Essay Series

Summer Series: A ‘Nation of Immigrants’ at the Border

By Dr. Juilian Lim, Assistant Professor, Arizona State University

banner test

This is the last installment of our Borderlands Blog Summer Series. We’d like to thank everyone who contributed to this short, but incisive series and much love to all those who read our posts and stayed tuned over the summer. 

I would be remiss if I did not mention the current atmosphere of anxiety that looms over us as we head back to work in the fall. Just last week a young woman, Heather Heyer, was killed as hundreds of anti-fascist protesters confronted white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The night before, the University of Virginia was overrun by angry, white men wielding torches. It is not a coincidence that they sought to intimidate students and faculty on this college campus.  The university/college campus has long been a site for social upheaval, protest, and transformation.  Students have been at the forefront of political change in this country for decades, however, now higher education finds itself in the cross-hairs of a major social and political battle for the minds of the future. Thus, the task before us is greater, and potentially more dangerous than ever.

While historical distortions will continue to run rampant, we, as historians, are armed with sources, evidence, and analysis, striking out simplistic ideologies that breed desperation, hate, and violence. The Borderlands History blog will play its part in this endeavor as a space where historical analysis about the region serves to contextualize and enlighten the current political and social climate.

Please enjoy our final post in the series by Assistant Professor of History Julian Lim currently at Arizona State University. — Lina Murillo

Earlier this month, President Trump’s senior policy advisor Stephen Miller stirred up quite a bit of controversy after attempting to disassociate Emma Lazarus’s famous poem from the Statue of Liberty.  When pressed by CNN reporter Jim Acosta about the tradition of immigration and the identity of the United States as a “nation of immigrants,” as invoked by Lazarus’s powerful words emblazoned on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, Miller countered with a historical lesson of sorts.  “I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here,” he responded, “[but the poem] was added later. It’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”  Because the Statue of Liberty was not initially designed to serve as a symbol of immigration, Miller seemed to suggest, the United States is not necessarily a nation of immigrants.

As many have already observed, Miller’s seemingly fine-tuned attention to chronology actually reproduced a common alt-right tactic to dismiss the poem as an irrelevant distraction.  For those who embrace the U.S.’s identity as a nation of immigrants, Miller’s comments and Trump’s support for restricting immigration – especially from non-Western countries[1] – are not only anti-immigrant, but fundamentally un-American.  As the grandfather of modern immigration history, Oscar Handlin, famously wrote in 1951, “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then, I discovered that the immigrants were American history.”  This statement, of course, obscures the role of Native Americans in American history.  But to the extent that the United States today is comprised of 322 million persons who are not of Native American heritage, this massive population was only possible through immigration – by colonists, capitalists, and laborers; by Europeans, Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans; and in free, coerced, and enslaved forms.  What makes the United States so great – even exceptional, in this regard – are the immigrants who have come to these shores and have helped to make this country a diverse, complicated, and, yes, hopeful place.

Still, Miller is not entirely incorrect.  Putting aside purely demographic considerations for the time being, the United States has not always been a “nation of immigrants,” at least not in spirit.  As immigration historians have been pointing out for some time now, American history has been shaped by opposition to immigration as much as by immigration itself. (For a helpful overview, see #ImmigrationSyllabus.)  Beginning with the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion laws, and evolving over the course of several decades into the Immigration Act of 1924 and the rise of the Border Patrol, the United States steadily expanded its federal power to regulate and restrict immigration based on race, class, and gender.

Although the Statue of Liberty is celebrated by many as a beacon of hope and Ellis Island is revered as the entry point for millions of new Americans, many turn-of-the-twentieth century immigrants arrived at Ellis Island only to be separated from family, detained in segregated quarters, and – not infrequently – denied admission and forced to return to their home countries. Angel Island, of course, served as the port of entry for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from more than 80 countries, but is most infamous for its operations as a detention center for Chinese immigrants, who were routinely targeted for extra scrutiny, subjected to a variety of invasive and humiliating inspections, held in prolonged detentions, and, in many cases, subsequently deported.

The U.S.-Mexico border provides its own unique set of historical lessons about immigration and national identity.  In many ways, immigration regulation at the U.S.-Mexico border begins with the attempt by both the United States and Mexico to police and restrict indigenous mobility in the borderlands.  Over the course of the nineteenth century, the indigenous borderlands were radically transformed, and violently so.  Fusing colonization programs with Indian removal policies, both Mexico and the United States assembled an unofficial but tragically effective immigration regime that functioned in ways familiar to us today—to regulate the admission, exclusion, and removal of persons deemed unfit for inclusion in the body politic.  Sovereign, autonomous groups – such as the Comanches and Apaches – who rejected Mexican and U.S. claims to the territory experienced brutal forms of removal.  Despite their spectacular wielding of political and commercial power in the borderlands, the onslaught of Mexican and American violence, coordinated by the 1870s into a transborder military campaign, whittled away their dominion in the region.  Captured and deported to reservations, if not killed outright, Native peoples became foreigners in their own lands.

The chase after the Apaches, which came to a close with Geronimo’s capture in 1886, quickly morphed into a chase after Chinese immigrants, which became possible following the passage of the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.  (It is no accident that the doctrines of plenary power in the context of immigration and Native Americans developed in tandem, with the Supreme Court’s decisions in U.S. v. Kagama (1886) and Chae Chan Ping v. U.S. (1888) falling within two short years of each other.)  In the turn-of-the-century borderlands, the federal government soon exchanged uniforms; instead of soldiers, customs officers and immigration inspectors – or “men who were hunting for Chinamen,” as some Chinese immigrants called them – now regulated movement across the region.  Tasked with enforcing the Chinese exclusion laws, immigration agents at the U.S.-Mexico border aggressively attempted to make the nation’s anti-immigrant sentiment a reality.

Mexican immigrants as well would soon become targets of anti-immigrant restrictions.  For the most part, Mexicans did not immigrate in any substantial numbers before 1910.  There was a small trickle of Mexican immigration during the late 1800s, closely tied to a booming economy in the American southwest in railroad, mining, and agribusiness and a need for cheap labor by American employers.  This changed dramatically following the start of the Mexican Revolution; fleeing revolutionary violence, political exiles as well as short- and long-term refugees from all cross-sections of Mexican society arrived in droves at the U.S.-Mexico border.  Rejection rates climbed steadily over the course of the revolutionary decade as Mexicans arrived in progressively more impoverished and desperate conditions.  U.S. officials increasingly applied immigration bars against “persons likely to become public charges” to deny admission to Mexicans, especially women.  Immigration officials also worked with public health officials to implement more extensive measures at the international border, systematically subjecting Mexican immigrants to an invasive and humiliating process of being deloused, bathed in kerosene, and examined for physical and mental fitness.  Over the course of the first six months of 1917 alone, officials inspected 871,639 Mexicans for potential exclusion.

Ultimately, it was only the powerful demand for Mexican labor in the U.S. Southwest that kept the border relatively open for Mexican immigrants.  As the famous Dillingham Immigration Commission put it, “In the case of the Mexican, he is less desirable as a citizen than as a laborer.”  It thus seemed to work in the Mexican immigrant’s favor to present himself as a potential laborer as opposed to a political refugee.  As one Arizona immigration inspector explained in 1915, although Mexican immigrants were admissible under the immigration laws, “they cannot be properly termed desirable immigrants.”

By the 1920s, then, fueled by postwar xenophobia and supported by a vocal eugenics movement, the U.S. government had severely tightened the exclusionary policies of its immigration laws, barring not only Chinese immigration but all Asian immigrants, and rendering the “less than white” immigration of Mexicans and southern and eastern Europeans legally suspect. Through its immigration laws and border surveillance, politicians and immigration officials actively reshaped the nation’s racial “destiny,” bringing the laws that regulated race relations at the borders in line with the notions of white supremacy and racial segregation that policed black-white relations within the country.  It should be no surprise today that the politics of immigration restriction go hand-in-hand with the resurgent aspirations of white supremacy.

So yes, despite our extensive history of immigration, the “nation of immigrants” ethos is much more complicated.  The question is, will Americans choose to repeat the mistakes of the past?  And undoubtedly, it was a mistake to restrict immigration based on undemocratic ideas about race, class, gender and sex, and religion.  This is not to say we do not need to reconsider our immigration laws today – reform is seriously needed.  But in advocating for reform, will we replicate the patterns of nativism and prejudice that have marred American history, or learn from these historical moments to push toward a more democratic vision of America?

Dr. Lim’s book, Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in November, 2017.

[1] President Trump’s support for restricting non-Western immigration is most clearly represented by the largely stalled “Muslim ban” executive orders, his criticism of family-based immigration (which has provided a major avenue for immigration from Asia and Latin America), and his support instead for skills-based immigration.

 

Categories: Essay Series | Leave a comment

Memory, Identity, and Activism on Campus: The Role of the Historian

By Dr. Alicia Romero, University of New Mexico and Santa Fe Community College

banner test

The Borderlands History Blog recently contacted me to talk about my experience at the University of New Mexico and how student activists used my research for a major social justice cause on campus.  This was an unexpected, yet welcomed, instance of how scholarship can directly impact individuals and even institutions.  I remember reading E.H. Carr’s What is History? as an undergraduate student and realizing that facts could be contentious even among historians themselves. We saw recently in the media another discussion taking place in which “alternative facts” can and do exist for some to meet a specific end.

As scholars, we take care to use and interpret reliable sources, be they oral histories or numerical data, when writing a historical analysis.  During the times when our research is used to advance a social issue, responsible use of sources – our facts – becomes even more important.  In this summer series, I wrote a small piece about my research at UNM and how that helped students fight a decades-old cause.

I began researching the history of the University of New Mexico’s official seal during the fall of 2015, my first year as a postdoctoral fellow with the university’s Division for Equity and Inclusion (DEI).  The idea for this research was new, although controversy surrounding the seal was not.  Initially charged with conducting research into how UNM has historically addressed its faculty and students of color since it first offered classes in 1892, I became interested in the seal following protests from some student groups, faculty, and community members calling for its retirement.  This particular research tangent felt appropriate given what I had learned about the university’s founding and its twentieth-century colonial relationship with Nuevomexicanos – multi-generational Spanish-speaking New Mexicans also referred to as Hispanos or Spanish Americans – and Pueblo and Diné peoples in and around Albuquerque.

While I conducted research, one student group in particular became increasingly vocal concerning the university seal and the figures depicted therein.  The KIVA Club, a student group primarily for Indigenous students and their interests on campus, had continually opposed the seal for decades.  Citing that the seal’s use of two colonial figures – a white frontiersman in buckskin and a Spanish conquistador in armor – promoted racism and inequality on campus in light of their treatment of Native people in New Mexico, the KIVA Club and the Red Nation, a community group promoting Indigenous interests in the state and who specified eleven demands on the university for equal Indigenous representation, called for the seal’s removal.  KIVA Club members, many of whom also belonged to the Red Nation, were active in promoting Indigenous awareness and worked through their faculty mentor to reach the ears of the administration on this matter.

I was invited to present my research to the KIVA Club during one of their regular meetings in the spring of 2016.  There, I discussed the historical nature of the seal as it was originally designed in 1910 and how it had changed in 1968.  Of interest was the use of Indigenous symbolism to refer to Natives without them being represented in human form akin to the colonial figures previously mentioned.  The students felt that the seal represented genocide over Native people and expressed their anger concerning the seal’s appearance on campus, on their graduation regalia, and on their diplomas.   I quickly learned that this concern extended into their tribal communities as well.  Our conversation was fruitful and the students supported my research and perspective, as I supported theirs.

What followed during the course of the spring and fall semesters of 2016 aimed to engage students, faculty, staff, and alumni concerning the future of the official seal.  My office sponsored forums comprised of a presentation on the history of the seal followed with public comment and dialogue. Attendees of the forums expressed little indecisiveness as to whether or not they felt the seal should be replaced.  Some entered the conversation convinced that the seal should remain as it was for tradition’s sake, while others heard the testimonies of students opposing the seal and changed their opinion.  Those who spoke out publicly against the seal from the beginning were of every ethnic background.

National politics regarding racial and ethnic bias, social membership, historical trauma, and future presidential leadership made their way, at times, into these forums and certainly revealed themselves in any number of emails the university received regarding the future of the seal.  During the student-focused form in September 2016, a Trump supporter – as noted in his red hat containing the former GOP front-runner’s slogan – spoke to the audience about his concern that symbols of the nation’s history were at risk of erasure.  He alluded to the removal of Confederate monuments across the US South as well as the redesignation of any number of buildings elsewhere in the country initially named for politicians who were also slave owners. After engaging in a heated exchange of words with individuals who wanted to seal to be replaced simply because they felt it, like Confederate monuments, represented a traumatic, violent past, this individual ended his public comment asserting that the seal and other symbols would not be removed without a fight.  This student was correct.

The Board of Regents has the final say in the matter of the university seal, and some of those members saw no reason for its repeal.  During regular public meetings and Academic/Student Affairs & Research committee meetings, the Regents supported the idea that the seal represented the unique history of New Mexico and, that while problematic to some, overwhelming consensus from faculty, staff, students, and alumni – most importantly as athletics boosters and foundation donors – did not necessarily indicate support for replacement.  They were unconvinced that the forums held to generate public opinion gathered all of the opinions of those that wanted to be heard; a fraction of the total university community on and off campus weighed in and this, for one Regent, was insufficient data to begin a redesign.

Despite pushback from the Regents, the KIVA Club continued to gain momentum in the fight over the seal in alliance with the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), the Black Student Union (BSU), and other student groups vocalizing the need for change.  Finally, the Regents voted in November 2016 to attempt another round of data collection to retire the seal and consider other options for a redesign.  This came days after Trump’s victory to the presidential seat.  While not a complete victory, the Regents’ decision was not a total loss; in vowing to collect more data, the Board agreed to suspend use of the current seal upon further review.  The KIVA Club, while understandably disappointed, was lauded on campus for their activism, dedication, and commitment to changing an element of their university that they felt was racist and inappropriate.

The fight over the seal represents a long history of student and youth activism at UNM, and it has coalesced broad support for its repeal among people of all backgrounds.  Situated among other twenty-first century movements, such as Black Lives Matter and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, this particular case joined together activism, trauma, discrimination, representation, and the right to claim membership to an unpleasant and troubling history during a political moment wrought with communities of color and underrepresented groups demanding humane treatment and basic human rights.

Alicia Romero received her PhD in History from the University of California – Santa Cruz in 2015.  Her dissertation, “Portrait of a Barrio: Memory, Photography, and Popular Culture in Barelas, NM, 1880-2000,” focused on memory, photography, and identity in a small Nuevomexicano community in Albuquerque, NM.  An alum of the University of New Mexico, she returned there as a postdoctoral fellow for the Division for Equity and Inclusion in 2015.  Alicia researches and teaches about Nuevomexicanos/as in the twentieth century, memory, and popular culture and is an adjunct instructor for the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies as well as for Santa Fe Community College. 

Categories: Essay Series | Leave a comment

Fighting Against Exclusion: Borderlands History in Modern Political Context

We’re excited to present the latest installment in our summer series about academics and activism in this current political moment. –editors

banner test

The public fight over how we define social values in the United States has entered a new phase, one which critically requires participation and honest input from Borderlands scholars. Over the years, state legislators have sought to restrain intellectual diversity in education programs. One of the best-known cases occurred in Arizona, in 2011, when House bill 2281 went into effect as law, banning social justice and ethnic studies programs in public and charter schools under the guise of forbidding “resentment toward a race or class of people.” The outcome made it harder for voices of people of color to be heard and limited critiques of the official narrative built around the state’s history and identity. In January 2017, Arizona lawmakers proposed a new bill that would expand this ban to include public universities.

This Arizona law prompted push back in other parts of the country. Following its passage, legislators in California and Oregon, proposed bills that would implement ethnic studies programs in their states. In May 2017, one of the most recent bills signed into law with bipartisan support in Indiana authorized ethnic and racial studies courses to be offered as electives in all high schools at least once a year.

The debate around how themes of racial and ethnic identity are taught in schools and universities remains deeply contentious. The 2014 Supreme Court decision to weaken the Voting Rights Act threatens to politically dis-empower many of the voices in favor of these programs. Moreover, the 2016 election campaign and Trump’s victory buoyed extremist, right-wing proponents who have verbally attacked public and private institutions they perceive as “left-wing” spaces. This post briefly examines the politics of exclusion, in conjunction with neoliberal policies, which threaten to close access to diversity of opinion and hollow out the academic job market in the country.

One of our concerns is the chilling effect that extremist, right-wing rhetoric has on academia and on the job market for new academics. Providing announcements for job listings is an important part of the work that our blog offers as a service to readers. We want you to be aware of any openings that coincide with Borderlands history, Mexican history, Mexican-American history, Latinx/Chicanx Studies, Latin American Studies, and Ethnic/Racial Studies. Since January, we noted a marked decrease in the number of positions available for these fields compared to previous years. This drop follows reductions in the job market, which the American Historical Association has noted. For example, so far, for 2017, we’ve published three job postings for openings in our field, whereas by this time last year, we had published six postings.

Admittedly, this is a small, imperfect snapshot of the job market for historians, and there are limits to the conclusions we can reach. The information is anecdotal and dependent on human factors, including how often we check online for announcements or are informed about openings by other people and institutions.

Nevertheless, the job market cannot be isolated from the rest of society. As the AHA has recorded, the 2008 financial crisis had an enormous impact on the overall number of academic openings available for historians. The job numbers for our profession have struggled to recover from the post-2008 decline. Now, this problem is compounded by a series of state and national elections over recent years that have given an imprimatur to views in favor of limiting access to the liberal arts, while also giving voice to candidates spouting falsehoods or “alternative facts,” a popular term lending the appearance of veracity to untrue statements.

In this larger social context, we raise a pressing concern facing individuals and organizations: the urge to engage in self-censorship. In a heightened political climate, fraught with angry protesters (online and offline), cheered on by a pugilistic commander-in-chief, the urge to self-censor becomes more acute. The fear of reprisal increases a willingness to sidestep the thorny points in our public discussion about the direction our societies (and the world) are following.

A goal of our summer series about academia and activism is to reflect on our work as students and teachers of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Scholars should not stand by on the sidelines as universities and other important social institutions are dismantled by a wave of political leaders that see our organizations as effete threats to the “real America.” We join with other historians from the broader academic community who have discussed the need to engage with the public. As Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi have written further, scholars must take an active public role in defending the truth. Otherwise, we cede ground to forces that are antithetical to the liberal, democratic process. Attacks against the legitimacy of higher education, alongside the continued demolition of tenure and the professional academic career, threaten to remove an important voice from the public space.

An understanding of Borderlands history uncovers many of the contemporary political and social tensions facing the United States as deeply rooted in questions of identity formation and the forging of the nation-state. It is a history scarred by racism and ethnic division. Studying it closely shows that the Alt-Right, and other extremist voices are not new. They are woven into the country’s historical fabric. The toxic views that Trump spread about Mexicans, Central American immigrants, and other people, will not simply disappear if he fails to win reelection in 2020. These ideas have been given a voice, and are propped up by lucrative multimedia operations, online, and on television and radio, with an audience of millions.

Scholars have a responsibility to educate the public. We should not remain in the comfortable space of simply talking to one another in the so-called “ivory tower.” For historians, we must document and contextualize the longue durée of racism and prejudice in the United States and elsewhere. Specifically drawing on examples from the U.S.-Mexico borderlands shines a light on the open wounds of nationalism, state power, and identity. By taking a stand, and clearly articulating our narratives with students, and in public venues, we can respond to attacks by extremists who rely on falsehoods and misconceptions when forming their arguments. In doing so, we acknowledge the role that teachers and professors must play in the generational struggle to define our communities, hopefully pushing back against exclusionary narratives embedded in the creation and function of the nation-state.

Categories: Essay Series | Leave a comment

Summer Series 2017: Borderlands Historians in the Age of Trump

banner test

On 15 June 2017, the Arizona border patrol raided a humanitarian organization’s encampment just 15 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.  The organization known as No More Deaths gives water, food, and medical aid to migrants traversing this particularly inhospitable area of the desert.  Under an Obama-era agreement, organizations like No More Deaths and others, including Border Angels, were allowed to provide humanitarian relief to migrants in this region without fear of reprisal against them or those they sought to aid.  The founder of the group suggested that this recent raid was “clearly a strategy by the border patrol to cripple or even make moot the life-saving mission of a medical facility they agreed to respect.”  This raid came during a moment when temperatures far surpassed the three-digit mark.

In many ways this devastating news story serves as the perfect example of the ways in which this current administration has reacted towards the U.S.-Mexico border region and its people.  Trump’s main campaign promise hinged on the erection of a “big, beautiful wall” between Mexico and the United States and claimed Mexico would pay for it.  He also promised to deport between 2 and 3 million undocumented people. Trump has steadily increased the number of arrests of migrants surpassing his predecessor (Obama known by some Latino advocacy groups as the “deporter-in-chief”) during these same months, while detention centers across the country are brimming with immigrants—many of them in a state of legal limbo.

States like Texas have declared that they will not provide “sanctuary” for immigrants making it easier for local police forces to act as immigration agents and harassing people they perceive to be undocumented.  Republicans in this state have even gone as far as proposing legislation that would allow family detention centers licenses in order to operate as child care facilities—housing mothers and their children, including babies. While past administrations put into place the border control mechanisms in use today, Trump’s administration has unleashed what little restraint existed among law enforcement agencies along the line. Meanwhile conservative politicians are at the ready to provide legislative cover for Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric.

The Borderlands History blog has done its best to write about the history of this region, but in the last few months we have spent equal time worrying about the present.  More specifically we are concerned about Trump’s rise and how it is affecting the border, its people, and how, going forward, scholars will produce scholarship about this area.  Indeed, fiscal attacks on the Humanities in general and bullying of scholars speaking out against racism and sexism specifically are cause for alarm.  We decided to use our platform on the blog to fight back.  Along with protesting in the streets, organizing on the ground, and fighting in the courts, we must also write against it.  Our craft must provide vital information to counter the barrage of fallacies emitted by the White House and its surrogates.  This is how we resist.

Borderlands Historians in the Age of Trump is our 2017 summer series, developed in order to have a radical discussion about what we, as borderlands historians, can do and have been doing in order to persist against this administration.  Our contributors are answering questions on various topics related to our field, namely: How can our scholarship impact people living in the borderlands today? How can our research provide vital information to counter the “fake news” provided by the current administration about the U.S.-Mexico border? How has teaching changed leading up to this historical moment? How will we teach borderlands history in the future? How should we engage institutions when we seek to make our research more accessible to the public? How can we work with organizations/individuals outside of academia to assist the communities we study to vigorously #ResistTrump? How can we collaborate with each other to continue to produce scholarship that will at the very least disrupt this new regime?

Violence in the borderlands is not a new phenomenon, nor are censorship and corporatism new to academia, but these systems, put into place by neoliberal forces in the past, will prove deadlier and more destructive than ever under this new administration.  In order to hold fast against this tyrannical onslaught that seeks to erase us and our work in order to “Make America Great Again,” we must harness all of our skills—reading, writing, and YES critical analysis!  In order preserve the Humanities we must first defend our humanity, and write on.

Stay tuned for future posts in this series and be sure to comment below with ideas, thoughts, or critiques!

Categories: Essay Series | Leave a comment

Internal Colonialism and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands: Reflections from a Panel at LASA 2017 in Lima

In his recent groundbreaking book, journalist Chris Hayes characterizes the erratic U.S. criminal justice system as “a colony in a nation,” adding a highly original new voice to the growing body of literature on the modern carceral state.[1] Hayes argues that the system consists of “two distinct regimes…[one] (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land.”[2] As such, the criminal justice system, for Hayes, exists largely as a mechanism created by the state through democratic means in order to control a large portion of the U.S. population—in this case, African Americans, in particular.

This idea that African Americans are a colonized people in the United States is not necessarily a new one. Famed sociologist W.E.B. DuBois wrote of African Americans as a “nation within a nation” as early as 1935; even Richard M. Nixon noted in his 1968 Republican National Convention speech that African Americans “don’t want to be a colony in a nation.”[3] Nonetheless, in casting the criminal justice system as a colony existing inside the borders of the United States, Hayes revives a long-dismissed idea that holds significance on multiple levels, including—as I will suggest here—the relationship between the United States and its border with Mexico as well as the Hispanic population that traces its roots to the North American Southwest.

The idea that ethnic minorities could be colonized, oftentimes in native homelands that exist inside the borders of modern nation-states—which, essentially, is the fundamental essence of internal colonial theory—first gained purchase during the 1960s. One of the first scholars to apply this idea to interethnic relations was the Mexican sociologist Pablo González-Casanova, who focused on the abuses that Indians suffered at the hands of Spaniards and criollos in Mexico. One of the first scholars to apply internal colonialism in an effort to explain the oppression of Mexican Americans was the sociologist Joan Moore in a 1970 article; two years later, another sociologist, Robert Blauner, utilized the framework in order to explain the oppression of ethnic minorities in the United States more broadly. Finally, famed Chicano historian Rodolfo Acuña used internal colonialism in the first edition of his now-classic survey text, Occupied America.[4]

Internal colonialism’s popularity among sociologists as well as historians, however, quickly faded. Part of this stemmed from more empirically based critiques of the idea, such as that of Gilbert G. González, who in a 1974 article argued that Chicanos did not constitute a nation given that they held no contiguous territory and lacked a national economy; thus, they could not exist as a colonized people. More recently, social historians’ desires to represent the lived agency of oppressed groups has also contributed to a shift away from finding any widespread utility in internal colonialism.[5]

Nonetheless, a small but seemingly growing number of scholars is once again utilizing internal colonialism with particular regard to the relationship between the United States, the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and the millions of ethnic Mexicans who call that region home. Leading this group is historian John Chávez of Southern Methodist University, who has written widely on the subject and who also recently assembled a panel of historians to promote the utility of internal colonialism for understanding borderlands history at the 2017 Latin American Studies Association in Lima, Peru.[6] The rest of this post will provide a summary analysis of the panelists’ discussion in order to provide a window on how internal colonialism might be useful in raising questions about U.S.-Mexico borderlands history, not to mention some of the latest applications of the model as reflected by three works-in-progress.[7]

John Chávez’s paper, “Ethnic Mexicans, Indigeneity, and Internal Colonialism in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands” offers some innovative perspectives on internal colonialism. Chávez grounds his analysis of internal colonialism in the borderlands by emphasizing the concept of “homeland,” which, for ethnic Mexicans, stretches up from modern-day Mexico to include much of the U.S. Southwest, or, the territory lost by the Mexican state at the conclusion of the U.S.-Mexico War in 1848. Chávez argues that this homeland—as well as ethnic homelands, in general—are often imprecise due to their inclusion of ethnic settlements as well as the geographic demarcations of national politics or even the complex subtleties of international diplomacy. Mexican Americans, in particular, are native to the North American Southwest due to historical ties with American Indians as well as Spaniards dating back to the colonial period.

For Chávez, casting the North American Southwest as a colonized space inside of U.S. borders is helpful because it complicates oftentimes oversimplified arguments that Mexicans do not have proper claims to residency or citizenship in the United States. Chávez utilizes the place of his mother’s birth, California, to prove this as well as to show the complex nature of internal colonialism. Mission Indians in California intermixed with Spaniards to produce a detribalized mestizo class, who became the majority citizens in California after Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821. A second cycle of colonialism occurred when the United States invaded California during the U.S.-Mexico War, leading to the eventual domination of the natives and mixed groups in yet another new social hierarchy.

Ultimately, the importance of all of this for Chávez is rather personal: he and his mother are related to the native Tongva of California, meaning that they “belong to a mestizo people constantly regarded as foreign in the U.S.” Given that the media as well as the U.S. educational system generally cast ethnic Mexicans as recent immigrants to the United States—more so than their European-immigrant counterparts—Chávez concludes his analysis by demonstrating that the tracking of mitochondrial DNA demonstrates not only their indigeneity to the region but also the status of ethnic Mexicans in the North American Southwest as people having long been colonized in their own homeland.

My own paper, “Agricultural South Texas as an Internal Colony of the United States,” argues two things: first, that the stretches of South Texas between the Nueces River and the Río Grande that are devoted to agriculture—primarily, the Lower Río Grande Valley—became colonized by Euroamericans after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848; and second, that the Valley itself is still an internal colony of the United States today.

My purpose in presenting these arguments was simply to explore what I consider to be the persistence of internal colonialism in the Valley during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as opposed to simply exploring its historical antecedents, which I have written on elsewhere. The nexus of expansion, U.S. imperialism, border controls, wealth polarization, and racial hierarchy led to Euroamericans colonizing this border space during the late 1800s and early 1900s, transfiguring large portions of it from being a space dominated by Tejano ranchers into what I call an “Iowa on the border.” This process accelerated during the first three decades of the twentieth century when land agents promoted the region as an agricultural empire by bombarding farmers in other parts of the United States with pamphlets and other promotional literature, showing that the Valley had one primary exploitable “natural resource”—that of human capital. The resulting dehumanization of ethnic Mexicans in the minds of the new Euroamerican South Texans can be seen through the later establishment of Jim Crow regulations, voter suppression, debt peonage, and a host of other wrongs committed against ethnic Mexicans in the region through the middle of the century.

Although the arrival of the Chicano Movement—with its emphasis on civil rights as well as a sense of the region being a small part of Aztlán, or, the ethnic-Mexican homeland—dismantled much of the repressive colonial mechanisms in the Valley, a case could be made that the region remains an internal colony of the United States. Although the region’s inhabitants enjoy a wide variety of material improvements as well degrees of upward social mobility not known to past generations, the region still ranks among one of the more economically depressed in the United States. President Donald Trump’s calls for a bigger border wall, combined with numerous border checkpoints miles north of the Río Grande, indicate the region’s bureaucratic as well as political, social, and cultural “apartness” from the rest of the United States. Increased numbers of deportations under Presidents Obama and Trump along with some state agents’ suspicious sidelong glances at the corporeal belonging in the United States of any ethnic Mexicans indicate a belief that, for millions of Americans, undocumented immigrants and ethnic Mexicans might not even belong in the Southwestern United States at all.

Finally, historian John Weber has written that the exploitive “South Texas model of labor relations” as seen in the Valley became copied nationwide over the course of the twentieth century;[8] one might also suggest that the neoliberal economic policies that have allowed U.S. corporations to cross the border during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in order to take advantage of cheap Mexican labor serve as an extension of the United States’s longstanding colonial relationship with ethnic Mexicans and Mexico, itself. Human capital remains an exploitable “natural resource” on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border in the early twenty-first century.

Culture, of course, cannot be ignored. Mary Lee Grant’s paper, “Reiterating the Metaphor of the Conqueror: Internal Colonialism in the Art of 20th Century Mexican-American Women,” explores how internal colonialism is reflected by the works of borderlands singer and actress Rosita Fernández and visual artist Consuelo “Chelo” González-Amezcua. These women, argues Grant, lived in an intellectual, spiritual, and creative borderland in which cultural hybridity led to inventive new means of expression. Both women launched their careers before the Chicano Era of the 1960s and 70s; as such, what Grant refers to as “the devaluing lenses of both Spanish and Anglo-American culture” brought themselves to bear in a time period before ethnic-Mexican women could gain anything even remotely close to widespread acceptance in the realms of performance or visual art.

Women like Fernández and González-Amezcua thus had to break loose from a wide variety of stereotypes in order to have voices as artists. In fact, both women used such stereotypes to their advantage. Fernández’s performances in San Antonio during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s stand out as bold and in direct defiance of the ubiquitous mechanisms of state-based colonialism. With her china poblana costume and her dark hair pulled back in a chignon, Fernández boldly proclaimed her Mexicanness during a time of mass deportations, increased border policing, and even pressure from Mexican Americans to demonstrate a sense of belonging by adapting to middle-class Anglo-American culture.

González-Amezcua stood out as a creation of the borderlands, identifying as both Texan and Mexican equally. Only educated through the sixth grade, González-Amezcua produced poetry as well as drawings that she exhibited widely in Texas and Mexico. Despite her success—her art was later accentuated thanks to the Chicano Movement—she struggled throughout life as a candy seller and later as a department store clerk in Del Rio, oftentimes unable to afford to purchase the necessary materials to produce her art. Grant rightly poses the question of whether or not an Anglo woman from the same time period would have had a better chance than González-Amezcua to succeed as an artist. “Perhaps not,” Grant concludes, but she also rightly adds that an Anglo woman would have at least had access to education in a language that she understood while also not having to face endemic ethnic discrimination. Indeed, the creative works of both González-Amezcua as well as Fernández cannot be separated from their status as colonized women, caught in between a variety of worlds and pressures in a borderlands space.

None of the abovementioned papers should be considered the last word on their respective subjects. Indeed, all represent various works in-progress that have not yet faced the rigors of peer review; nonetheless, they all have the same fundamental goal—promoting internal colonialism as a valuable intellectual tool for understanding the recent past in U.S.-Mexico borderlands history. Hopefully other scholars will see the utility of internal colonialism and join the small but growing chorus of scholars in interrogating the many and complicated histories of the borderlands by applying this theoretical model in their own works. Time will tell.

Notes

[1] Chris Hayes, A Colony in a Nation (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2017). For some examples of the growing scholarly literature on the carceral state, see, for example, Kelly Lytle Hernández, Khalil Gibran Muhammed, and Heather Ann Thompson, “Introduction: Constructing the Carceral State,” Journal of American History 102:1 (June 2015): 18-24; and, Kelly Lytle Hernández, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[2] Hayes, A Colony in a Nation, 32.

[3] Ibid., 30, 31.

[4] Pablo González-Casanova, “Sociedad plural, colonialismo interno y desarrollo,” América Latina 6:3 (1963): 15-32; Joan W. Moore, “Colonialism: The Case of the Mexican Americans,” Social Problems 17 (1963): 463-472; Robert Blauner, Racial Oppression in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1972); Rodolfo Acuña, Occupied America: The Chicano Struggle Toward Liberation (New York: Harper and Row, 1972).

[5] John R. Chávez, “Aliens in their Native Lands: The Persistence of Internal Colonial Theory,” Journal of World History 22 (December 2011): 790-791, 795; Gilbert G. González, “A Critique of the Internal Colonial Model,” Latin American Perspectives 1 (Spring 1974): 154-161. For further criticisms of internal colonialism, see, Robert J. Hind, “The Internal Colonial Concept,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (July 1984): 543-568.

[6] John R. Chávez is the leading historian who is working toward promoting internal colonialism’s usefulness to historians. For examples of his work, see, Chávez, “Aliens in their Native Lands;” Chávez, “When Borders Cross Peoples: The Internal Colonial Challenge to Borderlands Theory,” Journal of Borderlands Studies 28:1 (2013): 33-46; and, Chávez, Beyond Nations: Evolving Homelands in the North Atlantic World, 1400-2000 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 163, 164-165, 166. For a few additional recent examples, see, Steven Sabol, “Comparing American and Russian Internal Colonialism: The ‘Touch of Civilization’ on the Sioux and Kazakhs,” Western Historical Quarterly 43:2 (Spring 2012): 29-51; and, Sabol, “The Touch of Civilization: Comparing American and Russian Internal Colonization” (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2017).

[7] Readers will please note that the following papers are all in-progress works that should not be cited.

[8] For more, see, John Weber, From South Texas to the Nation: The Exploitation of Mexican Labor in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Categories: conferences, Essay Series, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Conference Notes: Borders, Braceros and Mobility at CALACS 2017

This year was my first time attending the Canadian Association of Latin American and Caribbean Studies conference, which was held at the University of Guelph in early June. The theme was “Walls, Barriers, and Mobility” fitting for the global political realities facing all of us.

edf

University of Guelph

The panel I was on included Catherine Vézina, my colleague at CIDE, Irina Córdoba Ramírez, from the Colegio de México, and Mateo J. Carrillo of Stanford. Our topic was “Migración y movilidad transfronterizas: logística y política, 1940s-1960s,” with the goal of integrating a discussion of policy around the Bracero program with discussion of infrastructure development in northern Mexico. We were scheduled to give the session at 8:30am, Sunday morning, the last day of the conference. It’s not the ideal time to discuss economic and labor policy along the​ US-Mexico border, but I was excited to see that we had a small audience who had some great questions for us after we delivered the papers.

The session began with my work, titled, “Trade and Travel across the Border: Examining the Social, Commercial, and Labor Ties between Nuevo León and Texas, 1940s-1960s.” I gave a general overview of economic development and social ties in northeastern Mexico, focused on the relationships between business people in Monterrey, Nuevo León, and their Texan counter parts in the Rio Grande Valley. In the late 19th-century and early-to-mid 20th century, public and private cooperation facilitated growth; by the end of World War II, presidents Manuel Ávila Camacho and Franklin Delano Roosevelt met in Monterrey, calling the US-Mexico borderlands a “natural bridge” between the “Anglo-saxon and Latin cultures.”

During the 1950s and early 1960s, the business elites in the region continued to forge closer ties. At the same time as national policy and public opinion, in both countries, drifted away from bilateral agreements like the Bracero program. US and Mexican political leaders increasingly backed moves for greater restrictions on immigration and trade, respectively.

Following me, Catherine gave a detailed history of the diplomatic relationship between Mexico and the United States around the Bracero program, titled, “Destino: incierto. Malos tratos e intervención gubernamental en la reglamentación el transporte de los braceros.” She showed that shortly after the Second World War, politicians and publics in both countries, had begun to turn on the Mexican temporary workers who came to the United States under the Farm Labor Agreement of 1942.

During the war, they had been hailed as heroes who contributed to the Allied effort against fascism. But, as Catherine explained, priorities changed after the war; the Mexican government increasingly viewed the Braceros as a political problem, while in the Mexican press, these workers were often depicted as traitors and vendepatrias for having left. Likewise, in the United States, a combination of factors, including criticism of workers’ treatment by contractors, union skepticism, and racist views of Mexicans, condemned the Braceros in US public opinion.

Irina continued the discussion of the Bracero program and its participants. Hers was a cultural and oral history, titled, “Dinámicas locales en la contratación de trabajadores agrícolas dentro del Programa Bracero: los casos de las estaciones migratorias de Chihuahua y Mexicali.” It focused on the everyday impact of the Bracero program on the lives of the men who became a part of it. Irina described the recruitment centers in Mexico that processed applicants, evaluating their ability to work as farmhands and conducting medical tests to assure health.

Even as the project came under growing criticism, men continued to arrive at recruitment centers to escape unemployment or more difficult conditions in other parts of Mexico. The process was deeply politicized; state leaders demanded that in return for hosting a recruitment center, their workers should be given priority in the application process. The centers became a kind of release valve for the pressure of economic conditions in northern Mexico, allowing local men to be funneled more easily through the process of applying and going to work in the United States. When the men returned, however, they faced public scorn by some for having participated.

Lastly, Mateo (who also won the award for Best Graduate Essay at the conference, this year) presented his work, “Migrant Flows: Irrigation and Transformation in Western Mexico, 1946-1964.” He described economic conditions in western Mexico, starting with President Miguel Alemán’s support for local agriculture. Mateo notes that where roads were built, so too were irrigation networks. This relationship was crucial to improving regional mobility, and connecting rural communities to access with credit to grow their farms and ranches.

The idea of this policy was to expand work opportunities in Mexico, but other results materialized. The small loans that campesinos received for installation of irrigation could be difficult to repay. When they fell in arrears, the government had the power to cut off the waters worsening the situation, and forcing people to sell and give up their lands. As land was consolidated by business and political cronies, local people were forced to go elsewhere in search of work, including crossing the border with the United States.

As a whole, the papers captured a wide swath of geographical, political, and class factors in Mexico during the mid-to-late 20th century. Northern elites benefitted well from ties with Americans, while poor and working-class people faced loss of land or public scorn if they went to work in the United States. Although the border had long been a zone of fluid trade and mobility with heavy investment in industry and infrastructure, government policies and public opinion gradually shifted to efforts that restricted border spaces. The decline of the Bracero program underscored these factors, where public anger, worker mistreatment, and suspicion of “the other” made its existence increasingly untenable.

At the same time, the benefits of infrastructure development could oftentimes​ be limited, and even possibly detrimental for the communities they were intended to serve. Bad loan terms and aggressive payment enforcement transformed people’s lives for the worse, not better. As today’s political leaders, particularly in the United States, stoke old fears and resentments, our panel at CALACS highlighted the long legacy of tension on the border around trade, labor, and mobility, and the outsized impact national and bilateral policies can have on everyday life in the US-Mexico borderlands.

Categories: conferences, Essay Series | 1 Comment

Border Tourism, National Security, and “the Other”: Trump’s Gilded Age in Historical Perspective

This post is adapted from a conference presentation the author gave at the XII Jornadas Internacionales: Historia, Patrimonia y Frontera delivered at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California in Tijuana on May 5th, 2017. It is drawn, in part, from his work on road building and motor mobility in Mexico, which has been published in Mexican Studies and the Journal of Transport History. -ed

From the lobby of his gold-plated tower, when Donald Trump announced his intention to run for president, he called Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals.” On the campaign trail, he repeatedly spoke about Mexico as a dangerous place to justify the construction of a physical barrier on the US southern border. In one debate, he referred to undocumented immigrants as “bad hombres” who would be deported once he was elected. This rhetoric is hurtful and gross, but it is not new.

It is part of a historical process with deep roots in racism and prejudice that has marked social, cultural, political, and economic relations between Mexico and the United States. This post looks briefly at this history during the twentieth century, focusing on the way that tourism, security and mobility in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands have shaped the question of “otherness” and continue to shade cultural perceptions in both countries.

To begin, it is important to recognize the place of automobility and road building, not only as markers of economic power, but also technological “progress,” and implicitly whiteness, in urban places. In the 1920s and 1930s, as William D. Estrada writes, Los Angeles was transformed spatially by white elites who saw the new City Hall as representative of the city’s future. The old city plaza, which had been renamed Olvera Street, was relegated to secondary status and exoticized as part of LA’s Spanish and Mexican past. Going forward, that generation of urban planners remade Los Angeles as a place that would become dominated by the automobile as new highways in the 1940s stretched across the land. Gripped by racial and class tensions, the decision to build highways oftentimes lead to the destruction of many working-class and poor communities as well as communities of color in LA, Chicago, New York City, Houston, El Paso, and elsewhere.

In the 1930s, as the Great Depression ravaged the United States, public opinion turned on immigrants and ethnic minorities present in the borderlands. As Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymon Rodríguez have carefully documented, the United States deported large numbers of Mexican immigrants, arguing that they were a burden on the country’s economy. In the process, U.S. citizens of Mexican descent were illegally deported due to racist attitudes. It is a history with striking discursive parallels to the issue of deportations after the 2008 economic crash, where the argument was made that immigrants “take jobs” from citizens. Likewise, the deportation state that has grown up under Bush, Obama, and Trump forced children—U.S. citizens—to leave the country following the removal of one or both of their undocumented parents.

Yet, there has long been two sides to the U.S. cultural narrative about Mexico. Whereas a strong social discourse that views the country as dangerous, and has attached notions of criminality and disease to its people, there is also a history of exoticism. Mexico has long served as a space where U.S. citizens, especially white men, could escape the local cultural restrictions back home. During Prohibition, Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and other border cities enjoyed a robust vice trade fueled by Americans. Tourism to Mexico is marked by this duality of danger and desire, which is essential to how “otherness” has been constructed in U.S. popular narratives.

The view of Mexico as dangerous “other” influenced the local tourism industry, too. For instance, in Nuevo León, during the 1930s and 1940s, as new border highways linked the capital of Monterrey to cities and towns in Texas, the regional chambers of commerce were concerned about crafting a positive image to U.S. visitors. One of the ways they did so was in transit policy on rural highways and city streets. Business leaders complained about the dangers posed by cattle along highways. The militarized Federal Road Police had a small, but well publicized footprint along the fledgling Pan-American Highway. Municipal officials worked to make Monterrey safe for drivers. Not only did it benefit well-to-do foreign visitors exploring the area in motorist clubs, but it also fit with the predominant narrative of the time about automobility. For a city to embrace modernity and “progress” it had to transform into a place that facilitated motor travel. In Monterrey, the government regulated pedestrian and bicycle traffic, prioritized the right-of-way for automobiles, and for a time, outlawed the animal-drawn carts in downtown.

Mexicans writing about the country for U.S. audiences were cognizant of this dichotomy in perception. Anita Brenner, originally from Aguascalientes, wrote for the New York Times about the industrial and economic changes occurring in her native country. She described how Monterrey’s factories dwarfed its churches, strolling had been abandoned in favor of punctuality at work (thanks to American influence), and where “smoothly tailored, quick-eyed men driving new cars” was a common sight. Implicit to this narrative was the tension between an exotic past and a technological present; where the past was embodied by the customs and routines of local, everyday life and the present represented economic change, commoditization, and Americanization.

World War II and its aftermath opened a new chapter in this history with the Bracero program. A 1942 bilateral agreement that brought millions of Mexican workers to labor in U.S. agriculture, it was later criticized by American unions as a threat to U.S. citizens. The agreement also found enemies among religious organizations, including the Catholic Church, due to the awful living conditions that many workers encountered on farms in California and other states. In response to diverse criticism, the U.S. government ended the agreement in 1964, during a time of significant social and cultural change occurring in the United States. The following year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act into law, which replaced many of the racist policies of the 1924 National Origins Act, allowing for greater immigration from Asia. At the same time, however, it placed a limit on the number of work visas granted to people living in Latin America. In subsequent years, this policy led to the arrival of millions of undocumented immigrants, many of them from Mexico.

During the 1980s and 1990s, immigrant social networks, state and private infrastructure, and labor market demand facilitated undocumented mobility even as Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton militarized the border. One illustrative case was the need for thousands of workers in Atlanta to prepare for the 1996 Olympics. Established communities of Mexican immigrants in northern Georgia had enjoyed regular bus service to the border for years, and had also built an extensive network of social support among families and churches in the area. People arrived in the state looking for work and taking jobs in sectors that desperately needed laborers in the early 1990s as the city faced steep construction deadlines ahead of the international games. Although hundreds of miles from the borderlands, social ties and economic demand transformed Atlanta into a different kind of “border” city as people arrived from Mexico and other Latin American countries, diversifying the local black-white cultural binary.

It is this dynamic growth in immigrant communities—documented and undocumented—that became an obsession for some in the United States in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and later the 2008 economic collapse. They argued that mobility needed to be restricted; walls needed to be built. Technologies developed for the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars were increasingly applied to policing efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border, and enforcing the U.S.-backed war on drugs in Mexico under President Felipe Calderon.

Amid all of these factors emerged a New York real estate developer with a big ego and willingness to show it on social media. Trump tapped into this long history of fear of “the other” in the United States and turned it on minorities and foreigners, singling out Mexico for especially harsh criticism. He used coded, as well as explicit, language to make his case, drawing on deep-seeded cultural prejudices to do so.

Yet, after his election win, as Trump prepared to enter the White House buoyed by nationalist “America First” rhetoric, millions of Americans still made plans to visit Mexico for spring break or head out on cruises to Cancún, Cozumel and other popular resort destinations. Even as Mexico was demonized in the political discourse as a place of criminals, danger, and disease, it remained an “exotic” locale where American citizens could escape to feed their cravings. Desire and danger; tourism and security; they are binaries with a deep and painful history for Mexico and the United States. It goes back more than 150 years, to the wound of 1848, and goes forward into the racist policies of the early twentieth century, continues into the misguided laws of the postwar era, and continues to shape the relationship between these countries in Trump’s gilded age.

Further reading

Balderrama, Francisco E. and Raymond Rodríguez. Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Berger, Dina and Andrew Grant Wood, eds. Holiday in Mexico: Critical Reflections on Tourism and Tourist Encounters. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Caro, Robert. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Knopf, 1974.

Delgado Wise, Raúl and Margarita Favela. Nuevas tendencias y desafios de la migración internacional México-Estados Unidos. Zacatecas: Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, 2004.

Estrada, William D. The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.

Featherstone, Mike, Nigel Thrift, and John Urry. Automobilities. London: Sage Publications, 2005.

Freeman, J. Brian. “Driving Pan-Americanism: The Imagination of a Gulf of Mexico Highway,” Journal of Latino-Latin American Studies 3, no. 4 (September 2009): 56-68.

———-. “‘La carrera de la muerte’: Death, Driving, and Rituals of Modernization in 1950s Mexico.” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture Vol. 29 (2011): 2-23.

Gómez, José A. Gobierno y casinos: El origen de la riqueza de Abelardo L. Rodríguez. Mexicali: Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, 2002.

Haber, Stephen. Industry and Underdevelopment: The Industrialization of Mexico, 1890-1940. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989.

Hogenboom, Barbara. Mexico and the NAFTA Environment Debate: The Transnational Politics of Economic Integration. Utrecht, The Netherlands: International Books, 1998.

Kochut, Beata and Jeffrey M. Humphreys, eds. Going North: Mexican Immigrants in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Atlanta: Selig Center, 2006.

Lorey, David. The U.S.-Mexican Border. Wilmigton, Del: SR Books, 1999.

Mom, Gijs. Atlantic Automobilism: The Emergence and Persistence of the Car, 1895-1940. New York: Berghahn, 2015.

Murphy, Arthur D., Colleen Blanchard, and Jennifer A. Hall, eds. Latino Workers in the Contemporary South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

Norton, Peter D. Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. Boston: MIT Press, 2011.

Stern, Alexandra M. “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood: Medicalization and Nation-Building on the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1910-1930.” The Hispanic American Historical Review. Vol. 79, No. 1 (Feb. 1999): 41-81.

Vézina, Catherine. “Labor strategies and agribusiness counterstrike during the Bracero Era: the peculiar case of the National Farm Labor Union, 1946–1952.” Labor History Vol 57, No. 2 (2016): 235-257.

Categories: Essay Series | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Essay Series | Leave a comment

“We’re Ready to Penalize Anyone Who Drives Badly:” Monterrey, Motor Accidents, and early 1950s U.S. Border Tourism

The following post is drawn from research the author has conducted for his forthcoming book, Routes of Compromise: Building Roads and Shaping the Nation in Mexico, to be published by University of Nebraska Press (2017). For further reading, Mike has also written about this subject for the Journal of Transport History, which can be accessed here. -ed

The early 1950s represented an optimistic time for many people living in northern Mexico. Millions of dollars of investments in industrialization and transportation infrastructure that came from the United States during the Second World War promised to buttress a new period of rapid economic growth. Following years of wartime austerity, local businesses hoped to take advantage of improved mobility across the borderlands to cater to American tourists eager to visit their southern neighbor on driving excursions.

One of the fears that most concerned Mexican business leaders, however, was the perception of the country as dangerous, not only from armed violence, but also poor road conditions and a lack of police enforcement of road safety. For instance, highway robbery was not unheard of; in May 1931, thieves dressed as tourists mugged drivers who stopped to help on the road to Laredo, Texas. Nuevo León’s El Porvenir called the crime “scandalous” and lamented that the actions of these individuals damaged Mexico’s reputation, making the country appear unsafe for motorists. In 1936, the same newspaper described a “mafia” setting up occasional roadblocks along the highway, extorting motorists for payments. Federal and state governments made concerted efforts to address this issue, beginning as early as the 1920s with the creation of a road-building bureaucracy and highway police force.

Nevertheless, safety issues remained salient for many years. In the bustling industrial city of Monterrey, capital of Nuevo León state in northeastern Mexico, frustration over public safety on the region’s roads came to a head in the early 1950s. First, in June 1950, a U.S. family from Pennsylvania was involved in a devastating car accident outside of the town of Ciénaga de Flores, Nuevo León. Their 1949-model Packard sedan had been negotiating sharp mountainous curves when it collided with a cargo truck traveling in the opposite direction. Two sisters, eighteen and twelve years old, died at the scene, while Red Cross ambulances rushed the remaining family members to a local hospital for treatment. El Norte published images of the destroyed vehicle, while the public outcry that followed again expressed fears that similar accidents could irrevocably tarnish the country’s image as a desirable foreign tourist destination.

Two years later, another high-profile collision shocked the public in Nuevo León and finally forced an official response. On the morning of 31 July 1952, a crowded motorbus traveling down a major street in Monterrey collided with an 18-ton trailer that failed to heed a stop sign. The force of the crash caused the bus to roll onto its side, injuring thirty-three passengers, some with severe head trauma and others with body parts crushed or severed. Although many were hospitalized, no one died in the accident. The trucker, Javier Hernández de la Torre, told transit authorities that he had tried to slow down, but his vehicle’s breaks failed. A police officer who witnessed the scene testified that he saw the trailer moving at excessive speed and that the driver took no defensive action until it was too late. Authorities arrested Hernández along with the 18-year-old city bus driver, José Gonzalez, for having allowed too many passengers onboard his vehicle.

In its coverage of the incident, the state newspaper El Norte blamed the trucking company, Transportes Anáhuac, for its negligent driver. Reporters labeled Hernández a dangerous “loco del volante” (crazed driver) from out of state, unfamiliar with Monterrey’s roads. They also chided transit officials for not doing enough to prevent overcrowded busing.

In the coming days, El Norte decried the high rates of motor accidents in Monterrey and the rest of Nuevo León. The Anáhuac case was one of three that appeared in the newspaper’s August 1st edition; other stories published that Friday described reckless driving by an American visitor from Iowa that led to a crash with a city taxi as well as two serious accidents on the Monterrey-San Pedro Highway due to poor road and weather conditions.

Subsequently, in a front-page essay on 3 August, El Norte called July a “prodigious month” for crashes, stating that almost two hundred people had been injured and ten killed on roads in and around the state capital. It called bus drivers who permitted overcrowding “criminally irresponsible” and bemoaned the lack of adequate law enforcement of municipal and regional motorways. An editorialist asked if the situation would ever improve.

El Norte ran a dozen major stories over the next four weeks related to the problem of motor accidents. It frequently used words such as “tremendous” and “tragic” to describe these incidents, often publishing images of destroyed vehicles and occasionally of the victims as well. The newspaper took on a crusading tone, urging state and municipal authorities to do more to reduce safety risks on Nuevo León’s roads. It reported bad driving conditions on the pockmarked highway to Saltillo and complained that poor garbage pickup on city streets created unsightly roadside hazards and was “out of tune with Monterrey’s progressive beat.” It also criticized uneven sidewalks, depicting them as dangerous in a four-column article with a series of accompanying photographs, insisting city officials to act. Late-summer coverage emphasized the threat of unregulated transit spaces to public safety, calling for greater amounts of investment in road infrastructure, maintenance, and policing to mitigate harm.

Soon after, state and city officials began addressing the problems the press had exposed. In September, Monterrey’s transit chief commented publicly, “For much too long [we have] been extremely lenient… we are ready to penalize anyone who drives badly, no matter who they are.” He unveiled sweeping changes to transit laws and enforcement, raising penalties to as much as 500 pesos per infraction, depending on the gravity of the offense. The city also revised bus routes, restricted heavy trucks downtown, and made structural improvements to infrastructure while the state government increased spending on highway patrols.

The goal was to project confidence on roads for residents and tourists alike, but the new policies appeared to have been too sharp of a reaction to the status quo. Within weeks, businesses began to complain that revised bus routes in Monterrey had reduced local traffic to their stores. Picturesque streets were largely empty of tourists, while along the city’s periphery a spike in accidents was reported due to heavy traffic as trucks and buses were diverted to these areas. Moreover, businesses worried that the aggressive enforcement of driving rules would scare away tourists and foreigners.

Critics quickly turned on the reforms, including El Norte’s editorialists who called for a policy review to be carried out by local officials, the business community, and the state university. By the end of October 1952, a commission had formed to address the issue, while most of the severe enforcement activities were reined in by city leaders.

This period of frustration and inaction led to a short, sharp shock of overreaction by zealous officials who wanted to dramatically transform perceptions about mobility in their city and region. They had responded to public calls from newspapers and private businesses to do more to improve safety conditions on roads and in public transportation. The local tourism industry wanted to ensure Monterrey and nearby towns were amenable to middle-class tourists, many of them arriving from across the border. The challenges that policymakers faced, and the new problems that arose following the implementation of reforms, underscored the fact that mobility was deeply tied to considerations of power and access that had long affected (and continue to affect) everyday life along the U.S.-Mexico border. In trying to make Monterrey “safer” officials learned that their decisions could lead to unintended consequences that forced a reappraisal of the entire endeavor.

Editor: An earlier version incorrectly stated that the automobile accident in Cienaga de Flores, Nuevo León and the bus accident in Monterrey occurred in the same year. In fact, they occurred in 1950 and 1952, respectively. The post has been corrected and revised accordingly.

Categories: Essay Series | Leave a comment

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.

 

Categories: Essay Series | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.