Border Militarization-An Introduction

by Will Wickham

The line separating the two nations of México and the United States runs nearly two thousand miles. In its most contemporary incarnation, it spans four US states, six Mexican States, and divides several Indian reservations and metropolitan areas. But it is only a line; its single dimension can have no place other than the strictly conceptual in a three dimensional world. The true border is what humans create upon the concept; it is the fence, the policies, the restriction of movements of goods and people. And so, the “border” becomes expansive: it is an entire region in both Mexico and the United States, it is the cities, towns and countryside. The presence of the border is felt wherever border policies and legislation structure our lives.

The borderlands, like most of this continent, is primarily a site of displacement and genocide of indigenous people—a process that continues today. It is also the product of the US nation state taking half of México’s land by military force between 1845 and 1848. It is a site of violence, imperialism and at times, of beautiful cultural exchange. More recently it has become a site of militarization, a practice which is spreading throughout the US, México, to Central and South America and beyond. Militarization is the organization or aggregation of military force in a territory. It is a term which encompasses, but is much broader than, a concentration of guns and army personnel on the land. It changes the visual landscape, the language and social norms, and the local and global economy. The physical territory covered in weaponry is inextricable from our individual and collective planes of consciousness. When our land is militarized, our minds as well are subjugated to military order, of checkpoints, policing, prisons and forced displacement.

The immediately visible militarization of the border is the expansion of the border wall, the concentration of armed officers patrolling the desert, and the implementation of drones and surveillance technology. Around the time when the North American Free Trade agreement was going into effect (1994), the first walls were built in Tijuana/San Diego and Ciudad Juarez/El Paso. In sealing these primary points of entry to the US the main routes of migration were forced into the harsh and remote Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, where migrants walk for days in extreme temperatures. In 1994 there were 14 deaths on the border. In 2010 there were 253 human remains found in Arizona alone. Since 1994 there have been over 6,000 remains found in the desert, and many more will never be found. Policy makers claimed the desert would act as a deterrent to immigration, but it has not. They fundamentally failed to understand why people are being forced north.

Every one of the thousands of people who will cross the border northwards today has their own reasons for crossing. Many of them have lived many years in the US and are trying to get back to their children and spouses. Others might be escaping from violence in their home countries. Many are crossing to look for work in order to help their family escape the violence of poverty. Such poverty is a direct result of policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which displaced millions of poor Mexicans from their land. It is a result of US military intervention that sponsored regimes of terror and genocide in Central America in order to protect the interests of trade and capitalism. Any one of us would migrate under these circumstances.

Many people imagine the US as a beacon of liberty, justice, and democracy, protecting freedom and rights around the world. How then, does such a nation treat its immigrants? Currently, the US is trying to arrest, detain and deport as many as possible. Obama’s administration is on track to deport more people than any other administration. This project of deportation relies on the creation of a public perception that immigrants are freeloaders benefiting from welfare or that they are violent criminals involved in drug trade and gang activity, all of which is mixed up with the specter of terrorism. This production of fear and hate makes it possible to police, incarcerate and deport the people who are otherwise family, friends, neighbors and co-workers, on an unprecedented scale. This activity is sometimes most visible on the border, but in reality is playing out across the country, in every city and town were immigrants are living and working. The question is, why are US citizens fearful and hateful of immigrants? Who is actually benefiting from this complex of surveillance, incarceration and deportation?

The concern over international terrorism has also been used to export this new style of border enforcement, incarceration and surveillance around the world. From the Dominican Republic’s border with Haiti to the apartheid wall in Israel/Palestine, the US has played a role in supporting and creating militarized borders. The US, and US-based companies are also involved in projects throughout the Americas and the world that spread both neoliberal economic policies and build prisons and create militarized zones. Although each country may have different reasons for these projects, we must look for the connections between them and ask, who is this protecting? Who is it hurting? Who stands to benefit?

The US has overwhelmingly benefited from immigrant labor over the past 150 years. The border has been a useful tool for exploiting labor in various ways. US businesses, especially in agriculture, have a long history of recruiting undocumented laborers from Mexico to work for illegally low wages. The threat of deportation continues to be used to prevent organizing and keep wages illegally low, sometimes to deny wages altogether, as was notoriously the case during the Bracero program, a guest worker program from 1942 to 1964. Today’s immigrants are subject to similar exploitation and at times, enslavement. NAFTA, while displacing so many people from Mexico, also allowed many factories to move just across the border, creating a complex of brutal exploitation in Mexico and leaving many unemployed in the US. When we hear people saying that immigrants are coming to “steal our jobs,” we must ask who is really responsible for unemployment and identify the ways in which immigrant workers and unemployed US citizens are both suffering from the same economic system.

Border militarization has affected communities and families from Honduras to Maine, and has ties to global economics, but has also fundamentally transformed the borderlands. Arizona has been a laboratory for the rest of the country, the testing ground for state legislation like S.B. 1070 which legalized racial profiling and has since been implemented in several other states. If we wish to understand the nature of the US nation-state, we should start by looking at the Tohono O’odham, an indigenous nation bisected by the México/US border. The militarized border is just the most recent violation of their sovereignty, in process that began 500 years ago.

The border has become a war zone in many new ways, even though it always has been in other ways. With this guide we hope to put the border on your map, to cultivate a consciousness and understanding of migration, labor, racism and militarization. Historically immigration reform, while allowing many people to naturalize, has been a trojan horse for dramatic increases in enforcement. With another round of immigration reform on the horizon it is critical that we stand together and refuse to compromise. We hope these resources will inspire and assist your community’s resistance to the policies and practices that are currently tearing so many lives, and the earth itself, apart.