War on the Mexican border: How did it happen?

People gather for a picnic around a giant painting "the eyes of a Dreamer" by artist JR, on the US and Mexico sides of the border wall in August 2017.

What became the United States was first a series of white British — “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” (WASP) — settler colonies.

Besides starting the genocide of the indigenous peoples, the colonies began the forcible importation of Africans to serve as slave laborers in 1691.

These developments are central to the history of the colonies, and of the US after the British yoke was thrown off in the First American Revolution.

Racism, which was the ideological rationale for that Native American genocide and the enslavement of Africans, was then extended to all people of color and other non-WASP peoples.

At different times, immigration by people of Irish, Chinese, Eastern European, Southern European, Jewish, Catholic and other backgrounds was variously banned or highly regulated.

However, over time immigrants with white skins were allowed in, and were gradually integrated into the “white” population, some not until after the Second World War.

A relatively recent development is what has become the war on the Mexican border against Latinos, taken to grotesque extremes under US President Donald Trump.

Reagan militarises border

This war began in the 1980s, when there was an increase in the number of undocumented immigrants coming across the border, drawn by economic conditions in Mexico and the growing need in the US for low-wage labor in sectors such as agriculture.

In 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that became known as Reagan’s “amnesty bill”. It allowed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who had been in the US for many years — if they met certain criteria such as proof of work history.

However, the new law also introduced a militaristic approach to border enforcement. The border was fortified with physical barriers and more border guards were deployed to stop, by force, new immigrants from coming in. However, conditions on both sides of the border drove more undocumented migrants to cross anyway.

Right-wing Republican politicians blamed the “amnesty” for the new influx. Amnestied immigrants bringing their families into the US were especially targeted.

Attempts were made to make English the only language in the US. Anti-immigrant sentiment against Mexicans was whipped up.

Anti-immigrant Republicans began to make political gains.

Clinton’s crackdown

In his 1992 presidential campaign, Democrat Bill Clinton outplayed the Republicans by appearing more anti-immigrant than they were.

As President, Clinton’s policies became more and more anti-immigrant, to the point where he said in his 1995 State of the Union address: “All Americans, not only in the states most heavily affected but in every place in this country, are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country.

“The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public service they use impose burdens on our taxpayers.

“That’s why our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens.

“In the budget I will present to you, we will try to do more to speed the deportation of illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes, to better identify illegal aliens in the workplace.”

The term “illegal alien” became a commonplace reference to undocumented immigrants, and asserted that such persons are illegal. That is why at many demonstrations for immigrant rights there are signs reading “No person is illegal”.

According to Clinton, anyone who crossed the border without documents was guilty of a crime under US law. All 11 million undocumented workers could be deported.

Today, undocumented immigrants who commit serious crimes are prosecuted in the US. The undocumented are deported for minor traffic offenses, drug use or just for being undocumented.

Without using his racist rhetoric, Trump’s major points were prefigured by Clinton, including the lies that undocumented migrants take jobs from citizens and are a drain on public services.

It has been made so difficult for the poorest Mexicans and Central Americans to obtain documents to legally cross the border, that only a small number are able to do so. Most immigrants are forced to cross the border without documents.

Early in his administration, Clinton ordered Border Patrol to come up with proposals on how to combat undocumented immigrants. That report, Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond, came to be known as the “prevention through deterrence” strategy, and is still being employed today.

John Carlos Frey, in his important book, Sand and Blood — America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border writes: “The Trump administration has garnered a reputation for being ‘tough on border security’, but Congress has enacted no new immigration laws, giving President Trump more power than previous presidents.

“Instead, the administration is merely employing and enforcing laws already enacted during the Clinton years. The policies of deterrence are by far the most consequential policy changes at the border by all presidents since Clinton.”

Border Patrol maps indicated that most migrants attempted to cross the border at San Diego in southern California and El Paso on the eastern point on the border. The plan was to disrupt these traditional and relatively safe routes, by concentrating border fences and agents at these urban centers, forcing migrants to cross into harsh desert lands.

This plan of deterrence forces desperate migrants to attempt to cross on foot, carrying food and water for more than 160 kilometres, through hot (at times extremely hot) and difficult terrain, before reaching places of refuge. It is still being implemented today and has caused many deaths, often by dehydration.

The plan was that these deaths would deter immigration. The fact that deterrence by death has not stopped people from trying is an indication of the terrible conditions many immigrants are fleeing.

Border Patrol does not even attempt to keep accurate figures of the number of deaths.

Compassionate citizens who attempt to help the migrants by leaving food and water in the desert have found many bodies and skeletons. Estimates by these activists — who try to bring remains to morgues in the cities for identification if possible — indicate that from Clinton’s day to the present, approximately 3000 people have perished.

In 1993, Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. One result was that heavily subsidised US corn flooded Mexico. Corn is a Mexican staple food. This ruined millions of Mexican peasants and farm workers and was one factor increasing migration into the US.

US front in the ‘War on Terror’

Former US President George W Bush’s response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center was to declare a “War on Terror”.

The border with Mexico was declared to be a place where terrorists would cross into the US — a completely unfounded assertion.

This accelerated militarisation like never before. The Border Patrol budget jumped from US$1 billion to $2 billion in five years and is now about $4 billion. The number of Border Patrol agents rose from 10,000 to 20,000.

Barriers were erected along hundreds of kilometres of the 3500km-long border. Helicopters, grounds sensors, radar and cameras started to be used to augment Border Patrol operations.

‘War on drugs’

Another argument Washington uses to justify the militarisation of the border is that it is necessary to interdict drug smuggling.

There is indeed drug smuggling across the border to feed the large and growing demand in the US. However, not by immigrants on foot, but in vehicles legally entering with the help of corrupt US and Mexican officials, bought off by drug cartels.

Obama to Trump

The Barack Obama administration continued where Bush left off and with the same basic policies in place. Obama became known as the “deporter in chief”.

Building on his predecessors’ infrastructure and policies, Trump has greatly expanded them with executive fiats. He has done this with extreme racism, whipping up anti-Latino sentiment to win support.

While Mexican immigration has slowed down, there is a new wave of thousands of immigrants, many seeking asylum, from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Families, many with children, are fleeing violence and poverty, largely the result of US imperialist policies, and have risked their lives to try to find refuge in the US.

Trump’s response has been to vastly increase “prevention through deterrence” and inflict new cruelties on immigrants.

Trump is separating children from their parents, putting children and their parents in cages, slowing down asylum processing and forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico. Edicts declaring that fleeing violence and poverty is not a ground for asylum, means 90% of asylum seekers face deportation.

Customs and Border Protection are now refusing to vaccinate migrant families ahead of the upcoming flu season.

Doctors recently sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to investigate health conditions at migrant jails along the border, after three children died from the flu. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends annual flu shots for everyone over the age of six months.

Trump is also opening a new front against immigrants who are in the US legally and have work permits known as “green cards”. He proposes to take those permits away from immigrants who use social services such as Medicaid (health insurance for the poor) or food stamps.

No limits on detention

The Trump administration is expected to announce new rules allowing authorities to detain migrant children and their parents indefinitely and in potentially even more dangerous conditions.

The White House is reportedly planning to terminate a 1997 federal court ruling, which limits detention of migrant children and families to 20 days, before they must be released or transferred to a licensed care facility.

The Trump administration has blamed that ruling for creating an immigration “loophole”. Immigrant rights organisation, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) called the move “cruel beyond imagination”.

This comes as multiple lawsuits challenging conditions for jailed migrants have or will soon be filed.

A class-action lawsuit was filed in California accusing the government of denying adequate food, medical care and other basic necessities to migrant prisoners in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities. The suit says the dire conditions inside the migrant jails amount to torture and highlights the mistreatment of people with disabilities.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the groups that filed the suit, said imprisoned immigrants are “at risk of illness, discrimination on the basis of disability and the arbitrary imposition of solitary confinement as a result of ICE’s reliance on mass incarceration and its indifference to the conditions in its prisons”.

Meanwhile, a joint investigation by the Associated Press and the Public Broadcasting Service’s Frontline reveals that dozens of families who were separated at the southern border are preparing to sue the government over claims that young children were sexually, physically and emotionally abused while in federally-funded foster care.

The infrastructure and policies, including using cruelty to “deter” immigrants, that Trump is using and expanding through edicts, were put in place by both Democrats and Republican in Congress and under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

Not one single candidate running for the Democratic Party nomination for president, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, proposes to do away with that infrastructure and those policies, aiming their fire only at Trump’s worst excesses.

A small exception is Juan Castro, who proposes to eliminate the law making crossing the border without papers a crime — a law Trump is using to justify putting children in cages.

In general, Democratic Party spokespeople, including the candidates, preface their criticisms of Trump with the assurance that they are for “border security” — everything that was put in place by Clinton, Bush and Obama that Trump is now using.

The Democrats are not the answer.

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