Temperatures hovered around the triple digits in deep South Texas when the children arrived on the U.S.-Mexico border. They traveled alone, without parents. They traveled from the faraway mountains of Guatemala and El Salvador and the depths of the world’s most violent city — San Pedro Sula in Honduras.
Their numbers grew over months until at last, news of their arrival captured the nation’s attention in June after leaked photographs showed child migrants packed into overcrowded Border Patrol detention cells. Outrage about deplorable conditions quickly morphed into lawmakers sounding the alarms of a “border crisis” and calling for the deployment of state troopers and the National Guard. In reality, it was a “crisis” foretold. Months earlier, the Obama administration announced emergency plans to cope with increasing numbers of Central American migrants.
But where others saw a spontaneous influx of migrants on the border, Nestor Rodríguez, a professor of sociology, found validation. In “famous table 2.1” of the book, Guatemala-U.S. Migration: Transforming Regions, which Rodríguez co-authored, he predicted a spike in migration. The summer arrivals, he says, “wasn’t a new experience. It was another cycle of the migration.”
His predictions along with the manuscript, however, went to the publisher before the number of children swelled to headline-grabbing levels. “I worried that my numbers looked a little high,” he said with a laugh. For a moment, he considered inserting ranges instead. His calculations were based on the number of green card holders from Guatemala and the number of migrants reportedly apprehended by Border Patrol. Over the years, the table showed, migration ebbed and flowed, rising in the years of Guatemala’s civil war, again soon after the signing of the 1996 peace accords, then another wave and the most recent migration.
“Once the war got started and pushed people out, then the migration flow itself created its own dynamism,” says Rodríguez, who is a faculty associate in the Population Research Center (PRC). “What we know about migration is, once started, it produces its own momentum and inertia.” Spurring the “dynamism” of migration were worsening conditions in the region including rising gang violence and rampant impunity. Several groups, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, estimated that many Central Americans qualified for asylum or other forms of protections.
After the children became news, such estimates or migration trends scarcely figured in assessing what was called a “crisis.” Politicians and the media branded the Central American migrants illegal border crossers, and the migrants — children and later mothers with their children — were swept up in domestic debates about the border, immigration and demographics. The debates ultimately informed a public policy response that included increased border security and widespread detention. At its core, the immigration and border security debates represent permutations of American democratic principles of identity and justice with implications for political science, sociology and the law.
In January, Denise Gilman, a Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies affiliate and co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic, joined a team of attorneys and advocates in filing a lawsuit accusing the federal government of adopting a policy of mandatory detention. Migrant families with a “credible” fear of persecution, meaning they probably qualified for asylum, were denied bond and detained in newly constructed family detention centers. Previously, asylum-seekers were released pending a full hearing.
Government attorneys denied a blanket “no release” policy existed but did argue that detention served as a deterrence to counter what was termed a national security threat of mass migration. According to government statistics, of the 2,602 people booked into a family residential center in the last six months of 2014, 32 were released.
In the lawsuit, attorneys argued that denying people liberty in the name of deterrence is unconstitutional. “You are depriving this mother, this child of their liberty,” Gilman says, “not because of anything they did or anything they might do, but because of something that some prospective family in Central America might do in terms of their decision to migrate.”
Far more than a migration issue, detention as a means of deterrence, Gilman says, strikes at the core of deeply held beliefs that inspired the birth of the nation. “Liberty is central to our whole constitutional structure and self-image as Americans,” she says. “I think when you start carving into liberty … that really calls into question the whole liberty core, so it’s very dangerous for our civil liberties, civil rights and human rights.”
“You can go and wear camouflage and have guns and think you are reliving this past of being a soldier because we have constructed the border as this military space.”Harel Shapira
The legal challenge followed months of reported cases of abuse documented by Gilman and co-director Barbara Hines, who have encountered cases of denial of medical care, substandard conditions and sexual abuse. “There’s definitely a dehumanizing aspect of all this,” she says. “It’s hard for me to understand how they can do what they’re doing without engaging in some dehumanization of the actual realities of the people affected.”
To Alfonso Gonzales, a political scientist in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies and in the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, the answer lies within the nation’s racial dynamics. “Cultural and ideological processes in our society rationalize the production of violence against brown bodies,” he says.
In his book Reform Without Justice: Latino Migrant Politics and the Homeland Security State, Gonzales argues that immigration issues are debated and formulated within an “anti-migrant hegemony,” which he says “naturalizes the idea that we should adopt novel authoritarian solutions to ‘immigration crisis’ not just in state but in civil society…” Such attitudes, he writes, permeate the media, intellectual institutions and civil society to become the unspoken, unquestioned paradigm for detention and migrant policy.
As a result, says Gonzales, lawmakers and advocates operate within a good-immigrant/bad-immigrant binary that leaves untouched policing policies or hardline positions to the border, regardless of levels of migration. Such a binary, he says, explains why the Obama administration expanded family detention centers and increased spending on border security — for the “bad immigrants” — while offering legal protections for undocumented immigrants, particularly those brought to the U.S. as children.
For his new book, Dead on Arrival: Mexican and Central American Asylum Claims and Authoritarian Neoliberalism, Gonzales builds on his research to analyze the government’s handling of recent asylum claims. Would-be refugees, he says, confront a cultural context that likens migrants to illegal aliens, criminals and terrorists. “As long as we buy that type of state discourse,” he says, “we consent to the violence.” Shifting debates, he says, reaches to the very heart of U.S. identity to challenge “who we see as insiders and who we see as outsiders.”
Exclusion, however, has informed national identity from the colonial days, says Richard Flores, senior associate dean for academic affairs. “American culture is fundamentally based on difference. If there is something innate in the way we create identity vis-à-vis someone else, the American experience has been dripping with power, whether that power is based on race, gender or other kinds of differences.”
With time, identity and culture become linked to symbols that reinforce differences, such as the Alamo and the border, says Flores, who is the author of Remembering the Alamo: Memory, Modernity, and the Master Symbol. Those symbols are loaded with two powerful purposes: to affirm our place in the world and further ideological positions.
In recent years, one group has come to represent the potent fusion of the border’s symbolic power, identity and ideology — the Minutemen. To some, the Minutemen are a band of vigilantes. To others, they are civilian patrols doing their part to secure the border. For his book, Waiting for José: The Minutemen’s Pursuit of America, Harel Shapira camped out and patrolled the border with the Minutemen to construct an ethnographic study of a “social movement” and its expression in nonelectoral politics. “I originally went to talk to the Minutemen thinking this was going to be a very clear expression of right-wing beliefs.” Things quickly got messy.
Shapira, an assistant professor of sociology and PRC faculty associate, came away with some insights, some unsurprising to people who follow border issues. “First, to be clear, the Minutemen are racists,” he says. “That said, they are not simply racists. They are a lot more than that.” The Minutemen project, he discovered, satisfies a yearning for identity and a desire for meaning and purpose. “What they were after was less about enforcing immigration policy than it was reliving an older life they had,” he says. A typical Minuteman is a white male in his 60s, middle class and a military veteran.
On the border, ideology and culture are channeled together to create an exclusionary and xenophobic “microworld.” From within their world, with the border as the setting, they find a community for enacting a militaristic past. “You can go and wear camouflage and have guns and think you are reliving this past of being a soldier because we have constructed the border as this military space,” Shapira says.
“You are depriving this mother, this child of their liberty, not because of anything they did or anything they might do, but because of something that some prospective family in Central America might do in terms of their decision to migrate.”Denise Gilman
The birth of the Minutemen in 2004 coincided with a buildup of border security that involves unmanned aircraft, armed gunboats and a massive deployment of Border Patrol agents. The federal government spends more money on immigration enforcement than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to a report by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. Critics often refer to the combination of hardware and personnel as “militarization of the border.”
It’s a term that inspires consternation from C.J. Alvarez, a historian in the Department for Mexican-American and Latino/a Studies. In his forthcoming book, The Shape of the Border: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, 1848, Alvarez reaches into history to trace the domestic use of the military on the border from the 19th century to the present. Seen across time, the current deployment of federal law enforcement, which falls under civilian rather than military control, pales in comparison to the deployment of 160,000 soldiers along the border in 1917.
The rhetoric, he says, also obscures the view of policing in Mexico. “One of my problems with the rhetorical critique of ‘militarization,’” he says, “is a total ignorance of actual militarization on the Mexican side.”
During the past eight years, the Mexican government has mounted a large-scale campaign involving federal police and troops in the name of fighting organized crime or drug smuggling organizations. The military campaign, which was backed by the U.S. government, also resulted in increased bilateral law enforcement efforts.
Vast swaths of Mexican territory, including along the U.S.-Mexico border, now fall under military policing, including villages and towns. Alvarez says in a country with a history of military officers occupying political leadership, the current deployment raises questions about the future and shape of democracy in Mexico.
He says border policing extends far beyond migration and smuggling. It reflects the policing traditions of each country, the delicate balance of civil-military traditions that is bedrock to the political formation and concept of democracy in each country.
On Feb. 20, a federal judge in the District of Columbia ruled that a critical aspect of the Obama administration’s border policing strategy to cope with the arrival of Central American families was unconstitutional. The decision in the lawsuit filed by Gilman and others means that thousands of women and children seeking asylum will be released from detention.
In his affidavit to the court in the case, Nestor Rodríguez argued against the effectiveness of detention by drawing from a powerful but often missing factor in the migration equation — human bonds. “Central Americans, like populations elsewhere,” he wrote, “have strong intergenerational family and institutional attachments in their settings and are not predisposed to migrate en masse simply because they hear that someone bonded out or was released from detention.”
In the coming months, Border Patrol officials and advocates anticipate another influx of Central American migration. As migrants approach the physical U.S.-Mexico border, says Flores, their arrival challenges the people within the U.S. boundaries to confront the borders of their minds that are rife with symbolism, identity and ideology.
“If you really think about the rhetoric of the United States — democracy, pull yourself up by your bootstraps — in practice, we look down on those people who are here for democratic reasons or who are from lower classes,” Flores says. Will the nation’s response transcend the symbolism that equates the border with a war zone and migrants with criminals? Or will they see another iteration of a deeply embedded American story?