is also tied into creating a military gateway into neighboring southern countries that need to be "stabilized" for purposes of low-cost labor and open markets. It's just that the wall is a prop, whereas the other law enforcement, intelligence agency and Pentagon initiatives on and around the border are deadly serious.
In that respect, the wall gives a false and expensive taxpayer-built sense of easing white racial anxiety. Complicated, cynical and dangerous cross currents are the real issues swirling along the border, including the lowest-cost labor goals of global corporations, and the hemispheric and narco policies of the United States government.
As Wise observes in his most recent book, "Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority," "the real problem is less about the distinction between documented and undocumented immigrants, and more about the mere fact of brown-skinned migration in the first place. Many of us simply don't want particular people, no matter the manner in which they come."
The next installment of Truthout on the Mexican Border will be "Murder Incorporated: Guns, the NRA and the Border Politics of Violence."
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