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Tuesday, 10 April 2018 06:42

The Long, Brutal History of Militarization at the US-Mexico Border

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RACHEL IDA BUFF FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT     360845260 0d97e02884 oBorder fence near Sonoita, Mexico. The road is on the US side and is well-traversed by Border Patrol vehicles. Sarah Kanouse

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The recent announcement of intent to deploy US National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border is part of an ongoing theater of cruelty which summons xenophobic ideas of national security and imposes more military presence in daily life. This kind of swagger has a long history. But instead of offering security, its consequences visit repression, degradation and death on many communities, and undermine the rule of law throughout the country.

In the early 1950s, concerns about communist infiltration focused on the US border with Mexico. Assistant Border Patrol Commissioner Willard Kelly compared undocumented migration from Mexico to a "great, peacetime invasion." Consequently, President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked his old friend from West Point, Gen. Joseph May Swing, to take the 6th Army to the US-Mexico border and deal with what he framed in baldly racist terms as "the wetback problem."

Swing had served in the 1916 "Punitive Expedition" into Mexico to retaliate for Pancho Villa's raids in New Mexico. There, as I argue in my recent book, Against the Deportation Terror: Organizing for Immigrant Rights in the Twentieth Century, he formed particular, racialized impressions of working-class Mexicans as potential bandits, as well as lasting friendships with some of the upper-class Mexican military officers with whom they tracked Villa and his rebel associates. These ideas and friendships had lasting impact on his ideas about counterinsurgency in general, and about Mexico in particular.

Despite his sympathies with Eisenhower's desires, General Swing said "no" to the president. He explained that he thought it was a bad idea to take troops trained to shoot on sight to deal with non-combatants. Instead, Eisenhower appointed his old friend to be commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, the forerunner of the current Immigration and Customs and Enforcement Agency, or ICE).

As INS commissioner, Swing perpetrated the disaster of Operation Wetback, a binational immigration enforcement effort designed to end the problem of undocumented migration through increased enforcement, deportation and detention. With Operation Wetback, the INS was successful in staging a public relations coup, in which a beefed-up Border Patrol appeared to prevail over hordes of migrants surging over the border.

But despite recent presidential proclamations of its "success" in deporting over a million migrants, Operation Wetback did not significantly reduce undocumented migration. Instead, it extended the terror of militarized immigration enforcement throughout Mexican American communities, radiating far from the border and into urban communities. About 250,000 people were deported, many of them on crowded and poorly provisioned ships.

The triumph of Operation Wetback was a militarized fantasy projected by the mass media, in which hard-working law enforcement personnel chased "criminal aliens." Its legacy installed the racist term "wetback" into American imaginations, obliterating the stories of individuals and families impacted in favor of a mass threat.

Military force at the US-Mexico border has long resulted in repression, violence and deaths at the hands of whichever forces are deployed there. Initially founded in 1823 with the Anglo-American colonization of the territory that eventually became Texas, the Texas Rangers became a state institution deployed against "hostile" Native Americans as well as "Mexican nationals." After Texas and much of the Southwest became part of the United States in 1848, the Rangers continued to act on these racial assumptions, supporting white domination of the region against the continued presence of Comanche and Mexican communities. In the words of one Ranger, Texas was in danger of becoming "overrun with bad men." These racist attitudes persist in the current administration's fake-cowboy parlance about "bad hombres."

The digital humanities initiative Mapping Violence: Visualizing State-Sanctioned Violence on the U.S./Mexico Border (1900-1930) documents the campaigns of white vigilante terror carried out against Mexican Americans in Texas during these years, often with the active support of the Texas Rangers. Many former Rangers joined the US Border Patrol when it was founded in 1924.

The Texas Rangers enforced an idea of security that equated longstanding Indigenous and Mexican American communities with a foreign threat. Operation Wetback deployed enhanced enforcement efforts against these communities.

Since Operation Wetback, the US-Mexico border has been further militarized, as technologies developed for conflicts abroad are recycled for border enforcement. This began with the the migration of "low-intensity conflict" protocols from wars abroad to those at the US-Mexico border in the 1980s. Developed around US counterinsurgency engagement against elected governments in El Salvador and Nicaragua, low-intensity conflict doctrine emphasizes controlling civilian populations instead of territory; it seeks to minimize troop deployment and amplify the military's role in law enforcement. The resulting militarization makes the border increasingly dangerous. In 1997, US Marines patrolling the border as part of the "War on Drugs" mistook 22-year-old Texas goat herder Esequiel Hernández Jr. for a drug dealer. Hernández became the first American since Kent State to be killed on native soil.

The blurring of lines between civil and military law enforcement indicated by transfer of immigration from the Department of Justice to the Department of Homeland Security has become characteristic of post-9/11 domestic policy. All of this contributes to making the border, in the words of the National Network of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, "an area where the U.S. constitution has little to no value, a post-constitutional territory that expands across the country."

Militarizing the border isn't about protecting people. It's about consolidating, amassing and deploying deadly force against civilians. Real security entails understanding the causes and consequences of migration, and the needs of communities on both sides of the border.


Rachel Ida Buff teaches history and comparative ethnic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her new book, Against the Deportation Terror: Organizing for Immigrant Rights in the Twentieth Century, will be out from Temple University Press later this year. She is co-coordinator of Milwaukee Jewish Voice for Peace and president of the UWM Chapter of the American Association of University Professionals. Follow her on Twitter: @rachelidatweets.