The Border as Martial Law

Photo by Raquel Mogollón

The dominant feature of life in the US borderlands  is one of a growing and pervasive presence of law enforcement.  That presence increasingly takes on aspects that are felt and experienced by many as being all too much like martial law.

Jason Aragon’s video Under Arpaio is a feature-length documentary that takes us to Phoenix, Arizona to see the infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio in action.  Arpaio has permitted crime rates to soar in Maricopa County while he focuses his department’s energies on federal immigration law. Jason’s video also gives us an inside look at the popular resistance in Arizona.

Celli Stanley’s article, Palestine and Arizona sheds light on the connection between two similar struggles, many miles apart but close in spirit.  You may recognize Chelli’s name from the video work she has done else where for this guide.

Quite possibly we have misnamed this lesson.  Martial law, by definition, is not meant to be permanent. But there is nothing temporary in the way the border wall is being constructed–which goes hand in hand with the build up of troops, drones, surveillance blimps, and various components of a “virtual fence”.  And while it would be hyperbole to say we live under fascism, it would be irresponsible not to recognize when policies and practices are adopted that could provide the infrastructure should it ever emerge.

The physical facts of border militarization are girded and institutionalized through the legal facts:  laws adopted at both state and federal levels to enshrine the security state .   Federal programs such as Secure Communities and 287g already blur lines and turn local and state authorities into agents of immigration law.  Arizona’s SB1070 only extends federal policies.  In the article included by AfGJ’s James Jordan, we read about a siege of Arizona communities by more than 800 local, state and federal law enforcement personnel, coordinated by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).  This was the largest operation in ICE’s history and took place on the very day that the Arizona legislature passed SB1070.

Since 2010, there has been an increase in our country of the number of people hounded,  infiltrated, entrapped, investigated, spied on and jailed for their political activities.  These include immigrant rights activists, anti-war and solidarity activists, protesters, environmentalists, and Anarchists “guilty” of  owning certain reading material.  The increase in political repression was preceded by a wave of racism against undocumented workers and Latino immigrants that coincided with the introduction of NAFTA but reached a fever pitch with the aftermath of the events of 9/11/01.  (This, despite the fact that none of the hijackers entered via the US-Mexico border–and that all came here with official permission.)  In fact, one could say that much of the machinery of surveillance, criminalization and  enforcement now in place were developed through the first waves of border militarization.  The reality is that border militarization and enforcement, along with the ever-growing prison industry, are front lines for implementing control mechanisms of populations affected by massive disruption, displacement and unrest.

These are reasons people in the rest of the country really need to pay attention to the border: what is being developed here is coming soon to a theater–and we don’t mean a movie theater–near you….


 Under Arpaio

Directed by Jason Aragon


This is the harrowing story of a community fighting the struggle against America’s notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio. These are people seldom seen in the media and who have been working for justice to end Arpaio’s human rights abuses. As the Sheriff continues to distract media attention through his jail tents, chain gangs, and crusade against undocumented workers, this documentary highlights the community that has been targeted by Arpaio and his deputies in Phoenix. Stories of abuses through racially profiling, beatings and killings in jail, and arrests for opposition against the Sheriff are retold by this community under threat. Under Arpaio tells the account of the people taking a stand and organizing for dignity and justice in Arizona by standing up against the self proclaimed “toughest Sheriff.”  Watch Video…


Palestine and Arizona

by Chelli Stanley

Photo by Matt Clark

Sometimes “the story” can seem so complicated, especially to the misinformed American public. Often colonial contexts are made to look like impenetrable conundrums too hard to fix. However, these so-called complications are actually cover-ups meant to hide vast networks of crimes and human rights abuses.

Writing about the similarities between Palestine and Arizona is like writing about two sides of the same coin – mirror reflections. Violence, economic thievery, “legal” excuses to commit depraved acts, hateful politicians spawning hateful societies, the testing of weapons on human populations, thefts protected by militarized borders to keep people impoverished, scapegoating and slandering: all these things are used in both Palestine and Arizona.  Read more…






Ice Agents Carry Out Military-Style Raids in Arizona

by James Jordan

April 18, 2010

Photo by Raquel Mogollón

Tucson, AZ – “Tucson today is the moral equivalent of Birmingham, Alabama in 1961,” said Mike Wilson, border rights activist and Tohono ‘O’odham tribal member, at a rally at the Federal Building here, April 15. The rally was held in response to a series of raids that took place the same day in Phoenix, Tucson, Rio Rico and Nogales, Arizona. The raids targeted people traveling on shuttle services, but whole neighborhoods were affected, with traffic brought to a virtual standstill while agents occupied urban areas in the biggest such operation in the seven-year history of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE)….

During the raids, not only were individuals questioned and arrested, but whole neighborhoods were subjected to a military-style deployment.

Kat Rodriguez…of Derechos Humanos, said, “There was a massive show of force, with helicopters, dozens of agents, police vehicles and weapons, assaulting our community in a fashion never seen before…This action clearly demonstrates what we have predicted, that we would all be living in a police state here in Arizona. How can the Obama administration permit these actions while espousing a commitment to ‘change?’”  Read more…






It’s more important than ever to let your Congressional delegation know what you think about immigration reform and border militarization.  One of the most effective things you can do would be to schedule an in-person visit with your Representative’s and your Senators’ local offices.  Even better would be if you brought some friends along.  Please consider doing this and, if you do, let us know and we’ll help out in any way we can.  Send an email to .


  •  Much of this lesson has to do with differences and degrees of experience living in or visiting the border lands or even places far from the US-Mexico or US-Canada borders, such as in Alabama where harsh anti-immigrant laws have been adopted.  When looking at terms such as “security state” or “martial law”, is it possible that different people experience these in different ways.   For  instance, what is the experience of White, US-born persons who speak English with a North American accent? What about US-born Latinos for whom English is a first language?  And how about undocumented workers?  Think about this beyond the most obvious answers.  For instance, it may be very true that most White English-speakers do not generally come head to head with an experience of harsh or targeted enforcement based on racial profiling.  But have they nevertheless also experienced an erosion of liberties?  Was that erosion predicated by losses of civil rights by more targeted communities? Or how about the experience of the undocumented worker today as opposed to before the passage of NAFTA and other FTAs, and before the build up of law enforcement, walls and virtual fences?  How does the experience of US born Latinos figure into all of this?  Is it possible that one person could say with complete validity, based on their circumstances, that they do not experience the borderlands as martial law, while someone else may say just as validly that they do?
  • Lorenzo Torrez was a leader of the historic Empire Zinc Strike in New Mexico, portrayed in the film “Salt of the Earth”.  He was also a Communist who survived the repression of McCarthyism.  He used to say that, “If you can stand on the street holding up a sign in public that criticizes your government without being put in jail or worse, then you don’t live under fascism.” He would emphasize that it is important for us to exercise our freedoms of speech and assembly and our right to protest precisely so that we do not lose them.  He also said overusing using the word “fascist” was a sign of hopelessness and cynicism that discouraged people from organizing.  While we must guard against that mistake, it is also important that we recognize when components are being developed that could provide the infrastructure where fascism could arise.  Are their elements of border militarization that include  components that might inch us closer to fascism?  For instance–in Arizona, on local, state and federal levels, we see laws passed and resources allocated to border and anti-immigrant law enforcement while education and human services are cut to the bone.  We have seen paramilitary and vigilante activity that has enjoyed some level of not only tolerance by actual encouragement by some of our political leaders.  We see racial profiling that creates different levels of civil liberties, while Latinos are subject to extra scrutiny and the undocumented are criminalized and concentrated in overcrowded and private prisons.  Notions of “legality” are elevated over and above all moral or extenuating considerations.  Are these precedents we should worry about and, if so, how can we mobilize against them?
  • An African person or person of African heritage who escaped from slavery in the South to find refuge in the North was, in effect, an undocumented worker or, as some would say, an “illegal immigrant”.  What would have been the right thing to do if you lived back then and were asked for help by someone fleeing slavery?  Would you tell them, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” There are legal scholars who will tell us that for something to be “criminal”, there has to be willful intent to harm.  Undocumented workers come from rural Mexico or Central America because of the destruction of the farming economy and their communities due to policies imposed by the US government, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, FTAs and other sources.  Are these persons “illegals”, or refugees whose lives have been disrupted by unjust laws and forced displacement?  Is calling an undocumented worker an “illegal” an offensive and racist term?  Why?
  • There exists a pattern in many countries where the US has entered into Free Trade Agreements or has been involved in a military invasion and occupation.  This is a model that has been especially applied to Mexico and the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).  It is built around three major components:  “community” policing (not in terms of having a well-known neighborhood police officer walking a community beat, but the growth and extension of law enforcement into more and more areas of life); prison development; and border enforcement.  These are all necessary as a way of managing the massive disruption and displacement caused by FTAs, invasions and occupations, and also as a way of controlling dissent. (These prison projects typically go hand in hand with an increase in political arrests). Right now the US government is funding the construction of 16 new federal prisons in Mexico, and US and Colombian advisers are active in advising Mexican police and military (with US military aid to Mexico rivaling military aid to Colombia in its scope and size).  And, of course, there is the militarization of the US-Mexico border.  On the US side of the border, we have increased law enforcement and criminalization of the undocumented.  We also have a proliferation of private prisons, mostly for the detention of immigrants.  In fact, private prison corporations were directly behind the drafting of Arizona’s SB1070 law, helping make imprisoned immigrants a major source of profits.  How else do you see this model being applied to the borderlands?  Why is it being applied?  What about the fact that, with NAFTA, transnational corporations can cross the border at will, but displaced workers are targeted for incarceration?  Does this relate in some way to the model just described?





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