A Gory Gift to Trump: A Cruel, Militarized, Expensive, and Decades Old, Bipartisan Border Policy

A review of John Carlos Frey's book, Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border

John Carlos Frey’s Sand and Blood relates the roughly 140-year history of U.S. anti-immigrant racism and policy on the southwest border, and highlights its mostly pre-Trump, bipartisan intensification over the last thirty-odd years. Frey, an American citizen born in Tijuana, Mexico, and raised in San Diego county, did not give the Border Patrol or border policy much thought until one day in 1977, when he was 12. His mother, a green card-holding, legally-residing Mexican American, was arrested walking near her home because a Border Patrol agent did not believe she was legal, nor that she lived nearby. She was deported to Tijuana before her family could do anything. Luckily, they were able to bring her back the next day. The experience encouraged Frey’s outlook to shift from innocent indifference to sober scrutiny, a shift that pushed him to become a leading journalist examining border and immigration policies and attitudes.

Anti-immigrant hate and hysteria in the United States is hardly an unknown matter. However, Frey managed to surprise this reader when he dug up a rather antique, if grotesque case. In 1753, Ben Franklin, sounding Trump-like, but with more august language, worried about what he considered the low-quality Germans entering the country, threatening to destroy our language and even, he must have gasped, our very nation. The expression of such anti-German opinion, however, like other early anti-immigrant expressions, never rose to the fever-pitch fixated on Chinese immigrants. And that is where Frey begins his 140-year history.

In the 1880s, the terrifying immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border were desperate Chinese laborers, not Mexicans. Mexicans were crossing, returning, and re-crossing then, but their presence was mostly ignored given that they met the exploitative needs of agricultural interests and, I would guess, American insecurities lay elsewhere. Mexican migrants remained invisible near-slaves—the status of hated-celebrity near-slaves, that would be a future privilege. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese laborers from entering the country—belying the sentiments about “huddled masses” and all that, written just a year later and eventually stamped on the base of the Statue of Liberty. The focus of early military patrols along the Mexican border, as early as 1904, remained on Chinese immigrants. However, a shift characterized by increased anti-Mexican attitudes and policies soon began; policies which included such humiliations as daily stripping and delousing of migrant workers, including the spraying of clothes with toxic chemicals during a Typhoid scare.

In 1924, border and immigration policy worsened notably, though it would take decades before it reached the current systematic militarized cruelty aimed overwhelmingly at desperate and poor Central American migrants. That year, the Immigration Act prohibited entry by most Asians entirely (on whom racist hysteria, as noted, was then still fixated) and created a quota system for other immigrants, all on the basis of worries about “American homogeneity” (14)—meaning whiteness, mostly. Additionally, the Labor Appropriations Act established the Border Patrol, the pre-existing body of which was expanded from 75 agents to 450 by the previously-mentioned Act—putting it on its path to its current gargantuan, nearly-20,000-agent size. Still, the Border Patrol was, in the 1920s certainly, mostly absorbed with stemming alcohol smuggling from Canada. And for fifty years, border and immigrant policy remained relatively low key.

Frey says that in the 1970s, border security still appeared mostly a “show for the public” (5) and the border, particularly near San Diego, a tranquil “free zone” (29) where cross-border movement and family contact continued to some extent undisturbed. Politically-powerful business interests focused on maintaining cheap labor sources managed to mute racist and militaristic policies. In the 1980s, however, though the capitalist desire for cheap labor remained, as it does to this day, officials began, largely for “political reasons” (5), to shift the balance toward the racism and militarization. Reagan, though hardly anti-racist, to say the least, sincerely backed the “amnesty” angle of a mid-80s immigration bill, eventually adopted. However, the bill also made life harder and more dangerous for Central American immigrants, including those fulfilling cheap labor needs. In California, Governor Pete Wilson, despite a two-thirds disapproval rating, rode anti-immigrant Proposition 187 to a second term. President Bill Clinton noticed this, apparently, and turned increasingly anti-immigrant. Clinton built on Bush Sr. policies remarkably reminiscent of the suggestions of a hate-group, the moderately-named Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Clinton even ignored INS and Border Patrol calls for administrative reforms to accelerate legalization and opted instead for an unprecedentedly brutal militarized approach at the border that intentionally funneled migrants into desert death-zones. Presidents Bush Jr. and Obama inherited and continued the policies. 9/11 served the hysteria well, and provided an excuse for the expense and horror, though it did not originate them.

Trump did not bring border policy horror to America, either. He also inherited it. He remains unable to gain any further legal leeway to impose his vision of border policy, reports Frey. Instead, he has taken full advantage of existing laws, while trying often to stretch their applicability (which has meant increased cruelty to migrants). Though he has been “bold and brash” (178) about the policies, and his rhetoric devoid of nuance, his expressions have often merely echoed those of previous politicians, like Bill Clinton. His wall is an impossibility, in part, for the same reason migration is so deadly—the harsh terrain. The default option will remain the militarized crossing places in concert with the death zones. Yet, the impossibility of the wall did not prevent the longest government shutdown in US history, all over funding for the impossible wall—highlighting the political nature of border policy, as the death and cruelty grinds on.


The unfortunate father and daughter depicted in the image above, and how they relate to Frey’s narrative, merit notice. The AP story1 from which it was taken included a graph illustrating death rates at the border over the last twenty years, based on U.S. Customs and Border Patrol stats. These peaked, we are to believe, at nearly 500 in 2005, and again in 2013, before declining to last year’s number, 283. The father and daughter’s deaths occurred on the Mexican side of the border, so the thoroughness of the accounting for their loss of life may be hard to determine. However, a key matter to understand, as Frey tells us, is that the Border Patrol consistently and knowingly undercounts the dead, ignoring the significant numbers of border deaths discovered by others (while also sometimes exaggerating apprehensions). Such policies misinform the public, certainly, obscuring the conscious lethal-desert-method of deterrence, while playing up the apprehension-method. In Vietnam, official body-counts of enemies killed were controversial, but reportedly exaggerated to demonstrate achievement of official goals; body-counters, for bureaucratic reasons, simply double- or triple-counted those dead they found. At the modern U.S.-Mexico border, bodies are undercounted because the understood policy of deterrence by death cannot be broadcast—and so the Border Patrol ignores those dead found by others, dead who thereby do not exist in official counts converted into published graphs like the one accompanying the AP News story.


Frey and I share a birth year (1965), and we both grew up in the American Southwest, giving us a chronological as well as a cultural overlap I appreciate. However, since my entire family is U.S.-born, and because, frankly, we customarily check the ‘white’ box on the decennial census form, Frey’s experiences and mine diverge. Mercifully, the Border Patrol never arrested my mother walking down the street in her neighborhood due simply to her ethnicity and proximity to the border. Frey’s extensive work as a journalist offers another line of departure between us, toil that led him eventually to this volume.

The book is an important and very informative addition to the current conversation about immigration and border policy. It serves to support serious critique of relevant Trump policies, which have upped the ante in the worst ways, while at the same time gutting the simplified histories that leave the impression horrible border policies began in 2017. Frey demonstrates how the militarized, inhumane border policies are not Trumpian, but American, common to both liberal and conservative administrations, taking on their current hyper-militaristic and hyper-cruel qualities at the eager command of Bill Clinton, Democratic star.

Frey could have strengthened his argument that U.S. policies and behaviors have contributed to the push and pull factors encouraging immigration; details, for example, regarding such policies and behaviors in regard to places like El Salvador and Honduras. Relating the experiences of two brothers from the former country, one of whom dies while the other becomes incarcerated, Frey mentions the now-international El Salvadoran street gang MS-13, the menaces of which compelled the two brothers to leave. Frey might have given some attention to the history of the gang in the context of the illegal U.S.-proxy war against El Salvador, carried on in the country for over a decade, and its aftermath. Said history would reinforce Frey’s contention that U.S. immigration policy has been both cruel and irrational, and has long been complicated by the needs of other power centers in the United States, whether agricultural and construction interests, or the foreign policy establishment. Those of the first examples have effectively pulled migrants to U.S., while those of the other, such as our illegal intervention in the El Salvadoran civil war, or the birth of MS-13 as an outcome of the violence we magnified, pushed migrants here. Additionally, the 2009 US-supported military coup in Honduras against the country’s elected government has decidedly worsened conditions there, pushing Hondurans to go somewhere, and the US remains, ironically, the most promising destination of desperate people in Central America.

Likewise, Frey’s plea would have benefited from fuller consideration of the neoliberal capitalist context of the harshening border and immigration policies over the last thirty years. It seems hardly a coincidence these policies occurred just in the wake of the turn to neoliberal policies in the US, policies which have exported jobs like hot commodities, exalted the market at the expense of the public, increasing poverty and inequality, and cast down the government as any kind of help to the public and brake on private ambition. Clinton’s neoliberal NAFTA sent the Mexican economy into the gutter. Increased migration resulted, which he answered with death zones at the border.

Regarding nationalism and its relation to this matter, though arguably outside the scope of Frey’s reportorial approach, more discussion of the attitudes and psychology involved would have explained some of the insanity. For instance, the theme of supposed Mexican dirtiness (discussed in chapter one), arising intermittently for decades, mimics a common refrain heard from nationalist racists in many modern contexts—an attitude enlisting germ theory to serve of the cause of white supremacy, a sort of ideological cousin of social Darwinism. Also, as social psychologist Richard Koenigsberg has said:

Nations are conceived as bodies. We project our own body into a national body. One’s fragile, vulnerable self is blown up—to become a gigantic, omnipotent self. Because territory is imagined in corporeal terms (Neocleous), the state seeks to secure it borders—its “orifices and entry points.” Orifices and entry points must be closed—to prevent penetration. Porous boundaries need to be firmed up, sealed off—walls built to protect the vulnerable self. One’s actual, fragile body fuses with the fantasy of a of a gigantic, invulnerable body. National bodies require borders to prevent penetration. Anxiety is played out on a monumental scale. Walls must be built—nothing can be allowed to penetrate. Each and every orifice must be sealed.

How this “anxiety is played out on a monumental scale” is the story of a state that has arrived at both indifference and desperation. This desperation arises from a political degeneration that refuses to answer, is indifferent to, the decline of the public in any way that threatens the globalization interests of the U.S. ruling class—which, as Sean Starrs’ has written, has not declined, as commonly believed, but globalized instead. Decline is just the fate of the rest of us. And if harsh border policies, thrown as thin scraps to a deluded public, seem to ease their despair, so much the better. If society’s increasingly desperate need for some form of civic freedom, which fosters both community and popular power, and not just tolerance, is forbidden for the threat it poses to ruling class power and wealth, then closing up the nation’s orifices becomes the toxic political gruel of the day. And, in turn, opening them without thought about the issue of civic freedom and popular power, looks like the only conceivable reply.

The words of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, seem suitable here. They spoke, in part, of the Nazis and their high-tech horrors when they wrote the following line, but they also had their eyes on the West more generally, including, of course, those who triumphed over the Nazis. The “wholly enlightened earth”, they wrote, “is radiant with triumphant calamity”. Certainly, our wholly enlightened border policy radiates with a sort of triumphant calamity. The policies and infrastructure, as documented by Frey, the expensive, tax-payer-funded high-technology, a boon to private interests, the largely-privatized internment camps (what’s more enlightened than privatization?), the rationality of pushing migrants into desert and mountain death zones, and the political, corporate, and bureaucratic deceits that cover it all up, including the uncounted dead, epitomize the serene, systematic malice of a modernity sucked nearly dry of humanity.

Frey relates the shock and horror he felt while accompanying the nonprofit Angels of the Desert on a search for two missing migrants. Their faceless corpses were eventually found. “Animals and insects eat the soft flesh of the face first” (199). These were two of the officially-undercounted hundreds who die every year in our Border Patrol’s intentionally-created death zones, zones which, they say, offer them a “tactical advantage”, certainly a shrewd building block in our “triumphant calamity”. Martin Luther King Jr.’s cautionary words about “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”, cited by Frey, accord in a way with Horkheimer and Adorno’s verdict on modernity. Frey’s critique comes up short of the latter’s, but his judgment is nevertheless worth taking to heart. He reminds us that we have rejected the enslavement of African Americans, the slaughter of Natives Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans, the denial of the vote to women, of interracial and same-sex marriage, and the delay of civil rights. Frey says rejecting our cruel and (objectively) irrational border policies would continue that tradition. He looks forward to all of this horror becoming a mere part of “our dark, stained history” (200).

The extremely negative impacts of Trump’s border policies on actual human beings, and the relatively-popular racist fever dreams both partially underpinning and feeding off them, illuminate our present with a hellish light. However, the neoliberal capitalist policies and transformations, and all the deceits about drugs, terrorism, and immigration, of the last forty years or more, all of which preceded Trump, and which in the wrong hands feed the racist fever dreams even more, were effectively embraced across party lines. Trump, chin up, to more cruel and deadly effect for migrants, simply took the bipartisan decorated-but-desiccated zombie of border policy and wore it like a gaudy costume.

• First published at Hard Crackers.

  1. Peter Orsi and Amy Guthrie, “A grim border drowning underlines peril facing many migrants”, AP News, June 26, 2019. []
Ron Leighton earned a BA in history at California State University, Fullerton. Read other articles by Ron.