September 26, 2008
By Kent Paterson
A spirit of passion energized a U.S. Labor Day march against the border wall under construction by the Bush administration. Organized by human rights, religious, Chicano, student, and other activists from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, marchers set out from Fort Hancock, Texas, for a four-day trek to the border between Sunland Park, New Mexico, and Anapra, Mexico, on the northwestern edge of Ciudad Juarez. As the marchers passed through small towns, talking to residents, work proceeded on the new border barrier just up the road in El Paso.
“Nobody said that the walk for justice was going to be a nice one,” said marcher Javier Perez, a staff member of the El Paso-based Border Agricultural Workers Center. “So we’ll keep on walking until we meet our objective, which is to destroy the wall before it is built.”
Unknown to Perez and fellow marchers, on Aug. 29 a federal judge in El Paso had quietly turned down a request for a preliminary injunction to temporarily halt the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from building a nearly 700-mile wall in different sections of the border. The county of El Paso and co-plaintiffs from local governments, environmental groups, and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo had sought the injunction until issues related to the DHS’ waiver of more than 30 federal environmental and other laws to carry out the project were addressed.
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court last June, the plaintiffs challenged the constitutional authority of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and his department to issue waivers. But in his ruling, U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo ruled that the plaintiffs did not show that possible damages from the wall outweighed national security interests.
Despite Judge Montalvo’s initial decision, the El Paso case against the border fence continues, as does another major lawsuit filed by the Texas Border Coalition, a grouping of local mayors and businessmen.
On Sept. 11, Judge Montalvo dismissed the El Paso lawsuit and upheld Secretary Chertoff’s authority to waive the laws in question. Lawyers for El Paso County are working on an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which must be filed within 90 days. It remains to be seen how El Paso will fare in the high court in the event of an appeal.
While all the legal issues have yet to be sorted out, the tendency of federal courts in the border wall controversy is to validate the concentration of greater powers in the executive branch of government. This means an appointed official, with the wink of Congress, can sidestep decades of laws approved by elected representatives. The battle over the border wall has huge implications for the nature of governance in the United States.
Jay J. Johnson Castro Sr., who runs a bed-and-breakfast in the Texas border town of Del Rio, was “shocked and appalled” when he heard about the planned walling of his beloved borderlands. He noted that neighbors from Del Rio and Ciudad Acuna get along just fine. A Vietnam-era military veteran, Johnson added that his 84-year-old mother, who worked as a shipyard riveter during World War II, was likewise disturbed by the direction of the political drift in the United States that the wall signifies.
Deciding he could not silently watch the wall go up in his front yard, Johnson helped found the non-governmental group Border Ambassadors and began walking along the border to protest the project in 2006. To the outspoken activist, the wall represents an imposed monument to division between North and South.
In Mexico and Latin America, the wall is viewed as a symbol of racism, xenophobia, and militarism. Critics such as New Mexico scholar Felipe Ortego y Gasca have compared the Bush administration’s wall to the historic failures of the Great Wall of China, the Maginot Line, and the Berlin Wall.
All Against the Wall
If it is finished as laid out in the 2006 Secure Fence Act, a law sponsored by New York Republican Rep. Peter King, the border wall will consist of a series of sectional barriers ranging from 18-foot walls to smaller fences, depending on the location. The U.S. Congressional Research Service estimates the fencing could cost upward of $49 billion to build and maintain, but in a letter to Secretary Chertoff earlier this year, Texas State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso), a prominent wall critic, said land buy-outs and other expenses are likely to push the total cost of the project higher.
On the U.S. side of the border, local governments, elected officials, civil society organizations, indigenous communities, and private individuals oppose the wall on multiple grounds. Environmental organizations like the Sierra Club claim the wall will interfere with animal habitat, disrupt migratory wildlife patterns, and alter fragile ecosystems. For indigenous peoples like the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo of Texas, the wall is an intrusion on land used for sacred rituals.
Immigrant advocates slam the wall for making it more likely that desperate border crossers from the South will be forced to take more dangerous routes in their bid for a new life in El Norte, pushing up a death count already in the thousands. For this reason, many activists call the DHS project “The Wall of Death.”
The Wall as Symbol and Mechanism of Entrapment
The wall adds an aesthetic reminder to border communities that are increasingly squeezed in a vise of checkpoints, database tracking, high-tech surveillance systems, privatized immigrant detention centers, and law enforcement or military patrols.
University of Texas at El Paso researchers Guillermina Gina Nunez-Mchiri and Josiah Heyman argue that undocumented migrants living near the border and in the interior of the United States are increasingly “entrapped” and unable to freely move back and forth to their home countries or even within the United States.
Analyzing entrapment as a byproduct of migration unleashed by advanced, globalized capitalism, the El Paso scholars illustrated how physical entrapment leads to economic entrapment, citing, for example, the case of an elderly man in southern New Mexico who resorted to a loan shark to resolve a personal crisis. Entrapped migrants suffer “multiple whammies,” Nunez-Mchiri and Heyman wrote.
Although he is a U.S. citizen not subject to deportation, Sierra Club activist and border wall opponent Bill Guerra Addington experiences a day-to-day reality unimaginable to many outside the borderlands. Farming alfalfa near Sierra Blanca, a small community south of El Paso, Addington encounters the Border Patrol quite often.
“To me, it’s like living in what life was described to be in Nazi Germany ...” mused Addington in a recent interview. “Whenever I come back from El Paso, I have to go through a checkpoint. I’m questioned where I’ve been, where I’m going, what’s in the car, where I live. They don’t even believe I live next door to Sheriff Arvin West. I’ve lived there all my life, since 1954 ...”
Ironically, Addington’s father once served as a Border Patrol agent.
Nowadays, the process of entrapment is being extended to Mexico. Take, for instance, Rancho Anapra, just across the border from Sunland Park, New Mexico. An underdeveloped community of makeshift homes, Rancho Anapra attracts residents who find work in Ciudad Juarez’s maquiladora plants when it is available.
Prior to the Clinton administration’s fencing program, residents just strolled across the U.S. border to find work when necessary, giving low-income workers some freedom of movement and choice in the globalized economy. Today that option is rapidly disappearing.
Anapra resident Brenda Noriel characterized the wall as an assault on human dignity. “We’re against the wall, because Mexicans are as equal as Americans. We’re all human beings.”
Last Stand Against the Wall?
As wall construction steams ahead near El Paso, opponents are mustering their forces for critical battles in the coming days. Some activists credit citizen opposition for forcing the Bush administration to scale back plans in some areas or slow down the pace of construction, making the original end-of-the-year completion goal unlikely.
According to media reports, the Department of Homeland Security informed Congress Sept. 10 that $400 million extra was needed to complete the half-finished fence because of rising material and other costs.
While battles continue in the courts, activists plan to take the issue to the streets in the United States and abroad. Organized by labor, human rights, and other groups, two international days of action are set for the month of October. The U.S. border wall will be a topic of discussion at the hemispheric social forum in Guatemala convened for October 7-12.
“One of the issues we’re raising over there is a continental campaign against the wall,” said Ruben Solis, an organizer for the San Antonio-based Southwest Workers Union.
In addition to public demonstrations, Solis said activists are considering taking the border wall issue to the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, DC. A combination of mass action, legal pressure, and legislative activity will be required to not only stop the current wall from going up but tear down existing ones, Solis said.
“It’s going to take everything to make it happen,” he said.
In the short term, border wall opponents must still cope with the fact that the Secure Fence Act is a law on the books funded with billions of dollars, said Border Ambassadors’ Johnson Castro. At least in Texas, Johnson was confident the opposition would prevail.
“We don’t want to be militarized and converted into a war zone,” Johnson said. “We’re tired of this, and we have to stand up and say ‘Ya Basta!’ and do it in a very honorable, non-violent way.”
Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Latin America, and an analyst for the Americas Policy Program at www.americaspolicy.org.