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Immigration Enforcement at the Contested Border

Why is there a wall along the United States border with Mexico? Why do people risk their lives crossing the Sonora desert to work in the United States? Is Operation Streamline constitutionally valid? How do border patrol checkpoints affect U.S. communities? Questions of policy, strategies, and legal validity permeate my classes on immigration. In class, we explore these issues by reading research, watching videos, questioning guest lecturers, and discussing issues among ourselves.

For spring break Associate Professor Sherrie Kossoudji and the students in SSW 799 travel to the border to witness, experience, record, and reflect upon U.S. border enforcement in the Tucson/Nogales area. The goal of Contested Borders: Policy on the Ground is to understand the nuances of our policy by observing the day-to-day activities that constitute the minutiae of a policy’s impact on the people who migrate, the people who enforce the policy, and the communities that surround the border.

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Throughout our week along the U.S.-Mexico border, I was constantly reminded of the need for collaboration across movements and for intersectionality within movements. At Casa Mariposa/No More Deaths and People Helping People, there were advocacy signs and materials that focused on border-issues, but there were also activist materials focused on other issues seemingly unrelated to the border. There was support for the Black Lives Matter movement, environmental movements, indigenous movements, and intersectional feminist movements. But these other movements are not disconnected from the injustices and abuses of power that we witnessed along the border. Black and brown bodies are disproportionately policed along the border, in U.S. cities, and everywhere across the country. Like the U.S.-Mexico border, both urban and rural police departments in the U.S. are becoming heavily militarized, resulting in the unjust deaths of black and brown people.

Cultural and environmental issues are both a result of the border fence and border militarization. The border fence disrupts the movement of people across these arbitrary political lines. For example, the people Tohono O'odham Nation, which encompasses parts of the U.S. and Mexico, must travel hours to an official border crossing to visit family and friends who may only live a couple of miles from them. Despite being a sovereign nation, the U.S. government has tied up granting Border Patrol has unlimited access to sovereign Tohono O'odham lands with funding for basic infrastructure projects, thus coercing the Tohono O'odham people to accept this militarized presence. Additionally, the Tohono O'odham people are not able to enter or leave the Tohono O'odham Nation Reservation without passing through a Border Patrol checkpoint where agents with assault rifles accuse and interrogate them.

The environmental problems tied to border militarization and the fence are multiple. The border fence disrupts the natural migration of wildlife across the U.S.-Mexico border. But the fence does not stop other environmental problems created through political processes, which are tied to the militarization of the border. NAFTA and the militarized border work together to keep laboring bodies in places where wages are lower and environmental regulations are more lax and less enforced. This exposes these laboring bodies to industrial contamination in the workplace and at home, while creating the illusion that somehow industrial contamination in one place cannot travel past a barbed-wire fence.

Border militarization is tied to intersectional feminist issues through the gendered experience of migration. Migrant women are more likely to experience sexual assault during their journey north, and are more likely to experience multiple marginalization, labor abuses, and gendered discrimination should they make it into the U.S. Drawing on the work of Bell Hooks and other important feminists of color, the militarized border and all of the political and economic power that back it up remind us that we cannot escape their consequences until we dismantle the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. No justice, no peace.

On top of a tall hill, our group speaks with a Public Information Officer for the Border Patrol. Standing beside an enormous surveillance tower, the officer says, “People need to come to the U.S. the right way, the way my family did.” This officer was of Mexican descent and explained that his father was an American citizen and his mother was a Mexican citizen staying in the U.S. on a visa. His mother was pregnant at the time when her visa would run out, so she returned to Mexico to deliver him. He and his mother returned to the U.S. through the authorized channels when he was 9-years-old. So, in his opinion, why can’t everyone do that?

We, as people, often do not realize the intersection of oppression and privilege in our lives. The privilege of having a father that is an American citizen masked the potential oppression of living in Mexico. Without that, he may have ended up being apprehended by the border patrol rather than being hired by them.

Why don’t they just get in line? 

To put it simply: they can’t. There are only certain pathways to come to the United States legally, especially from Mexico and Central America. First, you must have a family member who meets many requirements (type of visa, amount of money they have…) to sponsor you or you must have an employer who is willing to sponsor you (employers do not sponsor low wage workers such as in the agriculture or construction industry).

Currently, the U.S. Department of State is processing family reunification visas (people who have applied to be with their child, parent, or spouse who is a permanent resident in the U.S.) from Mexico that were filed in 1994. Would you want to wait 10 plus years to be reunited with your mother, father, child, brother, sister? Would you wait 10 plus years to escape living in an area run by the cartel, afraid that your son will be recruited or that your family business will be forced to close if you don’t pay bribes? Would you wait 10 plus years to have a chance to have a sufficient income to feed you or your family?

This was a very painful week.  To be at the border, see Mexico, experience the desert heat, and know that I constantly straddle the two identities of undocumented and social worker is too much to process.  There were two reoccurring themes for me this week, fear and anger.  For years I lived in fear of my legal status, of border patrol and the police.  And even now sometimes I am still afraid.  But the anger I feel is stronger, and this anger will move me out of paralysis.  In order to move forward I need to propel my righteous anger into action.

This means recognizing my privileges as a graduate student and as someone who grew up in the U.S., I was lucky I didn’t have to cross the border, that I came to the U.S. as a child, and that my parents encouraged me to go college.  I am lucky that I have DACA status.  But how I got to the U.S. or what I have done here isn’t what qualifies me as worthy of human rights.  It is my inherent dignity as a person that affords me the right to live a safe and dignified life.  Therefore, it is my duty to use my anger to dismantle the ongoing narrative of the deserving immigrant and challenge the normative concepts created by the DREAMER movement.  It is my duty to correct and call out people who say illegal and label immigrants crossing the border as criminals.   It is my duty to continue fighting oppressive structures that systematically detain and imprison people of color.   Yes, the road is long and steep.  But so is the desert. 


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About the Instructor

Sherrie A. Kossoudji
Associate Professor of Social Work and Adjunct Associate Professor of Economics

Sherrie A. Kossoudji

Sherrie has been working on questions related to immigration since she was in graduate school more than three decades ago. One of her first articles on this topic, “Playing Cat and Mouse at the U.S./Mexico Border,” was published in 1992. The game has gotten more dangerous since then and, on this spring break trip, Sherrie and her students will work to grasp a policy’s complexities at the highly contested Nogales, Arizona/Mexico border.

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Sherrie's Journal

Day 7, Friday March 4

Today we return to Michigan. We are exhausted, angry, and hopeful. Come see our public education display on March 15, in the McGregor Commons of the School of Social Work Building.

Day 6, Thursday March 3

The students will visit with activists in the area today. They will first meet with No More Deaths, a group that “welcomes the stranger in our midst” and provides ongoing desert aid through water and food drops along migrant trails in the Sonoran Desert, and medical care and welcome rest at its desert camp outside Arivaca. Then the students will meet with People Helping People in the Border Zone, an Arivaca group working to stop border patrol checkpoints. Every time someone from Arivaca wants to go to the bank, or the movies, or to visit a friend, they must go through the Arivaca Road checkpoint.

Day 5, Wednesday March 2

Today we look at the world through a migrant’s eyes. First we stop to purchase water and food to leave on the trail as humanitarian aid. The students will hike for eight miles on an active migrant trail down by the border. Eight miles in the Sonoran desert is strenuous. Students will be walking up and down canyons, over rocks and cacti, on sandy trails that are marked by an occasional rock, and all in 90 degree heat and constant sun. They will encounter shrines, lost possessions, dump-sites, rest spots, and more. The hike will take about six hours and they will be exhausted. A migrant will walk these eight miles, and then walk for two to four days more to make it to the Tucson area.

Day 4, Tuesday March 1

Today will be an emotional day. We will attend a court session of Operation Streamline at the Tucson Federal Courthouse. Operation Streamline is a joint operation of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice where apprehended individuals face criminal prosecution and prison sentences. Up to 70 people are brought in from detention centers, tried at the same time, all in orange jumpsuits and with handcuffs, ankle cuffs, and shackles. The same lawyer will be assigned to many defendants. Language, social justice and constitutional issues abound. Operation Streamline is often called “Assembly Line Justice.” Well named. Judge Bernardo P. Velasco says his record for trying 70 people is 30 minutes.

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Day 3, Monday February 29

Today we go back to the border to have a formal engagement with the U.S. Border Patrol. Our planned visit includes a tour of the Nogales station, including the radio room, the equipment room, and the detention area. We are set up to have simulated interactions with Border Patrol agents.

Day 2, Sunday February 28

Today is the first time students will approach the border wall in Nogales. We will walk the wall, see where Jose Antonio was killed, and talk with everyone who will talk with us. What does the border wall do? What does the border wall mean to different people? Later, we will reflect upon our first impressions of the border wall.

Day 1, Saturday February 27

Everyone arrives in Tucson today and those who arrive early enough will attend the Tucson Peace Fair. This year's theme is "Compassion for Refugees and Migrants: All One World".

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