America’s Berlin Wall

(Hope Park, Brownsville | Source: Scott Nicol)

Brownsville, Texas
Highway 281 hugs the Rio Grande as it twists and turns its last few miles before heading into Brownsville at the southernmost tip of Texas. As you pass small towns with histories dating back almost three centuries, some serving as river crossings long before the Europeans arrived, you can’t help but be offended by the steel border fence that sometimes comes within feet of the highway and sometimes is seen across cultivated fields, as the Rio Grande continues its ancient meandering mission, re-sculpting the border on its 900 mile journey from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico, just beyond Brownsville.

There are gaps in the fence, made of 18-foot steel posts, six inches wide with four-inch spaces between posts. Border Patrol Suburbans fill some of those gaps, watching and waiting. Other parts of the fence line simply end on top of a berm and then begin again one-half mile later. Modest houses and mobile homes line the road. At certain points gravel roads disappear into large family-owned farming operations that serve as contemporary plantations, employing low-wage documented and undocumented labor. The border fence cuts across national wildlife preserves and farms. West of Brownsville, it runs across the backyards of several houses, just behind the clotheslines, where sheets and work clothes wave.

The people we are keeping out on our southern border are, for the most part, dark-skinned and poor. There is very little evidence that there are many terrorists among them or that this is containing major drug cartels.

Welcome to the gated community that we once knew as America. And for those who live on the border, life is becoming what you’d expect in a region Sen. John McCain predicted will be “the most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall.” Border Patrol vehicles are on constant guard. Drones are taking to the skies, watching the border and its residents as if expecting German Chancellor Angela Merkel to cross the Rio Grande. On top of that, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that the U.S. was considering adding non-lethal weapons to the drone offensive. What are we, Yemen?

No, it’s just generations of poor and working-class people, who have families on both sides of the border, who used to be able to visit each other, who may have lived in the region since before Mexico separated from Spain and well before the Anglos invaded by horse, by riverboat, and later by rail. Now everyone is under surveillance. Especially if you are brown.

Apparently Homeland Security cannot wait for the billions included in the Senate-passed Immigration Reform bill for redoubling the Border Wall, adding more drones and Border Patrol agents—a bill Sen. Patrick Leahy called “a Christmas wish list for Halliburton.” While the border wall crosses a good deal of federal land in Arizona and New Mexico, most of the land in question in Texas is private property. It is all in the Rio Grande floodplain. Federal condemnation proceedings have started up again against Texas property owners whose land abuts the Rio Grande.

The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) is doing its part. In 2008, it declared that a commissioned engineering report said the wall could not be completed because it posed a real flood threat on both sides of the Rio Grande. In 2011 it commissioned a new engineering report that claims the flood threat is minimal, and so the IBWC has given the go-ahead without agreement from Mexico.

You don’t hear about this in the ping-pong match that passes for legislative attempts at immigration reform. The lives of at least 11 million people waiting in limbo seem less and less important to the ruling elites than the political gamesmanship involved. The new bill requires absolute assurances that the border is secure before the pathway to citizenship can be launched. That could mean years.

Immigration reform is not an issue that has much chance of passage before the end of the year or before the 2014 elections, but it could serve the Democrats well in their efforts to ramp up increased Latino voter participation in the upcoming elections. That makes Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio nervous. But not so his Texas counterpart Ted Cruz, a native of Calgary. Cruz is also out there, talking about what’s wrong with immigration reform, apparently mostly concerned about his own pathway to the 2016 Republican presidential nomination and believing that a little old-fashioned hate-mongering and immigrant-bashing could help his chances.

IMG 0007While Republicans are supporting a bill that gives local communities authority to create their own immigration laws, if they parallel federal law, President Obama apparently believes that he has to show he is más macho in his get-tough-on-immigrants actions in order to garner Republican support for the reform. President W. began this full-scale incursion by the security state—no doubt while Dick Cheney was channeling the ghost of Richard Nixon’s paranoia. But Obama has been a zealous caretaker of this Republican legacy, deporting more people in five years than his predecessor did in eight.

The people we are keeping out on our southern border are, for the most part, dark-skinned and poor. There is very little evidence that there are many terrorists among them or that this is containing major drug cartels. The drug and arms arrests on the border are newsmakers that the cartels chalk up as the cost of doing business. We just don’t want to be overrun by the “other.”

That may explain why we’ve been so slow in creating the same kinds of barriers on our northern border. You’d think some of our policy makers would want a high fence between us and Canada so we can keep more U.S. citizens from making a mad dash for the Maple Leaf.

The U.S. is now trying to play catch-up on its northern border, beefing up the Border Patrol force and the use of drones across from Canada. Again, this seems to be used primarily to lasso dark-skinned border crossers. There are a number of stories of Muslim-American citizens returning to their U.S. homes in Dearborn, Michigan, from visits to Canada, suffering detention and humiliation at the hands of Homeland Security. Serves those American citizens right for traveling to that hotbed of terrorism to our north.

It would have been nice, appropriate and symbolic if Obama had replaced Janet Napolitano with a Latino appointee instead of the Defense Department defender of drones. Don’t tell me no one was qualified. He or she could have stood on the bridge between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso and, instead of declaring, “Ich bin ein El Pasoan,” could have said, “Soy un ciudadano de la frontera [I am a citizen of the border].”


Geoff Rips is a former editor of the Texas Observer.