At a conservative border security conference in August 2014, Texas Governor Rick Perry cautioned that the US-Mexican border is “insecure” and has seen “historic high levels of individuals from countries with terrorist ties.”
Perry was referring to unfounded suspicions that the Islamic State group was plotting ‘terrorist’ attacks against the U.S. from Mexico; a rather paradoxical statement, given the billions of U.S. dollars that have gone into militarizing the U.S.-Mexican border, as well as the fact security officials claim the border with Canada, not Mexico, is in fact much more vulnerable to “terrorist” operations.
The Texas governor’s remarks follow a historical continuation of imagining the U.S.-Mexican border as a site of danger, anarchy and terrorism that needs to be met with barbed-wired walls, guns, drones and more guns.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S.-Mexico border was similarly suspected to be an easy and attractive entry point for al-Qaida. While the border was imagined as a terrorism hotbed, those who crossed it were framed as terrorists. A climate of islamophobia meant people of color at large were often imagined and consequently targeted as potential terrorists.
“We as Mexicans became the enemy. After Sept. 11, they sealed the border, built a wall, and began persecuting immigrants and justified it as a problem of security”
While the border with Canada was largely neglected, migration from the south, specifically by brown and Black people, was turned into a security problem, which, over the past decade, has legitimized the expansion and encroachment of a mass security apparatus beyond the physical border into the streets and private homes.
“The 9/11 attack was really a major game-changer,” Elyse Golob, who runs the National Center for Border Security and Immigration at the University of Arizona, told Fronteras. “Immigration became immediately linked with anti-terrorism and national security and that led to growing concern and movement toward secure borders.”
Migration, previously a legal matter under the Department of Justice, became a multi-billion dollar project under the supervision of the Department of Homeland Security, a body specifically created after 9/11 to combat ‘terrorism.’
According to researcher and writer Todd Miller, the DHS has been building an “army” on U.S. soil with its Customs and Border Protection branch possessing its own air force and navy equipped with 280 sea vessels, 250 aircraft, and 1,200 agents.
After 9/11 the U.S. literally turned the border into a war zone, including the construction of a 1,000 kilometer wall that has destroyed local communities and livelihoods while making border-crossing for thousands of migrants and refugees a highly hazardous, and deadly, journey.
The militarization of the U.S-Mexican border has made it eight times more likely for people to die in border-crossings today than a decade ago. An estimated 5,595 people, including 1,000 children, have died in their attempts to cross the border between 1998 and 2012, found a 2013 National Foundation for American Policy report.
“We as Mexicans became the enemy. After September 11, they sealed the border, built a wall, and began persecuting immigrants and justified it as a problem of security. This perspective became an excuse for everything,” Sandra Rodriguez, a Mexican journalist, told Pulitzer Center.
While some political analysts have found that border security contradicts trade agreements made with Mexico prior to 9/11, which were in fact meant to enable a free flow of goods and people to strengthen a “free market,” others suggest that the very militarization of the border has served the weapon industry and fueled cheap labor to the U.S. economy.
From predator drone-testing to high-tech surveillance infrastructure, the U.S. has exploited the border into a “vast open-air laboratory for tech companies,” Miller noted on his blog.
“There, almost any form of surveillance and ‘security’ can be developed, tested, and showcased, as if in a militarized shopping mall, for other nations across the planet to consider,” he added.
Artist Ana Teresa Fernández paints the US/Mexico border to make it appear as if it isn't there. pic.twitter.com/Thx9ndp1mU— ⒶLamento Boliviano☭ (@MexicAnarchist) September 10, 2015
Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of undocumented people locked up in detention centers after mass hearings and fast-track prosecutions, are subjected to exploitative working conditions to the benefit of U.S. corporations.
In 2014, the New York Times revealed that at least 60,000 immigrants worked in detention centers for as little as 13 cents an hour. That is if they weren’t simply compensated with sodas or candy bars, or worse, worked for free.
Yet to believe that the exploitation and killing of immigrants is a post 9/11 story, is to erase the historical roots and political funcion of ‘legality’. According to professor Aviva Chomsky, Mexican workers were made ‘illegal’ as grounds for discrimination after the 1960s when race, as an explicit form of legal discrimination, was banned as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.
"They physically exist but legally they are excluded. By defining one group of people as inherently racially, legally different, you then justify all manner of atrocities against them," Aviva Chomsky, professor of history and coordinator of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies at Salem State University, told Truthout. Let's abolish the category "illegal" and give everyone the “right to exist."