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Understanding the History & Context of US Immigration Policy: Part II – The Militarization of the US/Mexican Border

November 29, 2018

In Part I of this series we provided some background information on the asylum seekers who were tear gassed by US Customs and Border agents last Sunday. In today’s post we want to look at the history of the US/Mexican border and how it has become so militarized,

The desire on the part of the US power structure to expand the empire has been part of the experiment known as the US from the beginning. In regards to the US southern border, the US has always been engaged in what insurgent journalist and author John Ross called the ongoing “annexation of Mexico.” (The Annexation of Mexico: From the Aztecs to the IMF, by John Ross.)

Beginning with the annexation of the Mexican territory known now as Texas, the US has always been working to gobble up more real estate. The US was not content with just the annexation of Texas, but using the power of the military, forced Mexico to concede about a third of their northern territory, it what is called the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Like current dynamics, the Mexican-American War between 1846 – 1848, was a military and diplomatic exercise in White Supremacy.

One of the major consequences of the mid-19th century US annexation of Mexican territory was the fact that all of the Mexican people who lived in the territory taken by the US endured racist treatment from US citizens who never saw them as having legitimate claim to their lands. Mexicans in the annexed territory last thousands of acres of land to theft, intimidation and forced removal.While many in states along the now US/Mexican border embrace the food and other cultural “benefits” of conquest, Latinos/Latinx people have never been accepted or treated as equals.

The Mexican Revolution in the early part of the 20th Century was also cause for alarm amongst US expansionists, since revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa were challenging the oligarchy and spreading subversive ideas like owning land communally. The US did not sit idly by and for nearly a year (from 1916 – 1917), the US military sent thousands of troops to Mexico to try to apprehend Francisco Pancho Villa. The real threat from Villa was that he threatened US business interests in the northern part of Mexico, something that the US power structure found unacceptable. The US military never apprehended Villa, but they did send a strong message and put in place a long-standing military/corporate dynamic that continues to the present.

When the Rockefeller oil empire (Standard Oil) was expanding, the US military collaborated to continue to provide access to petroleum deposits that were discovered south of the US border, in Mexican territory. However, the Mexican government nationalized its oil in the 1930s, leading the big US oil barons unhappy with the loss of revenue. This dynamic coincided with various US immigration policies that kicked out Mexican nationals during the depression and then allowed them to come back and work during the end of WWII through what was called the Bracero program. However, despite the fact that the US government immigration policy allowed Mexicans to work in the US, it didn’t translate into a broad acceptance of Mexicans living in the US. Ultimately, the US policy from WWI to the Carter administration was to see the US southern border policy as a mechanism of labor control.

However, beginning in the 1970s the US evolved its border policy and made significant changes, such as the so called US war on Drugs, where the US/Mexican border was now seen as a drug interdiction issue. The US Customs and Border Patrol was beefed up and furthered militarized to deal with the border as a drug trans-shipment point.

A second major issue that had begun in the late 1970s was the US role in suppressing the popular movements in Central America. The US-backed counterinsurgency wars, what the Reagan administration referred to as Low Intensity Conflict, caused massive displacement of civilians from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Hundreds of thousands of political refugees from these countries attempted to come to the US in the 1980s, which ultimately led to the US Sanctuary Movement. The Reagan administration was obsessed with Central America and part of that obsession was to further militarize the US/Mexican border.

Always under the pretext of fighting the War on Drugs, the US Border agents received more money in the 1980s, in order to expand personnel and to purchase better weapons, helicopters and the regular use of surveillance equipment. This increase in the militarization of the southern US border is well documented in Timothy Dunn’s book, The Militarization of the US-Mexican Border 1978 – 1992.

The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed between the US, Mexican and Canadian government in 1992, signaled another drastic change in policy at the US/Mexican border. What NAFTA did was to essentially allowed businesses and the goods they produced to move freely across the US/Mexican border, but not Mexican civilians. NAFTA gutted to US manufacturing industry, moving many plants to Mexico and at the same time the US sent cheap subsidized corn to Mexico, which led to the demise of millions of small Mexican farmers who could not compete with US corn prices. Many of the Mexican farmers fled north to the US, thus demonstrating once again that US policy in the Mexico is what is driving the massive immigration crisis. The political cartoon below, accurately depicts this dynamic as it relates to NAFTA.

The last two major changes in recent decades that has impacted the US/Mexican border and resulted in its ongoing militarization were the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in the US and Plan Merida.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in the US renewed the political and ideological call to strengthen US borders, which primarily meant the southern US border. The Bush Administration used this opportunity to create what is called the Department of Homeland Security, which includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE activity during the Bush and Obama administrations, resulted in the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants, mostly from Mexico. The ideological reasoning behind the deportations is that these undocumented immigrants are a threat to US national security. This same ideological justification continues with the Trump administration, even though it has never had anything to do with security.

The last major point to make about the militarization of the US/Mexican border is the impact that Plan Merida has had on creating more violence in Mexico, which has forced millions more to seek safety in the US. Plan Merida was announced in 2007, but signed into law by the Obama administration under the guise of fighting the war on drugs. However, there is no evidence that there is any reduction of drug trafficking into the US from Mexico, but there is plenty of evidence in the increased political violence in Mexico, resulting in the displacement of large numbers of Mexican civil society. The video below, provides a brief outline of the consequences of Plan Merida.


In Part III of this series, we will examine the reaction of so many people who were horrified by the tear gassing of asylum seekers and why this reaction demonstrates how little people in the US understand about the history of US treatment of immigrants.


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