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The “Crisis at the Southern Border”: Myths and Realities

For much of this past year, gearing up undoubtedly for his next presidential campaign, President Donald Trump has talked quite a bit about the “crisis at the southern border.” Clearly, anti-immigration rhetoric will be the keystone of Trump’s re-election campaign while the Democratic presidential candidate will likely steer the conversation towards immigration policy that will focus on legislative reform, enforcement, or, if that person is brave enough, amnesty for everyone currently living in the United States without legal status. Whatever the case may be, the debate over immigration and the role of immigrants in contemporary U.S. society will bring unwarranted, even dangerous attention to our communities, racially targeting many of our loved ones as either welcomed or as threats; as either of legal or “illegal” status; or as contributors to or dependent upon the system. As we have just seen by the white nationalist terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas, our communities will be subject to myriad violence and surveillance regimes, including deportation raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As we reflect upon the rhetoric that probably inspired Patrick Crusius’s rage against “Mexicans” (I place this in quotes because the people he actually killed were more likely U.S. Americans of Mexican ancestry), I want to suggest that the entire discourse around the “crisis at the southern border” comprises an important first step in de-humanizing entire populations. In addition to the general rhetoric around “the illegal immigrant,” invocations of the “crisis at the southern border,” create and cement a connection between “the immigrant” as someone who is Spanish-speaking. It is this particular image of the border, as southern and as in crisis, that engages an ideological project in which defending the legality of citizenship against the illegality of the immigrant becomes not just a technical exercise, but a territorial and spatial one.

While much of the attention has justifiably been on the personhood of the immigrant, refugee, and asylum seeker, what must be addressed as well is why the “crisis at the southern border” remains the rhetorical strategy of choice in whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment. We must attend to the ideological work this discourse does in creating the belief that anti-immigrant policies defend the spatial integrity of the United States.

In this critical examination of the phrase, let us begin with the notion of “crisis.” I am going to go slightly off topic for a moment, but bear with me. My former graduate school advisor and tremendous historian of comparative post-emancipation societies, Rebecca J. Scott, had a problem with the notion of “crisis” too, but for other reasons. In her study about slave emancipation in Cuba, Scott refused to accept the traditional historiography which gave much weight to structural crisis as an explanation for the end of slavery. As she put it, “’Crisis’ is an elusive concept” that reduces historical change to forces, structures, and processes, rather than to humans. Scott’s principal concern was that by explaining the end of slavery in Cuba, and in the Americas more broadly, as only the result of a “crisis” in production or of capital investment, historians of slavery had unwittingly diminished enslaved people’s contributions to their own emancipation. Historians had nearly erased human agency as a force in explaining one of the most important transformations in world history.

Like Scott, I think the problem with “crisis” is what it erases. There is, in fact, a crisis, although the correct term may be, a comeuppance: The chickens have come home to roost. Although immigrants’ rights activists have made this argument, the point

needs further clarification. And that is: today’s movement of hundreds of thousands from Central America and the Caribbean, specifically Haiti, is a product of globalization’s failures. And that failure belongs to the U.S. and to those Latin American

and Caribbean elites who made their beds with Washington.

In other words, the crisis does not sit at the southern border—it is everywhere across the Americas. Let me be more precise. In the wake of the debt crisis which began in the 1980s and culminated with Mexico’s refusal to pay the interest on its loans as well as the complete default of the Brazil’s economy, political leaders in Washington, D.C. used the leverage of debt-refinancing to get Latin American and Caribbean countries on a path of development that would eventually eliminate state-run industries, or drastically reduce the state’s fiduciary interest in them, reduce state-sector spending on education, healthcare, and bureaucracy, lower tariffs on U.S. imports, and counter inflation by requiring nations to adhere to strict payment schedules, accept higher interest rates for loans, and “float” their currencies, thereby allowing financial markets and speculators to determine their real value. Finally, Latin American countries were encouraged and, in the case of Haiti at least, forced to change their constitutions to permit foreign

ownership of land and foreign direct investment in major industries. These reforms, often called globalization or neoliberalism, had three major effects, the results of which we are witnessing in contemporary migration. One direct result of these changes has been the decimation of the agricultural sector across the Americas as U.S. foods, cultivated thanks to government subsidies, saturate markets in Latin America and the Caribbean, pushing local farmers out of business. Second, the forced opening of Latin American economies to foreign direct investment has attracted a myriad of multi-national mining firms and large-scale agricultural companies that have unleashed an

extraction frenzy the likes of which have not been seen since colonial times. Third, while many pundits applaud neoliberal reforms for bringing stability to political regimes across the region, the fact is much of that so-called stability does not actually exist. We have recently witnessed massive protests in Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and most recently in Puerto Rico to oust corrupt political regimes that were brought to power thanks to U.S. support. International funding agencies do not really care if nations have become more democratic. They are most interested in the status quo remaining stable enough in order to guarantee continued foreign investment.

If the crisis persists across the region, then what about the idea of a “southern border?” I find the use of “southern border” to be exceptionally provocative—in a bad way. As I teach my students on the first day of Colonial Latin American history, the idea that the rest of the Americas are “south” of the United States, betrays an implicit bias that links notions of the southern and below with poverty, difference, brownness and blackness, and otherness. What is interesting to consider is why someone who has no qualms about calling Mexicans “rapists” and overall “bad hombres” also uses the metaphor of a “southern” menace. If we consider the history of U.S.-Latin American relations, then this labeling makes much more sense. As diplomatic historians and scholars of U.S.-Latin American relations have long noted, assumptions of Latin Americans’ racial inferiority have long been present in the minds and policy formulations of U.S. foreign policy elites, especially U.S. presidents. Lars Schultz, for example, argues that these assumptions of racial inferiority affect how U.S. American elites even process their information about Latin Americans. He calls this a “distinctive mental orientation” that provides an underlying logic in which Latin America is always beneath the United States, on multiple levels. In his work on U.S.-Cuban relations, Lou Perez explores the popular uses of metaphors about Cuba and its deep, intimate ties to the United States. He argues that these metaphors created “a fictive world” in which “the exercise of power was represented as a function not of political ends but of moral ones.” Essentially, metaphors about Cuba, “utterly displaced alternative cognitive possibilities.” In other words, as some people shake their heads about how a “nation of immigrants” has become so hostile to immigrants, one could respond, via Schultz and Perez, that this cognitive dissonance is the result of the strategic uses of the “southern border.” As a metaphor, the “southern border” reiterates the underlying assumptions of U.S. Americans’ attitudes towards Latin Americans, thus confirming their mental orientation towards them. At the same time, the metaphor creates its own logic, transforming the defense of the border from a political question to a moral duty.

Therefore, “the crisis at the southern border” rhetoric has helped to make hating the immigrant part of what it means to be a good citizen. Through this metaphor, President Trump and his supporters create a new reality in which immigrants themselves bring the crisis with them as they cross the border. This discourse transforms the body of the immigrant into a problem that must be contained and also characterizes that labor as a moral duty of all U.S. citizens.

Over the next weeks, the media, its pundits, the president and his officials will make their peace with white nationalist terrorism, again. Even those who are on the side of justice will make the mistake of invoking the “crisis at the southern border” because it has become the dominant logic by which current discussions of immigration occur. The problem is this: this metaphor erases many facts—that actual arrests and removals at the border have decreased; that the highest number of out-of- status people currently in the United States had been admitted legally with visas (and many of these people are African). At the same time, the logic of a “crisis at the southern border” produces another reality. Those who invest in this logic now live in another cognitive reality in which immigration is less a political question than a moral position of the U.S. citizen. Most important, U.S. citizenship must be defended and that defense occurs at the literal space of the border and wherever else the border is present—in the body of the immigrant herself. It is time to lay the “crisis at the southern border” to rest as the dominant discourse by which we take part in the conversations and debates around immigration.

© April J. Mayes 2019

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