History and cultural context are crucial for understanding the forces that drive immigrants to cross the United States-Mexico border. Sadly, we are taught to forget or deny history, so we move without a compass and feel lost in the maze of deception and collective amnesia.
On October 8, President Trump demanded Congress fund the new border wall in exchange for granting “amnesty” for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), or Dreamers. This means holding the Dreamers hostage to the wall. His hard-line list includes “cracking down” on child migrants.
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The concerns Dreamers highlight the underlying structural issues that have promoted rising fear on both sides of the border. The history of the border and migration have been influenced by powers and patterns that we need to examine in order to see what pathways lie open to us for the future and how to address the sources of fear today.
A Shifting Border
For Indigenous peoples, the border has always been a violation of historical tribal sovereignty, religious traditions of pilgrimage and identity. For centuries, peoples of the Tohono O’odham, Apache, Yoeme (Yaqui) and other Native American nations have traveled throughout this region. The trade route from what is now New Mexico to what is now Mexico City was called the Turquoise Road, named for the vast trade network that involved turquoise moving south while cacao, parrot feathers and other precious objects flowed north.
After the Spanish Conquest, much of what became the Southwestern US was part of Mexico. It was not until 1848, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, that this Mexican territory taken in war was ceded to the US. These lands included what are now California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Texas and parts of Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Furthermore, the border between the US and Mexico has not been stable or enduring, changing as recently as 1970, when the US ceded to Mexico territory known as El Chamizal. Nation states presume fixed territories, and the effect of border enforcement has been to halt migration and force settlement upon people who practice seasonal or annual movement for economic and religious purposes. It has totally disrupted the lives of these peoples, divided communities and created more fear.
In 1929, the US prohibited informal crossing from Mexico. As UCLA professor Kelly Lytle Hernández has noted in her book City of Inmates, this was intended to criminalize Mexican immigrants. But migration is not a criminal offense — it is a tradition that free nations respect.
In the 1940s, when Mexican labor was needed once again, the door to immigration was opened — but with strict conditions. The US government encouraged Mexicans to come to the US under the Bracero Program to perform agricultural labor that was needed while US citizens were fighting in WWII. When the war ended, the program was abruptly curtailed, and people who had easily moved back and forth across the border were suddenly ordered back to Mexico. Then, under pressure from American farmers, the program was reinstated. According to the Bracero History Archive, there were 4.6 million contracts signed by US employers hiring Mexican workers over the 40-year period of the program.
The Triangle of Fear
In the debate about immigration, the corporate mass media avoid the key question: What is driving immigrants north? Why do people continue to risk coming to the United States at such great cost to their personal health and safety, and the well-being of their families? They are mainly driven by a “Triangle of Fear” created by US foreign policy. There are three key points to the Triangle of Fear.
1. Training for Fear Through Militarization
The driving force behind immigration from Latin America is US foreign policy. The United States has created a neocolonial structure that combines political manipulation, foreign aid, militarization and counterinsurgency techniques to build an economic empire that extracts natural resources and captures cheap labor, through buying off local elites and intimidating or crushing those who refuse to comply.
Military intervention in Latin America has a long history. The Spanish Empire used the territory that became Panama to establish their first military school in the Americas. When the US colonized Panama in the late 19th century, they continued to use it as a base for military expansion, training soldiers in jungle warfare and torture, and testing weapons. For example, Agent Orange was tested there before being used in the Vietnam War, as documented by John Lindsay-Poland in Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the US in Panama (2003).
In 1949, the US government established a military training program in Panama at Ft. Gulick, calling it the School of the Americas (SOA). In 1984, the SOA was expelled from Panama, and then relocated to Ft. Benning, Georgia. In 2001, the SOA was renamed WHINSEC (the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) to avoid closure when training with torture manuals came to light. Known by critics as the “School of Assassins,” it has trained Latin American militaries in counterinsurgency techniques of torture and disappearances, particularly targeting Indigenous communities. The list of graduates reads like a “who’s who” of infamy, including many who became death squad leaders and repressive dictators in Latin America.
Political repression and counterinsurgency, such as the Contra Wars in the 1980s and the military coup in Honduras, have driven vast numbers of people off their lands, most recently in Central America in what is called the “Northern Triangle of Central America,” which includes Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Many refugees and migrants flee to neighboring countries like Costa Rica, Nicaragua or Belize, where asylum requests between 2008 and 2014 increased almost 1,200 percent. But most flee to Mexico or the US. According to former Panamanian President Jorge Illueca, the School of the Americas was the “biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.”
Training military elites at the SOA is one facet of a policy to establish military bases throughout Latin America. Colombia alone has eight bases, according to David Vine in Base Nation (2015). Even Costa Rica — whose 1949 Peace Constitution prohibits the creation of a military — has two bases, and has been coerced into accepting regular patrols by hundreds of warships of the US Navy and Coast Guard.
2. Sowing Fear Through the Destruction of Communities
In addition to militarization, US foreign policy imposes a free-market model of economic development in Latin America that displaces historic alternative forms of economic organization, such as communally held lands and cooperative work groups like the ancient tequios. This new model promotes the fragmentation and reorganization of local communities, along with displacement and even total destruction.
For example, with encouragement from the United Fruit Company, in 1954, the CIA instigated a coup in Guatemala that removed President Jacobo Árbenz from office, unleashing decades of military violence throughout the country. Particularly targeted were Mayan communities, such as Santiago Atitlán. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee the violence, and 440 Mayan villages were obliterated in what is called the Guatemalan Genocide or the Mayan Genocide.
As SOA Watch has noted, the “SOA trains the military muscle to enforce ‘Free Trade’ in Latin America.” In Mexico, these policies include the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the rewriting of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution to do away with communal lands, and the rescinding of price supports for basic Mexican foods, such as tortillas and sugar. Once local producers were forced out by restructuring, then genetically engineered corn from the US flooded the Mexican market, contaminating native breeds of Mexican corn developed over thousands of years in Oaxaca. Local farmers could not compete with subsidized agriculture from the US, so many migrated to Mexican cities and then north to the border.
The destruction wrought by US policies is exacerbated by the effects of increased climate instability that makes agriculture extremely precarious and drives more farmers off the land.
The US military has taken climate change very seriously, concerned about waves of climate refugees from Central America coming across the Mexican border. Their response has been to militarize the border with Guatemala as the “third border,” which Todd Miller analyzes in Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security. He also notes that the government knew NAFTA would create havoc, which is another reason why the number of guards at the US border with Mexico was multiplied and the “border zone” was extended 100 miles north into the US, in what the ACLU calls a “Constitution-free zone” because the Fourth Amendment no longer applies.
David Bacon observes that NAFTA “put migration on steroids” due to job losses, the peso crash and substandard factory wages in the maquiladoras. More recently, the Mexican government has been promoting programs like Plan Puebla Panamá, Plan Mérida and the Special Economic Zones — mega-projects, such as enormous wind farms and vast mining enterprises that contaminate water supplies with cyanide and mercury and drive Indigenous peoples off their lands. In the state of Chiapas, for example, in 2015 the government awarded 99 mining concessions until 2050-2060, covering 14.2 percent of the state.
When US policies like Plan Mérida came into effect, drug-related violence surged, as the drug cartels clashed with the military, leaving dismembered bodies as a warning. Now the Trump administration wants to push forward an expanded initiative in the failed war on drugs, despite all the evidence that shows military “solutions” to the drug-related problems have failed for over 40 years. According to Ethan Nadelmann, founder and former executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, “Attempts at interdiction just move the drug trafficking around, wreaking havoc in its wake.”
The statistics on violent crimes are much higher than reported, as Mexican authorities intentionally misrepresent murder and kidnapping “to obscure the true number of high-profile crimes.” According to México Evalúa, an NGO that does independent reporting on statistics, government reporting on homicide rates was artificially lowered by 30-50 percent last year.
The US-sponsored drug war has made the economic situation worse by dumping military aid and equipment into Mexico with the supposed purpose of eradicating the drug cartels. Instead, the drug cartels have used these modern weapons in their internecine rivalry and clashes with the police or the military, turning the conflict into full-fledged wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of people. Moreover, the cartels have expanded their operations to include weapons trafficking, money-laundering, kidnapping, forced disappearances, assassinations, human trafficking and extortion.
Alarming extortion rates hold people captive to fear in Mexico and Central America. WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America) cites figures showing that: “Salvadorans pay an estimated US $400 million a year in extortion fees, while Hondurans pay around $200 million and Guatemalans an estimated $61 million.” In El Salvador, 70 percent of businesses are forced to pay extortionists. Those who fail to pay up are killed. In Guatemala, from January to July of 2014, at least 700 people were killed for failing to pay extortionists.
While US officials in the current government fan hysteria against immigrants, overall migration across the border with Mexico has dropped drastically. However, the numbers of families and unaccompanied children have increased. These children and families did not “choose” to migrate. They are refugees escaping political violence, economic upheaval and climate chaos.
3. Harvesting Fear at Border Crossings
The third point in the Triangle of Fear is the journey northward to cross the US border. Immigrants who brave the journey face terrible dangers at every step — riding the freight train called La Bestia (The Beast), risking kidnapping and death by gangs and the drug cartels.
Approaching the border, the migrants follow footpaths through the desert, fearing betrayal by the coyotes (human traffickers) they’ve paid to smuggle them across, and then dodging arrest by La Migra/ICE — all the while facing the possibility of a horrible death from dehydration and exposure. One Mexican man told me that out of desperation, he drank from a livestock waterhole and vomited into unconsciousness, saved only by a dog who found his body and brought help from a kindly neighbor. He dares not tell his wife how he suffered, as he is worried about frightening her.
Along the journey, migrants are often robbed, tortured or raped. Most of the women and girls traveling to the border must use contraception, as 80 percent will be raped.
If you are lucky enough to survive the journey and make it across the border, you still have to get past the Border Patrol, praying that you don’t get caught and thrown into a detention center where you may be kept for months or even years without a hearing. If you successfully pass all these hurdles and find an employer who doesn’t cheat you out of your wages, knowing that you have no legal recourse, then just maybe you can make enough money to send some back to your family. Those immigrants who successfully make it across the border are visible where they work in public places, but their suffering is invisible.
If arrested, undocumented immigrants face months and even years in detention camps that violate basic human rights. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona boasts that he built a “concentration camp,” proud of the suffering and deaths of prisoners.
Deported immigrants face even greater dangers when sent back to their home countries — a violent death at the hands of drug cartels, street gangs, or police and military death squads. Some have been killed within a day of being sent back to their country of origin.
Daring to Dream
Immigrants fleeing to the US without documents are the visible consequence of an invisible US foreign policy based on intimidation and economic “restructuring.” We are reaping a harvest of fear at the border with Mexico because we have sown fear throughout Latin America.
One-fourth of the Dreamers live in California, helping to build California’s economy. Research demonstrates that DACA beneficiaries provide economic and educational benefits from sales and property taxes, as well as creating new jobs. Statistics show that if allowed to stay, the Dreamers would contribute billions of dollars in federal revenues.
The current administration insists on withholding federal funds to sanctuary cities that offer political support or protection to refugees and undocumented immigrants. The current US administration is punishing sanctuary cities with mass arrests, such as those held in September in California and Pennsylvania.
Under President Obama’s DACA program, permits were renewable for two years. But in March 2018, the roughly 690,000 DACA recipients will lose the legal protections that enable them to study and work in the US. This is why Congress is under pressure to regularize their status.
There are several alternative acts presented in Congress. The most basic one is the Bridge Act — bipartisan legislation that would renew DACA protections for three years, allowing recipients work and study in the US. This would also prohibit government agencies from sharing personal information of DACA recipients with Immigration and Border Patrol. If the legislation passes, it would become law and could not be undone by executive order. But this would only provide temporary relief.
A stronger alternative is the bipartisan DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), introduced by both Republican and Democratic legislators. It has nine cosponsors in the Senate and 200 in the House (mostly Democrats).
This legislation would enable youths to secure US citizenship if they fulfill all the requirements. Their status would be secured for eight years, after which, they could apply for lawful permanent resident status, and eventually citizenship. To please Republicans in Congress, the DREAM Act would also offer heightened border security, so critics argue this means sacrificing immigrant rights to secure the future for DACA recipients.
Republicans have proposed more conservative legislation known as the Succeed Act, which would offer a pathway to citizenship, but with a long list of restrictive measures. Many Republicans balk at both the DREAM Act and the Succeed Act, arguing that citizenship should never be granted to DACA recipients. But how can we deport children and youths who have studied and worked in the US for years and call the US their home?
Deporting the Dreamers is cruel and unjust, as it means splitting up families, and in many cases sending children back to countries they have not seen since they were babies or very small children. We should have the courage of our convictions to defend human dignity and freedom by supporting the DREAM Act, without punishing other immigrants. And if Congress continues to stall in order to obtain funding for the notorious Wall, then we should support the Bridge Act until something more just can be worked out.
Let us work together to provide protection to refugees, the Dreamers and other immigrants among us by supporting the DREAM Act and protecting sanctuary cities that stand as islands of safety for people fleeing violence and despair.
Let us say “No” to fear-mongers and build bridges instead of walls.
To address the violence in Central America and end US military aid to Honduras, please ask your representatives to support Amendment HR 1299.