Academic journal article Social Justice

Border Militarization and the Reproduction of Mexican Migrant Labor

Academic journal article Social Justice

Border Militarization and the Reproduction of Mexican Migrant Labor

Article excerpt


AUTHORS FEATURED IN THIS SPECIAL ISSUE HAVE DESCRIBED THE CHANGES IN U.S. policy and practice at the Mexican border under the rubric of militarization (Dunn, 2001, 1999, 1996; Palafox, 1996). While Timothy Dunn traces these changes as far back as 1978, I focus on changes in border enforcement starting in September 1993. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has dubbed this shift in policy its "Comprehensive Southwest Border Enforcement Strategy" (U.S. INS, 1996).

Various scholars and human rights groups have documented some of the serious costs of this policy. Much of this research has focused on human rights abuses (Amnesty International U.S.A., 1998; American Friends Service Committee, 1998; Americas Watch, 1995; Huspek et al., 1998). Particular attention has been paid to violations against women (Light, 1996a, 1996b; Falcon, this issue). Dunn (1996) and Palafox (1996) address human rights violations, but also focus on the erosion of legal barriers to military involvement in internal policing. Similarly, Parenti (1999: 154) argues that the border serves as a "testing ground" for "militarized systems of social control" and discipline. Finally, Eschbach et al. (1999) and Cornelius (2001) document the costs of border militarization in human life: migrant deaths.

Generally, we would hope that the state would pursue and maintain a policy with such high human costs only when it lacked alternatives to fulfill some critical, socially necessary function. My claim (argued in detail below) is that the shift in border policy seeks to address economic concerns of the U.S. electorate. This new policy not only fails to resolve the issues underlying these concerns, but may also exacerbate them. As shown below, changes in the composition of migrant flows may have effects that are independent of changes in the size of those flows. These effects are similar in many respects to proposals by agribusiness for a new guest-worker program. Organized labor has staunchly opposed a new agricultural guest-worker program. Despite this similarity, the public largely perceives the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border as protecting U.S. workers from the economic effects of undocumented immigration.

A Change in Strategy

Before September 1993, there were numerous holes in the chain-link fence separating El Paso from its Mexican sister city, Ciudad Juarez. Rather than repair the holes, the U.S. Border Patrol trained low-light video cameras on them. The Border Patrol waited until migrants entered, and having observed them on video, attempted to apprehend them. This approach maximized apprehensions, but hardly deterred migrants from attempting entry. It is an excellent metaphor for the old border policy and demonstrates the basis for much of the criticism leveled against it. The INS (1996: 3) describes deterrence as "the overarching goal" of its new strategy.

Despite the rhetoric surrounding the new deterrence strategy, until sometime in the early 1990s, the INS apparently believed that its previous strategy was also deterrence based. The INS (1978: 17) Annual Report states: "Prompt apprehension and return to country of origin is a positive deterrent to illegal reentry and related violations." Scholars have long questioned this assumption. Cornelius (1978) found that 32% of apprehended migrants attempted to cross again within a few days. Using data from the Mexican government's 1978 National Survey of Emigration to the Northern Border and to the United States (ENFNEU), Kossoudji (1992) found that the effect of apprehension on undocumented migration was perverse; that is, apprehended migrants are not deterred from reentry. Rather, they return to the U.S. sooner and stay longer than those who return to Mexico of their own accord. However, these analyses are based on data from the late 1970s. In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), whi ch granted legal status to many undocumented migrants and dedicated more resources to border enforcement (Bean et al. …

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