Monday, January 23, 2012

Tyche Hendricks: The Wind Doesn't Need a Passport

The United States has an obsession with the border that seems to get bigger and badder every year.  Americans trot along, doing their thing, invoking the "American Dream" and the "melting pot" until any excuse comes along to point the finger at someone else: immigrants, like invasive germs, must be the cause of the problem. Borders, strong immune systems, must be built up to keep Them out.  In 1994, California passed Prop 187, which would have denied medical care and education to undocumented immigrants.  The economy sucked, Pete Wilson was doing a pretty poor job at governing, and the boom hadn't taken off.  Immigrants were an easy target.  After 9/11,  not only did the government shove aside civil liberties and start wars around the world, beefing up the border now had a plausible sounding excuse: the people who want to hurt "us" might get in! And worse, with another economic downturn, the political timing was right to play off of fears of "them" stealing "our" jobs.  At the beginning of the Bush administration, according to Tyche Hendricks, there were 78 miles of pedestrian fence and 57 miles of vehicle fence along the border. In 2006, George Bush signed the "Secure Fence Act," which led to the construction of almost six hundred miles of fencing. (Note: President Obama did not stop the construction of the fence, and I believe all 670 miles of it have been completed. He has frozen funds for the "virtual fence," which is only a small blessing.)

The problem with this way of thinking is that it's all about a line, sometimes literally in the sand. Tyche Hendricks has written a beautiful book with a terrible title that convincingly argues for thinking about much wider view of the border: a region that includes not just the tiny patch underneath the fence, but also the huge area that comprise the border states, and in fact, both countries that have created and continue to shape the issues Americans are so obsessed with. Hendricks works from the Eastern-most part of the border in Texas to the Western-most part in California, and in each chapter she focuses on a border-straddling community, and deals with a border-straddling issue: environmental issues, education, jobs, health care, etc. The people who live on the border, or more accurately, in the border region, understand this concept, but for the rest of us, Hendricks brings the point home.

Pictured below is one of the places she describes, Friendship Park in Tijuana, a park that straddles Mexico and California. The photographer, Steev Hise, has captured people celebrating communion through a metal fence.  Previously the park had a shorter, more permeable fence where food could be passed and hands could be held.  Simple, everyday rituals like this are bifurcated and rendered tragic by the US/Mexico border policy. As Hendricks writes, "In a United States fraught by national security concerns, the fence became a physical display that the government was protecting its citizens from foreign dangers and unauthorized interlopers.  That's one way of conceptualizing the border: strengthening its capacity to divide."

the body and the blood at the border

(photo used under creative commons license)

It's an unfortunate way to conceptualize the border, and one likely to continue to lead to the militarization of Mexico and of the border itself, of vast sums of money and lives wasted on the "war on drugs." Hendricks sums it up: "An attempt to partition the borderlands, to wall ourselves off, is unlikely to succeed." It hasn't succeeded in other countries, and it runs contrary to what America prides itself on: the mythology of Ellis Island and of immigrants coming to this country and Making It.  "The Wind Doesn't Need a Passport" breaks this down into much more detail, and presents solutions that are meaningful, should the government ever decide to look at alternatives to militarization, racism, and exploitative labor.  This is a must read.