The extremist right in America has always fed on real grievances that go either unaddressed or are mishandled by the mainstream system—by government, and in particular the federal government. In the 1980s and ’90s, they channeled discontent with badly malfunctioning federal farming and land-use policies in rural America into uprisings like the Posse Comitatus and Patriot/militia movements and their various offshoots, such as the Montana Freemen. This led to armed standoffs with federal agents and varying waves of domestic terrorism, all of it emanating from the American heartland.
What these extremists always tell their audiences is that there are simple reasons for their current miseries—inevitably, it is a combination of a secret cabal of elite conspirators running society like a puppet show at the top, crushing the middle-class working man from above, while a parasitic underclass saps his strength from below. This usually plays out, in the worldview of right-wing extremists, as being part of a secret conspiracy to enslave ordinary working people and destroy America.
What gives them special traction, however, is their knack for finding unaddressed grievances and exploiting them as examples of this conspiracy, thus manipulating working-class people who have legitimate problems. Their agenda comes wrapped in an appeal telling people that they not only feel their pain but have the answers to end it. And their strategy works, time and again.
In the twenty-first century, right-wing extremists became focused on a similarly dysfunctional immigration system as a means to recruit believers, in part because nativism is part of the genetic structure of the racist American right, dating back to the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan, and in part because it was such a ripe opportunity target. After all, American immigration policy in the past forty years and more has time and again proven a colossal bureaucratic bungle that no one has been able to untangle, which presents an opening for right-wing extremists to jump in and offer their toxic solutions. Moreover, as is always the case in such vacuums, it is ordinary working-class people who wind up paying the price for the problems that ensue from such bungles, and extremists have long honed their appeals to reach those disgruntled citizens. This was nowhere more evident than in the desert landscape of Arizona in the first decade of the new millennium. It was there that these misbegotten policies came home to roost, embodied in a flood of border-crossing immigrants who defied both death and the law—sometimes not successfully—in a desperate attempt to reach work north of the border, and who in the process trampled on people’s ranches and yards and inflamed not only resentment but the increasingly paranoid fears of the people already living there.
The underlying problems inherent in the American immigration system probably date as far back as the Klan’s heyday, when Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924. Also known as the Asian Exclusion Act, this was an explicitly xenophobic law whose primary purpose was to eliminate any further immigration from Japan and other Asian nations, largely because the Japanese were believed to be incapable of becoming “real Americans.” It also first enshrined in law the concept of the “illegal alien” and created a system of national quotas that would permit immigration officials to regulate the racial and ethnic composition of the people coming over American borders. Most of the explicitly racial and ethnic components of the law were gradually stripped out over the ensuing years, but the xenophobic bones of the system—predicated on creating a seemingly interminable maze of hurdles and hoops for immigrants to jump through en route to citizenship— have remained firmly in place.
The deadly crisis in the Arizona desert was created by a series of policy changes begun during the administration of George H. W. Bush and then exacerbated by the Clinton administration in the 1990s. The big gorilla among these was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was negotiated by Bush Sr., Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, and Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1993, and then ratified with the active support of Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton. The treaty, which in creating a trilateral trade bloc opened up the ability of investment capital to cross borders freely, was sold to the American public as, among other things, an essential component in controlling immigration.
The Clinton administration followed NAFTA with a series of border operations apparently intended to ensure that, even if capital could now cross the borders freely, labor could not. The first of these was called Operation Hold the Line, begun in late 1993, and its focus was to clamp down on the steady flow of illegal immigrants who came to the United States through the border cities of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas. By adding manpower and enhancing patrols in weakly secure areas where people traditionally walked across the border, the Border Patrol was able to effectively close off one of the major ports through which people usually crossed on their way north to work. This was followed shortly, in October 1994, by Operation Gatekeeper at the San Diego/Tijuana crossing corridor in California.
At first, the Border Patrol boasted of the marvelous success of these operations. Apprehensions dropped precipitously in the months after they were initiated, indicating, according to analysts, “better deterrence”: that is, it was believed the programs effectively discouraged people from trying to cross the border. “We can control the border, in fact,” boasted Mark Krikorian of the nativist Center for Immigration Studies, which eagerly supported the operations. “But there is more to be done.”
In reality, not only did these operations eventually prove the futility of an enforcement-heavy approach to securing the border, but they also became a human disaster—precisely because immigrants were no longer crossing at El Paso or San Diego. Instead, they were now fanning out into the countryside, attempting life-threatening border crossings in the middle of the desert. Like a river when a boulder falls into its path, the immigrants simply flowed out into the outlying areas.
Hardly anyone observed this phenomenon at first, because they were so enamored with the results of their El Paso experiment. Two more Clinton-administration campaigns followed: Operation Safeguard, in Nogales, Ari- zona, in 1996, and Operation Rio Grande on the southern Texas border in 1998. The administration also sponsored and passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Act of 1996, which massively expanded funding for the Border Patrol, called for construction of border fences in key areas, and toughened penalties for human smuggling. All for naught: by the end of the 1990s, studies demonstrated clearly that the flow of immigrants over the southern border had been anything but stanched. Estimates showed that by the end of 1999, some 5.5 million illegal immigrants lived in the United States, reflecting an annual increase of at least 275,000.
The numbers kept growing because the tide of immigrants had swollen to a tsunami—in large part because of NAFTA and its effects on the Mexican and American economies. When Mexico approved NAFTA in 1992, President Salinas abolished a provision in the Mexican constitution that protected the traditional small Mexican farmers from competition with corporate agribusiness, particularly American corporations. This proved disastrous for those farmers, whose chief staple was corn—a crop with deep historic roots in Mexico. For centuries even before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, Mayan farmers had cultivated corn in their milpas, the small acreages that farmers cleared out of the local landscapes so they could cultivate corn, beans, and squash. Over the ensuing centuries, small farms had remained one of the staples of the Mexican economy. Now, thanks to the arrival of American agribusiness under the banner of NAFTA, that way of life was being rubbed out.
Cheap American corn put over a million Mexican farmers out of business, and that was just the beginning. With the economy collapsing around them, scores of manufacturers who specialized in clothing, toys, footwear, and leather goods all went out of business. The only upside to NAFTA for Mexico—the arrival of new manufacturing jobs, including auto-building plants, as they departed the United States for cheaper shores, and of a fresh wave of maquiladora, the plants where various manufacturers would outsource their labor to Mexico—proved illusory. By 2000, many of those jobs had been taken to even cheaper labor sources in Asia, and the bleeding only grew worse from there.
In the meantime, the American economy—riding along first on a technology bubble and then on a housing bubble—was bustling, creating in the process in excess of five hundred thousand unskilled-labor jobs every year, the vast majority of which American workers either would not or could not perform. Yet the antiquated American immigration system only issued five thousand green cards annually to cover them.
The result was a massive demand for immigrant labor in the United States and an eager supply in Mexico seeking work. At the border, where a rational transaction should have been taking place, there was instead a xenophobic crackdown aimed at keeping Mexican labor in Mexico, with predictably limited success.
All that really happened as a result of the various border crackdowns was that increasingly desperate people were being forced into longer and more death-defying treks across the desert, and there were more and more of them coming. Typically they would travel to one of the old border-crossing towns—Nogales or Ciudad Juarez—and there contract the services of a coyote, or guide, who would take them out into the countryside and across the border and hook them up with transit to wherever their destination might be. As the tide rose and the crackdown increased, the prices for these services started to rise as crossing the border became harder and harder work.
One coyote told a documentary filmmaker in 2006 that the crackdowns had continually made his work more hazardous and expensive: “U.S. border security has been tough,” he said, describing how he used to just take border crossers to a spot a little outside of town and help them get over, but those days were long gone. “I used to work two hours. Then four, then six, then eight, then twelve, then fifteen, then twenty. And up to forty hours. Now it’s at forty hours.”
What a typical border crosser encounters depends entirely on his or her luck in selecting a coyote, and their luck in choosing a crossing time and place where they can elude the Border Patrol. Some coyotes are known for simply heading straight into the desert and marching endlessly and swiftly, and anyone who falls behind is left to their own devices. Others are part of drug-cartel smuggling operations that are de facto kidnapping operations in which the immigrants are taken to “safe houses” in places like Phoenix and held for ransom. Then there are the banditos who hide out in the desert and wait for prime opportunities to rob, possibly murder, and/or rape the border crossers.
Those are just the human hazards. Then there is the desert itself. In Arizona, the landscape—dotted with saguaros and raging with color at certain times of the year—is inviting from a distance, but it is difficult to envision an environment more hostile to humans close up: spiny cacti, thorny ocotillos, rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, scorpions, and tarantulas all comprise the landscape that greets the border crossers. Finally there are the temperatures, which can range above 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer daytime, falling to an only somewhat more gracious 90 degrees at night.
So when the wave of immigrants began filtering out into the desert, soon enough people began dying in large numbers. The chief causes of death, unsurprisingly, were dehydration, sunstroke, hyperthermia, and exposure (coming in fifth was drowning: people often died crossing the Rio Grande in Texas). Mind you, immigrant border crossers had been dying on the US- Mexico border for years; the previous peak year was 1988, when 355 people perished while attempting desert crossings or the currents of the Rio Grande. It had declined to as few as 180 in 1994, when, suddenly, it began to rise again, beginning in 1995, breaking the old record in 2000 when 370 people died. In 2004, some 460 migrants died, and by 2005, more than 500 people were perishing in the desert.
Much of this was happening on people’s private lands along the border or on federal lands leased out to ranchers who worked them. And so naturally those people were increasingly coming face to face with the brutal realities being created by American border policies—the dead and the dying and the desperate, all wandering through the desert in hopes of reaching the Promised Land. Most of these encounters were simply with people who wanted a drink of water, but some were not so benign, and these moments could be fraught with danger, at least in the minds of the ranchers if not in reality. The crossers also left trash in the desert that was a danger to livestock, and they frequently cut fences, meaning the loss of livestock, especially if they wandered into Mexico.
These frightened ranchers were the people Chris Simcox was trying to appeal to by organizing a border militia in 2003 and 2004. And even his local critics admitted that he was onto something legitimate. One of these was Pat Call, the Cochise County supervisor who sponsored the resolution condemning Simcox’s plans. At the same time, he told local reporters that he shared Simcox’s view that the federal government has been derelict in its responsibilities along the border. The county’s resolution “demands that the federal government recognize and take responsibility, fiscal and otherwise, for problems associated with illegal immigration.”
Call admitted that there was at least a germ of good in the attention Simcox attracted to the problem, but he wanted the world to know that the average resident of Cochise County did not favor taking the law into his or her own hands. “If we’re viewed that way, it’ll be a lot easier for the folks back in Washington to just dismiss us,” he said.
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Chris Simcox was preoccupied with how his efforts were perceived inside the Beltway, too, but he had found a simpler solution: media time. It solved everything.
A lesser ego would have eventually foundered on the utter lack of local support his border militia attracted. Fortunately for Simcox, he had his fellow California transplants in the border-watching biz for support. And more importantly, he was even more adept than David Duke at manipulating the media to “accomplish your objectives by their own misguided sensationalism.” It didn’t matter to Simcox what his neighbors in Cochise County thought, as long as he could count on regular appearances with Lou Dobbs and Fox News.
Dobbs, whose “Moneyline” and “Lou Dobbs Tonight” programs were staples at CNN, had a particular fondness for Simcox. He first featured a segment on his border watches in November 2002, touting Simcox’s border-militia concept as an example of “Americans taking control of their lives” and “a close parallel to the idea of school vouchers.” Over the years, Simcox would be featured over twenty-five times on CNN—fifteen of those appearances as a guest on Dobbs’s show.
Soon others joined in the act. Simcox found that his patrols were natural media magnets. Fox News came out in January 2003 and did a segment on his border militia, as did CNN’s Jason Bellini. The latter segment featured what would become a growing theme with Simcox, who tried to rebuff claims that his patrols were xenophobic and racist by framing it all as a matter of national security. With Bellini’s crew filming, Simcox enacted a scenario in which a border crosser successfully sneaked across carrying a “bag of anthrax” inside a briefcase also containing an ampule of “smallpox,” all to demonstrate to the public what could happen.
“Back in August, we came across a group that we know were speaking Arabic,” he told Bellini.
Soon he was expanding on the idea, suggesting that foreign troops might be massing on the Mexican border in anticipation of an invasion of the United States. In March 2003, Simcox gave a speech in California to Barbara Coe’s Coalition on Immigration Reform warning of this possibility: “Take heed of our weapons because we’re going to defend our borders by any means necessary,” he told the audience. “There’s something very fishy going on at the border. The Mexican army is driving American vehicles—but carrying Chinese weapons. I have personally seen what I can only believe to be Chinese troops.”
Simcox also began sounding other radical notes. He told Nikolaj Vijborg, a Danish documentary filmmaker, “Those guys [D.C. politicians] need to be, you know, lynched. If we’re attacked again, then we need some vigilanteism. Then we need some going into Washington, pulling them out of their offices, kicking them out of office. We need revolution.”
His attitudes about Latino immigrants were also unmistakable: “They’re trashing their neighborhoods, refusing to assimilate, standing on street corners, jeering at little girls walking on their way to school,” he told the CCIR gathering.
Simcox similarly remarked of Mexicans and Central American immigrants: “They have no problem slitting your throat and taking your money or selling drugs to your kids or raping your daughter and they are evil people.”
He also told Vijborg: “I feel that the people that are coming across, invading this country, I think that they should be treated as enemies of the state. We need to be putting them in work camps. Anyone could walk through these borders of this country bringing bombs, chemicals, weapons of mass destruction. I think they should be shot on sight, personally.”
The border watchers he attracted shared those attitudes. In Vijborg’s documentary, one of them—a middle-aged man named Craig Howard—sits out in the midday sun, watching a group of cows that have been wandering over the border from Mexico, where they eventually have to be herded back to their side of the line.
Howard drawls: “No, we ought to be able to shoot the Mexicans on sight, and that would end the problem. After two or three Mexicans are shot, they’ll stop crossing the border. And they’ll take their cows home, too.”
Excerpted with permission from “And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border” by David Neiwert. Available from Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.