January 20, 2006

2005: The Year Hatred Went Mainstream Along U.S.-Mexico Border

EDITOR’S NOTE: Christian Ramirez is the director of the American Friends Service Commitee in San Diego, a human rights organization offering job placement, legal advice and housing leads to undocumented people crossing into the U.S.

By Cliff Parker And Carolyn Goosen
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

Question: Describe growing up three miles north of the U.S./Mexico Border.

Christian Ramirez: I grew up knowing that the border was a place where I could take a nap. It wasn’t until I traveled to other places that things started to click. As a kid you ask yourself, why can’t my grandma come visit me, and why do I have to wait in line to go visit her?

Q: What does the border mean to you?

CR: I cannot imagine myself not living in a border community, where you can be in a new place within seconds or hours depending on the border wait. It’s a place of great artistic expression, especially in Tijuana. It is a place of violence and a place of inspiration.

You have to live here to see the many stories that go through this border. People wishing to go north because it’s their only hope, and people going south because it’s the only form of entertainment. A border is a place where all these different ways of thinking meet for an instant. You have a bunch of Navy guys going south to get drunk, and bunch of migrants coming north with all they have, just to find a little bit of hope. Where else in the world can you see something like that?

Q: What are the differences you’ve felt along the border before and after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)?

CR: Throughout the history of the border, we’ve dealt with the Dept. of Treasury (DOT) or customs, and the Dept. of Justice (DOJ), the INS and the U.S. Border Patrol.

With the DOT, there was always a very cold relationship, but with the DOJ, particularly the INS, there was an openness, a willingness to sit down and dialogue about important tactics.

The DHS has refused to speak to border communities and border residents. This is a different border, a police state, with border patrol enjoying more impunity than ever before.

Q: How have you responded?

CR: After the DHS came into existence, we knew we needed to invest time in building leadership in the border areas. We felt the only way to change policy in Washington was to create a strong base of people who were impacted on a daily basis by immigration policies and that they would themselves would become advocates in the long run.

Q: How would you characterize the past year in terms of the immigration debate?

CR: In 2004, the mainstream media began covering border issues, and the language turned to “broken border” “alien invasion.” We began to see a very violent discourse, a justified use of violence.

2005 was the high mark for this. Suddenly, in 2005, the vigilante groups, paramilitary formations that have always existed here, became mainstream. The groups that were once on the fringes of our society became folk heroes for mainstream America.

This has been a year of mainstream hate and mainstream violence at the U.S. Mexico border.

The border patrol now operates with full power, above the Constitution, and with no judicial review. Not since the McCarthy era have we seen something like this. If it continues, it will not stop here. The Mexico-U.S. border will not simply be an imaginary line -- it will expand to the rest of the country.

Q: What needs to happen in the debate on immigration?

CR: We have heard the voices from the Minutemen, from policy makers, from presidents, but the one voice that has not spoken, and will speak, is the border communities.

Q: What issues do the immigrant voices bring to the debate?

CR: We are tired of counting the dead. We want a new reality. We want family unification, to be treated with the same rights and dignities as products. We want to have the right to drive a vehicle, so we can drive from home to our place of employment. We want the possibility for our children to go on to higher education if they have the ability to do it. This is what border communities are calling for.

Q: What happens if the Sensenbrenner bill becomes law?

CR: It means that anyone without documents in this country would turn into a federal criminal. And it means that anyone who aids and abets undocumented people would also be criminal — like a church that provides shelter, clinics for women fleeing domestic violence and organizations like us. If it passes, we will be forced to go underground.

Q: What is the main cause of death on the border?

CR: The main reason is the climatic conditions. Most people die because they are cooked to death in the desert, or they freeze to death in the mountains. And it happens, because the U.S. government under Clinton pushed the migrant flows away from the urban areas and into the most remote and inhospitable terrains along the U.S.-Mexico border. This, they said, would deter the migrants. But they failed in their analysis.

Q: And how does the year 2005 end?

CR: Today, a young man was shot by border patrol trying to cross the border. It is a common occurrence here. This is how the year will end on the border. Just the way it began — with shooting, with violence, with bloodshed.

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