Speech given at a fundraiser for La
Coalición de Derechos Humanos, Tucson, Arizona, July 7, 2006.
to Kat Rodriguez, Isabel Garcia, and the board of
Coalición de Derechos Humanos for inviting me to be here this
evening. It is a real pleasure and honor to join you all, and have the
opportunity to share some ideas.
Shortly after I arrived in Tucson in late
May to spend the summer, I was listening to Margo Cowan speak, and she
described southern Arizona -- given the level of immigration policing
and its effects -- as a "war zone." Around the sound time, I heard
Guadalupe Castillo categorize the region as an "occupied territory."
It is easy to write off such characterizations as hyperbole, as the
exaggerations of activists trying desperately to win support for their
cause. But I want to take them seriously, and see where they lead us,
because I actually think that they have a lot of merit and are
politically -- in addition to analytically -- valuable. They help us
understand what many have called global apartheid -- something I'll talk
about a bit later -- and point toward ways we can combat it.
In thinking about the border region as a war zone, I don't mean one in
any sort of literal sense. There are not contending military forces in
combat. But nor do I mean it merely in a rhetorical or figurative sense.
That said, the rhetoric and ideology of war is, and has long been, an
important component of the making of the U.S.-Mexico boundary.
The ideology and rhetoric of war goes back to the very origins of the
U.S.-Mexico boundary, of course. Southern Arizona and the border region
are the result of a literal war -- the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846-48 -- and
the subsequent military campaigns of pacification U.S. authorities waged
to subjugate the indigenous and Mexican populations unwilling to
acquiesce to the new American order.
As is often the case with war, many on side of the aggressor cast it in
what they deemed to be high-minded principles. As Walt Whitman
proclaimed around the time: "Miserable, inefficient Mexico -- what has
she to do with the great mission of peopling the New World with a noble
race? Be it ours to achieve this mission!"
The outcome of that mission was the effective theft of what was more
than half of what was then at least nominally Mexican territory, and a
large number of killings and widespread dispossession of the indigenous
and Mexican populations. What was taken away was not only land but all
the rights that go along with it, like the right to move, live, and work
within. The theft was an inextricable part of the process to Americanize
what is now the U.S. Southwest.
Once that occurred, the rhetoric changed. It was no longer about taking
what should be ours, but about protecting what belongs to us. Thus, the
rhetoric shifted to matters of territorial security, and law and order.
In the run-up to Washington's launching of the infamous Operation
Wetback in 1954, for example, one INS official characterized the influx
of unauthorized migrants from Mexico to be "the greatest peacetime
invasion ever complacently suffered by another country under open,
flagrant, contemptuous violations of its laws."
In the late 1970s, during the height of the Cold War, former CIA
director William Colby stated that unauthorized Mexican immigration was
a greater future threat to the United States than the Soviet Union. "The
most obvious threat," Colby warned, "is the fact that ... there are
going to be 120 million Mexicans by the end of the century. ... [The
Border Patrol] will not have enough bullets to stop them."
Such hyperbole was not limited to government officials, but also
appeared in respectable, mainstream media outlets. In it May 2, 1977
issue, for instance, Time magazine report described the situation
in the borderlands as follows:
The U.S. is being invaded so silently and
surreptitiously that most Americans are not even aware of it. The
invaders come by land, sea and air. They fly commercial and private
aircraft; they jump ship or sail their own boats; they scale mountains
and swim rivers. Some have crawled through a mile-long tunnel; others
have squeezed through the San Antonio sewerage system. No commandos or
assault troops have shown more ingenuity and determination in storming a
country that tries to keep them out.
It was in this political-rhetorical
context that we saw the beginnings of the U.S. border region's
militarization in its contemporary forms.
As Timothy Dunn argues is his landmark book, The Militarization of
the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978-1992, much of Washington's approach to
the border region since the late-1970s has been modeled on the
Pentagon's low-intensity conflict doctrine, the essence of which is the
establishment and maintenance of control over civilian populations. In
addition to war-like rhetoric, it involves here in the border region all
sorts of military technologies: increasing numbers of night-vision
scopes, walls and fences, underground sensors, and even pilotless drones
-- like the Pentagon uses in Iraq -- as well as an ever-growing force of
armed personnel. These are employed in the name of the war on drugs, the
war on crime, and now the war on terror.
The security justifications have only intensified since the September
11, 2001 Al Qaeda attacks. As indicated by the proliferation of U.S.
government hearings -- and public discussion and polling within the
country as a whole regarding the U.S.-Mexico boundary -- the vast
majority of the U.S. population perceive the international divide as a
protector, and a necessary one, against external threats. In a world of
growing "flows" of people, goods, and ideas across boundaries, the
potential for threatening forces to enter national territory, we are
told, is greater than ever. Tom Tancredo, a Republican congressman from
Colorado and the author of the recently released In Mortal Danger:
The Battle for America's Border and Security, for instance, stated
in February that "Yes, many who come across the [U.S.-Mexico] border are
workers. But among them are people coming to kill you and me and your
children." And then there are the likes of nationally syndicated
columnist Michelle Malkin who, in her book, Invasion: How America
Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our
Shores, recommends, among other measures, the deployment of armed
National Guard troops along the U.S. boundaries until there are at least
100,000 new Border Patrol and interior enforcement agents ready for
While relatively few express views in as hysterical a fashion as
Tancredo and Malkin, many share their general view that the
insufficiently "hard" nature of the international divide is cause for
national insecurity and necessitates a strengthening of the boundary in
terms of enforcement by U.S. authorities. This is a view held in common
across what is admittedly a very narrow political spectrum -- especially
in terms of immigration and boundary enforcement -- here in the United
States. As a result, most Democrats and Republicans share the notion
that a strong boundary equates with security and that the United States
has a right and obligation to build-up the boundary to protect us from
menaces emanating from abroad.
Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, in late-April, for example -- only
two-weeks after attending a huge immigrant rights march in New York City
at which she seemed to wholeheartedly embrace the marcher's goals --
called for additional border walls "in certain places" along with
high-tech "smart fencing," while suggesting that Israel's barrier might
serve as a potential model. Meanwhile, the "moderate" Senate bill --
the counter to the Sensenbrenner bill -- and one deemed acceptable by
the Democratic establishment calls for 370 additional miles of walls and
fencing and 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico
boundary, in addition to 14,000 more Border Patrol agents over the next
six years. The Sensenbrenner bill, by contrast, would require 10,000
additional Border Patrol agents over five years, and 700 miles of
additional walls and fences. Thus, while the Senate and House bills
diverge significantly on matters of legalization of status of those who
are already present in the United States, on matters of boundary and
immigration enforcement they differ little. Most important, they share
an implicit perception that those beyond U.S. territorial boundaries are
potential threats. In this regard, Democratic establishment's position
on the border is similar to its position on the criminal war in Iraq:
the Democrats can wage the war better and more effectively. The war
itself isn't the problem, we're led to believe; it's the management.
All this helps explain why it appears that many Democrats now seem
willing to abandon (at least for the time being) components of the
so-called immigration reform legislation having to do with legalization,
and embrace the "border first" initiative and its exclusive focus on
fortifying boundary and immigration enforcement -- as if that's what the
U.S. government hasn't been doing for the last 20 years since the
passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, or IRCA, in 1986.
While the security risks that allegedly
threaten the United States via its territorial boundaries -- especially
the one between the U.S. and Mexico -- are numerous, the most important
ones, at least as judged by the words of government officials, members
of Congress, and media pundits, are would-be terrorists who enter the
United States without inspection. They insist upon this despite the fact
that U.S. authorities have caught exactly zero terrorists crossing the
southern boundary. While physical security, in the face of would-be
terrorists and, to a lesser extent, everyday violent crime committed by
unauthorized migrants, seems to be the primary cause for concern, a
significantly broader conceptualization of security is also very much
In talking about what he perceives as the
insufficiently guarded nature of the U.S.-Mexico boundary, for example,
J.D. Hayworth (R-Arizona), one of the leading forces in the House of
Representatives championing ever-greater levels of boundary enforcement
and author of the just-released Whatever It Takes: Illegal
Immigration, Border Security, and the War on Terror, states, "One
thing we understand about the nature of this problem is that is that it
transcends all others -- our national security, our economic security,
the future of Social Security -- all of these issues -- healthcare,
education -- all tie into this issue."
A rhetoric of security vis-à-vis immigrants and the territorial
boundaries of the United States has a long history, one that goes back
to the very first piece of immigration control legislation in the United
States, the Alien Act of 1798. In this regard, the novelty of post-9-11
boundary-related rhetoric lies not so much in its general substance, but
in its specific forms. However, even in the case of terrorism -- to say
nothing about street crime -- rhetoric linking it to highly racialized
outsiders, U.S. territorial boundaries and unauthorized migrants, long
That migrants are constructed as geographically -- in addition to
socio-politically -- outside helps explain why fears about terrorists
and criminals from abroad translate into a focus on territorial
boundaries to a much greater extent than fears about purveyors of
violence from within the United States. Consider, for example, the case
of Timothy McVeigh, who, on April 19, 1995, bombed the Alfred P. Murrah
Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 167 people and injuring
hundreds more. McVeigh was not from Oklahoma City, nor even from the
state of Oklahoma. Indeed, he crossed state boundaries to commit his
crime. Had such movement been restricted, it might have been more
difficult for McVeigh to do what he did. Nonetheless, his horrific act
did not result in any attempt to restrict movement across state
boundaries within the United States. The reason why is clear: he was a
U.S. citizen (and a native-born one) with the right to unimpeded travel
across national territory. He was not an outsider. He was a white male
and a military veteran. He was -- in terms of the dominant perception of
what an American looks like -- one of "us." Thus, his crime did not
involve a perceived geographical transgression even though movement
across space was a key element of his act. Given this perception,
territorial security -- at least one conceived in any way similar to
that applied along the U.S.-Mexico boundary -- is not the response. In
the case of threats -- real or imagined -- emanating from south of the
border, however, they are perceived as being primarily territorial in
nature and thus necessitate a response involving a build-up of physical
boundaries. In other words, the territories from where these dangers
come are seen as inherently threatening. It is hardly a coincidence that
these menacing areas happen to be places where wealth and income is
significantly less than that accumulated in the United States and where
the populations are largely non-white. In that regard, the divide and
conflict is one between
a civilized first world and a barbaric third world.
Antagonistic relationships between the so-called first and third worlds
go back to the making of the modern world economy and the origins of
nation-states. The conquest of what is today the U.S. Southwest, the
dispossession of the indigenous population, and the settlement of the
area by the conquering power was part of this process. And like all
single events, it was unique. But it was also a manifestation of a much
larger process, one that began with the rise of European imperialism in
the 16th century. At that time, levels of socio-economic
development across the world were generally equal. In fact, Europe, in
many key ways, was, in terms of political-economic development, behind
China, what is today Pakistan and northern India, and parts of West
Africa, among other regions. In five short centuries, however, there has
been a radical reworking of the global economy, resulting in the
creation of great wealth for some, and a mixed bag -- at best -- for
most, and outright misery for many.
Seventy years before the start of the U.S.-Mexico war, in 1776, Adam
Smith published his famous book, The Wealth of Nations, and wrote
about this problem. In it, he celebrated the "discovery" of what he
called America and Europeans' figuring out the route to India via the
sea around the Cape of Good Hope. He also rejoiced the linking of
distant parts of the world through ties of commerce and investment, and
the accumulation of great amounts of wealth as a result. But Smith also
decried the detrimental impacts of these developments, and worried about
the indigenous populations -- those on the receiving end of European
"What benefits, or what misfortunes to mankind may hereafter result
from these great events, no human wisdom can foresee. … Their general
tendency would seem to be beneficial. To the natives however ... all the
commercial benefits which can have resulted from those events have been
sunk and lost in the dreadful misfortunes which they have occasioned."
Perhaps the most "dreadful misfortune" that these developments have
helped to bring about or, at least, lay the foundation for, is massive
global socio-economic inequality, which has grown dramatically over the
last few decades.
According to a 1998 report by the United Nations Development Program,
the global gap between rich and poor is growing. In 1960, the 20 percent
of the world's population who lived in the richest countries had 30
times the income of the world's poorest 20 percent. By 1995, the ratio
had reached 85:1. In 1995, the world's 225 richest people had a combined
wealth equal to that of the annual income of 47 percent of the world's
people. The three wealthiest people had assets that exceeded the GDP of
the 48 least developed countries. And within most countries, levels of
inequality have also grown significantly, with countries like Mexico and
El Salvador among those with the greatest disparities.
Such inequality helps explain why over one billion people do not have
access to potable water and almost eleven million children across the
globe die every year due to malnutrition and diseases -- phenomena that
are preventable given the abundance of resources in our world, but that
are also inevitable given the unequal distribution of and access to
these resources. A manifestation of this inequality -- and something
that helps to reproduce it -- is the ability or lack thereof to move
across international boundaries. Those with little income and material
wealth are denied the right to cross many national boundaries, while
those with wealth and security travel with ease. In this regard,
boundary enforcement reflects and simultaneously creates insecurity --
especially for those on the less privileged side of the divides between
rich and poor.
On July 10, 2001, readers of The New York Times viewed a
photo that demonstrated such insecurity. The front-page image
showed two beach-goers sitting under an umbrella in Tarifa, Spain
looking off in the distance at the dead body of a would-be unauthorized
immigrant—presumably from somewhere in Africa -- washed up on the shore.
Entitled by the photographer as "The Indifference of the West," the
Times' caption stated that the two people were waiting for the
police, suggesting that someone -- perhaps the beach-goers themselves --
had called the authorities in response to the tragic scene. Regardless
of whether "indifference" or intervention in the form of calling the
police were on display, the photo captures brilliantly and painfully the
unequal access to particular nationalized spaces experienced by people
across the globe. For the beach-goers, arriving at Tarifa was most
likely a relatively easy experience -- even if they were from outside of
Spain -- because of their socio-economic status and other geographically
informed privileges (one of which relates to their ability to move
across global space). For the dead migrant, trying to reach Tarifa by
traversing the treacherous Strait of Gibraltar was literally a
Who has the ability to move without hindrance across global space and
who does not is perhaps the starkest example of the apartheid-like
conditions embodied by the statistics of socio-economic disparity.
Almost two years ago, the New York Times unintentionally yet
powerfully illustrated how this works. In a lead article on August 13,
2004, entitled, "In
Pursuit of Fabulousness" in the "Escapes" section of the paper,
the New York Times introduced its readers to "the new St.
Bart's," a reference to St. Barthelemy, the tiny Caribbean island in the
French West Indies that serves as a lavish get-away destination for many
of the global rich and famous.
But this place is better than St. Bart's, we learn from the Times.
In addition to having more favorable prices, "It's so close," explains
Margarita Waxman -- only 3 ½ hours by plane from New York City.
Margarita, a SoHo resident and just retired from a public relations job
at the upscale jeweler, Bulgari, flies back and forth monthly. At the
time of the article, she had recently paid $3 million for four acres of
beachfront for a new villa there, instead of in the harder-to-get-to St.
Bart's, where she has often vacationed.
Mikhail Baryshnikov, the ballet star, also has a vacation home there.
It is located close to the sprawling Southern Greek Revival beachside
abode of his good friend and native son, Oscar de la Renta, in the same
town where the fashion designer and singer Julio Iglesias are partners
in a luxury resort and club. Prices there range from $310,000 for a
three-bedroom villa away from the sea to several millions dollar for
property on the beach -- such as Iglesias's home, a six-acre Balinese
"There's so much building going on," gushes Amelia Vicini, a fashion
editor at Town & Country magazine, who was born and raised in the
tropical paradise. "Every time I go home, I am amazed. The winter season
is crazy, full of people -- celebrities, A-listers, everyone."
This hot location is the Dominican Republic. "Until a few years ago,
the Dominican Republic had a reputation as second-rate, and affluent
shoppers for second homes largely stayed away," the Times
explained. "Then, in the early 90's, developers . . . began attracting
attention with luxurious gated communities on the water."
Only one day earlier, the Times ran an Associated Press article
on the inside of the main section about a different type of
water-related escape involving the Dominican Republic. Entitled,
"Dominicans Saved From Sea Tell of Attacks and Deaths of Thirst," the
piece recounted the horrific experiences of about 80 Dominican migrants
fleeing the poverty in their homeland. Having paid $450 each -- about a
year's income for most Dominicans -- they tried to sail clandestinely to
Puerto Rico so that they would be then able to fly to the U.S. mainland
free of immigration controls.
The engine of the small wooden boat died two days after its departure
from the coastal village of Limón. By the next day, the vessel's water
and meager food supply -- chocolate, peanuts sardines, and some coconuts
-- were depleted. The passengers began to panic.
Two lactating women reportedly dripped their breast milk into a bottle
for passengers to drink. Another told of eating his tube of Colgate to
survive. The boat drifted at sea for almost two weeks. People began
dying on the fifth day, their bodies thrown into shark-infested waters
by those still living. Many jumped overboard in desperation, and
drowned. Forty-seven ended up perishing on the voyage. Another eight
died of dehydration after Dominican authorities rescued a total of 39
In a follow-up article on August 16, the Times describes the
homes of the majority of the inhabitants of one of the villages of many
of the migrants as being made of "lashed-together pieces of tin."
Attempts to flee from such poverty to a better life in the United States
had increased over that last year in the context of a severe economic
downturn in the Dominican Republic.
Such unauthorized crossings have a long and deep history given the
intense migratory ties between the United States and the Dominican
Republic. And so do migrant deaths.
A May 12, 1998 report in the Los Angeles Times, for example,
spoke of "human bones littering the small shoals and islets between the
Dominican and Puerto Rican shores" as a result of crossing-related
fatalities. In November 2003, the U.S. Border Patrol estimated that,
over the previous three years, nearly 300 people had either died or
vanished while crossing the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic
and Puerto Rico. And another 164 U.S.-bound migrants had reportedly died
or disappeared elsewhere in the Caribbean during the same period.
In the late 1990s, the economy of the Dominican Republic was growing at
a fast pace. But the economic expansion did little for the poor and
middle class, many members of which also attempted to make the perilous
journey. By the time of these New York Times reports, that
expansion was long-gone, unemployment stood officially at 16 percent,
the rate of inflation was 32 percent, and the Dominican peso had lost
half of its value against the U.S. dollar over the previous two years,
resulting in a doubling of prices during that period. In addition, the
country's electrical system was a mess, with electricity typically only
available for a few hours a day.
Little of this profoundly affects the lives of rich Dominicans or the
affluent foreigners eagerly buying up the country's prime beachfront
property. As an envious real estate agent from St. Bart's explained,
"You can be a king in the Dominican for very little money." Or, as
Margarita Waxman effused, "There's a quaintness about it. It has all the
beauty of St. Bart's, only more bohemian."
If, as Stuart Hall and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have argued, racism is the
fatal coupling of power and difference -- fatal in the sense that it
shapes one's life (and death) circumstances -- the reporting on the
Dominican Republic in the New York Times exposes one of the faces
of global apartheid. It is one in which the relatively rich and largely
white are free to travel and live wherever they would like and to access
the resources they "need." Meanwhile the relatively poor and largely
non-white are forced to subsist in places where there are not enough
resources to provide sufficient livelihood or, in order to overcome
their deprivation and insecurity, to risk their lives trying to overcome
ever-stronger boundary controls put into place by rich countries. As in
the case of non-whites in Apartheid South Africa, they have fewer rights
on the basis of their geographic origins -- something they have no
Such deaths are increasingly common in border regions between the
privileged and less well-off as the boundaries between rich and poor,
stable and unstable, become increasingly fortified.
On January 10 of this year, twenty-four Haitian migrants suffocated
to death while hidden in a truck. They were crossing clandestinely from
their poverty-stricken homeland into the Dominican Republic where
presumably they hoped to live and work "illegally" as hundreds of
thousands of their compatriots do.
Several days later, upwards of 60 migrants from strife-torn and
economically devastated Zimbabwe drowned in the Limpopo River that
serves as their country's southern boundary. Reportedly, the migrants
had formed a human chain by holding hands to protect each other as they
waded across the swollen river into neighboring South Africa.
Nonetheless, the strength of the current swept them all away.
Countless Zimbabweans live and work without authorization in South
Africa. While some are able to bribe border guards to enter the country,
the vast majority take a more risky path -- first, by braving the waters
of the Limpopo where, in addition to occasional swells, crocodiles,
poisonous snakes, lions and hippos frequently kill crossers. The
migrants then have to scale three layers of razor- and barbed-wire
fencing, which is electrified (albeit at "non-lethal" levels).
The deaths of unauthorized migrants crossing the boundaries that divide
the relatively rich and poor, and the insecure and the safe, happen far
more frequently along the geographic edges of the United States and the
European Union (EU) than they do in places like southern Africa or on
Hispaniola -- the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In
the case of unauthorized crossings between north Africa and Spain, for
example, the Association of Immigrant Moroccan Workers in Spain,
estimates that more than 4,000 migrants lost their lives between 1997
and early 2004. Just this month -- on July 3 -- Moroccan border guards
fired on a group of 70 migrants who stormed the six-meter-high fence
between Morocco and Melilla, an enclave of Spain, a residue of
colonialism, in North Africa. At least 8 more migrants were seriously
wounded by razor wire. On the same day, Moroccan authorities found the
bodies of 21 people off the coast of the Western Sahara -- and have
discovered 9 more since -- who drowned when their boat capsized while
trying to reach the Spanish Canary Islands; another 40 or so individuals
are still missing. And the inter-governmental International Centre for
Migration Policy and Development estimates that about 10,000 people lost
their lives in the Mediterranean in 1993-2003 while trying to reach
Europe. As and we well know, along the U.S.-Mexico boundary, it is
conservatively estimated that more than 3,800 migrants have lost their
lives over the last ten years while trying to cross into the United
States. This is one manifestation of the "collateral damage" of the
border wars, ones that entail the building of walls like those
championed by Hillary Clinton.
This parallel between Israel's barrier and those of the U.S.-Mexico
boundary drawn between by Clinton is an interesting one, and more
appropriate than it might appear at first glance. Despite the emphasis
on national security, Israel's barrier is first and foremost about
maintaining and advancing an occupation, about furthering dispossession.
As Guadalupe Castillo has pointed out to me, it flows from and creates a
state of siege in minds of the occupiers, a state of mind that
translates into ugly facts on the ground that transform places into
zones of constant surveillance. Occupation denies the humanity of those
it seeks to control, repel, and sometimes subjugate. It denies
communities and peoples their historic rights and relationships. It is
something that violates fundamental notions of human rights, involves
the taking of land, and the construction and maintenance of an unjust
political-economic order that is based on a relationship of domination
and subordination. It also requires military-like force for its
maintenance -- whether in the Western Sahara, Iraq, the Palestinian
territories, or here in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands -- given that many
people refuse to accept the injustices that occupations inevitably
The human impact of all this goes beyond the deaths and is typical in
terms of what one finds in wars of occupation. Over the last decade in
the United States alone, many thousands have been imprisoned for
violating the laws of the occupying forces, hundreds of thousands have
been deported to their countries of birth, and countless individuals
have been denied the right to unite (and often reunite) with their loved
ones on this side of what is presented as a security divide.
The territorial and social divides that harm people are not only
between countries, but within. The undocumented status of many migrant
workers increases their vulnerability to exploitation and mistreatment
by employers. According to a study carried out by Kate Bronfenbrenner at
Cornell, for example, 52 percent of companies in the United States where
union drives are taking place threaten to call federal immigration
authorities if the organizing campaign involves unauthorized immigrants.
As a result, unauthorized workers are less likely to challenge their
employers and the conditions of labor than they might were they properly
documented. More broadly, given their stigmatized and often criminalized
status, unauthorized immigrants enter into compromising situations to
avoid law enforcement officials, a situation that increases their
overall political and economic vulnerability. While immigration and
boundary controls fail to prevent large numbers of migrants from
entering places like the United States, they have the effect of
categorizing immigrants as individuals with fewer rights, to define the
status of people -- as subordinate -- once they are in the United
States. As such, migrants who succeed in crossing still have to deal
with the indignities and insecurity associated with being "illegal"—from
divided families to the threat of deportation and the types of
socio-economic exploitation that their non-legal status facilitates.
Such an outcome dovetails with the reproduction of the race and class
disparities across global space that the metaphor "global apartheid"
Racism is about, among other things, double standards -- double
standards on the basis of one's socio-geographic origins. And the most
obvious form of racism is hostility which ideologically creates a
hierarchy of peoples in which those close to the bottom of the ladder
are seen as less than human. There is a very long and deep history of
this in the West toward non-whites. Here in the United States, such
animus -- in terms of immigrants -- has focused most persistently on
people from Mexico and, more generally, from Latin America. It is
impossible to separate the deeply rooted stereotypes associated with
this racism from support for measures favoring more restrictive measures
against immigrants -- legal or "illegal." The focus on the border and
unauthorized immigration is part and parcel of a more general
restrictionist sentiment, one rooted historically in notions of
undesirable "Others" who have typically been non-white,
non-English-speaking people from relatively poor countries. Thus, while
many unauthorized immigrants come from Canada, Ireland, and Poland, the
dominant image of the "illegal" (and almost exclusively so) is the
former "wetback" -- an unauthorized entrant coming from Mexico. This is
not to suggest that any and all positions championing immigration and
boundary restriction are racist, but merely that racism is an important
factor informing restrictionist sentiment on a collective levels.
That said, overt racist sentiment has declined significantly in the
United States and the West over the last century. Nevertheless, racism
-- as manifested by a set of outcomes that grants some peoples
sufficient livelihoods while denying it to others -- lives on. Perhaps
the most important way it lives on is through structures, through
structural racism. This involves the deeply entrenched patterns of
socioeconomic and political inequality and accumulated disadvantage that
correlate to "race" and "color" as conventionally defined. Given this,
rather than concerning ourselves with the worldviews behind particular
practices, we should focus on outcomes. Clearly, those from relatively
wealthy countries are able to migrate and become citizens of the
migrant-receiving country with far greater ease than those who come from
less privileged countries, located largely in the so-called global
South. Their ability to migrate and take up residence in another part of
the world (presumably a location that provides greater levels of
security than the area from where one migrates) is, to a highly
significant degree, determined by an accident of nature. That accident
of nature is where one is born or to where one traces his or her
origins, a characteristic that is permanent, and that one cannot change.
These factors of chance profoundly shape the resources to which one has
access, the amount of political power on the international stage one
has, where one can go, and how one lives and dies. This is the essence
of racism. Given this and the fact that we live in a world of deep
inequality, there is little question that boundary and immigration
controls contributes to outcomes that are apartheid-like. We need to
call it this not simply because it is correct, but because it is a moral
outrage. By undermining its moral legitimacy, we can make it politically
unacceptable. And like apartheid in South Africa, it is something we
must challenge head-on -- just as we must challenge head-on the "wars"
and occupations that help maintain and enhance this apartheid.
In his very moving and instructive book, Embracing the Infidel:
Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West, Behzad Yaghmaian
introduces us to a woman named Ferial, a highly resourceful Iranian
migrant -- one without papers-- subsisting in Paris. Yaghmaian recounts
a discussion they have on the origins of global wealth and poverty. He
insists to Ferial that wealth and poverty are not natural, that both are
the outcomes of the inequality embedded in the so-called free-market
system. "The unnatural borders lead to poverty," he tells her. "They
keep people in deprived zones, and limit their mobility and their
ability to benefit from the fruits of nature. Like borders, poverty is
He then lets Ferial offer her worldview on boundaries and related
matters, one that Yaghmaian seems to share, "I did not cross illegally.
Borders are illegal. They are not natural. Crossing them is my right.
Doing what is my right is not illegal," she states.
"The earth equally belongs to everybody," Ferial asserts. "It is not for
the French, or the Iranians. Borders are created by power. Wealthy and
powerful countries draw a line around them and declare they own that
part of nature."
As we well know, nature knows no boundaries and, despite our clinging to
them, we cannot reduce human relations to bounded territories either.
When we do so, violence results in that the boundaries deny people the
right to move to the places where there are resources -- whether they be
jobs at decent wages, sufficient food, refuge from repression, or love
-- resources people need to realize their basic human needs.
Very recently we were painfully reminded of this. There was a story in
Citizen by Claudine LoMonaco about Antonio Torres Jimenez,
a long-time Tucson resident. Some friends from his hometown in
Guanajuato, Mexico who now live in Tucson found his body in the desert
last Thursday. He had perished the previous Sunday while trying to
return to his home here. He had been a permanent resident, but several
years ago he was stripped of his legal status because of an
administrative-violation. He had had to return to Mexico after the death
of his eldest daughter to be with his wife and other children. But he
stayed there too long, and thus lost his green card. Dependent on his
construction job here in Tucson, he continued to come back and forth.
Such a tragedy is what we see increasingly in the border regions that
divide and bring together rich and poor, the safe and the insecure, the
first and third worlds, the white and non-white. Whether they occur
along the boundaries between Morocco and Spain, South Africa and
Zimbabwe, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, or the United States and
Mexico, they are totally unacceptable. But even more unacceptable are
the socio-economic differences that underlie and bring about these
deaths and all the other forms of suffering and indignity that people
must endure simply because they were born on the wrong side of the
boundaries that make up the unjust world order in which we live. While
allowing freedom of movement and residence will not by itself eliminate
these injustices -- just as the end of legal apartheid in South Africa
has not led to the end to that society's deep race and class disparities
-- it will at least permit people increased opportunities to realize
livelihoods of dignity and, on a collective level, to organize to combat
injustices with full civil and human rights.
Stories such as that of Antonio Torres Jimenez are heartbreaking.
And given the number of these stories and experiences, and the weight of
the ugly forces that bring them about, it is easy for those of us who
want to bring about a very different world to feel depressed,
overwhelmed, and disempowered.
In her beautiful book about the Guatemalan resistance, Bridge of
Courage: Life Stories of the Guatemalan Companeros and Companeras,
Jennifer Harbury quotes Gaspar, a guerrilla with the Guatemalan National
Revolutionary Union, as he responds to Jennifer's sadness brought about
by his story of suffering: "So our stories have made you sad, you tell
me. Yes, this I can understand, my friend, but tears are not the right
response. For every painful story there is one of beauty, one to learn
from. ... You must never forget the art of enjoyment. Otherwise the
pain of survival will crush you."
On the same day that Antonio Torres Jimenez perished in the desert
of southern Arizona, a baptism of a healthy, beautiful two-month-old
girl took place at the cathedral here in Tucson. She was born in the
desert to a woman from Guatemala who was crossing with two other women.
The two women stayed with the mother during and after the birth, helping
her to cut the baby's umbilical cord with a nail clipper. Because they
stayed with her, the Border Patrol was able to apprehend them, and
returned them to their homeland.
It's important that we tell ourselves this story, and others like it. To
overcome feelings of despair, we need to remind ourselves that
border regions can and often do bring out the best in many: kindness,
generosity, and solidarity. And we need to fully support organizations
like Derechos Humanos because it embodies and reproduces these
qualities. By playing key roles in groupings such as
No More Deaths
and The Coalition to Bring Down the Walls -- in addition to its very
important work in the community in defense of civil and human rights for
all -- Derechos Humanos is helping to write the script for a new story,
one in which apartheid, domestic and global, in all its ugly
manifestations is something of the past.
¡Que viva la Coalicion de Derechos Humanos!
Joseph Nevins is an assistant
professor of geography at Vassar College. He is the author of
Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the "Illegal Alien" and the Making of
the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2002) and, most recently,
A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor
(Cornell University Press, 2005). He can be reached at: