Ethnic Mexican residents of South Texas fought back by organizing and by leaving, migrating to destinations around the United States where employers eagerly hired them—and continued to exploit them. In From South Texas to the Nation, John Weber reinterprets the United States’ record on human and labor rights. This important book illuminates the way in which South Texas pioneered the low-wage, insecure, migration-dependent labor system on which so many industries continue to depend.
Walls and Other Monuments to Failure
In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, cities and towns all over the South discovered a renewed enthusiasm for one small part of their local history. Alarmed by the onrushing failure of the system of legal segregation, white Southern political elites comforted themselves by building monuments to a heroic past that never existed. Jim Crow was crumbling under the combined assault of grassroots activism and legal assaults through the federal judiciary during the 1950s and 1960s. Rearguard actions like Massive Resistance and the closing of schools in Virginia and Arkansas as a last ditch effort to stall their desegregation were very public failures. But advocates of white supremacy tried to hide their less than noble present and eroding political power by erecting mass-produced monuments to the Confederacy and its bloody defense of slavery a century earlier. These monuments celebrated a supposedly heroic defense of southern society against the intrusions of the federal government, but they should be understood as reactions born out of weakness and the imminent collapse of a system explicitly built on white supremacy. Through the invention of a glorious past, embodied in flimsy metal statues of generic Confederate soldiers, they hoped to paper over the failure of the politics of white supremacy.
The recent reemergence of white nationalism as an overt political force, accompanied by episodes of white supremacist violence in Charleston, South Carolina, and Charlottesville, Virginia, has led to the long overdue dismantling of these monuments to exclusion at the same time that a new monument to exclusion threatens to rise along the United States-Mexico border. Demands for a border wall are not new, nor are efforts to use the U.S.-Mexico border as a cheap political prop, but tired, empty notions of immigrant invasions and demands for firmer border control have a clear political resonance. The last Republican presidential campaign was built almost entirely around barely hidden appeals to white resentment, the least subtle example of which was the promise to build a wall and force Mexico to fund it.
Those empty promises built on the same politics of resentment as the Confederate memorialization binges of the twentieth century, combining white fears of a racial other with anti-government sentiment and a healthy dose of conspiratorial paranoia (segregationists’ fevered claims of forced miscegenation have turned into Ed Gillespie’s waking nightmare of MS-13 stalking the suburbs). The current iteration of these themes is built not on notions of federal government overreach as in the 1950s and 1960s, however, but instead on federal ineptitude in controlling the border. Only a physically imposing, impenetrable wall with a massive expansion of border enforcement personnel will allow the United States to stop an existential danger (drugs cartels, criminals, terrorists, other vaguely racialized caricatures) from entering the nation across its southern border.
This argument is not a new one. Political nativism has long been a potent political force that has wielded fear and racial resentment to push through restrictionist immigration legislation as a means to protect the nation and its people from all manner of perceived threats. Just looking back to the early twentieth century, major pieces of immigration legislation were passed in 1907, 1917, 1921, 1924, 1952, 1965, and 1986, all aimed at achieving firmer control of who could and should legally enter the United States. As Mae Ngai recently argued in a New York Times op-ed, these laws, like any other effort to limit and eliminate migration, inevitably create undocumented migration streams that exist alongside legal streams. Rather than flaws in the system that can be patched or overcome by building an impenetrable wall or drastically enlarging the Border Patrol, these two streams of migrants are inevitable products of a legal immigration system that emerges out of political demand rather than any effort to comprehend the dynamics of global migration.
In the 1990s, after Reagan-era legislative restrictions had predictably failed to eliminate undocumented migration, the Border Patrol turned to deterrence. Operation Blockade and Operation Gatekeeper sought to eliminate the visibility of undocumented migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in the El Paso and San Diego Border Patrol sectors by constructing walls and fences along with a highly publicized increase in enforcement personnel. The results were a drastic reduction in arrests, which the Border Patrol trumpeted as a victory of their new strategy of deterrence. The reason for those reduced arrests, of course, was that migrants simply moved away from urban crossing points and toward more isolated, dangerous locations outside of the view of urban populations. These more dangerous crossings not only led to increased deaths, but also led migrants to rely on smugglers to help them across the border. Many undocumented migrants have, as a result, chosen to remain in the United States longer, knowing that older patterns of seasonal circular migration had now been made much more expensive and much more dangerous. These deterrence campaigns, in other words, allowed the Border Patrol to claim a public relations victory without having achieved anything but an illusion of greater border security.
Coyotes and human smugglers have already shown how they would move migrants if the border wall is ever built. Large tunnel complexes have been discovered in several places along the international boundary, built by drug cartels as a way to smuggle drugs in undetected. More importantly, human smugglers have also learned from the drug cartels that the Border Patrol and customs enforcement officials at ports of entry cannot possibly search every single truck that crosses into the United States. There have been, as a result, a number of instances of migrants packed into shipping containers that eluded notice at the border. The human cargo has only been discovered in a number of these instances after migrants died from overheating inside the containers. A wall, no matter how impenetrable, will not stop these sorts of deaths. In fact, it will guarantee that more will die in similarly ghastly ways. These deaths will be the clearest sign of the failure of a border wall.
Walls can be monuments to many things. They can be monuments to ego, monuments to division, monuments to dehumanization, monuments to waste. But they never serve as monuments to strength. Their construction and their maintenance serve only to point out a need to project an illusion of strength. Current demands for a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border will not guarantee absolute control over immigration and will not end smuggling. A wall, instead, will serve as a monument to the failure of the politics of white resentment that have fueled the demands for its construction. Its proponents, like the Civil Rights-era segregationists, are eager to hide the intellectual bankruptcy of their cause with a big, beautiful monument to a world that never has and never will exist.
John Weber is assistant professor of history at Old Dominion University. His book From South Texas to the Nation: The Exploitation of Mexican Labor in the Twentieth Century will be published in paperback in August 2018. You can read his previous UNC Press Blog post here.