Unlike Mexican border states where drug-fueled violence has been on the upswing, violent crime rates in U.S. states bordering Mexico have been decreasing for the last several years. El Paso and San Diego are rated among the safest cities in the United States. Since 9-11, no terrorist has been detected crossing from Mexico. Even detentions of border-crossers are way down, up to 90 percent in the New Mexico corridor alone, according to media reports.
“If you look at the facts, the border is more secure than ever,” headlined a recent op-ed by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. So what would be the Obama administration’s next border initiative? Call out the National Guard and toss another $500 million at “border security.”
To the casual observer, the policy might seem curious to say the least, especially at a time when border states are laying off public workers or slashing their wages, cutting back on social services, closing down parks, and raising college tuitions. But in a key election year, U.S./Mexico border politics are increasingly driven by a toxic combination of whipped-up hysteria, old-fashioned xenophobia and outright political opportunism, according to leading border community activists and analysts.
“There is no crisis here. In fact, it’s quite the opposite,” said Andrea Guerrero of the American Civil Liberties Union’s San Diego office. “There are no increases in crime or immigration flows that would warrant the build up of troops on the border.”
Enjoying a field day after the still unsolved-murder of Arizona rancher Robert Krenz, the anti-immigrant camp and politicians that support it like Arizona Senator John McCain demanded thousands of troops to a border they claim is out of control.
Obama’s decision to dispatch the National Guard constituted a “capitulation to extreme right-wing politics,” said Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee, a US-Mexico border program in San Diego. According to Rios, a White House staff member warned immigrant advocates in a recent meeting to be “prepared for a long and hard summer.”
“It’s unfortunate that the border has become a pawn in a political game,” Guerrero added.
If the White House’s intention was to appear tough on border security in order to win Republican support for immigration reform, without having a quid pro quo, the political gamble failed miserably. Predictably, no immigration reform legislation has materialized even as the absurdly expensive and dangerous security build-up advances at an unprecedented rate.
Trading Away Common Sense
“This is really a stupid way to make a compromise,” said Dr. Tim Dunn, associate professor of sociology at Maryland’s Salisbury University and an expert on U.S. border security policy. “Then you have no leverage. It’s really stupid politics.”
Interviewed on NPR’s Latino USA, former National Council of La Raza head and current White House deputy Cecilia Muñoz denied politics was the main motivator for calling out the Guard. Reiterating the president’s position, Muñoz insisted the focus of the Guard deployment would be halting illegal drug and cash shipments, not immigrants.
“Our work on the border isn’t cutting political deals in the end,” Muñoz said, adding that Obama too was frustrated with the pace of immigration reform. “If it were a question of (presidential will) alone, we’d be done with it,” she stated.
Leading Democrats lined up behind Obama’s National Guard decision, including supporters of immigration reform like New Mexico Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall.
Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was almost gleeful. “Arizonans know that more boots on the ground means a safer and more secure border,” Giffords said in a statement. “Washington heard our message.”
Picking up the same bash-the-border hammer wielded by McCain, the Arizona lawmaker promised to goad her state’s Republican senators into speeding-up the delivery of border security funds by attaching it to Afghanistan and Iraq war supplemental funding, which comes in borrowed billions.
Objectively, many Democrats now find themselves on the same side of the border security fence as restrictionist groups like Americans for Legal Immigration PAC (AILPAC), which demanded National Guard troops on the border back in March. “The war in Mexico is already upon us in America,” said William Gheen, the organization’s spokesman.
Consciously or not, hauling out the National Guard and paying for it out of a bloated war budget reinforces a xenophobic atmosphere shrouded in anti-immigrant rhetoric that is growing shriller by the day as racists and restrictionists employ inflammatory language peppered with words like “invasion” and “war.”
Taking the microphone at popular progressive radio host Ed Schultz’s recent “American Workers Town Hall” in Madison, Wisconsin, a man railed against “foreign flags” flying in the country and advocated starving out immigrants to “take our country back.” In an only slightly more direct way, e-mails reportedly circulating in Arizona urge readers to take back the state from “the Mexicans.”
Few recall that it was the United States that took Arizona from the Mexicans in the first place.
The Costs of Militarization
Sending the National Guard and other troops to the US-Mexico border is not new. Border scholar Dunn noted a creeping militarization of the region from 1990 to 1997, but said the trend slowed down after the 1997 shooting death of Texas goat-herder Ezequiel Hernandez Jr. by U.S. marines.
The incident, which sparked a major lawsuit, temporarily sapped the Pentagon’s enthusiasm for border duty, according to Dunn. The author of articles and books on border militarization, Dunn closely watched the 2006-2008 deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops during the Bush administration’s Operation Jumpstart.
Dunn said he did not document any abuses like the Hernandez killing, but recalled that a member of a National Guard unit assigned to the border at the time later told the Maryland professor that his unit was under orders to “shoot to kill” in case a suspect tried to run. The border scholar is concerned about the future potential for more Ezequiel Hernandez-like incidents.
Untrained in civilian law enforcement, many of the troops in the upcoming deployment are likely to have served in Iraq or Afghanistan or both, countries with brown-skinned people and a landscape not all that different from the US-Mexico borderlands. Post-traumatic stress syndrome suffered by troops serving in the War on Terror, which could eventually surpass the rates afflicting Vietnam veterans, should be taken into account in the National Guard deployment, Dunn said.
Still, the National Guard is a small component of the larger security apparatus that has arisen on the U.S. southern border. Quadrupled in size during the last five years, nearly 90 percent of the 20,000 existing Border Patrol personnel are now stationed on the southern border, according to the ACLU.
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