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The Militarization of the
U.S.- Mexico Border

Part 2 - From Slave Patrol to Border Patrol

Interview with Maria Jiménez
Houston, Texas


Decisions are made by transnational corporations that are not democratic

In Motion Magazine: It seems ironic that at the same time as we have free trade which you would think would make the border more open, the border is actually being closed. How do you explain that?

Maria Jiménez: I don't think it's an irony. I think it's a function of the global system in which the decisions are being made by transnational corporations and by entities that are not democratic. When we look at the function of mobility across the border we must look at that global system. The U.N. says there are five billion people in the world. Two billion are in the labor market, and of those something like 125 million are actually people who live outside of their countries of origin. The U.S. receives 1% annually of these migrants. Each year, since the '80s, there's been an increase in the number of refugees, people who move across international borders because of natural disasters or civil strife. There's also economic migrants, people who move to incorporate themselves into labor markets. Of these there are about a million a year.

When you look at the scheme of globalization and restructuring one sees that the economic and political elites of the world have no problems in getting across borders. The CEO's, wealthy refugees - we saw the case of Kuwait - can easily come into the United States. If you are in a political elite you have no problem moving back and forth legally between countries. The militarized borders, the walls, the agents, are really to impede the mobility of the international working poor who attempt to cross borders. In that sense border politics for me is a strategic aspect of economic development policy apparent in our global system. It's a policy that seeks to create a world of low wages and high profits.

When you regulate labor but do not regulate capital then you create the conditions of: 1) attempting to immobilize populations that are left in countries to which you can move your assembly plants and pay workers very low wages. And 2) if people can get across illegally into your country then the illegality creates the conditions for a group of people who are socially disenfranchised, politically disenfranchised, and economically vulnerable. They are placed in industries where again the motive is low wages and high profits.

From Slave Patrol to Border Patrol

The only comparison I can make on the issue of mobility in the United States is during the slavery period in the South. I think one of the first police forces to be paid by governments were the famous slave patrols of the South. The function of the slave patrols was to impede the mobility of the slaves and to insure that if one did escape a plantation that person would be returned. This reinforced the existing social and economic structure. It's in the same sense that we have a Border Patrol and the INS. We have a police force whose function is to reinforce immobility, to reinforce the conditions that maximize profits and ensure low wages.

I remember once our (INS) District Director was present at a presentation here . I said "Isn't it true that in terms of employer/employee relations, of labor/management relations, the only area enforced through the use of force, through the use of armed agents, is the one where the international worker is not authorized to work?"

Of all the labor laws of the United States, violations of safety and health, violations of minimum wage, violations of the use of toxic entities in plants, of all the violations of laws between labor and management, none of these are enforced by a group of armed individuals who come to your work site to make sure that you comply with these laws. The only area is the area of the international worker - the authorized or unauthorized worker.

That's why I think it's similar to the slave patrols of the South. Why is it so important in our economic system to have armed agents come into a work site to enforce this? That's what gives me the impression that it's a key area that ensures and reinforces the existing inequalities on an international level. It guarantees for the transnational corporate strategy the mechanism of low wages, high profits.

That's why it's not illogical. It's illogical from our view because what we seek is justice for all sectors of the world politic. Many times I talk about the idea that the real issue in border politics is the issue of equality of border mobility. Border mobility is not equal. The wealthy can go all over the world without any problem.

In Motion Magazine: So the work of the Border Patrol is not so much to keep Mexican workers out of the United States as to keep them being available for work in Mexico?

Maria Jiménez: And highly exploited if they do cross. We saw this for example with the incident of the deaf people who were brought from Mexico to New York and who literally lived in slave conditions.

In Motion Magazine: What are the primary reasons that people cross the border?

Maria Jiménez: I think that the driving force is the conditions in the countries of origin -- economic deprivation and the closing of democratic practices and spaces. Most of Latin America has fallen under structural adjustment programs of international banking institutions which demand a reduction in government services, privatization and readjustment of land policies. Because these are very harsh measures, the apparatus of political repression grows. This creates the conditions for people to cross the border. In the case of Mexican immigrants there is the added facet that there over a hundred years of migratory streams. We have a lot of family connections that move people from one side over to the other side of the border. Many people will also return.

The primary constant is economic disparity and the need in the U.S. for workers in certain areas of economic growth. Originally these migration patterns began because U.S. employers went to Mexico for contract labor.

Life and culture in U.S.-Mexico border communities

In Motion Magazine: What is the relationship between the Border Patrol and the Houston police?

Maria Jiménez: In Houston, precisely when the current new Mayor Lee Brown was chief of police, the organization of Spanish-speaking officers who grew up in the philosophy that Lee Brown brought to Houston, which is community-oriented policing, these particular officers pushed so that there would be an internal regulation in the City of Houston in which the local police and the local city jails would not be associated with the INS. The officers argued that this was not about less enforcement but about more effective local law enforcement. That is, if the major component of community-oriented policing is gaining the confidence and trust of the population that you police, and if your role is more of peace officer and the idea that you should be using more the skills of arbitration and conciliation and less of the tough cop mentality, then that trust and that confidence is immediately eroded in the immigrant population if you associate with the INS. This regulation would show to the immigrant population that public safety and police protection are there for them as well. That they could access these services.

This is critical in the case of domestic violence. Many times all the woman wants is for the man to stop the abuse. She does not necessarily want him be charged or for herself or him to be deported. If she knows she or he are going to be deported she's not going to report him.

The same thing is true for other forms of abuse. For example, an undocumented group of Mexican and Honduran workers went to protest the fact that a contractor had robbed them of wages. This contractor took out a gun and began shooting at them. He shot one of them in the foot. The injured man was taken to a hospital. When the security guard at the hospital insinuated that if the worker did not give the name of the contractor to him he would call the INS the worker left the hospital untreated. This indicates the degree of fear of local authorities reporting to the INS that makes the immigrant population more vulnerable to crime and to the lack of reporting of crime.

So this is the current policy in Houston. But under current immigration law within the counter-terrorism act it is now authorized that a local jurisdiction can ask the Attorney General to be deputized as INS agents. As far as I know Salt Lake City is one of the first cities to do this. From our perspective, because we've learned from the Spanish-speaking officers here in Houston, this a serious situation regarding public safety for everyone. It's not about less enforcement but about more effective enforcement at the local levels. People won't report crimes or help in an investigation. It leaves a whole group of people vulnerable to the criminal element. This is a deterioration of the community per se.

In Motion Magazine: What is the long-term impact on the community of the constant presence of the Border Patrol?

Maria Jiménez: Often when I address Mexican-origin audiences in the United States, I talk about how we are the only ethnic group in the whole country who can claim to have a national police force we can call our very own.

When I've addressed Border Patrol agents, because I have addressed them at a couple of training sessions, I tell them about the complexity of our relationship, given that policy has thrown us together. It wasn't their choice to police us. It is policy that has placed them in the position of policing us. We are the police constituency. There's a whole folklore about it. There's songs, there's jokes, there's stories. And the jokes particularly are revealing. Sometimes the agent is the butt of the joke, sometimes it's the immigrant, sometimes it's both of them together.

I tell them about La Jornada, one of the most widely-read newspapers in Mexico. Every Sunday has a cartoon column called "When the Border Patrol Catches Up with Me". The Border Patrol is such an ingrained part of our existence in the United States, I tell them, I can't imagine living in the United States without the INS. They are part of our existence.

There was an old (INS) sector chief who retired in El Paso and a reporter from Juarez told me that he asked him "What do you think of Mexicans?" He said "I know them very well. I've been arresting them for 25 years." And the same is true for us, we who have been arrested. We are always confronting them. In that sense there is a complex relationship developed with them.

Some were surprised that people weren't afraid to go to the INS offices during amnesty. A Mexican wouldn't be surprised. Why? Because when you know them, you know both their good and their bad. Many times I see the anger expressed more by the native-born, the U.S. citizen, "You stop me, you question me", more than the Mexican immigrant who deals on a daily basis with the Border Patrol. There are even songs like "The Migra (the Border Patrol) - I Eat It like an Appetizer".

By the same token, our detention facilities are staffed 90% by Latinos and Mexican-origin people. Why? Well, part of it is the poverty, that's the job that is available. But the second thing is the familiarity. I coined a phrase - the abused-community syndrome - like the battered-wife syndrome. It's gone on for so many generations that we no longer see the abuse. It's become a way of life. Part of our work is increasing public awareness that we are an abused community. This doesn't happen to other communities. Particularly the issue of U.S. citizens being stopped, and questioned and detained, and sometimes even deported. It doesn't happen to Anglo Americans, African Americans. It happens to Americans of Mexican origin.

When I address Mexican American audiences I talk to them about the fact that even in our own self-definition, if you listen to Mexican Americans, we are the only ones who keep saying, "Oh yeah, I'm a 4th -generation, 5th-generation, 8th-generation American." We are continually reinforcing our right to be here because we are constantly being questioned about our right to be here. I hear many Americans saying "It doesn't bother that they stop me and ask me for my papers." But it doesn't happen to anybody else. Its a 4th amendment violation to be stopped based on appearance.

There's a song, a very popular salsa song. The guy proposes to the girl. He says "Let's live together 'till the INS separates us." When I talk to agents, I say "That's how predominant you are in our lives. It's no longer until God do us part, it's until the INS do us part."

On career day here in Houston, talking with second and third graders in ESL classes. which are predominantly Spanish-speaking I tell them about the work I do. I ask "Do you know anything about the Border Patrol?" I've discovered nobody raises their hand. "How about La Patrolla Fronteriza?" Nobody raises their hand. I say "La Migra"and invariably out of a group of twenty about eleven will raise their hands and say that they've had experience with la Migra. They begin to tell me their family stories. When it happened to them at the bridge, at the checkpoint, to their mother and their father. Then I'll say "Any other stories?" Someone will always say, "We ran into one on the street the other day." Then I ask them "What color was the uniform?" "Oh it was blue." And I say, "No that's the Houston police department." What I tell the Border Patrol is "You are so predominant in our community that for these children the first uniformed authority that they learn to fear and learn to interact with is the INS or the Border Patrol. All other uniformed authorities extend from there." It's a predominant experience.

The Border Patrol destabilizes the community. Our own history tells us that if you raid a factory today, in a week, a week and a half, everybody's back. What does this do? The individual becomes unstable. The family unit is destabilized. The parents are gone, or the father is gone, whoever is gone, until they come back. You destabilize the community. You create a lot of instability. I think this is part of the mechanism of oppression.

In Motion Magazine: Is that still true that everybody is back within a week?

Maria Jiménez: It's harder to get back. It used to be when we started in 1987 and talked to immigrants, they could usually could come through on the fourth try. Now it's taking them from eleven to fourteen tries. In some areas if they catch you again they are prosecuting. The Department of Justice has instituted special prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's office to deal with repeat-crossers. Some of them are serving jail time in federal prisons.


Back to Part 1

Also see another interview:
Immigration and Human Rights on the U.S. / Mexico Border

Interview with Roberto Martinez, San Diego, California

Maria Jiménez is director of the Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project (LEMP), a project of the American Friends Service Committee. Founded in 1987, it's goal is to reduce the abuse of authority in the enforcement of immigration laws. LEMP works with community based groups in four areas of the U.S.-Mexico border: San Diego; southern Arizona; the El Paso/New Mexico area; and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

In Texas, LEMP works with the Valley Coalition for Justice. Their work is primarily in the McAllen area of the Border Patrol and covers a large area including Brownsville, and Harlingen County. In El Paso, LEMP works with the El Paso Border Rights Coalition. In Arizona LEMP works with the Derechos Humanos Arizona Border Projects Coalition, a coalition of social justice groups, unions, and members of indigenous nations effected by border policies. In San Diego, LEMP works with the AFSC Office of the U.S. Mexico Border Program.

Nationally LEMP works with the National Network of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the National Immigration Project of the Lawyers Guild, and Coordinadora 2000. Cross-border, LEMP coordinates with human rights organizations on the Mexico side of the border, and, in Arizona, with indigenous nations whose members are on the Mexican side of the border.

(Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke - originally published in In Motion Magazine, February 2, 1998.)

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