The following interview between Aaron Noffke of the Institute for Policy Studies and the New America Foundation and Fernando Garcia, the founder and executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, was conducted as part of The Souls of Poor Folk Audit of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Thanks to CUSLAR for providing help with the transcription, and to Aaron and Fernando for their work!
Aaron Noffke: You’ve been working at the Border Network for Human Rights for over twenty years, an organization dedicated to responding to the multiple crises occurring within border towns. What has changed over these years?
Fernando Garcia: This year is going to be our twentieth anniversary. When we founded the Border Network, it was in response to the rampant abuse of authority and violation of rights by federal agents, as well as some local and state agents, which was physically directed towards immigrant Latino communities. Border residents were experiencing violations of first, fourth, fifth, and sixth amendment rights. In practice, border patrol and other law enforcement were entering houses and confiscating property with no legal authority or permission. They were stopping people by the way they looked, by the way they walked, and relying on racial profiling.
We also saw forms of extreme violations, such as beatings, and sometimes even shootings and killing immigrants and border residents while crossing the border. We didn’t then have a full analysis of the root causes of this violence.
What we understand now is that throughout the 20th and 21st century, but specifically since the 1970s, public discourse has framed the U.S. Mexico border as a place of lawlessness, in comparison to an apparently orderly U.S. interior. When the border is portrayed as the opposite of lawful, it becomes especially criminal. This has justified the building of border fences, border walls, the posting of thousands of agents and the increased number of weapons and arms at the U.S. Mexico border. Over time, we have seen an expanded militarization, not only at the border but into the United States. We saw the militarization of police departments in the interior. We saw that they learned from the border experience how to militarize a police department and give them the tools to repress and persecute people in the interior of the United States.
We saw that they learned from the border experience how to militarize a police department and give them the tools to repress and persecute people in the interior of the United States.
The more we saw, the more we understood that the border communities are living under the conditions of a militarized law enforcement. I had the chance to go to one of the training facilities for border agents in Artesian, New Mexico. And I saw that these were essentially boot camps for the army, that they considered themselves to be a paramilitary unit, and their goal was to actually go and fight some threat at the border. While border enforcement and immigration enforcement is still civil law, agents now receive military training. From 1998 to today we went from roughly 10,000 agents, to 23,000 agents stationed on the border, and this growth has been propelled by a mentality that there’s a danger and an enemy here.
Alongside these organizational changes were technological ones. Every year they used to do a conference for law enforcement where companies like Boeing, Lockheed, and others, would showcase the latest technology for border enforcement, including military-grade weapons. There is a strategy of war being implemented at the border, all the way from San Diego to Brownsville, and from the borderline to 100 miles inside the interior of the country, with actual military weapons.
All of these issues related to immigration status, but beyond that, they related to racism and xenophobia. We also realized that there were other issues playing out at the border, specifically that poor immigrants were primarily being targeted, mainly in the colonias. We did not see the same kind of enforcement or violation of rights in rich communities.
Why has there been this militarization of the border and border enforcement?
The origin of this militarization is the false narrative of danger that immigrants represent. First we were fighting drugs. Now we’re fighting terrorism. The government has implemented a shock and awe strategy within border communities where people actually live in fear of their rights, their possessions and their lives.
Families that are now detained at the border are no longer being released. Instead they are being concentrated in detention centers at the border, and children are deliberately being separated from their parents. While legally you cannot keep children in detention centers, the state of Texas and elsewhere is attempting to rebrand these detention centers as child care centers, so formally and legally they will be able to detain children for an indefinite amount of time.
How has this militarization and criminalization of border towns affected the local economy?
Border communities are some of the poorest communities in the nation. In some communities the average income is about $8,000 to $13,000. There is a startling contradiction of not letting people move across the border, but letting goods and merchandise move across the border. The main engine of border economies is their relationship with Mexico, of products that are being produced both at the border on the Mexican side or the U.S. side, but with the common denominator of low wages. In Juarez for example, there is the maquiladora industry, where low wages are given to workers to produce what used to be produced in El Paso.
There is a startling contradiction of not letting people move across the border, but letting goods and merchandise move across the border.
After NAFTA, those jobs moved to the other side of the border. NAFTA created low wages on the Mexican side, with militarization being an effective deterrent for people to escape those conditions. And due to this increased militarization, people have not been able to organize in border towns. Many of those workers probably might be undocumented on the U.S. side, so they would not organize to fight for better jobs, keeping wages low here as well.
Finally, many of the economies of border communities are sustained by this militarization. In El Paso, we not only have some of the largest military bases in the nation, like Fort Bliss, we also have thousands of border patrol agents that make a living based on the militarization of the border. So while this militarization is bringing money into the border communities, this money sustains a policy of fear and violence at the border that those same communities pay for.
What are the reasons behind the shifting narratives around border communities? What are the effects?
I believe there are a number of reasons. The main one is the racist narrative that has been created since the war on drugs: that every Mexican could potentially be a drug dealer or a drug trafficker. The same thing happened with national security: every Mexican could be a potential threat to the United States and everybody crossing the border could be potentially a terrorist. At the same time, the vast majority of enforcement was being dedicated not to terrorists or drug dealers, but to go after immigrants. But this narrative fuels racist politics within the United States. People think we need to protect the border because there is an invasion of brown immigrants and colored people that are bringing their traditions, their roots, or whatever, and destroying American society as they come and take away jobs.
That narrative used to be more marginalized. I remember early in the 1980s, a group of nationalists started a program called Light Up The Border. They would take their cars and aim their lights towards the border and basically illuminate the border, with the idea that they were helping border patrol to identify people that were crossing from Mexico. At that time those groups were marginal, and few considered them to be serious. That changed, and as they organized, they started gaining a base, first at the local and state level, and now to the point that we have a president that has embraced their ideas. The idea that Mexicans are criminals and rapists is now part of the of the dominant narrative towards immigrants. We believe this has to do with systemic racism, that it has to do with systemic xenophobia, because this is not what is happening in Canada. We have immigration flows coming through Canada, but nobody has called to build a wall there or militarize the border between Detroit and Canada, right? So obviously, this has been about controlling immigration flows of brown people.
The idea that Mexicans are criminals and rapists is now part of the of the dominant narrative towards immigrants. We believe this has to do with systemic racism, that it has to do with systemic xenophobia, because this is not what is happening in Canada.
Do you know how much money is involved in the border security industry?
Immigration enforcement is the largest enforcement operation in the country. It has a budget that is more than the combined budget of all other federal agencies — FBI, ATF, all of them. In the last count we did $15 billion to $18 billion is spent every year on immigration enforcement, with about 70 percent of that being dedicated to the border. So there is a big business for these companies such as Boeing, Lockheed and others, especially after the de-escalation of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They saw that there was enormous public spending on border enforcement, and so these companies came trying to get a piece of the pie, which is why they organized these fairs at the border that showcase their technology.
An example of this was in 2013 when we had a major push for an immigration reform bill. The Border Network was at the center of providing policy recommendations for the border section of the bill. Things were going very well until the very last minute, when an amendment was proposed that would have actually doubled the spending on the border to $40 billion and mandated a number of projects to specified contractors, such as Lockheed, Boeing, so on. These companies have had a clear influence on this dramatic shift in border policy. It’s part of their business agenda.
Is comprehensive immigration reform the solution that you’re pushing for? And what does that look like to you?
We think there are a number of pieces to the solution. If you ask me what is the most immediate solution that we are working towards, for us the first thing would be to recognize that immigrants are an asset to this society and immigrants are here with their families and need to be recognized legally. This means they need a path to integrate fully into society as citizens with full rights. We are talking about 11 million people that are in the country in the category of being undocumented. They needed to taken out of the shadows, out of persecution, out of these detention centers and legally recognized to be what they already are: they are already part of the American texture.
If you ask me what is the most immediate solution that we are working towards, for us the first thing would be to recognize that immigrants are an asset to this society and immigrants are here with their families and need to be recognized legally.
Can you speak about why the Border Network has embraced a vision of human rights?
In terms of the work we do within our communities, we have been in a constant consultation process. The definition of our agenda and our struggle is not done by a director but by the communities themselves. Every year these communities come together and they meet and they define our priorities by defining their priorities. When we started the organizing process, the first thing we did is convene the first congreso, the first national, annual asamblea, and one of the major outcomes of that consultation was to define our struggle. Out of that consultation process, it was clear that we were eager to actually be recognized by this society, but also that immigrant families were going through multiple systems of oppression. Families were not only struggling with the immigration system, but also with healthcare, with labor conditions, with housing and education, and so we realized at that point that in an immigrant family or in an immigrant household, all of the contradictions of the system were embedded.
For us it was obvious that that our agenda was for more than an immigration bill. That’s how we started framing our issues around human rights. And what that means for us is that, yes, we want immigrants to be legally recognized and integrated in society, but also we want immigrants to actually be integrated with rights into a better society that encompasses all of these points of struggle, and that are also shared by other communities that are not immigrants. When we recognize that as human beings we need to fight for these potential rights, and that we need to actually organize for them, it implies that then we need to connect with other people in the same conditions and fight together. For us, we are not only an immigrant rights organization, we are a human rights organization that is fighting to change society for everybody.
How has the relationship with border patrol changed out of your work?
An idea that is very important to us is the notion of demilitarization of the border through accountability and oversight of law enforcement. Currently, there is not a single independent oversight mechanism for immigration agencies. What we have been pushing for is to actually make immigration enforcement accountable. We’ve pushed for the creation of civilian commissions to oversee the enforcement at the border, among other things, but all of our proposals have come out of what is happening in El Paso at the local level.
Here, the community has engaged border patrol differently. They have asked border patrol to be accountable to us through a long, difficult process. They actually engaged with border patrol in what we call a dialogue and pressure strategy. So, we pressured back on the violation of rights that was occuring, while at the same time we went and sat with border agents and we trained them. And we’ve continually done trainings with border patrol agents. Somehow, we are replacing the culture of abuse with a culture of rights at the local level, and I think border patrol has been susceptible to that. They understand they have a role to play in whatever Congress mandates them, and whatever they do they shouldn’t violate the basic rights of people. I think that was the common ground in our engagement with border patrol. We’ve completed assessments of their use of force against immigrants at the border, and they have actually changed their practices.
In 2000, we documented 150 cases of abuse, most of them by border patrol agents. After 13 years of this process of engagement and documentation — and after we presented to border patrol that they were violating the Constitution of the United States — they started to change their practices.
This has not been easy and has taken a lot of time, a lot of organizing. I mean this doesn’t just happen out of the good will of people, or the good will of border patrol, or the good will of one organization like the Border Network. It happens through a long organizing process that creates community structures and builds community leadership. But this has allowed us to create this accountability process. And we think one day border patrol will come over to our side.
I mean this doesn’t just happen out of the good will of people, or the good will of border patrol, or the good will of one organization like the Border Network. It happens through a long organizing process.
What is the role of immigrant communities in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and the broader movement for justice?
I believe that immigrants and immigrant families will have to be a key component of the next social movement in the United States. What is embedded in immigrant families is a fight against all of the systems — the four themes of the Campaign in terms of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and ecological devastation — and I think that immigrant families are ready to participate in that fight.
From our struggles, we know that we need to take up the decriminalization of immigrants and poor communities. We need to demilitarize our communities. And we need a democratic process that is accountable to our communities. None of these are unique to border communities. It is what we are all fighting for. The challenge has always been figuring out how we connect these fights beyond single issues. If we are not able to see these systems as a point of common ground while simultaneously envisioning new systems — the ones that we want — then talking about issues is not going to take us anywhere.
I believe that immigrants and immigrant families will have to be a key component of the next social movement in the United States.