Friday, June 1st marked the first of our DukeEngage group’s seven-day delegation. We began the morning with a history of the U.S. border with Mexico taught by the Borderlinks staff. Besides realizing that I have forgotten much of what I learned in my high school U.S. history class, I also gained new knowledge that helped shed light on the present situation with Mexico. The U.S. relationship with Mexican immigrants has consisted of a series of pushes and pulls, with the U.S. pulling immigrants in when cheap labor is needed, and pushing immigrants out when their labor is no longer necessary.
The southern border with Mexico as we know it today was completed in 1853 by the Gadsden Purchase. This final purchase of land, combined with the large amount acquired by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 (which ended the Mexican-American War), allowed the U.S. to build the Southern Pacific Railroad. During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, many Mexican laborers were pulled in to work as cheap labor building this railroad and constructing other projects as part of the Industrial Revolution.
The Border Patrol was founded in 1924 for two reasons: 1) to prevent the flow of alcohol from Mexico during the era of Prohibition; and 2) to enforce the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. This Act had restricted the number of immigrants allowed in from each country to 3% of the total number people of that nationality who had been in the U.S. in the 1890 Census. It also completely excluded any Asian immigrants from entering the country. Based on the use of this more than thirty-year-old census, the law favored immigrants from northern Europe over those from Mexico and Southern and Eastern Europe. At the time, it was the most stringent quota system on immigration that had been put in place.
While many Americans think of the 1930’s as the time of the Great Depression, few probably know (myself included, until recently) it was also the time of the Mexican repatriation. During this time, more than 2 million Mexicans were forcibly deported, over 60% of whom were actually U.S. citizens. Rounded up by police and boarded onto trains in masses, Mexicans were seen by the U.S. as a burden to the ailing economy. Deporting part of the U.S. labor force seemed to be a quick fix to easing some of the financial strain of the Great Depression. The Mexicans that had worked hard on the Southern Pacific Railroad and during WWI were now no longer welcome, and the Mexican repatriation, combined with the quota system, was the U.S. government’s attempt to push Mexican immigrants out.
Shortly after, Mexican workers were pulled back. The Bracero Program, beginning in 1942, brought Mexicans to the United States to work the land and fill other unskilled positions left vacant by the many men off fighting in World War II. Thousands of Mexicans took advantage of this opportunity, which ultimately came to an end in 1964. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, the Program began to be seen as a form of slavery (due to the low wages and abuse suffered by many workers). Furthermore, the increasingly strong Trade Unions grew upset that workers from the Bracero Program were undercutting their wages and taking their jobs. With the Program’s conclusion, thousands of unemployed Mexican men left for their home country. Once again, Mexicans were pulled in by government policies, and pushed out when the U.S. felt they were no longer necessary.
In 1994, NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) was created, aiming to eliminate all barriers of trade between the United States, Mexico and Canada. In theory, eliminating tariffs and subsidies was supposed to improve the economies and welfare of all involved countries. In practice, there was a far different result. Subsidies in Mexico dropped off after 3 years, while U.S. subsidies on corn and other farmed goods continue today. With no tariffs to protect them from the artificially cheap prices of U.S. corn, over a million Mexican farmers were driven off their land, fleeing north to the U.S. in search of better economic opportunities. Though unintentionally, our government policies are once again pulling Mexican immigrants into the U.S.
Project Gatekeeper also began in 1994, marking the beginning of the militarized border we know today. The militarization has also largely been in towns along the border, forcing immigrants into dangerous desert terrain to avoid the Border Patrol. Before 2006, 136 miles of fencing ran along the almost 2,000 mile U.S.- Mexico border. Today, there are 649 miles of fencing. Almost 250 people die each year crossing the border, and over 5,000 have died in the past 15 years (which does not account for the many bodies that have never been found). Border militarization has been the government’s aggressive attempt to once again push out immigrants coming from south of the border. The pushes and pulls that have defined the U.S. relationship with Mexican immigrants are so accurately depicted in the political cartoon I included at the beginning of this post.
After learning about border history, we heard from Pan Left Productions, a group of artists, activists, and organizers who believe in the power of media in telling stories and effecting social change. By providing free video equipment, media production classes and workshops, and help in filming and editing, they allow people tell their stories through documentaries.
We watched part of “Under Arpaio”, a film produced by the organization that documents people impacted by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio (the Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona since 1992) and his anti-immigration policies. Arpaio and his deputies have targeted day laborers with arrests and raids, as well as used racial profiling to pull over suspected undocumented immigrants, creating a climate of fear. The documentary highlights the abuse that many immigrants face at the hands of Arpaio and his 160 deputies; One woman had her jaw broken during a workplace raid and was degraded for 3 months in prison while she awaited her deportation trial. Conditions in the Arizona deportation jails are inhumane, with people dying or getting abused each year before they even reach trial for their deportation case. “Under Arpaio” emphasized how anti-immigrant officials with harsh tactics and staggering power push Mexican immigrants out of the United States.
After hearing from Pan Left Productions, we sat down to talk with a public defender (who represents non-citizens charged with felonies), and a former professor of Chicano studies who now devotes her time to immigrant humanitarian aid organizations. The public defender had an incredibly interesting perspective: she saw migrants (across the world) as “the revolutionaries of our time” in that their movements are reshaping our global economy. She also felt that the nation-state borders were becoming an archaic concept, as ideas, funds, and technology all flow freely across borders. From her perspective, migrants across the world were to be celebrated, not labeled as “illegal.”
Both women also mentioned that U.S. immigration policies have followed the same pattern for many decades: the use of a quota system to push immigrants away, but once per generation there is a regularization in which all people present in the country at that time are registered as citizens (pulling them back in). The use of a regularization process once per generation is almost an acknowledgement by the government that our immigration policy to that point has failed. In 1948, the regularization served as a “thank you” to foreign-born citizens who had helped in the war effort. Another regularization took place in 1972 as part of the Black Power and Chicano Movement, and yet another in 1986 with the implementation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The Act was not only gave amnesty to all undocumented immigrants who had resided in the country for 5 years or longer, but it also made it illegal for companies to hire people without proper documentation. This spawned the creation of a whole group of workers who could be subject to victimization due to their “illegal” status. With an estimated 12 million undocumented people in the United States today and no talks of regularization in the near future, the U.S. has put itself in a situation without precedent.
Thousands have already died trying to cross the border, and it remains to be seen how much longer the government will leave undocumented people in legal limbo before standing up to such a tragedy. With the United States’ continual and conflicting pushes and pulls towards immigrants coming through our southern border, the “immigration issue” carries far more complexity than the simplified rhetoric of our politicians would suggest. My 8-week journey has just begun, and my hope is that I will continue to ask questions, refuse to feel defeated, and discover my own relationship to immigration in the United States.
My apologies for such a long post; I am learning so many new and important things that I want to share! Feel free to comment with any questions or opinions – discussion is welcome!