By Joel Zapata, PhD Candidate, Clements Department of History, Southern Methodist University
While the Trump Administration and Congress negotiate the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, the family visa system, along with border security and border fencing, millions of immigrants’ lives remain in limbo. The negotiations ensue as partisan lines harden on immigration and xenophobia increases in the public domain. However, the too often ignored story of mass migrant deaths in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands tells us that no one political party or social group holds a historic monopoly on either side of the immigration debate or on the treatment of immigrants. Indeed, the mass deaths of migrants partly originate with policies created and supported by Mexican Americans attempting to prevent Border Patrol abuse of U.S. citizens. In the borderlands, migrant lives and the struggle for U.S. citizenship rights along with the claiming of Americanism by Mexicans Americans have come to a head, leaving the promise of social justice for all ethnic Mexicans and other Latina/os in the United States unfulfilled. And as debates about immigration, border security, and border barriers continue, migrants are still dying in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands’ arid terrain while seeking to fill job openings in the growing U.S. economy.
As various scholars and public intellectuals have argued, migrant deaths are primarily rooted in the funneling of unauthorized workers and their families through inhospitable desert terrain that is meant to act as a natural wall outside of closely monitored urban areas. The channeling of migrants towards dangerous dessert terrain, “where they [have] succumbed to dehydration, hyperthermia, or heat stroke,” in the thousands, can be traced to the inception of Operation Hold the Line, which the El Paso Border Patrol Sector Chief, Silvestre Reyes, implemented in 1993 along the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez border. Reyes, a Mexican American who was born and raised in the El Paso area, stationed Border Patrol agents “every several hundred feet directly along the border…effectively build[ing] a human wall between” the two cities. Such Border Patrol operations soon extended across other urbanized sections of the U.S.-Mexico border. Since the 2006 passage of the Secure Fence Act, these Border Patrol operations have been further supplemented by monumental border walls, guard towers, infrared cameras, and aerial surveillance—a “manufactural landscape with a single purpose….to halt illegal immigration into the United States.” Because of Border Patrol’s accumulation of resources in urban areas, seventeen hundred migrants died between 1994 and 2000 while traversing remote desert areas where urban Border Patrol policing funneled them. In the desolate desert areas of Arizona’s Pima County alone, the yearly number of migrant deaths through much of the first decade of the twenty-first century averaged at one hundred and fifty. The natural wall effectively stopped migrants through death. Ultimately, migrant deaths are rooted in state policies that Border Patrol agents and other government agents enforce.
Through Operation Hold the Line, Border Patrol originally intended to move its agents away from the streets of El Paso and thus reduce harassment of Mexican American who looked “illegal” (ethnically or phenotypically Mexican) to its agents. In essence, “Reyes attempted to protect the citizenship rights of Mexican Americans by focusing Border Patrol resources on the physical boundary” of the Rio Grande. As a result, grievances by Mexican Americans against the Border Patrol significantly declined. The El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gave Reyes a “Moving Forward Award” for his efforts to decrease Border Patrol abuse of Mexican Americans, but those same efforts have also caused the death of over seven thousand migrants since 1994 (this number is likely far below the actual body count if one considers the unnamed bodies that have not been—or never will be—found in the desert Southwest). In addition, when Reyes became a U.S. Representative, the League of United American Citizens gave him a Lucy G. Acosta Humanitarian Award for his work on behalf of Mexican Americans.
How can Chicana/o scholars and their allies interpret Reyes as well as Mexican American Border Patrol agents? Such a question is especially pertinent when considering that “by 2008, 51 percent of all Border Patrol officers were Hispanic—primarily Mexican Americans.” In search of an answer, we can turn to Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández’s arguments, informed by transnational feminist perspectives and critiques of Mexican, U.S., and Chicano nationalisms (particularly male-centered nationalism), within Unspeakable Violence: Remapping U.S. and Mexican National Imaginaries. In this study, Guidotti-Hernández contends that “violence is and was the one factor that determined how racial position, gender, and class alliances played themselves out in contest over citizenship and resources” in the borderlands. According to Guidotti-Hernández, “the formalistic reporting of these events follows a similar pattern of using repetition as a way of denying violence as a foundation of national history, making these events unspeakable.” Through such lines of reasoning, the author questions the silence within resistance narrative proposed by traditional, nationalistic Chicano scholars as well as official Mexican-mestizo and Euro-American narratives of borderlands violence.
Overall Guidotti-Hernández contends that nationalisms—whether tied to nation-states or ethnic groups—silence history. However, if we “abandon celebratory, uncritical discourse…and concentrate more on the socially constructed nature of gender relations as they produced racialized systems of power and capital,” we can attempt to get at why many Mexican Americans have allied with Euro-American power structures, such as the Border Patrol. Thus, we can better understand the “economic and communal desires” of these ethnic Mexicans. We may then examine “history with a critical eye that challenges monolithic representations with Chicano identity.” In so doing, a more complex picture of Mexican Americans as well as their fulfilled and unfulfilled civil rights movement(s) can also emerge. Perhaps, then, Mexican Americans can better grasp where their social justice efforts have failed.
In examining Mexican American history through Guidotti-Hernández’s proposals, it becomes clearer why Mexican Americans have participated in and have supported increased patrolling of the border. If stationed along the U.S.-Mexico borderline, away from the streets of border cities, Border Patrol agents cannot question the citizenship—the Americanness—of Mexican Americans. By having Mexican and other Latin American migrants funneled away from the streets of El Paso and other border cities, Mexican Americans were able to claim a non-Mexican national or a non-“illegal” social status. They moved closer to becoming (within a border context) ethno-racially, socially, and nationally American.
As Mexican Americans experienced less Border Patrol harassment, agents mostly began to pursue and arrest unauthorized migrants attempting to cross the militarized border. The increased solidification of the urban border has benefited some ethnic Mexicans while driving other ethnic Mexicans towards dangerous desert terrain, causing government-made mass deaths. Considering the awards given to Reyes by Mexican American organizations—including a civil rights organization—and his election to the U.S. House of Representatives seven times between 1996 and 2010 by the majority Mexican American electorate of El Paso, it seems many Mexican Americans were fine, or ignored, the deaths Reyes’s policies caused to other ethnic Mexicans that happened to have a differing citizenship status.
In probing why some Mexican Americans join the border enforcement apparatus, it is telling that Reyes was in the armed forces and that he joined the Border Patrol in 1969 immediately after his tour in Vietnam. In one of my anthropology classes on contemporary Mexican culture during the early 2010s at the University of Texas at El Paso, a Mexican American Border Patrol agent came to speak to the class over his job and his reasons for joining the agency, which by then had become part of the Department of Homeland Security. The agent’s reasoning for entering the Border Patrol was two-fold. Considering his skill set, there were few well-paying jobs in El Paso outside of the Border Patrol for him. In addition, after leaving the military, he wanted to continue his work as a patriotic American. In short, the Border Patrol fulfilled his “economic and communal desires.”
Joining Border Patrol can be attractive in a region with limited job opportunities, a socioeconomic reality in much of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. The desire to claim U.S. citizenship rights and prove patriotism may also lead Mexican Americans to join the Border Patrol or to support the agency’s policies. Nevertheless, in that search for economic gains, citizenship rights, policy or political victories, along with satisfying feelings of patriotism by some ethnic Mexicans, thousands of other ethnic Mexicans and Latina/os have died in the borderlands.
As the nation looks at immigration reform and border security once more, mass migrant deaths and their political and structural causes should be part of the public conversation, especially within communities, such as the Mexican American community and the broader Latina/o community, still seeking social equity. Until then, migrant deaths in the borderlands remain remarkably silent within the nation’s political and public discourse.
 Daniel Martinez, Robin Reineke, Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, Bruce Anderson, Gregory Hess, Bruce Parks, “A Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border: Undocumented Border Crosser Deaths by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990-2012,” Binational Migration Institute, Department of Mexican American Studies, The University of Arizona, June 1, 2013, link. (Berkley: University of California Press, 2010), 229.
 Lytle Hernández, 229.
 Ibid, 228.
 Char Miller, On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2013), 149.
 Lytle Hernández, 228-229.
 Ted Hesson, “No More Deaths, The Crisis on the U.S.-Mexico Border in Arizona,” May 24, 2011, link.
 “The Arena: Rep. Silvestre Reyes,” Politico, accessed January 25, 2018, link.
 Lytle Hernández, 227.
 Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández, Unspeakable Violence: Remapping U.S. and Mexican National Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 4.
 Ibid, 5. The episodes of violence Guidotti-Hernández elucidates upon include the 1851 lynching of Josefa/Juanita in Downieville, California, the 1871 Camp Grant Indian Massacre, the erasure of sexualized and racialized violence in the work of anthropologist Jovita González—the first Mexican American woman to graduate with a masters in Anthropology form the University of Texas at Austin, and the Mexican government’s attempted genocide of Yaqui people and their culture from 1880 to 1910.
 Guidotti-Hernández, 84.
 Ibid, 87.
 Ibid, 84.