Crazy Mexican Border Politics post 9-11

Crazy Mexican Border Politics Post 9-11**
Elvia Rosales Arriola
Executive Director, WOB, INC.

State Defiance of Federal Border Control

On April 23, 2010 the Governor of Arizona signed a law passed by the legislature that allowed police officers to demand proof of citizenship to a person they have reason to suspect is in violation of the law and in the country illegally. The law triggered a heated national debate over racial politics and immigration control. It was the culmination of an anti-illegal alien legislative campaign that had begun at the local level in towns like Hazelton, Pennsylvania. Communities seeing the rising numbers of incoming  migrant laborers from Mexico and Central America were saying “enough!” and taking “immigration reform” into their own hands. Residents of Arizona divided along political and racial lines in favor of and opposition to SB 1070. Similar statutes were passed and justified as needing to oust “illegal aliens” in order to protect our borders against terrorism. SB 1070 invited criticism that it fostered racial profiling and xenophobia (bigotry toward foreigners) and discrimination against citizens and permanent residents who were non-white and spoke a different language or English with an accent. To civil rights activists the law appeared to directly target what the constitutional lawyers refer to as a “discrete and insular minority,” those who simply are perceived as “illegal aliens” by their looks, or their speech, even if they are legal residents or naturalized citizens. It privileges those who fit another stereotype, that of “real Americans,” i.e., persons who look Anglo/European, for whom English is the sole or primary language, etc. It is a law difficult to defend as an aid against terrorism; if anything the rhetoric of anti-terrorism has been conveniently conflated with historic racial/ethnic anti-immigrant hostility. In Arizona, the history of the white-brown racial tensions lurk in the background of such recently launched crazy projects as the $50 million border fence campaign.

In the context of the  State of  Arizon’s long history of anti-Mexican attitude and persecution, SB 1070 appeared to be infused with old racialized resentments and a lashing out of white dominant power against its latino residents and citizens. Anger divided supporters and opponents alike.  Was this nothing but an effort to hold on to power in the face of statistics projecting the rise of the Latino majority by the 21st century? As such the law, which has heavy support from white Arizonans, seemingly pacified the feelings of panic and sense of loss, that there are too many of these different, dangerous looking people invading their state. But the passage of this law raises another question, and that is what it does to federal-state relations, given that SB 1070 challenges the constitutional rule that immigration and border control is the business of the federal government not the states. Has the state of Arizona’s bold legislative act resurrected historic constitutional battles in state-federal relations?

Challenging the Exclusive Federal Authority Over Immigration and Border Control

In the fall of 2005 a Republican controlled House of Representatives passed HR 4437 a proposed bill to enact one of the harshest immigration laws ever. Labeled the “Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act,” the draconian measures in the bill were seen as an attack by immigrants all over the country as it would have charged any person illegally in the country as a felon. Opposition to HR 4437 triggered nationwide marches for immigrants’ rights which essentially killed further action on HR 4437. By 2006 towns across America, beginning with Hazelton, Pennsylvania, began a wave of backlash legislative activity, passing ordinances labeled as immigration reform laws that made illegal providing harbor or residence to known illegal aliens, prohibiting the delivery of public services to non-citizens, and requiring police officers to check the citizenship status of persons they suspected were in the country illegally.

Historical Context for Enduring Conflict at the Southern Border

Underlying the all out war between Latin American immigrants and states like Arizona to keep out unwanted “aliens” is the complex history of the border. The Southern border/frontera is both real and imagined. There is the physical separation effected by natural or man made boundaries (e.g., the Rio Grande, the Mexican border wall), and there is the effect of the metaphorical border, a felt need by many Americans to view and treat their southern neighbors as socio-culturally different, separate and inferior, etc. The story of how the “brown” Southern border with Mexico came to be, especially as distinguished from the “white” border with Canada, is filled accounts of thievery by white settlers of Mexican-owned lands in the 19th century in an effort to get at what remained of the western frontier. Justified by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, lands once owned by Mexico became what is today most of the Southwest following the war with Mexico, which ended in 1848. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed at the war’s end, in theory guaranteed equality of civil rights to the conquered Mexicans, but instead initiated a long and enduring period of second class status and discrimination against Mexican-Americans. In the history of the southern border there are stories of genocide, state-sanctioned expropriation of wealth, land displacement, and terror against Mexicans. White settlers tried to ensure that what had been Mexico should be repopulated in ways guaranteed to maintain Anglo white political power. Mexicans were in the majority in places like Arizona; despite their numbers it was whites who maintained political power through the 1870s. The racial history of the Southwest includes rape and lynchings of Blacks, but also of Mexicans.

Bigotry and prejudice do not die easily in a culture’s history. SB 1070 is a law embedded in Arizona’s own particular border history with Mexico and Mexican-Americans and is steeped in a history of bitter racial tensions between Anglo whites or assimilated Mexicans who resent the presence of recent immigrants from Mexico. Yet another historic pattern is at work. SB 1070 revisits the injustices of the 1930s when thousands of Mexicans and their American children were deported or “repatriated” as a solution to the problems of the Great Depression. This turns SB 1070 into an example of recycled racist strategy to use a troubled economy as pretext to victimize the weakest and most hated social group in the state. Which is why SB 1070 and similar copycat laws and ordinances are being viewed as efforts to license outright racial discrimination and violence against Latina/os, while doing absolutely nothing to enhance border security.

Militarization of the Border as a Symbol of Racial Resentment

Against the unique racial history in Arizona and the antiterrorism rhetoric fueled so much by the past Bush administration, the situation today has turned the Mexican border into a site of racial conflict and politics. Non-whites who walk the border risk being viewed as potential alien terrorists. Mexican American citizens get treated with suspicion for their dark skin color. The rhetoric of anti-terrorism becomes a convenient tool for resurrecting ancient racial hostilities between Anglos and Mexicans that goes back the days before Arizona statehood. Post-9-11 immigration law and policy as now administered by the Department of Homeland Security has a larger budget for border enforcement. Spending increased and the number of border patrol officers doubled under President Bush. President Obama’s first budget increased monies for national security. Recently Mr. Obama announced an order to deploy 1200 more national guard troops to the border, an act viewed as hostile by civil right activists and likely to fuel the border racial wars. By equating the border as a frontline defense against terrorism, the militarized border produces draconian security measures that produce aggressive patrolling and interrogation. Human rights activists, who point to the rising number of senseless migrant deaths at the border, rightly question the need for a militarized border that regularly causes loss of life and grave injury to migrant travelers. In the best case scenario the migrant might end up indefinitely jailed in an immigration detention center, but in the worst she risks death or serious injury from being shot at by a border vigilante or exposure to extreme weather conditions.

A Missing Perspective to the Militarized Border: Intersections of Trade Policy and Border Policing

The “border” of course, is more than a tall chain link fence and border cops in the desert. It is also a metaphor for divisions based on race and class that characterize life at the southern border. “The border” holds different meanings of freedom for different people – from a tourism escape, to shopping opportunities, from the source of nannies, maids and gardeners to the door to a business opportunity for an investor under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). For the migrant worker however, the border is closed, unwelcoming and dangerous. But it is also the symbol of hope for a job in a NAFTA factory in one of the hundreds of maquiladoras lining the border today. If no job is available the next step is to cross illegally, as the last act of hope to find work of any kind so as to put an end to a life of grinding poverty she faces at home.

It is ironic that so much of the legislative focus on the Mexican immigrant laborer today is a legacy of past efforts to strengthen the economic ties between the United States and Mexico. Some of this historic economic relationship is represented by the free trade policies that began in the sixties under the Border Industrialization Program (BIP) and continued with NAFTA which was signed by President Clinton in the early nineties. NAFTA sought to accelerate the economic integration of the United States and Mexico, as it sought to impose an artificial—but legally enforceable—separation of labor markets. While capital and commodities were free to cross borders, workers were not. The ideology of neoliberal economics held out the erroneous hope that increased investments by U.S. firms in Mexico would generate employment, reduce poverty, and remove the imperative for migration to the United States. NAFTA failed utterly as a strategy for job creation in Mexico. A perverse logic was at play, as highly competitive and profitable international firms entered the Mexican economy and destroyed smaller, less efficient industries. This, combined with cheap imports, had a devastating impact on the Mexican labor markets and triggered by the mid-nineties even larger waves of migration of farmers from the Mexican southern interior to the border in search of work.

The steady flow of migration, and efforts to criminalize the journey of a person looking for work is symptomatic of the economic interdependence that exists between Mexico and the United States. Today that relationship is even more complicated by the rising levels of violence between organized crime gangs and Mexican government agents as drug lords seek to control the trafficking entry points from Mexico into the U.S. As the media highlights only the violence at the border one is able to see SB 1070 as an act based on fear, as a grasping for comfort over what one cannot control, whether it is the senseless acts of violence of the hardened criminal or the terrorist zealot. It becomes easier to target the vulnerable Mexican who not only has no political power, but also shares physical traits, brown skin and dark hair, with persons from the Middle East. Together with fear and confusion the racial bigot can believe that within her local labor economy, or inside of a low rent apartment complex there is an unfolding plot, being orchestrated by people who look like Muslim U.S.-hating foreigners, to commit the next act of terrorism. The exaggerated fears, embodied in a law like SB 1070, have an inexplicable power to render the migrant from Mexico or Central America as a threat, as not quite human, as a thief of jobs, as deadly narcotraficantes, or as a Middle Eastern “terrorist” intent on raining destruction on the United States. The slippery slope of fear plus ignorance turns every brown skinned border crosser into a potential terrorist, a situation that evokes another painful chapter in American history – of the racial profiling and disenfranchisement of Japanese-Americans that occurred after the bombing at Pearl Harbor during World War II.

Unequal Economics, Unequal Justice

The foreign economic policy of the United States has consistently failed to acknowledge the centrality of Mexican immigrant labor for regional economic growth. “Free trade” agreements are touted as the solution but from a perspective that strictly looks at the annual reports of corporations, not at the pocketbooks or living conditions of the worker in the factories. The economic interdependence and the policies that look to free rather than “fair trade” between the two countries continues to perpetuate the vast inequalities between rich and poor. The economic frameworks and the attendant policies essentially guarantee the continued migration of people in need of work from the interior of Mexico or Central America in search of work or in search of a better life across the border. And as long as there is no change in the historic indispensability of cheap imported labor coming through Mexico to sustain the U.S. agricultural, construction and landscaping industries, to name just a few types of jobs held by undocumented workers, there will be migrants running across Arizona ranchers’ lands who risk running into the rifle of a member of such vigilante groups as the Minuteman Project. Under these socio-economic conditions Arizonans who neither see nor comprehend the larger economic framework that dictates the continued flow of migrants trying to cross the border, will demand that their local and state governments do something about it with laws like SB 1070.

The cause for the increasing flow of migration should therefore not be isolated from the socio-economic developments that are tied up in the enforcement of NAFTA or the interests of U.S. corporations to use and abuse of the human and natural resources of Mexico. Arguably, the U.S. drive to achieve global economic dominance depends upon unequal economic relations and the more rational utilization of the labor and natural resources of less-developed economies. But contemporary trade policy consistently dictates that the only prospects for economic growth for the less wealthy nation is accepting the terms of trade set by the United States, which means terms that benefit American corporations who benefit directly from the exploitation of resources of a less wealthy country.

The constant flow of migrants is the most direct evidence of that skewed interdependent relationship where Mexico is made to need the U.S. multinational corporate investor, but under terms that never benefit the working classes of either country. As the corporation reorganizes operations and decides to outsource, it strips the American worker of a job on domestic soil. Meanwhile behind the Mexican migrant’s story there is often a complex set of reasons why a family abandoned a farm, or why he was motivated to attempt an illegal crossing, circumstances that may have been the indirect consequence of business deals between the financial elite of both countries and that produced profitable economic results for the investors, and a few rich families, but not the working classes. On the one hand the nation wants secure borders, on the other it wants a healed economy, especially one that makes no room for migrant laborers. The truth is migrant labor is desired by so many U.S. industries that rely on cheap labor to create the comfortable lifestyle Americans also desire. That hated foreigner targeted by laws like SB 1070 is ironically welcomed for her ability to work for cheap wages and resented by the American consumer who benefits directly from that cheap labor. For a U.S. citizenry that does not comprehend the border as metaphor, as more than a physical reality and as a division based on racial and class attitudes, the lives of unauthorized immigrants are therefore insignificant. Arizonans may have reasons to be angry, but they should be angry at the supporters of “free trade” and all of the economic arrangements it entails that affect their own lives, not at Latinas/os whether undocumented or not.

The mandate of the Department of Homeland Security’s Border Patrol is to protect U.S. citizens “from threats to the safety and security of our borders.” For U.S officials the border continues to be one of the frontlines in the war against terrorism, even if the rhetoric has been watered down by the more progressive sounding Obama administration. This does not prevent states, however, just like Arizona, to continue to appropriate the term “terrorist” for their own political agendas, which, as a border state translates into an obsession over the presence of millions of undocumented migrants. Brown-skinned, “Middle Eastern–looking” males have been victimized by the unjustly harsh penalties and cruel measures of recent antiterrorist laws. Racism has converted antiterrorist legislation, purportedly enacted to protect the civilian population from future atrocities like those of September 11, into a license to disregard the civil and human rights of communities of color who are perceived as potentially sympathetic to the enemies of the United States. State or local laws like SB 1070, which flout federal authority on immigration matters perpetuate the idea that the non-white foreigner can be dehumanized and targeted because of their skin color, ethnicity or language.

From an historical perspective, Arizona’s opposition to exclusive federal authority over immigration and border control also conjures up the history of state-federal conflict that emerged post Brown v. Board of Education, after the Supreme Court ordered Southern states to dismantle the system of de jure racial segregation of public schools. Governor Brewer’s act of signing SB 1070, fully recognizing that it is the federal government and not states that sets policy on citizenship, immigration and border control, and relying on an argument of 10th Amendment reserved “states rights,” resurrects the image of figures like Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus defying federal authority and invoking the doctrine of nullification to prevent attendance of black children in the all white Little Rock high school. Supporters of Arizona’s SB1070 have in fact renewed the call of “states rights” to secure their own borders, to take charge on a matter where they see the federal government’s authority as inadequate or incompetent.

The anti-immigrant legislative movement, whether local or statewide can also be seen as a movement to legislate racial anger. It is capable of fueling the sentiments of ignorant fear that lead to more outrageous actions, such as the hate crime by two white teenagers leading to the death of a Mexican immigrant in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, which was followed by a nullification of the charge to “misdemeanor assault” by an all white jury. This disturbing trend of allowing the spirit of “immigration reform” to encourage hate crimes, followed by cover-ups or obstructions of justice sympathetic to the perpetrators bear tragic and striking similarities to the state-federal conflicts seen in the civil rights movement.

Without a legal definition to the term “terrorist” it is a convenient term for branding outsiders and dissidents, for turning the suspected terrorist into a non-human, non-citizen, not worthy of concern whether they are entitled to invoke the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. But, to advocates for human rights, the policies that were justified by the past administration as part of an enduring “war on terror” is a war that targets dark-skinned Latinos and Latinas, whether citizens or not. Whether it is NAFTA–related activities in the targeted export-processing zones of large multinational corporations, or more militarized efforts to close off entry by the unwanted or potential terrorist, or indefensible state laws that allow for racial profiling of “illegal aliens,” it is clear that current law and policy do not favor the human rights concerns of those who are affected, who have been turned into scapegoats, by official U.S. or state and local efforts to protect against antiterrorism or illegal immigration.

** The views herein are derived from an earlier essay, “Immigration Politics and Border Control after September 11th,” for publication in  Oxford Encyclopedia of Latino/as in Contemporary Politics, Law, and Social Movements, edited by Suzanne Oboler and Deena Gonzalez  (Oxford University Press 2015).

Arriola, Elvia R. “Voices from the Barbed Wires of Despair: Women in the Maquiladoras, Latina Critical Legal Theory and Gender at the U.S.–Mexico Border.” De Paul Law Review 49 (2000): 729–814.

Arriola, Elvia R. “LatCrit Theory, Int’l Human Rights, Popular Culture, and the Faces of Despair in INS Raids.” University of Miami International American Law Review 28 (1997): 245.

Dunn, Timothy. The Militarization of the U.S.–Mexico Border, 1978–1992: Low Intensity Conflict Comes Home. Austin: CMAS Books, University of Texas at Austin, 1996.

González, John. “Danger Won’t Halt Border Crossings.” Houston Chronicle, May 18, 2003. cial/deadlycrossing/1910631

Hegstrom, Edward, and Dan Feldstein. “Immigrants’ Attempt to Reach Houston Ends with 18 Dead.” Houston Chronicle, May 18, 2003.

Hirschkom, Phil, “Federal Judge, Charge Padilla or Release Him: Ruling Given in Enemy Combatant Case.” March 1, 2005. www.
“Immigrants Die in Railroad Hotbox.” June 4, 2003. www.CBSNews. com/stories/2003/06/03/national/main556816.shtml

Jehl, Douglas. “U.S. Aides Cite Worry on Qaeda Infiltration from Mexico.” New York Times, January 17, 2005. 02/17/international/americas/17intel.html
The Left Coaster. “We Can’t Win the War Against Terrorism.” August 30, 2004. php

Massey, Douglas S. “Closed-Door Policy.” The American Prospect Online, June 30, 2003.

Nathan, Debbie. “Missing the Story.” The Texas Observer, May 2002.
“Smuggling Ring Eyed in Truck Deaths.” May 18, 2003.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “Border Safety Initiative.” February 25, 2003.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “U.S. Customs and Border Protection FY 2006 Budget Press Release of February 7, 2005.”
U.S. Department of State, International Information Programs. “Arizona Border Deaths Set Record.” February 16, 2005.


Primary Legal Sources:

Text of Arizona SB 1070:

U.S. Constitution, Amendment 10 (1791), “The Powers Not Delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the People.”

Hazelton Ordinances:
Ordinance 2006-18 (9/21/2006) (providing criminal sanctions for harboring an alien; Ordinance 2006-35 (12/13/2006) (establishing a registration program for residential rental properties; Ordinance 2006-19 (declaring English as the official language of Hazelton).


Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 413 U.S. 159 (1954) (racial segregation in public schools violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution).

Lozano v. City of Hazelton, 496 F. Supp. 2d 477 (M.D. Pa. 2007) (charging the Hazleton ordinance as violating the 14th amendment equal protection and due process clauses, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VIII (Fair Housing Act) and 42 U.S.C. Section 1981(prohibiting racial discrimination under color of law).

Books and Articles

Kim Cobb, Susan Carroll and Chase Davis, The Immigration Debate, Small Towns Clamping Down, Fear, Frustration Prompt “Raging Fire” of Ordinances Against Illegal Immigrants, Houston Chronicle, Sec. A, p. 1 (Nov. 2006) available at

Abraham Hoffman, Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression: Reptatriation Pressure 1929-1939 (The Univ. of Arizona Press, 1979).

Michael J. Klarman, “Why Massive Resistance?”, SSRN- id410062.pdf, Univ. of Virginia School of Law, 2003 Public Law and Legal Theory Research Papers

Korematsu, Fred, “Fred Korematsu speaks out on Racial Profiling and Scapegoating,” ReclaimDemocracy.Org, available at:

“Thousands March for Immigrant Rights,”,

“Obama’s 2011 Budget Curbs Border Security,” ABC News (Feb. 4, 2010) available at:

“Obama Authorizes Deployment of More National Guard Troops in Border,” ABC News/Politics available at:

Major Police Cover-up Alleged in Hate Murder of Immigrant, Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report (Spring 2010) available at:

John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (Plume, Penguin Books, New York 2006).

David J. Weber, Foreigners in their Native Land: Historical Roots of the Mexican Americans (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1973).


Writer, attorney, Lawprof Emerita from Northern Illinois University.
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