Monthly Archives: February 2017

Continuing the Conversation from the UTEP Borderlands History Conference 

This month The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) hosted the second annual Borderlands History Conference. The conference brings together scholars focusing on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. This years theme Shifting Borders: Gender, Family, and Community provided a broad definition of borders resulting in panels that ranged in topic, time period, and expanded the geographic scope of the borderlands.

I attended the two-day event which included an oral history workshop, a keynote by Sonia Hernandez, and a line up of interesting panels that provided a myriad of perspective on this years theme. The conference also provided ample time to network with visiting scholars and included a closing dinner at a local restaurant and cultural center, Café Mayapan.

At the end of the conference Dr. Larissa Veloz wrapped up the concurrence by providing four questions for borderlands scholars to consider. I have to say that I am still thinking about these questions in regard to my own research and my work as a public historian.

1. How does it feel to be a “borderlander”? How do people make sense of their own lives?

2. What are the creative adaptations people living on the border make? Who are the new cultural brokers that emerge?

3. How does a focus on gender, family, and community reshape our understanding of the borderland and vice versa?

4. How are images and histories of the borderland transmitted outward and what is our role as historians and scholars?

Dr. Veloz also made another comment saying, “the field of borderlands continues to inform various historiographies.” That was certainly clear from this conference; it is also important to acknowledge the breadth of the field which is still growing. I know it is easy to get caught up in one’s own area of specialization, topic, and time period. However, these questions (especially number four) help me remember that my work is connected to the image of the Borderlands that is transmitted to other parts of the world where borders look different. I wonder how fellow historians, scholars, and even people living on a broder today, feel about these questions? I hope that this platform provides a space to continue the discussion about the different ways our scholarship engages with borderlands and concepts of borders. Please add your ideas to the comments section below!

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A New Academic Institution is Born: Introducing the Center for the Study of the American West

We’re excited about the new undertaking our blog bollaborator, Tim Bowman, has at West Texas A&M. In the following post, he describes the launch of this great new center for the study of the U.S. West and Borderlands, as well as his work as its Associate Director.

I am delighted to announce the formation of a new academic institution at West Texas A&M University (WT). In the fall of 2016, a small group of scholars launched the Center for the Study of the American West (CSAW), which is housed in the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum (PPHM) on the campus of WT. CSAW is devoted to the promotion and development of interdisciplinary scholarship on the High Plains as well as the greater North American West through undergraduate and postgraduate education, research development, public outreach, and the coordination of collaborative opportunities between CSAW and the PPHM, the Cornette Library on WT’s campus, and other institutions and community partners. Our mission is a straightforward one: to promote the study of the North American West as a product of broad historical forces.

How do we accomplish this? Part of it  is through an endowed lecture series. The purpose of any endowed lectureship is to create a corpus of funds to generate an annual income substantial enough to attract noted scholars; our program, in particular, includes a public lecture, classroom lecture, and an event focused on student interaction and discussion. The biannual Gary L. Nall Lecture Series does all of the above, in keeping with CSAW’s mission. CSAW’s launch event in October of 2016 featured none other than noted western scholar Patricia Nelson Limerick, while the spring semester will feature writer, historian, and journalist S.C. Gwynne. Future Nall lectures will be given by prominent scholars such as borderlands historian Brian DeLay, who will be speaking on campus during the fall semester of 2017.

CSAW is also offering research grants to sponsor research for faculty, students and staff from WT to travel to other institutions, as well as for scholars from other institutions who would benefit from the use of WT and PPHM archives. Grants of up to $2,000 are available depending on the researcher’s need. Additionally, outside scholars will receive support from CSAW’s interns with arrangements for their stay in Canyon. Information on the grants—which include the CSAW Research Grant, the Jo Stewart Randel Grant, and the CSAW Student Research Grant—can be found here.

Another innovative program that CSAW offers is a minor field in Western American Studies for WT undergraduates. The minor is an interdisciplinary program designed to provide students a specialization in issues that are important to the region. Students will also gain experience in community involvement through an internship requirement as well as being presented with the opportunity to publish an original piece of written work in the Panhandle-Plains Historical Review, which is an historical journal devoted to studying the immediate region. Courses cover a variety of subjects, such as North American Borderlands History, Environmental Law, American Regionalism, Herpetology, Literature of the Southwest, Mexican-American History, as well as many other exciting fields of study relevant into understand the local and greater Wests.

CSAW’s director Alex Hunt, assistant director Maureen Hubbart, and myself (as associate director) are thrilled about these as well as several other opportunities and programs that CSAW is currently developing. It is my sincere hope that readers will contact me should they like any additional information about the goings-on at CSAW, the PPHM, or the larger WT campus.

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Migration and Asylum of Central Americans in the Trump Era

By Sonja Wolf

Dr. Wolf is a CONACYT Research Fellow with the CIDE Región Centro in Mexico and author of Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador (University of Texas Press, 2017).

During his campaign for the presidency of the United States, Donald Trump had taken a hardline stance on immigration. In his “Contract with the American Voter”, the Republican candidate had pledged to begin removing “the more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country” and subject travelers from “terror-prone” countries to “extreme vetting”. A new “End Illegal Immigration Act” would fund the construction of a southern border wall and impose harsh sanctions on repeat immigration violators. There was widespread skepticism about whether the Trump administration would follow through on these and other outlandish campaign promises. But in his first week in office, the President has shown that he intends to do precisely that.

The Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” seeks to temporarily bar the nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, reprioritize minority (i.e., Christian) refugee claims, and exclude Syrian refugees indefinitely. When it came into effect, the Executive Order resulted in the revocation of tens of thousands of visas and disrupted travel for legal permanent residents as well as recognized refugees. Vaguely phrased and broad in scope, the document sparked protests at US airports and drew the ire of immigration lawyers and activists that condemned the travel ban for its discriminatory nature. The Trump administration appealed against a federal judicial decision that provisionally blocked the Executive Order on a nationwide basis, a federal appeals court prohibited its enforcement.

Unnoticed by many, the Central American Minors (CAM) Refugee/Parole Program was also suspended. The initiative had been launched in December 2014, a year that saw an apparently heightened influx of unaccompanied Central American migrant children flee gangs and violence to the United States. The CAM Program allows youths under the age of 21 who qualify for refugee status and live in Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras to join their legally residing parents in the United States. Although the Central American countries have no terrorism concerns, the future of this program is uncertain now that anti-immigration Senator Jeff Sessions has been confirmed as Attorney General.

Even before Donald Trump was sworn in as President, Customs and Border Protection officers have been unlawfully turning asylum seekers away at the US-Mexico border. This situation has put an additional strain on shelters and public services in border cities. Throughout 2016 Tijuana, one of the busiest crossings, saw the arrival of more than ten thousand Haitians who had fled their earthquake-devastated country before abandoning recession-hit Brazil in the hope of obtaining Temporary Protected Status in the United States. They were joined by African migrants who feel unwelcome in Europe and by Cubans who became stranded at the border when in January 2017 the Obama administration ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy.

This state of affairs is bound to be exacerbated by two additional Executive Orders. “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements” takes a narrow view of asylum provisions, foresees an expansion of the southern border wall, and steps up immigration enforcement. “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” targets for deportation undocumented immigrants who “have been convicted of any criminal offense” or “pose a risk to public safety or national security”, categories that would include suspected street gang members. However, this executive order also prioritizes for removal those who “have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense” or “have engaged in fraud…before a governmental agency”. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, there are some 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, about 8 million of whom engage in some form of remunerated labor. To be able to do so, many may have claimed to hold a valid work permit or used a fake social security number. In Mexico and Central America there is already unease about the impact of intensified deportations of offenders. A potentially much larger pool of returnees, however, would place even greater stress on remittance-dependent countries that are struggling to create employment and effective public services.

Migration dynamics in Mexico itself are diverse, but the largest group is that of undocumented migrants and displaced persons from the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras). For many years, the economic situation and the desire to reunite with relatives in the United States, annually prompted tens of thousands of Central Americans to travel north. Increasingly, however, young people, and sometimes entire families, abandon their homes to escape gang violence. The victims, who are harassed for refusing to be recruited, rejecting extortion demands or opposing these groups in some way, generally find it impossible to relocate internally and escape gang intelligence networks. Many hope to obtain asylum in either Mexico or the United States. But gang persecution is often difficult to prove, and both countries are reluctant to grant asylum to victims of gang violence.

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio Dieciocho, the main street gangs operating in the Northern Triangle, originally formed in immigrant barrios of Los Angeles. Impoverished, overcrowded, and rife with gang activity, these neighborhoods received Central American war refugees that were denied legal status. Their children felt alienated in a foreign culture, and some turned to gangs. The United States has traditionally sought to eliminate its gang problem not through social policies, but through the removal of non-citizens. In the early 1990s stepped-up deportations exported the MS-13 and Barrio Dieciocho to the Northern Triangle. Their members encountered no insertion opportunities and absorbed some of the existing youth gangs. These were small, localized groups that had constituted no significant public security threat.

Over time, however, the gangs developed not only a nationwide presence, but also began using more sophisticated firearms, strengthened their internal structures, became more criminally involved, and committed more brutal and indiscriminate violence. Today the gangs target adolescents in marginal communities for forced recruitment and sexual violence, extort small and medium-size businesses, and exercise strict territorial control. These geographical boundaries limit access for state institutions providing municipal services, companies delivering goods, civil society groups carrying out prevention projects, and outsiders generally. Students are perhaps particularly affected, since many need to commute between rival gang territories on their way from home to school.

Central American governments have tended to tackle the gangs through mano dura (“iron fist”) policies that prioritize neighborhood sweeps and mass arrests of suspected gang members over prevention and rehabilitation. In El Salvador, for example, the strategy has proved popular with voters, but has had detrimental effects on gang evolution and homicide rates. The administrations of the leftist FMLN party, in power since 2009, have stated their commitment to pursuing a comprehensive security policy. The Funes government (2009-2014) even promoted a gang truce in order to curb the country’s homicide rate, but its failure to adopt social measures contributed to the collapse of the ceasefire. Political pressure for results and resource deficits make the implementation of a holistic security policy difficult. Worse yet, the post-truce escalation of violence has also entailed renewed gang attacks on police and “confrontations” that in some cases mask extrajudicial executions by law enforcement. US security assistance has perhaps done more to deter perceived security threats to the United States than to address inequality, corruption, and institutional dysfunctionality in Central America. As long as the climate of violence persists, migration and displacement will continue.

Under pressure from the United States, Mexico has for some time made greater efforts to detain and deport undocumented migrants heading north, most recently through the Southern Border Program. In late 2014, the Obama administration also announced the creation of the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, a co-financed initiative that seeks to boost economic development, strengthen institutions, and improve public security in Central America. While these are important objectives, making them a reality will necessarily be a long-term endeavor, even with the greatest amount of resources and political will. In the meantime, more effective ways need to be found to process asylum applications and relocate victims of gang persecution. At the moment, it is uncertain what direction US immigration and refugee policy will take under the Trump administration. It seems clear, however, that a regional approach is required that will not consider deterrence as the only possible response to irregular human mobility, but strike a balance between labor market demands and people’s need for jobs and safety. Above all, perhaps, the current era calls for greater activist and educational efforts that help immigration opponents understand why strangers make a long, perilous journey and that diversity make societies richer, not weaker.

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Site Update: Book Reviews and Conference Notes Sections

Dear readers, continuing in our mission to better serve you by making our content more easily available, we’ve added two new sections above the masthead of the blog: Book Reviews and Conference Notes.In each, you’ll find posts we’ve published going back over years.

Also, we’re always looking for new contributors and content, if you want to write a book review or conference report for the blog, write us!

We’d love to publish it and include your name in the growing list of participants. Remember, the blog is a labor of love for readers by readers. Have you voice heard!

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