Back to contents


Globalization and Militarized Borders: The Case of the US American Policy

The forces of globalization bear great weight upon the international borders. In the trend toward the “global village,” boundaries of the nation begin to weaken through economic deregulations, information superhighways, and the movements of refugees both economic and political. These changes cause new fear about crime and poverty that capitalize on the “otherness” of newcomers. Racial violence, in law, discourse, policy, and cultural attitude increases in this age of uncertainty and flux.

A good example is the border immigration policy of the USA with the border it shares with Mexico. There, the criminalization (the use of rhetoric, ideology and tactics in making something illegal) of border crossers has caused a human rights crisis. The militarization of the border by the USA, which includes building walls, fences, using ground sensors and night vision cameras, and following military paradigms in enforcing immigration laws, pushes immigrants from safer, more urban points of crossing to remote and dangerous deserts. Thousands of people have perished and many more will die as the US American public and politicians demand even more border enforcement, in the wake of 9-11, fueled by fears of terrorist infiltration. The actual number of deaths due to stiffer border policies is unknown, since no official attempt has been made to record them systematically. However, social scientists and human rights groups estimate that more than 2000 people have died in the desert on the U.S. side since a count began in 1994.

Image 1

The “war on the border,” which is the union of drug enforcement policies and immigration concerns, encourages human rights abuses by creating scapegoats out of undocumented migrants. This scapegoating comes from nativist sentiments over the perceived loss of control of the border. Such scapegoating in turn encourages many to believe that more force is needed to repel the onslaught of illegal migration and to accept force as a justifiable strategy to restore control.

Thus, the idea of war, as an armed struggle between two antagonistic nations, grips the national imagination and stimulates racial anxiety within the immigration debate without ever having to use an open racial slur. Exactly what the nation risks by this invasion is not articulated in the “war” message. However, this fear of ambiguity about the border becomes a coercive rhetorical technique that politicians and the media craft, based on obvious assumptions on how to stop an invasion (i.e. by preparing for war). The assumption that the borders need to be militarized, thus allows society to give consent to a racialized border policy. So to speak fluidly of war and militarization, and stagnantly of race and racism, within the discourse of the U.S.-Mexico border is to give consent to this new type racism that is not evidently racist.

Economics also contributed to the border militarization and the criminalization of immigrants. When the United States formed a free-trade zone with Canada and Mexico through such agreements as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1986 and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1996, these agreements greatly affected the border situation. In effect, the United States would pursue what is called a “politics of contradiction,” simultaneously moving toward integration while insisting on separation. Thus, policies that liberalized trade and the flow of capital between these nations contributed to an increase in the movement of capital, goods, commodities, and information but, while capital could flow freely, labor could not.

However, the escalation of the militarized border policies really marks its beginning with the Reagan administration. This administration was concerned not only with illegal drug flow, but also with the terrorist element among the Central American refugees seeking political shelter in the United States from U.S.-sponsored regimes and this administration would first link immigration and cold-war concerns as a basis for the border buildup. This included weakening the firm legal boundary between the military and law enforcement, by allowing the military to assist civilian law enforcement agencies with equipment, training, and knowledge in warfare. The Bush Sr. Administration continued the massive buildup started by Reagan, and increased the paramilitary nature of the INS with equipment, forces and training in tandem with an expansion of law enforcement authority.

However, the tendency for militarizing the border was not a partisan issue, for it was under the Clinton administration that the INS launched an offensive-border strategy called “prevention through deterrence.” This strategy began with “Operation Hold the Line” (in El Paso, Texas in 1993) and continued with “Operation Gatekeeper” (in San Diego, California in 1994), “Operation Safeguard” (in Nogales, Arizona in 1994), and “Operation Rio Grande” (in the Brownsville corridor that extends from the Lower Rio Grande Valley to Laredo, Texas in 1997. Walls and stadium-style lighting were placed in these border areas and border patrol staffing was increased dramatically. The goal was to move the migration path away from urban areas into remote (mountain and desert terrain), to deter people from crossing into the United States and make apprehension easier in the remote areas.

Image 2

The current Bush administration has “beefed up” border security by adding more equipment, personnel, and infrastructure. This administration has also shifted the focus of immigration from a citizenship matter to a terrorist concern when the dissolved the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and created the OHS (Office of Homeland Security) to oversee immigration in the wake of 9-11.

Although it did successfully push the migration flow away from urban areas, it did not deter undocumented immigration, except that now immigrants are more likely to hire human smugglers as guides. Additionally, immigrants are more likely to stay longer in the United States—because the return/reentry poses a far greater physical danger and monetary cost to them now than before the militarized-border buildup—thus increasing the number of undocumented immigrants residing the United States.

Image 3

These shifts in policy create a legal gulf for undocumented immigrants crossing the border. The right of “due process,” which is considered inherent in the criminal justice system toward any person—even undocumented immigrants—eventually gives way to the militarized construction of the enemy “other,” an entity with dubious access to rights. So while the US Americans enjoy the fruits of free trade agreements and the other goodies of globalization, the USA Mexico border becomes an unacknowledged “ground zero,” where hundreds die yearly due to crafted border policy. The forces of globalization and the buildup of national boundaries in reaction to the “global village effect” have created a human rights crisis along the USA-Mexico border. Sadly, border crossers are figuratively and literally treated as the “enemy” with devastating results.

Sahee Kil

1 © Arizona Daily Star 2004
2 Sept 14, 2003, AZ Daily Star