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The Border and the American Imagination

The latest horror at the border was centuries in the making

This is part one of a three-part series on the border by Michelle García. Part two can be found here, and part three can be found here.

The U.S.-Mexico border is the site of countless atrocities. The latest has resulted in some 3,000 children being taken from their parents by the U.S. government and then held hostage as a means of pressuring parents to give up claims for asylum. The cruelty of separating children from their parents by the state has provoked comparisons with Nazi Germany and the concentration camps where families were broken. These comparisons make it easy to believe that the atrocity on the border represents a looming threat at our nation’s shores, a new arrival. But it is not an aberration, not a disruption of “American values.” This horror is homegrown.

With roots in the Native American genocide and African American slavery, these atrocities are the latest episode in centuries-old racial violence against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, citizens and non-citizens alike. The terrified and weeping children on the border are the latest casualties in a pattern of racial violence that began in the 19th century when whites, who hailed from Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas, states where families were split apart at slave markets, arrived in colonial Mexico, the territory now known as Texas. The newcomers, immigrants themselves, labeled Tejanos or Texas Mexicans a racial abomination; the intermingling of Indian, European, and African bloodlines resulting in a human depravity. They branded Mexicans racially inferior, a “mongrel race.”

The horror on the border is described as an “immigration crisis,” the violence seemingly the consequence of migrants’ presence.

The progeny of these white conquerers live among us. We hear echoes of their forefathers in the warnings that “animals” are crossing the border and threatening to “infest” the nation. The heirs of the men who compared Mexicans to dogs have locked children in cages.

The horror on the border is described as an “immigration crisis,” the violence seemingly the consequence of migrants’ presence. “Immigration crisis” frames the violent reaction—the armed troops sent to the border, the unarmed Guatemalan woman shot in the head by a U.S. Border Patrol agent, the psychological torture of children. But “immigration crisis” ignores the fact that fighting Mexicans (or their easy substitutes, such as Central Americans) was essential to the construction of the United States, its identity the culture of violence it celebrates.

In the wails of children, in the distraught faces of parents, in the suicide of a father separated from his son, we are witness to a culture of violence toward Mexicans and Latinos. “Our ancestors tamed a continent,” said president Donald J. Trump, who referred to the U.S.-Mexico border as overrun with “animals,” “We are not going to apologize for America.”

The unholy marriage between racialized violence and the push for national greatness has existed throughout U.S. history. In the 19th century frontier, Stephen F. Austin, one of Texas’ “founding fathers,” described his efforts to “Americanize Texas,” which was ruled by Mexico. In a written appeal for U.S. aid against the Mexican government he wrote, “A war of extermination is raging in Texas—a war of barbarism and of despotic principles, waged by the mongrel Spanish-Indian and Negro race, against civilization and the Anglo-American race.” Sam Houston, who led the rebels to victory against the Mexican army, promised that whites would never “mix with the phlegm of the indolent Mexicans, no matter how long we live among them.” Back in Washington, the future Secretary of State Henry Clay asked, “By what race should Texas be peopled?” In a speech, he envisioned a Texas controlled by laws and liberties made possible only by whites. But he warned, “in the hands of others, it becomes the habitation of despotism and slaves, subject to the vile dominion of the Inquisition and of superstition.” Mexican subjugation was a matter of progress, of civilization.

Not all violence was waged for the same reason. Some Tejanos fought alongside whites against the Mexican government, many believing in independence. Violence was waged for economic interests and by idealists; it was supported by slave traders and by desperate souls looking for a scratch of land and a half chance at anything. While a U.S. representative, Davy Crockett (Tenn.), who later fought at the Alamo, delivered an impassioned speech against the forced removal of the Cherokee as part of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, which led to the deaths of thousands of people on what is known as the Trail of Tears.

A decade later, in 1846, when the United States prepared to invade Mexico in the war that established the border as we know it, some criticized the military campaign as imperialistic and an effort to expand slavery. But, as historian Benjamin Heber Johnson wrote, “most hawks and doves alike agreed that Mexicans were racial degenerates.”[*]

In New York City, Walt Whitman cheered on the violent U.S. campaign on the frontier by invoking the natural supremacy of whites. “What has miserable, inefficient Mexico—with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many,” he wrote in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the new world with a noble race? Be it ours, to achieve that mission!”

The nation’s violent mission was called Manifest Destiny, an imperialistic ideology of white supremacy over so-called inferior and mongrel races, and a God-given right to conquer territory across the continent. Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the separation of migrant children from their parents by invoking the sanctity of the law according to the Bible’s Romans 13, saying it is just “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” It was the same passage used to justify enslavement in the South.

With conquest of the frontier came the question of citizenship for Tejanos, Texas Mexicans, who lived and ranched on the conquered land and who had witnessed the border’s crossing of their homes. To the United States, citizenship for Tejanos seemed a repulsive idea. Secretary of State James Buchanan feared granting citizenship to “an inferior, indolent, mongrel race.” Politicians proposed employing the “Cherokee policy” and removing all Mexicans to reservations. “The Mexicans are Aboriginal Indians,” wrote journalist William Cullen Bryant in the New York Evening Post, “and they must share the destiny of their race.”

At the end of the war, Texas Mexicans were offered U.S. citizenship, but such formality provided little protection from the evolving culture of violence.

By the early 20th century, deep South Texas, the frontline in the U.S.-Mexico war and now the site where children have been taken from their parents, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans rebelled against the ongoing campaign of subjugation. Through sporadic uprisings Mexicans and Mexican-Americans of Texas resisted land wresting, Jim Crow-like laws, and extralegal violence—by the Texas Rangers, police, and vigilante groups. Fearless journalists including Jovita Idár documented the brutality and denounced the lynchings.

To the rebels, the enemy was white supremacy, and they called for the raising of arms in the name of liberating Blacks, Japanese and indigenous people. The rebellions were met with widespread violence, with estimates of dead Tejanos numbering from the hundreds to low thousands. The resistance was branded as banditry by savages, of course, and became a justification for additional strong-arm tactics at the border, more oppression, and of course, heightened border security. Politicians and the press described the violence as “border troubles,” a phrase that creates the impression of a government enforcing law and order; a phrase that conceals the racist campaign of oppression. These days we use the term “immigration crisis.”

The images of Mexican and Central American children peering from behind cages reminded Monica Muñoz Martinez, a professor at Brown University, of the winter of 1914. With the Mexican Revolution underway, thousands of Mexican families sought asylum in the United States. They crossed the border in the West Texas town of Presidio where they were met with angry opposition. The U.S. Army forced the families on a four-day, seventy-mile walk across the desert to Marfa where they boarded a train to El Paso. The refugees called the journey El Camino Dolores, the Road of Sorrows; a U.S. commander described it as “the migration of some primitive people in the early dawn of history.”

After they arrived in El Paso, the refugees were detained at Fort Bliss for eight months, behind barbed wire fences. They were called “guests” of the United States but, in reality, the government refused to release such a large number of “poor Mexicans.” Martinez, author of the forthcoming The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas, showed me photographs from the camps. Men and women, some holding infants, stood together. At the bottom of a photo it was written: Refugee.

The perceived inferiority of Mexicans, citizens or non-citizens, later received the backing of science through eugenics, which deemed Mexicans as feeble-minded, and was codified into law. The immigration law the Trump administration has dusted off and used to separate children from families was created in 1929 when Mexican immigrants were viewed as racially unfit for citizenship, but they were permitted to enter the U.S., conditionally, because they were valued for one thing: labor. The nation’s agricultural industry across the borderlands, from Texas to California, depended on Mexican labor.

“The Mexican peon is among the most unassimilable of all immigrants,” wrote economist Glenn E. Hoover in Foreign Affairs at the time. “Measured by the percentage of those who learn English, become citizens, or adopt American ways, his record is a poor one.” Hoover’s words were echoed nearly a century later when the president’s chief of staff, John Kelly, defended the new policy to criminally prosecute everyone crossing the border: “But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society . . . They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills.”

Eventually a new law was created to criminalize unauthorized border crossings. At the time, it was common for people on both sides of the border to cross at will, writes historian Kelly Lytle Hernández in City of Inmates. The creation of “illegal entry” as a crime was the brainchild of a eugenicist and white supremacist, U.S. Senator Coleman Livingston Blease, writes Lytle Hernández. The law satisfied the labor demands of agribusiness, while avoiding granting citizenship to Mexicans. And when Mexicans were no longer needed, they could be casually cast out.

The frontier is a site for renewal in the American imagination.

In the 1950s the U.S. deployed hundreds of agents in what historians describe as a campaign of terror that resulted in an estimated one million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in California and Texas being sent to Mexico. The massive effort, known as Operation Wetback, referencing a slur used against Mexicans, was supported by the Mexican government. Donald J. Trump later alluded to it during his presidential campaign as a model of immigration strategy.

The United States’ violent history of battle with “savages” and a perceived inferior “mongrel race” has become a narrative that is essential to the nation’s belief system. The frontier is a site for renewal in the American imagination, writes historian Richard Slotkin in his trilogy on the U.S. frontier. Through violence against the native, Mexican, Indian, according to the national mythology, “the Anglo-Saxon character would be improved.” Our national history has made violence on the frontier seem not only inevitable but even necessary and expected.

When Trump promises to make America great again, he is appealing to a national mythology that defines greatness by doing battle on the border and expressing unbridled contempt for Mexicans, specifically, and Latinos in general. It’s a battle that has been waged by presidents from both parties for reasons of ideology, to appeal to voters, or for political expediency. Bill Clinton continued this battle and left behind a border wall in Southern California as proof. Clinton’s signature was inked on legislation that, among other things, expanded the list of crimes that can subject legal permanent residents to deportation—and made it retroactive. Overnight, parents were pulled from their homes for minor crimes committed years prior—shoplifting, hot check writing, petty drug charges—leaving behind crying children.

When the nation was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government responded by expanding the border wall, although no terrorist attacks had originated with a trip across the Rio Grande. Liberals may forget that images of children in pens occurred under the Obama administration, when the influx of Central American children gave Republicans another reason to bash him with accusations, unsubstantiated and false, that his immigration policies had lured the children.

In response, the Obama administration sent asylum seekers into family detention centers, despite a 1997, post-Clinton, consent decree that stipulated children should be kept in the least restrictive setting. Inside family jails, mothers and children became despondent, physically ill, and exhibited psychological distress. A judge later slapped down the Obama family jails, which government officials had defended as a deterrence to other asylum seekers, as if families’ well-being was nothing more than a message board. Trump’s recent promise to “fix” the baby cages would accomplish what Obama failed to do—jail families together.

In each instance “immigration crisis” has largely and conveniently obfuscated the underlying expression of racial violence that is taken for granted and expressed by friendly faces. A few weeks ago, I traveled to Kentucky for a wedding, and during the reception I chatted with a local social worker, a Christian woman who spoke of migrants wearing ankle bracelets, issued by immigration agents, and recruited to work in the tobacco fields. She was unable to make the connection to the slave labor that once fueled the industry. Later in the summer, her church will send a mission to Arizona to minister to the Navaho (Diné) and she wondered why, in the midst of such poverty, their would-be converts did not simply leave their reservation behind for the opportunities of the civilized world. For the same reasons that bind you to a small, opioid-infested, busted town where locals shun jobs at the nearby slaughtering factory, I told her. She paused, and as if encountering a revelation said, “because of family and roots.” Exactly, just like you.

This violent narrative has long found expression among racists and well-intentioned liberals alike. It is contained in the oft-repeated term “zero tolerance,” a catchy phrase that leaves the intolerable undefined. Illegal border crossings? They have sunk to historic lows, decades-long lows. A menace on the border? Many of those arriving are families seeking asylum. But within our violent framework “zero tolerance” and “immigration crisis” are deceptively used to describe what is actually a humanitarian crisis.

Our violent narrative turns victims into threats and disguises the real threat as heroic. When groups of camouflage-wearing, semi-automatic carrying men and women began sweeping across the border to hunt migrants, press and pundits wrung their hands as they struggled to define the human hunters as volunteers, activists, or militias. Our violent narrative was contained in a 2014 Newsweek article, Hunting Humans, about South Texas ranchers who hunt migrants, comparing them to dogs, laying traps for them, and chasing migrants down until they are tired. Such violence is presented as reasonable, even expected, on the border.

Within the nation’s violent fairytale, immigrants are perceived through a lens of inferiority that echoes the nation’s frontier past. In 2008 hospital and state workers in Mississippi took away the newborn child of Cirila Baltazar Cruz, a Mexican indigenous woman, after they suspected she was trading sex for housing and planned to give away her child, a conclusion they reached despite being unable to communicate in her language. They deemed the child neglected, citing the mother’s lack of English skills, and her parental rights were terminated. But she fought back, enlisting the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed a lawsuit on her behalf to win back her rights and her child.

A few years ago, I visited a migrant shelter in Tijuana where many deported mothers were trying to reunite with their children in the U.S. Immigrant parents face the possibility of losing parental rights after deportation. The attorney at the shelter, who had case files stacked up on every surface, picked up a folder and described an immigrant mother in Los Angeles who had been put into deportation proceedings; she was found negligent after a police officer observed her jay-walking.

Traces of an inferior race sentiment, reminiscent of the 1920s characterization of Mexicans and Latinos as valued for nothing more than their labor, can be found in the expression that they want nothing more than to “wash our dishes and cut our lawns.” It’s contained in the description of Mexican and Central American immigrants as simply poor and desperate; it’s found in disregard for the extraordinary mission of cobbling together the money to pay smugglers and summoning the courage to make an arduous, dangerous journey marked by robbery, assaults, and the risk of death and maiming. Such a passage is beyond comprehensible in a country where transportation woes amount to motorists griping about rush hour traffic or New York City straphangers whining about delayed trains.

Still, if these examples somehow fail to connect the present to the past in our minds, the reports of migrant children in shelters being forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, in English, ought to resurrect a national memory of the U.S. government and church-run boarding schools where Native American children were forced to give up their language and culture.

And still U.S. policies continue to create asylum seekers. By backing military dictators, oligarchs, coups, and the destabilization of economies across the region, then and now, the culture of violence and racial animus have become potent weapons for, as Trump has said, “taming the continent.” Asylum seekers on the border are the living reminder of such violence, its expression in the Central American wars, the invasions of the Dominican Republic, the government inaction in Puerto Rico.

By separating children from their parents on the border and locking them in cages, Trump took the violent narrative beyond acceptable, existing limits. Only then did it provoke a widespread backlash. Through an intolerable “immigration crisis” the distinction between acceptable violence and dehumanization on the border are established, for now. The backlash also demonstrated the extent to which racial violence can persist, unacknowledged and unchecked, in the name of border security.

With time, the plight of the children will fade from the headlines, the parents will be forgotten. But the violence will simmer until the next election, the next political opportunity, the next national anxiety, until the nation reckons with the source and purpose of a violence reflected in the faces of children crying for their parents.


[*] Correction: A previous version of this essay misquoted the historian Benjamin Heber Johnson. Johnson did not write that “Mexicans were racial degenerates,” but rather related that in 1846, “most doves and hawks alike agreed that Mexicans were racial degenerates.” This quote is taken from a longer passage on anti-Mexican racism in Johnson’s book, Revolution in Texas.