A better border is possible

A more enlightened boundary could make us richer, save lives and even help rescue the Rust Belt. An expert explains

Topics: Mexico, Immigration Reform, Editor's Picks, ,

A better border is possible (Credit: Reuters/Fred Greaves)

Ever since Mitt Romney became the presumptive nominee in the Republican primary, something curious has happened to his hardline stance on immigration: It’s largely disappeared. Though he previously supported “attrition through enforcement” – a deeply disturbing approach already in practice in some states that sets out to make working and living conditions so bad for undocumented immigrants that they, in theory, “self-deport” — Mitt recently claimed he would “study” Marco Rubio’s more forgiving immigration bill.

But as Romney clumsily half-courts the Hispanic vote, conditions at our southern border are growing more dire. The brutal drug-related violence that has long gripped Mexico is on the rise. Two weeks ago, 49 bodies missing their heads, hands and legs were found near Monterey, Mexico.  A message left nearby indicated the Zetas cartel was responsible. One week earlier, 18 dismembered bodies were found in Guadalajara. One week before that, 23 bodies, with indications of torture, were found hanging from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo on the U.S. border. They are casualties of an apocalyptic drug war, a thriving human smuggling trade and, more broadly, a deeply dysfunctional relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.

Both Romney’s rhetoric and this recent rise in violence belie our extraordinarily schizophrenic attitudes toward immigration and the Mexican border. But according to Steven Bender, law professor at Seattle University, those can be fixed. In his new book, “Run for the Border: Vice and Virtue in U.S.-Mexico Border Crossings,” Bender takes a historical look at the north- and southbound journeys that citizens of both countries have taken since the U.S. and Mexican boundaries were defined. He argues that much of our border policy is determined by long-held stereotypes of the Mexican crosser – the lazy immigrant coming to gouge social services, the sly immigrant coming to steal jobs, or the criminal immigrant endangering American communities – when, in fact, the vast majority of Mexican immigrants come to work for their own survival and that of their families. Bender also makes clear that Mexican workers are possibly more crucial to the American economy now than they’ve ever been.



“Run for the Border” calls for a more honest and, in Bender’s words, “compassionate” border policy that can make both the United States and Mexico safer and stronger.

So far, border policy and, to an extent, immigration reform don’t seem to have become as prominent in this election cycle as they were in 2008. Do you agree? And why do you think that is?

I think both Democrats and Republicans realize that they’re at an impasse and that there’s little political capital to be gained by pushing forth immigration reform, particularly comprehensive immigration reform. Democrats are going to resist anything that’s too restrictive, and Republicans are going to resist anything that has anything involving what they would term “amnesty,” which would include the DREAM Act.  So, even portions of immigration reform that have previously been bipartisan – such as the DREAM Act – are stymied awaiting the election.

Four years ago, on the other hand, there was an assumption that we would finally turn as a nation to resolve the problem of immigration reform. But quickly, with states like Arizona and Alabama taking their own action, the dynamics of immigration within the U.S. shifted, and then the global economic crisis hit. Traditionally, it’s very difficult to have realistic, meaningful, compassionate immigration reform in times of economic turmoil. And now that we seem to be starting to emerge from the economic distress, the onset of election season politics has further stymied reform. It’s really a matter of getting past the election and going [forward] from there.

There are enormous differences between how the U.S. deals with its Mexican and Canadian borders. Since the middle of the Bush administration, our restrictions on the Canadian border have become tighter, but they are still much more lax than those on the Mexican border, even though a fair amount of marijuana is trafficked into the U.S. from Canada.

That’s correct. And it’s interesting that in the wake of 9/11, even though none of the 9/11 terrorists had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, we have focused so much energy on the southern border as a gateway, presumably for terrorists. There has really been only one possible terrorist link to the U.S.-Mexico border since 9/11, yet we have focused so much in terms of resources and technology and wall building on that border in the name of homeland security. It’s today’s face of immigration – the Mexican face – that explains why there is so much emphasis on walling off Mexico rather than Canada.

[Also] interesting in relation to Canada is that, in the last couple of weeks, the Canadian paper The Globe has run a series on Canada’s immigration woes. The editorial that opened the series stated that Canada needs one million immigrants, in the short-run, to handle the necessary jobs, given the aging population. That is, of course, completely opposite from the tenor of the debate in the United States, where we view immigrants as somehow coming in and stealing jobs to which they’re not entitled.

Recently we’ve learned that more than half of babies born in the U.S. are now non-white. How do you think the country’s changing demographics will affect the way we think about border policy and immigration?

Well, at the same time that Anglo births are decreasing, the Mexican birthrate is also decreasing. But rather than comparing, it’s important to note that ultimately we may be in the same position as Canada, in terms of needing more young, viable immigrant labor. And, given the contributions of immigrants to the overall birth rate (including immigrants from all countries), and in light of the pressing needs of our social security system, our need to compete in the global economy, and the needs of the housing market, we ought to celebrate the fact that we still remain viable as a country, in large part due to immigrant births.

The American military has been experimenting with drone technology on the border for years.  There are now concerns that border vigilantes – on the U.S. side – could begin to use drones, which are already being purchased by police departments. 

There’s a long history, particularly in the U.S. and on the Arizona-Mexico and Texas-Mexico borders, of vigilantes. Most recently, the Minuteman Project vigilante campaign was really the precursor to Arizona’s immigration law — SB1070. There were a number of documented instances where the Minuteman project and ranchers exceeded the U.S.’s lawful bounds. As for drones, there are some chilling comparisons to the use of drones in Asia and the European Union. Considering the possibility that the border could some day be patrolled by drones, it’s important for us to ask this question: If, as I posit in my new book, undocumented workers who are crossing the border are among the most virtuous of border crossers, how is a drone going to evaluate and assess virtue? Not at all. The drone is going to be programmed simply to keep [border crossers] out, whether they are bringing drugs or they’re coming to work in U.S. fields and factories. So, I fear that.

You argue that Americans need to reduce demand for drugs, rather than simply cracking down on the supply. How do we do that?

We’re basically the biggest drug user in the world [sitting] next to a poor supplier country, Mexico. One of the ways to reduce demand is through selective legalization. The funds that our country would accrue through that change could be used for greater intervention and treatment – which is part of the answer to your question. But I also suggest the possibility of a moral imperative for U.S. residents to take greater responsibility for the mounting death toll in Mexico from the drug wars, and, in light of that, to really re-think drug use from that perspective.

The book argues that American cultural and economic needs can converge with those of Mexico, leading to a “compassionate” border policy.   

Yes. There are a number of grounds on which the economic (and other) interests of U.S. residents converge with a border policy that expands lawful immigration. Such a policy would assist the ailing social security system, address the need for replacement laborers, [and] aid the housing market – which depends on entry-level buyers. Increased immigration is also a way of competing with emerging economies, such as China and India. Immigrants are going to be essential for remaining competitive in a global market place.

You believe that immigrant populations can have a “renaissance” effect on economically depressed U.S. cities. Where has this happened? 

I think virtually every city that’s lately experienced a boost in immigration has experienced the potential for a renaissance that they may not recognize because immigrants tend to be far more entrepreneurial than other residents, in terms of everything from starting new restaurants and stores to running other businesses. Particularly when you’re looking at an infusion of immigrants into a place where there’s otherwise been a population exodus – the Rust Belt area, for example — and notably in places that have also been regions of backlash against immigration, such as Hazleton, Pennsylvania. These areas have failed to recognize the potential renaissance in their communities [due to] immigrants.

Many American corporations take advantage of the maquiladora structure – Mexico’s largely unregulated manufacturing system. Like American illegal immigrants, workers in maquiladoras lack the legal protections that most American workers take for granted. But are they worse off than undocumented Mexican laborers in the U.S.?

The laws between the United States and Mexico – considering the flashpoints of environmental protections and labor laws – are fairly similar, but in practice they’re quite different. Through corruption and through lack of resources for enforcement, environmental and labor protections that we take for granted in the United States are easily subverted in Mexico. And so the workers in [Mexico's] factories and the citizens in surrounding communities face worse environmental hazards and receive lower real wages, particularly in the borderlands communities where the cost of living is not much lower than across the border in the United States. Those workers have a very difficult time making ends meet. And that’s what prompts the allure of making a few dollars an hour vs. a few dollars a day; and that’s what has prompted, over recent years, particularly since NAFTA, a very strong push of immigrants across the border looking for jobs in the United States. The maquiladoras also benefit Mexico in particular ways. Certainly they provide, and have provided, a number of jobs that pay better than many other jobs in Mexico. At the same time, they have contributed to the uprooting of families from the interior of the country. They have been sites of labor abuses, and they’ve contributed to environmental degradation in the communities they’re found in.

They may also be to blame for the huge amount of murders of civilian women in Juarez. Some have noted that the poor treatment of women has been so institutionalized, through the factories, that murder somehow becomes acceptable. 

Yes. It’s the idea that was suggested by a law professor, Elvia Arriola, who has extensively studied the impact of the maquiladoras on women, particularly on the hundreds of unsolved murders – what is a femicide in Juarez over the years. She contends that the culture of subordination of workers, particularly that of female workers – who are desired by the employers because, among other things, they are perceived as less likely to object to the miserable working conditions – has contributed to a subordination of women in the broader community and to a local culture that does not value their lives and is not concerned with solving these mass deaths.

Many U.S. citizens go to Mexico to retire, which, as you discuss, has a complicated effect on the Mexican economy. There are benefits to an influx of relatively wealthy people, but there are also very specific ways that it harms the Mexican economy.  

Yes. Like the maquiladora experience in Mexico, the influx of U.S. residents as retirees, or even as buyers of second homes and vacation homes, really leaves a conflicted economic record. Certainly there’s a boost to the local economy, with the initial building of these retirement and other homes, but that tends to be a fleeting economic presence, and if anything it drives up prices and really excludes Mexican residents from the prime real estate. You have this dichotomy then between the sort of walled-in southern-California-type oasis that’s inhabited by the retirees and the working-class housing of the laborers on the other side of the walled-in community. And that’s a dichotomy that we find in the United States as well, but it’s a particularly stark contrast in these Mexican retirement havens.

A running theme of the book seems to be that the Mexican government has tended to make border policy decisions that are rational in terms of economic self-interest, while the U.S. government has behaved in its own self-interest, with an added slice of irrationality based on stereotypes and fears. How do you think race plays into the decisions of our government?  

One of the main ways it plays out here is in how we undervalue immigrant labor. The Mexican face has become the face of immigration, and we simply don’t see virtue in Mexican border crossers, whether they’re coming for jobs (which is most often the case) or for other purposes. We tend to view their entrance in a derogatory way: that they are coming to either commit crime through drug dealing or to wrest public services away from more deserving populations. That’s the lens through which we view immigration proposals, and that’s why there have been such stymied efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform. It’s because of the Mexican face of immigration and how racialized that debate has become.

There is a dynamic that has emerged in the immigration debate in which, while it might be improper in some civilized settings to make overt racialized attacks on Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, by couching the attack as against “undocumented immigrants,” anything goes.  Anything can be said with impunity about “undocumented immigrants” because they’re being discussed as a group that is apparently not racialized. But in fact we all know that the things that are said about immigrants are being said about Mexicans.

The war on drugs has narrowed down the cartels to the most efficient and brutal groups, and violence against civilians in Mexico is increasing. What can be done?

The Mexican government needs to return to its long-standing policy – what is unfortunately a policy of corruption, but a less bloody solution – of treating the drug cartels more as businessmen, similar to how the United States treats the alcohol industry. I don’t suggest that lightly, but with the mounting death toll, that’s a reasonable compromise that makes more sense and that better serves Mexico.

Wouldn’t such a policy would allow for greater competition and decreased profits for the few cartels currently in power? 

I think what the drug cartels would be most opposed to would be selective decriminalization or legalization of drugs in the United States, particularly of marijuana, which might alone account for 60 percent of cartel profits in Mexico. That is what would scare the cartels to death: If we on the other side of the border finally tackled the elephant in the room of decriminalization and legalization beyond medicinal marijuana.

As for decreased criminalization within Mexico, I believe the cartels prefer whatever leads to more chaos. If lives are viewed as expendable, then there is potential for profit in great chaos.  So, I think that some of the cartels would, I agree, be opposed to increased legality within Mexico because they would lose that advantage of profit and the chaos that ensues today.

It seems unlikely that anti-immigration sentiment can be changed through policy alone, and that we may need vigorous public re-education before we can manage to get legislators to change policy in the first place.  

I agree. I think that to begin to address the derogatory image of the immigrant, before there can be anything along the order of compassionate immigration reform, we need to re-learn who these migrants are.  And I think that happens in face-to-face local settings, where people begin to hear the stories of these workers, begin to realize the compelling human interests that are driving them, and begin to recognize, really, the desperation that comes with poverty and that the immigrant’s search is really a search for the American dream. I think that when those dialogues occur, one-to-one, person-to-person, face-to-face, the image of the migrant can change into one of a virtuous contributor to the U.S. economy.

But given that xenophobic sentiment seems to be on the rise in some parts of the country, this seems difficult. In Arizona, people are going to have interactions with immigrants regardless of whether they wish to or not, but plenty of people who strongly oppose immigration live far from the border or immigrant populations – they could be in Appalachian Ohio, for example. They might not have any of these interactions. 

I actually think that the long-term is going to demand leadership from political leaders, community leaders, and civic leaders. And it’s going to need to happen in what I could call bastions of hate, which include parts of Arizona and places such as Hazleton, Pennsylvania, Farmer’s Branch, Texas, and parts of the South. That’s where these dialogues are going to have to take effect, and unfortunately it’s not an overnight thing.  In the meantime, people are dying crossing the border, and people are dying in the drug war. And while my book calls for, in the first instance, an immediate halt to the bloodshed while policies are transformed, realistically the blood is going to continue to flow while we hold these crucial debates and while we rethink what it means to be an American.

Katie Ryder is a freelance writer and a contributing editor for Guernica. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review Daily, NewYorker.com, and others.

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