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Filming Pro-Patria: On the road from Los Angeles to Mexico City

By Jessica Kim, California State University Northridge

Jessica Kim is an assistant professor in the Department of History at California State University Northridge. The following post is drawn from research the author conducted for her forthcoming book, Made in Mexico: Los Angeles and Empire, 1865-1941, which is currently under review.  Part of the subject of this post, a highway built between Los Angeles and Mexico City, is also the focus of an article by the author, “Destiny of the West: The International Pacific Highway and the Pacific Borderlands, 1929-1957” which appeared in the Western Historical Quarterly in the autumn of 2015. For more information, visit Dr. Kim’s faculty page.

Borderlands are populated by brokers—the cultural, financial, and legal figures who mediate between states, communities, and institutions on two sides of a boundary.  In the 1930s, one of the more prominent of these cultural brokers was Mexican American actor and director Guillermo Calles, who directed and produced an early travelogue documenting his road trip from Los Angeles to Mexico City along the International Pacific Highway (IPH), a much-heralded transnational highway.  His film, Pro-Patria, documented Calles’ 1932 drive in his white Cadillac with his wife, Angelita, and his best friend and cinematographer.  Through the documentary, Calles hoped to introduce an Anglo American audience to his “beloved” Mexico.

Calles was part of a fascinating set of Mexicans and Mexican Americans who helped build a dense network of financial and cultural links between Los Angeles and Mexico in the first decades of the twentieth century.  They included lawyers, local policymakers, diplomats and their staff, translators, ranch managers, and other Mexican professionals who negotiated relationships between Americans and Mexicans in Los Angeles and Mexico.  In particular, they served as the intermediaries between Los Angeles-based investors, landowners, and policymakers, and Mexicans and the Mexican state, before, during and after the Mexican Revolution. Brokers also included cultural agents like Calles who sought to create a stronger and more egalitarian relationship between Angelenos, Mexicans, Americans, and the two neighboring nations.[1]

Calles was a true borderlander and quintessential Angeleno.  Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in the 1890s, he spent most of his childhood in the mining towns of the Arizona-Mexico borderlands.  Like thousands of others, he felt the draw of Hollywood and moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career in the 1910s.  He landed parts in English-language films, generally playing the role of an American Indian, and used his initial success as an actor to propel himself into film production and directing.  By the 1920s, he was one of the leading Mexican Americans in Los Angeles’ thriving film industry and worked in both Spanish and English language films. [2]

In the early 1930s, Calles read press coverage of the highly publicized IPH, a thoroughfare connecting Los Angeles and Mexico City along the Pacific coastline.  A cohort of Los Angeles businessmen and Mexican policymakers launched the construction of the highway in 1929 to draw American tourists to Los Angeles and then to the Pacific coast of Mexico.  IPH promoters in Los Angeles hoped to capitalize on the tourist draw of their Spanish fantasy past as well as their proximity to the “real thing” in Mexico through the highway.  South of the border, Mexican governors recognized that Los Angeles’ love of the Spanish fantasy past intersected with a growing national attention to Mexico’s pre-Spanish roots and identity, or mexicanidad.  They hoped to use both to draw American tourists south of the border.[3]

Excited about this piece of transnational infrastructure and the opportunity to introduce an American audience to the beauty of Mexico, Calles decided to make a travel documentary about the highway project.  Like the many Mexican officials who supported the highway, Calles believed that the IPH could capitalize on Anglo Angelenos’ interest in Mexico to the benefit of the Mexican economy.  More specifically, he wanted to publicize the IPH in the hopes that it could draw tourist travel from Los Angeles into Mexico while also developing a greater American appreciation of their cross-border neighbors.  In a letter to the Los Angeles Spanish language newspaper, La Opinión, Calles reflected on these hopes: “I emphasized that my plan had been to present a film that could provide the best depiction of the highway, the building of which has been done with so much enthusiasm.  The film would show the lifestyle and customs of the regions that it crosses, together with relevant aspects of the economic and natural resources of the West Coast.”[4]  With more emotion he noted that he hoped the film would “reveal to the outside world the many beautiful aspects of our Mexico.”[5]  Calles was also likely responding to the xenophobic calls for the repatriation of Mexican nationals and the forced deportation of over one million Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans in the 1930s.  His adopted hometown of Los Angeles was the epicenter of calls for deportation.

Against this backdrop of the violent removal of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, Calles set out to promote a more positive image of his native country.  En route, Calles encountered many of the Mexican officials and brokers involved with the highway project, including Filiberto Gómez, governor of the State of Mexico.  Calles and Gómez discussed what they hoped the IPH, and Calles’ film, would bring Mexico.  Calles hoped that it would “generate new waves of tourism, awakening the interest of businessmen who want to contribute to the economic progress of Mexico…[and] help thousands who ignore us or have a false opinion of us, to make a better appraisal of the invaluable wealth of the country and of the culture of the Mexican people.”  Gómez replied, “Caramba!  Every so often our minds and souls get tired, but when someone speaks to us with the [sic] enthusiasm and faith as you have done, the spirit reacts and gives energy to our body once again.  Believe me, Calles, I am working tirelessly in order to finish as soon as possible a highway that would connect Los Angeles with Mexico, so that thousands of automobiles can travel with maximum security and comfort between both places.”[6]

After reaching Mexico City and having a meeting with Mexican President Pascual Ortiz Rubio, Calles and his travel companions returned to Los Angeles.  Back in the Eastman studios, Calles edited the footage himself; his first cut was over eight thousand feet long, included some scenes in color, and was one of the first documentaries to feature sound.[7]  La Opinión, which had followed Calles’ trip with interest, continued its support of the film upon his return.  Editors updated readers on Calles’ progress on the film and promoted it when it debuted a Spanish language theater in Los Angeles, Teatro Mexico.  The packed theater held an audience of one thousand people, including Los Angeles Mayor John C. Porter and Mexican Consul Rafael de la Colina.  The paper’s film reviewer, Esteban V. Escalante, wrote that the film wiped out “the impression that other nations have of our ‘Mexican curios,’” and would “foster tourism in that land so full of color that is the West Coast of Mexico.”[8]  La Opinión also reported that Teatro Mexico sold more than five thousand tickets to Pro-Patria in the first week of its release.  As Escalante’s review and the sold-out theater reflected, Mexican Americans challenged Anglo American misconceptions of Mexico while simultaneously hoping that American fascination with Mexican history and culture could benefit contemporary Mexico.

Although Calles’ film generated interest on both sides of the border, from Los Angeles to Mexico City, the Depression limited the film’s release and curtailed Calles’ plan to translate the film’s narration into English.  After its release in Los Angeles in July 1932, Calles took the film to Mexico the following month.  On the way to Mexico City, he stopped in El Paso, Nogales, and Guadalajara, where he showed the film in more than ten borderlands theaters.[9]  Unfortunately, when Calles reached Mexico City, most theater owners were reluctant to exhibit Pro-Patria because it lacked distribution by a major studio.  Despite its limited commercial success, Calles’ efforts to make and distribute the film, as well as its warm reception by Mexican American audiences, reflect Mexican and Mexican American efforts to simultaneously capitalize Anglo American fascination with a romantic “Spanish” past while also reshaping their understandings of Mexico and Mexicans.  Well aware that Angelenos fetishized their region’s Mexican history, Calles hoped that he could exploit that interest to transform Anglo American perceptions of his native country from “curio” to neighbor.

Calles and his film also demonstrate the deep links between Los Angeles and Mexico in the first decades of the twentieth century.  As explored in more depth in my book project, a generation of Los Angeles city builders believed that investment in Mexico would transform their city into a global metropolis, and they partnered with brokers such as Calles to make this happen.  Angeleno and Mexican investors, boosters, diplomats, elected officials, workers, activists, lawyers, and journalists first forged and then negotiated the relationship between an urban core in Southern California and an imagined and real periphery that stretched across the border and deep into Mexico.

[1] In using the term “broker,” I borrow from Mae Ngai’s analysis of a prominent Chinese American family in turn-of-the-century San Francisco.  See Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (Boston, 2010).

[2] Rogelio Agrasánchez, Jr., Guillermo Calles: A Biography of the Actor and Mexican Cinema Pioneer (Jefferson, NC, 2010).  On the history of film and the borderlands, see Laura Isabel Serna, “Cinema on the U.S.-Mexico Border: American Motion Pictures and Mexican Audiences, 1896-1930,” in Alex McCrossen, ed., Land of Necessity: Consumer Culture in the United States-Mexico Borderlands (Durham, 2009), 144.

[3] On the Spanish fantasy past, see Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Salt Lake City, 1973), William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Berkeley, 2004), and Phoebe S. Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley, 2006); for more on borderlands tourism, see essays in McCrossen, Land of Necessity.  On mexicanidad and tourism, see Dennis Merrill, Negotiating Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Twentieth-Century Latin America (Chapel Hill, 2009) and Dina Berger and Andrew Grant Wood, eds., Holiday in Mexico: Critical Reflections on Tourism and Tourist Encounters (Durham, 2010).

[4] Calles recounted the conversation in a subsequent letter to the editor of La OpinionLa Opinion, March 13, 1932, second edition, p. 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Unfortunately, there is only one known copy of Pro-Patria in existence, and it is held by a private collector and unavailable to scholars.

[8] Esteban V. Escalanate, “Pro-Patria,” La Opinion, July 7, 1932, p. 4.

[9] Agrasánchez, 100.

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The Deportation Terror: From Street Mobs to State Officials … and Back

By Ethan Blue, University of Western Australia

This essay has been reposted with permission from the author from the Religion and Ethics section of ABC.net.au. In 2012, NYU Press published Dr. Blue’s Doing Time in the Depression: Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons. For more information on Dr. Blue’s scholarship, please visit his faculty profile. -ed

Donald Trump and the U.S. Republican administration’s controversial call for a new and massively militarized deportation force harkens back more than a century. It builds on legal and extra-legal traditions of White American ethno-national cleansing.

Trump is largely uninterested in history, but he sees a hard border and a deportation force as existential necessities. “Otherwise,” he said, “we don’t have a country.”

But Trump’s narrow nationalist vision and existential crisis conflicts with diverse – and equally American – movements for social, racial and economic justice, within and beyond America’s borders.

Deportation and Trauma

In the middle of the nineteenth century, disruptions caused by European and U.S. military and economic penetration into China – the Opium Wars being a prime example – forced many Chinese to seek better opportunities in the United States, Australia, Canada and across Latin America.

There, they met white workers and the middle classes equally anxious about their own place in modernizing political economies. Wage labour was uncertain; new, monopolistic, vertically consolidated corporations paid white male workers – accustomed to being independent breadwinners for their families – as little as they could get away with, and their pride and families suffered.

Some white workers came to challenge corporate power, and at the same time, they blamed recent Chinese arrivals – who seemed to them strange, spoke a different language and practiced a different religion – for lowering their wages and disrupting their society.

Even though Chinese migrants did crucial work for the American economy, white mobs tried to drive the Chinese out of their communities, resorting to massacres and burning down entire Chinese neighbourhoods in the name of community protection. Anti-Chinese mobbing was an horrific expression of popular sovereignty and direct democracy – racist and violent, to be sure – reflecting a form of “people’s justice” in immigration control.

In 1882, legislators passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It was a “travel ban” – to use today’s terms – which lasted until 1943. It, along with related laws, tried to regulate immigration around a range of interrelated moral, political and economic fears. In each case, legislators understood that restrictive laws were less bloody, and more effective, than mob rule. They were also less offensive to transnational businesses who wanted to profit from Chinese trade.

As the availability of Chinese workers dwindled, Mexicans became a crucial low-wage workforce for the U.S. economy. Though there had long been anti-Mexican violence as part of westward expansion (to say nothing of near-genocidal warfare against many American Indian groups) anti-Mexican mob violence was eventually absorbed into a growing U.S. border security regime.

In part, the anti-immigrant mobs who attacked Chinese and Mexican denizens were no longer necessary because state agents would do the heavy lifting. Special Immigration Agents known as “Chinese Catchers” swept through immigrant neighbourhoods looking for people to deport. Other agents combed through an extensive system of detention centres – prisons, hospitals, county jails and workhouses – searching for others to expel.

The government also developed new systems for mass removal, including dedicated “deportation special” trains – effectively prisons on wheels – to cheaply and quickly connect distant parts of the nation’s interior to borders and ports for expulsion.

The Border Patrol formed in 1924 as a new anti-immigrant police force, and offered badges and government salaries to people who, a few years earlier, had been members of anti-Mexican mobs. But the modern deportation regime would be administered by state agents, civil servants and work-a-day bureaucrats, rather than angry citizens.

Some officials still wanted to terrorize migrants, but thought the threat of deportation would do the trick. Early in the Great Depression, a Los Angeles city official deliberately wanted to frighten migrants, using fear as a “psychological gesture” to “scare … alien deportables” into fleeing. More than 1 million people were deported to Mexico – and many U.S. citizens were among them.

Another anti-immigrant movement came in the 1950s, under the explicitly racist name “Operation Wetback.” Like its predecessors, it came in response to fears about non-white immigration and the belief that Mexican migrant workers were driving down white American wages. Never mind the fact that – then as now – few U.S. citizens were willing to do the backbreaking agricultural labour Mexican migrants performed, and especially not at the poverty wages that kept produce prices so low, and that many of the workers (or their labour, at least) were much cherished by large growers.

Operation Wetback was a thoroughly militarised affair, with a series of raids, roadblocks and checkpoints across the region, and during which immigration agents increasingly positioned themselves as controlling crime, rather than immigration. It also overlapped with strident anti-communist repression of the early Cold War, when one immigrant rights advocate decried what he called “the deportation terror” levelled against non-citizen critics of the U.S. administration.

Some immigration officers sought to terrorize migrants into silence or departure. Others simply wanted to follow the law, keep their own jobs, protect the country (as they understood it) and make the deportation machine run smoothly. In any event, they managed to make a system that was effective in mass removal, as well as in creating persistent fears of deportablity among undocumented migrants.

Mass Incarceration, Mass Deportation

Since the Reagan years, Democrats and Republicans cooperated to dismantle the institutions that regulated capitalist firms even as they built up policing and prison systems. Jobs left, real wages were stagnant or declined. People who still held onto precarious factory jobs would blame so-called criminals, welfare queens and illegal aliens for their strife.

The processes of blaming “Others” – people of colour in cities and migrants from abroad – and then seeking new kinds of government repression to control them was akin to the reactionary movement Stuart Hall identified in the UK as authoritarian populism.

Bill Clinton came into office by adopting tough-on-crime rhetoric previously monopolized by Republicans like Richard Nixon, and furthering Reagan’s deregulatory agenda. Clinton famously “ended welfare as we know it” at the same time that he and his allies railed against black and Latino criminal “superpredators,” and helped build a militarized security apparatus.

By the 1990s – bolstered by new immigration legislation that would vastly increase deportation for decades to come – the U.S. mass deportation assemblage would parallel and interweave with the system of mass incarceration. Both were responses to the structural forces of neoliberalism, efforts to contain the workers made redundant by corporate flight to Mexico or China, by automation, or both.

Unemployed citizens might be imprisoned (especially if they were non-white and poorly educated), unemployed non-citizens might be deported. And people who got laid off from factory or service jobs – be they black, white, Latino, or of whatever race or ethnicity – might find steady, well-paying work with the police, as prison guards, or for the border patrol. They also got uniforms with American flags, symbols that validated their own national inclusion and distance from non-citizens.

Traditional Keynesian economics came under fire with neoliberalism, but a form of carceral Keynesianism took hold, making the livelihoods of working class people of different races dependent on expanding prison and border policing systems. But because Clinton also espoused some progressive policies – such as initial support for gay rights, from which he later backtracked – Republicans attacked him as a leftist.

Like mass incarceration, mass deportation has had broad, bipartisan support among Democrats and Republicans. Deportation accelerated under Bill Clinton. It accelerated again under George W. Bush, who oversaw more than 2 million removals.

It accelerated again under Barack Obama. As sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza has documented, the United States deported nearly 400,000 people in 2011, a number ten times greater than the deportations of 2001 – and more than all of the people deported in the entire 1980s.

Obama courted Latino support with immigration policies that provided work permits and deferred removal for long-time non-citizen residents who had arrived as children and were acculturated to life in the United States. But Obama also extended tough deportation policies for those with criminal convictions – supposedly dangerous criminals, but large proportions of whom were guilty of little more than traffic offences.

The twenty-first century deportation assemblage, built by Democrats and Republicans alike, moves faster and involves more complex systems than its predecessors. But for those whose whiteness or citizenship status insulates them from it, it appeared to be relatively bloodless. It wasn’t. Deportees face very real dangers on return to the lands they have fled; it traumatizes even U.S. citizens and tears millions of families apart.

The Lynch-mob Logic of Modern Deportation

Some might have seen this massive legal deportation apparatus refined by Clinton, Bush and Obama as adequate. But Donald Trump did not, and neither it seems did the minority of American voters who supported him. Trump’s proposed Deportation Force builds on the massive and existing militarized apparatus, but also calls for a return to nineteenth-century forms of expressive violence.

Even though Republicans are in strong positions in all three branches of government, the portent of intertwined legal and extra-legal violence loom large. Trump has explicitly foresworn the supposed niceties of “political correctness” and, in attacking a Mexican American judge’s suitability for office, has impugned the possibility of Mexican Americans being full citizens.

In addition to the flurry of constitutionally-dubious January 2017 executive orders and memos – which asserted executive power in unprecedented ways and denigrated the judicial branch – Trump’s Congressional Republican allies explicitly excluded Latino and Democratic legislators from meetings with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

It appears that to today’s white nationalists and authoritarian populists, the massive and, indeed, terrifying deportation regime of the past century – based to the extent that it was on the rule of law – hid the violence of the lynch mob too well. Despite the modern deportation regime’s fearsome effectiveness at capture and mass removal, the relative invisibility of its structural violence – invisible to many white audiences, that is – was unable to express the desired catharsis of white nationalist racial rule.

When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer promised to “take the shackles off” immigration law enforcement (an invocation eerily similar to Dick Cheney’s call to “take the gloves off” and permit torture in the War on Terror), and ensure that “people who pose a threat to our country are immediately dealt with,” his language suggested that politics itself had inhibited state agents’ ability to protect the nation from immigrants. He invoked the premises of action unencumbered by law, akin to the lynch mobs a century earlier.

The twenty-first century, post-global financial crisis conjuncture of reactionary movements against the Democratic Party’s progressive neoliberalism have therefore been channelled into racially-gendered calls for hardened sovereign borders and a militarized deportation force. Its anti-modern revanchism rejects the putative softness of state control in favour of angrier expressive forms.

The Trump administration’s conjuration of Mexican rapists and criminal aliens “who routinely victimize Americans” – while in fact immigrants are statistically less likely to engage in criminal-defined acts – as well as new promises to publicize crimes committed by non-citizens against citizen-victims, expresses but also enflames incipient gendered racisms in the language of national and personal protection. It appears to have motivated a Kansas man, who allegedly yelled “get out of my country” before he shot three men, killing one, and later telling a bartender he had killed Middle Eastern men.

And like a century ago, today’s white nationalists, who perceive themselves throwing off the politically-correct shackles of “the Washington elite” move, counterproductively, against the weakest members of world’s labour markets – migrants displaced by the longer legacies of racial capitalism. The authoritarian populist tendencies captured and unleashed by the Trumpist Republican Party (abetted by traditional Republicans) again enact the rituals and symbols of racist exclusion, expulsion, and abjection, through the terrors of mass deportation.

So we should not be surprised as the lines between legal and extra-legal violence are blurred. But people dedicated to an egalitarian America (and broader world) should be frightened to learn that anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hate crimes have risen sharply. So have the number of hate groups.

In the 10 days after Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 867 hate incidents, many of them hate crimes. Of the nearly 1,100 incidents reported in the 34 days after the election, 37% made direct reference to Trump, his campaign slogans, or echoed his remarks about sexual assault.

If private citizens are using racial violence in the name of the President, state agents are also carrying out executive orders of dubious legality; one Republican official called for the extra-legal killing of campus protestors. Beyond a process of white nationalist radicalisation, little of this will address the historical forces that cause people to migrate, or that lead people to identify the United States as an enemy. They will likely make problems worse. The administration’s strident Islamophobia will surely exacerbate the fundamentalist radicalization it claims to protect against.

The Promise of Egalitarian Mutualism

But in contrast to authoritarian populism on the street and in the bully pulpit, another popular movement beckons. It is based in the traditions of egalitarian mutualism rather than authoritarian populism. Instead of racial nationalism, it draws on interrelated traditions of liberal and antiracist feminisms, LBGTQ rights, religious freedom, workers’ movements, Indigenous sovereignty and decolonization, prison abolition, civil rights and environmental justice. The millions who participated in the Women’s March on Washington (with parallel marches in deep blue and red states, and around the world) revealed Trump’s Inauguration crowds as anaemic.

Calls to racial nationalism and vigilantism have been answered by peaceful protestors challenging what they see as the Executive Orders’ racial and religious bigotry. So too have there been massive movements for sanctuary cities and campuses. Even calls for a non-violent general strike, little heard in the United States since the popular front radicalism of the 1930s, are beginning to gain a hearing. Together, these movements celebrate solidarity in struggle, not catharsis through exclusion.

It is impossible to predict the future of this regime. Trump is erratic and arguably unhinged, but his administration will most certainly continue to ignore, denigrate and criminalize the people who raise their voices and challenge its authoritarian populism with their visions of egalitarian mutualism. He may declare a state of emergency for a host of reasons and demand more power to suppress dissent in the name of national protection.

Fear is inimical to understanding. But without understanding the long trajectory of anti-immigrant nativism – in the contests of racial state power, authoritarianism, of forced removal and border violence – Americans cannot develop anything approaching a sound, ethical or effective policy. Without those, to paraphrase Trump, Americans may not have a country.

 

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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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Book Review: Lovewell’s Fight: War, Death, and Memory in Borderland New England

Dear readers, we have a new guest post from Matthew M. Montelione, received his M.A. in History from Stony Brook University in December 2014. His ongoing research centers on Suffolk County in the American Revolution, specifically the local experiences of Loyalists on eastern Long Island. -Mike

lovewell

In a sweeping and engaging narrative, Robert E. Cray has contributed the next great slice of northeastern North American borderlands scholarship. In Lovewell’s Fight: War, death, and memory in Borderland New England (2014), Cray strikes a poignant and often understudied chord in early American history. Lovewell’s Fight focuses on inconspicuous white-Indian boundaries in New England (mainly Massachusetts—or what is now New Hampshire) in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Cray deserves high praise for combing through scarce archival evidence, and for producing a concise history that highlights war and its legacy in the minds of borderlands peoples who experienced it, or were affected by it thereafter. He is especially concerned with backcountry militia Captain John Lovewell’s fatal expedition into Abenaki territory in 1725, and the “fragmentation after battle” that has rarely been examined using a borderlands lens. Cray’s work “belongs to that rare category of military encounters in which defeat transcends an opponent’s victory to don the mantle of legend.”[i]

Like Richard White in The Middle Ground: Indians, empires, and republics in the Great Lakes region, 1650-1815 (1991), and Alan Taylor in The Divided Ground: Indians, settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (2007), Cray uses diverse human actors as justification for a borderlands region. Like a detective, Cray rediscovers long forgotten memories of particularly brutal early eighteenth century Anglo-Indian warfare and notes that roles of power, for both groups, were highly malleable in the New England borderlands. While Cray risks being scrutinized for emphasizing white motives and memories as opposed to their native counterparts—in general, in opposition to Taylor—this is likely due to the lack of surviving documents, if any were written at all, left by this particular Abenaki group in the 1720s.[ii]

Cray’s Massachusetts frontiersmen saw “Community ties and military rank dissolved when men were few and exposed… to possible attackers.” Among the farmhouses in Dunstable stood “ever-present garrison houses—silent structures reminding its inhabitants of the unsettled state of borderland life.” This was an ever changing landscape, whose civilian population lived day-by-day in fear of Abenaki attacks. There was hardly any intercultural accommodation in this region, and it would be hard to label the New England war zone as a middle ground in White’s fashion. Rather, Cray nods to James H. Merrell’s disenchantment with interracial friendliness in Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier (1999). While not as ominous in tone as Merrell, Lovewell’s Fight also shares with Into the American Woods a penchant for the forest. The woodlands were an unfamiliar battleground for backcountry Massachusetts settlers, and many warriors on both sides of the conflict met their fates among the trees.[iii]

Cray says something new about borderlands methodology by infusing memory into his story, to a much greater extent than historian Joseph S. Wood did in ““Build, Therefore, Your Own World”: The New England Village as Settlement Ideal” (1991), but perhaps more importantly, he speaks to blood drenched countrysides and woodlands, the contingent nature of war, and reinforces the notion of borderlands by conflict.[iv] Indeed, while this more violent facet of borderlands history has evolved since The Middle Ground, it reaches an all time high with Lovewell’s Fight. Cray reinvigorates historical inquiry into the “martial spirit” of early American players, and their motives, desires, successes, and failures shed light on what life was like in colonial America, at the fringes and beyond.[v]

Lovewell’s Fight greatly contributes to northeastern North American colonial borderlands historiography. Cray says something new about military and diplomatic history, and opens doors to future inquiries in the field. His study calls historians to reevaluate the social, political, military, and religious relationships between whites and Indians in early American history. Lovewell’s Fight speaks to the importance of military analysis, to the loss of daily life patterns due to incessant conflicts, and to an even darker facet of northeastern borderlands history.

[i] Robert E. Cray, Lovewell’s Fight: War, death, and memory in Borderland New England, (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 2-26.

[ii] Cray, Lovewell’s Fight, 2-26.

[iii] Cray, Lovewell’s Fight, 16-57. See also James H. Merrell, Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier, (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999).

[iv] See Joseph S. Wood, ““Build, Therefore, Your Own World”: The New England Village as Settlement Ideal,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 81, No. 1, (March, 1991), 32-50. Wood tracks the imagined ideal of the New England village in American memory. While not a borderlands study per se, and certainly not in relation to Cray’s work—there are no Indians present in Wood’s article—Wood nonetheless contributes an important piece to colonial borderlands historiography, as he suggests that the general relationship between people and nature in New England constitutes a different kind of borderland. Whether consciously or not, James H. Merrell greatly elaborates on Wood’s idea of nature as a primary actor in borderlands regions in Into the American Woods.

[v] Cray, Lovewell’s Fight, 32.

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Notes on Dr. Michael Wolff’s presentation: “Pacifying the Slums: Police and Gangs in Rio de Janeiro”

In today’s guest post, Dr. Brandon Morgan, who teaches at Central New Mexico Community College, writes about the recent talk Michael Wolff gave on campus at the University of New Mexico. For more from Brandon, you can follow him on Twitter: @CNMBrandon His most recent publication, “Colonia Díaz and the Railroad that Almost Was: The Deming, Sierra Madre and Pacific, 1890-1896” appeared in the edited volume Just South of Zion: Mormons in Mexico and its Borderlands.

On Wednesday, October 22, Dr. Michael Wolff, Visiting Professor in the Political Science department at the University of New Mexico, gave an engaging talk on the recent history of conflicts between police and gangs in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The presentation was the second in the fall speaker series to promote the collaboration between the University of New Mexico’s Latin American and Iberian Institute (LAII) and Central New Mexico Community College (CNM). As such, the talk took place on the CNM campus, and students and faculty of both institutions attended. I am one of the faculty members working to develop new LAS courses at CNM, so I was very happy to see robust attendance at Dr. Wolff’s talk.

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Due to my borderlands history background, Wolff immediately caught my attention with his definition of favelas as places that are just outside the attention and reach of state control. Although common perceptions persist of favelas as impoverished shantytowns (which in certain respects they are), the rise of organized drug trafficking since 1993 has driven the creation of developed micro-cities within the geographical boundaries of most favelas. Between 1993 and 2008, criminal governance allowed for the construction and growth of such micro-cities. Rising rates of violence and the increasing power of drug trafficking groups meant that authorities largely ignored events within favelas.

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BOOK REVIEW: Scotland’s Northwest Frontier: A Forgotten British Borderland

In today’s guest post, we present a book review by Stephen Kostes on borders and frontiers in the UK. Stephen is a Stony Brook History M.A. recipient (2015) and is interested in the British empire’s use of colonial troops and how these soldiers eventually created their own martial borderland culture. He is contemplating a dissertation that would study this concept of martial borderlands as they existed in the 18th and 19th century. 

Alister Farquhar Matheson, Scotland’s Northwest Frontier: A Forgotten British Borderland. Matador Press, 2014.

Scotland’s Northwest Frontier is a massive but accessible work that traces the history of Scotland from roughly 1,000 C.E. to the twentieth century. It focuses specifically on the Northwest frontier and analyzes the roles of both the Hebrides and Highlands in shaping the cultural and political landscape of Scotland.

The book is split into four major segments, each containing several chapters that chronologically trace the development of Scotland. The first segment gives the reader a virtual tour of the landscape of the Highlands. Though Matheson lists the names of various Scottish territories, he makes the mistake of never giving the reader a map, making it difficult for someone unfamiliar with Scotland to keep track of every territory. The first segment is by far the shortest, and is more of an extended introduction that introduces the book’s core themes. The main one is how the Northwest frontier helped shape, divide, and unite different Scottish clans from the medieval to the modern era. Secondary is the frontier’s role in cross country trade, and the eventual destruction of the Highland way of life.

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BOOK REVIEW: Border Patrol Nation

In today’s latest guest post, we’re excited to feature the work of Terry Maccarrone! Terry is a Master’s candidate in history at Stony Brook. His areas of interest are wide-ranging but tend to focus on European and Asian history, international relations, and theories of nationalism and state building.

Miller, Todd. Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security. San Francisco: City Lights Publishers, 2014.

Todd Miller’s journalistic examination of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s divisions of Customs & Border Protection (CPB) and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) operates from a noticeable anti-establishment perspective bias, disapproving of post-9/11 immigration-related policies instituted by the U.S. government. In his on-the-ground accounts of encounters with CPB and ICE that are disturbing at best, Miller offers some readers an emotional, provocative look at a flawed immigration (and immigration control) system, and gives others who would not initially be inclined to object to U.S. governmental policies a shock to their systems.

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Throughout the book, Miller portrays the CPB and ICE as pseudo-Fascist thugs, part of a neo-Borderland Security-Industrial Complex that works to overstate the immigrant border threat, keep detention center beds filled, and reap the federal budget dollar bonanza. Unfortunately, the phraseology he uses in his works evokes images of blind, order-following Nazi Storm Troopers and indoctrinated Hitler Youth, rather than a more balanced investigation of CPB and ICE offices, agents, and policies. Miller succeeds, however, in eliciting an emotional response from the reader through his depictions of the abuse suffered by migrant victims at the hands of these agencies. His interviews with victims, advocates, and officials are powerful, but the book would have been more well-rounded with more counterevidence that might have defended the agencies’ actions or rationales. This is a criticism, however, that some might find more applicable to a strictly academic study rather than one journalist’s purposefully provocative take on the current border crisis.

Structurally, the book is well composed, and discusses both the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada borders for those interested in comparing the two regions. A chapter on the Haiti-Dominican Republic border attempts to analyze the overreach of the CPB into foreign states—and communicate Miller’s objection to North American meddling in the affairs of other states—but some readers may find this chapter tangential or out of place. Overall, though, Miller succeeds in offering a thought-provoking book that compels its readers—no matter their political viewpoint—to delve further into the case studies and arguments raised therein about the legal and human consequences of post-9/11 security concerns.

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The Lives of Others: Refugees, Crisis, and National Identity in Europe’s Borderlands

In today’s guest post, Danielle Smith, Interim Director of the Center for International Studies at Georgia Southern University writes about the recent history of Europe’s borderlands in the context of the on-going refugee crisis. Danielle’s research interests cover memory and identity constructions in transitional societies, especially focusing on Europe. 

Quickly skimming the international press coverage from a week ago yields headlines that flattered Angela Merkel and the German government for their openness and incredible dedication to taking humanitarian action in the face of a seemingly overwhelming number of asylum-seeking refugees entering Europe. The Economist went so far to praise Chancellor Merkel’s “brave, decisive, and right” leadership on the issue as a sea change from years of “cautiously incremental decision-making.” This global eagerness to praise the German government’s actions glossed over – as anyone who has followed the state’s relationship with its minority populations can predict – the internal derision and push-back from nativist and nationalist groups.

This time the rhetoric was ignited by the arrival of refugees in numbers larger than predicted, and served to magnify far-right, right, and even some centrist party fears about safety, security, and the fate of Germany as a nation. To these groups, Germany’s overwhelming burden stems from the inability and unwillingness of other European Union states to take on their fair share of refugees, as determined a quota recently set by the European Commission. Nationalist rhetoric contextualizes this crisis as further weakening Germany economically and culturally. On September 13, the German government announced its intention to reverse previous pledges and close its southern borders with Austria by 5pm, thus temporarily exiting the Schengen Area. These chaotic and vacillating decisions represent far larger than a single domestic or foreign policy action by the state of Germany. It does, rather, symbolize decades of unresolved issues related to the development of a supra-national European identity and the role of state and national borders that stubbornly remain in conflict with the idea of “Europe” as an identity space.

An important feature in the creation of identities and nations are borderlands, representing a set of boundaries where people attempt to define the beginning and ending of “otherness,” a task that can only be achieved in the idealistic self-delineating of national identities. On the contrary, borderlands are often classified as frontiers because they represent a co-mingling of identities along politically designated boundaries. These complicated situations suffer from a variety of conflicting responses related to the proper conceptualization for imagining these landscapes and dividing national groups, ranging from attempted cultural integration, to forced assimilation, to outbreaks of violent ethnic chauvinism. For the EU, the Schengen Agreement originated as a remedy for divisive centripetal forces which produce nationalist center-seeking and “othering” at defined borders.

In large geographic states, people have the ability to physically move away from borderlands to the center and escape the constant pressure of and disentangle themselves from the immediacy of these otherness questions. Pursuing nation-states counters the purpose and goals of developing a European Union of ever closely tied states. Fostering borderless mobility between states serves to confer the conception of a state to the larger territory of Europe, especially as comprised by those states that agree to and abide by the terms of Schengen. This is an important point as the classical definition of a state does include the presence of a permanent population. Borderless mobility, then, enables heterogeneity amongst nations formerly confined to specific spaces and eliminates inclusion/exclusion dynamics by erasing borders that foster such practices. Ideally, no European whose nationality originates within the Schengen Area can be an “other,” and these national identities become combined into the ideal of “European.” Continue reading

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Book Review: Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone

We’re excited to present this guest post by Gregory Lella, a PhD student in the History department at the State University of New York at Stonybrook. His main research interest is internal law enforcement and incarceration within the U.S. military, particularly in enclaves, bases, and facilities located outside of the United States. He is interested in how the military’s parallel culture and legal system functioned in the context of the carceral state.

Donoghue, Michael. Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014.

Michael Donoghue’s Borderland on the Isthmus is an ambitious attempt to chronicle the social history of the Panama Canal Zone using the lens of borderlands history. Focusing on the years between 1903 and 1999, Donoghue produces a study of identity, culture, race, gender, and sexuality that accomplishes many of its objectives but in some moments falls short of its challenging goals.

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Donoghue studies the Canal Zone as a noncontiguous borderland—or a borderland geographically disconnected from a larger imperial entity—and he structures his chapters thematically rather than chronologically, with each focusing on a different group of people or the complications of a particular identity. Though this decision results sometimes in confusion for the reader—several subheadings and broad jumps between different topics can be disorienting—his analyses of race relations in the Panama Canal Zone and the relations between civilians (Zonians) and the military are insightful. When it comes to analyzing gender relations in and around this borderland, however, Donoghue places far more emphasis on the history of sex and prostitution than gender relations on the whole. The book’s tendency to focus on spectacular and shocking stories centering on sex—for instance, the first chapter’s opening anecdote about American GIs being fellated through a border fence by Panamanian prostitutes—only works if the author successfully uses these stories to illustrate a larger, deeper argument. Some of the book’s stories are loosely connected by theme but the reader is left wishing at times that the author made stronger, more coherent arguments to follow. Continue reading

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Book Review: Ottoman-Iranian Borderlands: Making a Boundary, 1843-1914

We’re pleased to feature a new book review by Masoud (Ahmad) Ariankhoo on Borderlands History blog, today! Ahmad is a Ph.D. student in Stony Brook University’s Department of History. He is interested in the history of tolerance with a focus on the Medieval Sufi traditions of Persia. He is now working on a collection of letters from a High Middle Ages Sufi master to tease out attitudes to religious plurality.

Ates, Sabri. Ottoman-Iranian Borderlands: Making a Boundary, 1843-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 350 pp.

Sabri Ates’s The Ottoman-Iranian Borderlands is an extensive historical study of “an ancient interacting frontier” between two rival powers of the Middle East that only concluded “days before World War I” (1, 317). Ates centers his analysis on forgotten or neglected facets of a borderland that was constantly contested, re-imagined and reshaped by various players over several centuries. The book breaks away from the unidirectional approach of examining the center’s effects on the periphery and instead sheds light on the influence of borderlanders on those in power and the making of the border itself.

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Regarding his terminology, Ates points out that he uses “borderland, border, and frontier interchangeably” which may draw critique from borderlands historians as each term holds a specific meaning all its own (8). The author, however, demonstrates that he is fully aware of these distinctions by giving priority to the term “borderland” in his description of the contested region between the Ottomans’ and Iranians’ territories. He also does not refer to borders as impenetrable barriers in which the mobility of humans is completely contained but rather believes that the process towards establishing a defined border exhibits a “decrease in the porosity of the frontier as a filter” (197). Ates’s particular approach is significant since it puts his work in line with the global trend towards a more multilateral understanding of borders and borderlands and is also one of the first scholarly works that addresses the border interactions in the Middle East through the lens of borderlands methodology

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