Mexican organizers say immigration problems don’t stop at the border

U.S. Mexican border in between San Diego and Tijuana.

The U.S./Mexican border between Sand Diego and Tijuana at Border Field State Park. Photo by April Arreola.

“The border is moving,” warned Macrina Cárdenas de Alarcón, a Tijuana-based community activist and educator who spoke in Burlington last week. “Since 9/11, immigration has become a national security question.”

Pointing to federal initiatives like “Secure Communities,” an aggressive federal program that requires local and state law enforcement officials to send the fingerprints of all criminal suspects to the FBI, she made the case that such policies reflect what she calls a repressive, neo-liberal approach to immigration: enthusiastic support for the free flow of capital but severe and arbitrary restrictions on the movement of human beings. “They are people, not just things,” she said.

Cárdenas was in Burlington at the invitation of Toward Freedom, an online magazine covering international affairs, and the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project, which last week won a small victory for undocumented immigrants when Gov. Peter Shumlin announced a revised policy on bias-free policing. Going forward, state police in Vermont have been told not to seek identification from people who are suspected of no crime except possibly being in the U.S. without documents.

Seated near Cárdenas at the talk was Danilo Lopez, the migrant workers organizer at the center of the dispute that led to Shumlin’s policy shift.

Last August, Lopez and others with the Solidarity Project met with the governor in Montpelier to express their opposition to Secure Communities. Some state governments have decided to defy an order from U.S. Homeland Security to participate in the program.

On Sept. 13, less than a month after the meeting, Lopez and his cousin were detained by state police after what began as a routine traffic stop. Lopez immediately reached out by cell phone, setting off a chain of events that led to the arrest of three Vermonters who blocked a Border Patrol vehicle.

Macrina Cárdenas de Alarcón

Macrina Cárdenas de Alarcón

Before the day was over, the farm workers were free and the governor had called for an investigation. Since then, Lopez has been speaking throughout Vermont to raise awareness and dissuade state police from being surrogate immigration agents.

In October, he met again with the governor, this time to ask for a change in state policy. “I am convinced that had we been white, the trooper would not have asked for our documents and addressed us the way he did,” Lopez charged.

Cárdenas says that the current U.S. debate over immigration should be viewed in the context of long-term relations with Mexico and the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). “Mexico has been a faithful follower of the Washington Consensus, and also one of its victims,” she noted. As a result, the vast expansion of maquiladora factories along the U.S.-Mexico border since NAFTA’s passage in 1994 has led to job losses in U.S. communities far away.

The maquiladora factories assemble or manufacture products inside Mexico that may use duty-free, tariff-free U.S. parts and equipment for later shipment back to U.S markets.

In Mexico, she charges that NAFTA has provoked large-scale internal migration, the “feminization of the border” and accompanying violence, sexual exploitation, labor rights violations and a general militarization of the entire region.

“You just can’t get rid of the undocumented,” Cárdenas insists, pointing to fluctuating, sometimes contradictory U.S. policies over the years. In the late 19th century, for example, Mexicans were brought into the country under contract to mine and build rail lines, she notes.

She also mentioned the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Signed at the end of a two-year war between the U.S. and Mexico in the late 1840s, it ceded half of Mexico’s territory, now the Southwestern US. Many Mexicans remained, but most ultimately lost their land. Some still consider the treaty an act of theft that violated international law.

With the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, the U.S. Border Patrol emerged as gatekeeper of a “revolving door,” sometimes facilitating migrant labor, sometimes cracking down. Cárdenas discussed the Bracero Program, which brought in Mexican farm laborers in the mid-20th century. It was followed (and overlapped by) Operation Wetback, an INS-run military offensive against immigrant workers.

Efforts to curtail immigration through tighter border security accomplish little except to redirect the flow into more desolate and dangerous areas, she insists. This strategy increases the number of border crossing-related deaths. “Once here, it’s more dangerous to return for some people,” she adds. “The situation has led to ‘mixed status’ families,” meaning that relatives often pursue lives and jobs on both sides of the border. But she disputes the notion that Mexicans come to the U.S. to take jobs away from US workers.

From left, Macrina Cárdenas de Alarcón, Mexico Solidarity Network translator Lindsey Hoemann and Danilo Lopez of the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project. Photo by Ben Dangl.

From left, Macrina Cárdenas de Alarcón, Mexico Solidarity Network translator Lindsey Hoemann and Danilo Lopez of the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project. Photo by Ben Dangl.

Mexico has meanwhile become “a gendarme for immigration from Central America,” she notes, calling this phenomenon the “externalization of the border.” Combined with the U.S.-backed “war of drugs,” she charges it has increased violence and violations of basic rights in her country.

Lopez, who grew up in Chiapas, traced the changes he saw brought on by NAFTA and free trade. Even though he lived closer to Guatemala than the U.S., the region was “inundated with products” and distorted by the emergence of new tourist zones. In Chiapas and elsewhere in Mexico, “the problem is that the government washes its hands of any problems,” he added. “And when things get tough, the drug trade comes in and offers easy money.”

Cárdenas also pointed to changes in Mexican law that undermined the land reform movement dating from the Mexican revolution. Although President Felipe Calderon, a pro-U.S. economist, has said that he wants to be “the president of jobs,” Cárdenas charges that he “has done little except bring out the army.” She also suggests that some of what her country suffers is “constructed violence that the government doesn’t really want to resolve.”

“Nobody thinks the government is really fighting the drug cartels,” she explained. “Juarez is one of the most violent cities in the world, where many women and children are murdered. The violence of the drug cartels and the government’s response are a distraction” from more systemic problems, she said.

Both speakers agreed that border towns are in a precarious situation. The growth of maquiladora factories has created a boom-and-bust economy. Migrants who arrive in Tijuana often find that their “American Dream” is over before it begins, Cárdenas says, while young people turn to the cartels as their only option.

People in the U.S. may feel this is just “Mexico’s problem,” she concludes. But federal spending, the push for state and local enforcement of federal immigration laws, and the large U.S. demand for drugs all point to the fact that border troubles tend to migrate as far as people do. That’s why she says “the border is moving.”

In a statement of support for Gov. Shumlin’s revised state police policy, the Farmworker Solidarity Project has expressed hope that Vermont “will challenge a ‘show-me-your-papers’ policing culture that relies on racial profiling and is spreading throughout the country. ”

Spokesperson Natalia Fajardo called Shumlin’s announcement “a big step forward.” She expressed concern, however, about remaining exceptions that “might still leave room for police to defend their immigration enforcement actions.”

Editor’s note: From 1994-2004 Greg Guma was editor of Toward Freedom, a co-sponsor of the event at which Cárdenas and Lopez spoke.

Greg Guma

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