In the ongoing debate over immigration, there has been considerable focus on the Minutemen, an armed vigilante group that has taken upon itself the task of patrolling portions of the United States-Mexico border to make up for what it sees as the failings of the United States Border Patrol. The Minutemen have deserved this attention, being perhaps the most extreme manifestation of racism in the immigration debate with their willingness to shoot immigrants and their ties to white supremacist groups. However, confronting vigilante groups is just one aspect of border organizing being done in the southwestern United States with activists also working to combat the increased militarization of the border as well as stopping the deaths of immigrants attempting to cross the border. These border organizing efforts were the subject of a panel discussion titled “Justice on the Border: Minutemen, Militarization, and Deaths on the Migrant Trail” at the Midwest Social Forum held last Saturday in Milwaukee. The panel feature two organizers, Ray Ybarra of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Alexis Mazon of the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos and Immigrant Defense Task Force in Tucson.
The panel began with Ray Ybarra discussing how he came up with the idea of coordinating legal observers to monitor the Minutemen and other vigilante groups as a means of pressuring them to stop and to protect the lives of immigrants. He explained that the vigilantes along the border are motivated by “fear and a misunderstanding of people of color” that has led them to advocate—and in many cases participate in—violence towards immigrants. He cited Roger Barnett, a rancher and vigilante who claims to have “caught” 2,000 immigrants and was cited in a civil rights lawsuit (http://www.borderaction.org/campaigns2.php?articleID=56) for his detention of a group of immigrants who he held captive using an assault rifle and dogs as an example of the racism and violence that exists along the border. Vigilantes such as Barnett have both diverted attention from the real issues that motivate immigration (neoliberal trade policy and corporate policy) and pushed anti-immigrant sentiment further to the right. As proof of this, Ybarra cited the Minutemen’s connections to white supremacist groups and the increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric found in white supremacist publications and on white supremacist websites, some of which goes to the level of actually encouraging people to kill “illegals.” His research on vigilante groups led him to request information from the United States government via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that assisted him in coordinating non-violent legal observations of the groups which rather than focusing on the militant confrontation that some anti-racist groups have used, have approached vigilantes simply by putting them under video surveillance. Ybarra said that this approach has had success in that there has been no violence when observers have been around. However, with continued media attention, vigilantes and racist groups have been successful in getting law enforcement officials in border states to increase their repression of immigrants through measures such as checkpoints to check for papers and increased deployments under the guise of “homeland security.” For Ybarra, allies of immigrants have to consider the important question of how they can use their privilege to confront these groups as a part of the larger immigrant rights movement.
Alexis Mazon expanded upon Ybarra’s comments by explaining that it is not just vigilante groups that are attacking immigrants on the border but also the United States government and other local law enforcement units. She explained that the militarization of the border—begun in 1994 under former President Bill Clinton—has increased deaths along the border both due to violence as well as the increased environmental danger for immigrants who have to cross in increasingly remote locations. Since 1994, some 4,000 immigrants have died attempting to cross the border, often due to the gruesome and agonizing process of dying by dehydration or hypothermia. These 4,000 deaths are only those that have been found, yet even then it equates to at least one death per day. Many of these deaths have also been caused by the actions of the United States Border Patrol, an agency that has a long history of abusing immigrants through violence including the recent killing of a Mexican teenager who was run down by a Border Patrol SUV when attempting to cross with her father. Such deaths are an example of what she termed the “decriminalization of state violence” where violence has increased and disciplinary action has decreased. Not only has militarization brought the physical threat of violence to a new high, but it has also increased legislative attacks with legislation in Arizona requiring proof of insurance to be shown when pulled over when driving or otherwise the vehicle is confiscated (to get it back individuals must show proof of United States citizenship), aggravated sentencing whereby judges can arbitrarily add years when sentencing an undocumented immigrant, banning funding to day labor centers, and requiring proof of citizenship to gain access to healthcare. Such legislation has also drawn the support of white supremacist groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Council of Conservative Citizens, both of which have been active locally here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mazon also reminded the audience that many of these measures have gained the support of Democrats and that any bill that increases or maintains the current level of militarization is unacceptable, including the ideas of so-called “advocates” of the immigrant rights movement who are willing to accept the notion of a “smart border” with cameras, satellites, biometrics, and unmanned flying vehicles.