Resistance in the US Borderlands

By Pedro Rios

When Donald Trump initiated his presidential campaign by framing migrants, primarily those from Mexico, in despicable and denigrating terms, he was regurgitating the same tired rhetoric from past decades that justifies the militarization of border communities. Trump initiated his presidential bid in 2016 by stating about Mexican migrants, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” These appalling remarks were meant to frame his electoral campaign on white supremacist terms of who belongs and who doesn’t in the United States. The remarks were meant to drum up political support, not only for his presidential campaign, but also to tap into a false Americana, defined by manifest destiny and other doctrines that have used military might to displace First Nation people in North America, and impose a capitalistic power structure where only few are its legacy benefactors.

It is this same militaristic legacy that continues to define border policies today, where the premise of war is a foundation from which policymakers impose measures impacting our quality-of-life, and with little care to centering human rights concerns.

Trump outlined a strategy for securing the Southern Border that included peddling the idea that as president, he would build a large wall to keep out dangerous migrants (read: poor and of color) from the United States. This strategy of building border walls, which was significantly expanded under Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush Jr., has created a human rights disaster that barely gets any reasonable attention in United States media.

The militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border did not begin when Trump took office in 2017. The infrastructure that allows children to be detained and die in cages, what some now call concentration camps, has existed for a long time under both Democrat and Republican presidents. In fact, the legacy of the U.S.-Mexico border is its violence. The impunity with which border enforcement agencies operate can be traced, in part, to the imperialist war of aggression that the United States waged against Mexico in 1846-1848.

Challenging the narrative

Resisting that legacy of violence, though, is also an important part of the landscape of the borderlands. That resistance takes multiple forms, beginning with challenging the state narrative that seeks to normalize violence and militarization.

The state uses specific rhetoric and language to normalize abusive conditions which instill fear in marginalized communities. This has the effect of paralyzing them so that they don’t feel able to change the repressive conditions. In 2010, after immigration and border enforcement agencies brutally murdered Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a 42-year-old father of five children, our organization, American Friends Service Committee, strategized with other organizations to counter the defaming narrative about the incident by highlighting how Anastasio was a working family man.

In fact, directly impacted community members, those who have lost loved ones, have led the calls for justice in other cases as well. Anastasio’s widow, Maria Puga, has actively worked with other families to bring out their stories and offer a truth about the lives lost that the state would otherwise defame. In this way, stories of victims of state violence get told in a way that values their humanity.

When Anastasio was brutally beaten and tortured by over a dozen agents, the United States Border Patrol quickly attempted to slander his character. They tried to blame him for his death, suggesting he was violent and under the influence of a narcotic. The government did this to shape public opinion, suggesting that Anastasio deserved the beating that led to his death.

Maria and other family members worked with civil society organizations to challenge the false narrative. Anastasio’s mother traveled to Washington, D.C. to deliver previously unseen video footage to the Department of Justice, which had called for a grand jury as part of the investigation. Though the Department of Justice eventually chose to not charge the Border Patrol agents with a crime, public opinion about the incident shifted and it exposed the brutal nature of immigration enforcement agencies.

The advocacy that the family has done has contributed to a more critical opinion of how border enforcement agencies operate. This could not have been possible without large mobilizations calling for greater accountability and oversight in the immigration and border agencies involved in Anastasio’s cruel death.

Taking action at the border

Non-violent direct action has been an important way of rejecting militarism and the legacy of violence inherent in border policies. On December 10, 2018, the American Friends Service Committee mobilized over 400 faith leaders in San Diego to conduct a water ceremony at the border wall that divides the United States and Mexico in an action called Love Knows No Borders.

In the water ceremony, the blessed water was to be spilled on the ground with the intention of calling for the return of peace, with justice, to the embattled region. The action was in protest of the Trump administration’s policies targeting migrants and those seeking asylum. As organizers of the event, we called on the U.S. government to respect the human right to migrate, end the militarization of border communities, and end the detention and deportation of migrants.

After walking for over a mile in procession to the international divide, Border Patrol agents prevented the group from approaching the border wall. They blocked the passage and eventually arrested 32 of our participants — most of whom were faith leaders.

Though we were not permitted to conduct the water ceremony at the border wall, the visual story was this: heavily armed Border Patrol agents, dressed in riot gear with batons, Taser stun guns, pepper-ball projectile launchers, and other weapons, violently arrested faith leaders, dressed in religious attire, who were singing songs of justice. The Love Knows No Borders actions, like many others, challenged the state’s lack of a righteous moral compass that militarization represents and imposes on communities.

Resisting militarism every day

Resisting militarism doesn’t only occur in large actions. Much of it happens in lower-scale activities where community members learn how to actively organize with others. In San Diego and elsewhere, the American Friends Service Committee conducts rights education with informational sessions. These Know-Your-Rights seminars occur at schools, community centers and people’s homes. They are a first step to building an organized collective process with individuals who identify problems, and together develop solutions to those problems. The Know-Your-Rights workshops have been effective in preventing immigration agencies from detaining community members who have participated in the trainings.

In addition to the Know-Your-Rights workshops, community members undergo a more extensive Human Rights Observer training that has the intention of developing local grassroots leadership, where the participants commit to developing a work plan, defining goals for their work, and joining with other human rights committees in justice-oriented campaigns. Since many who participate are people without a formal immigration status, their participation is already an act of defiance. Where immigration authorities would rather they live in fear and immobilized, the community members are actively constructing social justice networks with the intention of protecting and defending their right to live with dignity.

Community members working through community-based organizations also resist militarization of their communities when they monitor law enforcement agencies conducting enforcement raids. Volunteers organize community patrols to document how those immigration raids take place, and provide witness to how people are targeted. Often, the immigration agencies will leave and thus, their enforcement operations are thwarted by an organized community presence.

Other forms of resistance to militarism include cultural and athletic events that point out the contradictions in enforcement tactics that endanger the lives of vulnerable community members. These include a 5K “break down borders” run that occurs parallel to the border wall, a binational Fandango Fronterizo musical event that occurs simultaneously at both sides of the border wall, and an ecumenical Posada Sin Fronteras event that tells Jesus’ nativity story with an immigration lens. The cultural and athletic events challenge the inhumanity that militarization represents by functioning as a performative critique of the state apparatuses that seek to destroy lives.

The long history of militarization in border communities now serves as a foundation for Trump to expand upon, and to exacerbate suffering for migrants and border community members. It is the resistance and resiliency of those affected, though, that consistently affirms their own human worth. This occurs each time there is a protest, a cultural event, or a Know-Your-Rights presentation — it is a social justice legacy that we need to build upon to end militarism in our communities. This story was produced by War Resisters

Pedro Rios is the director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border Program and has been on staff with AFSC for 16 years. A native of San Diego, he has worked on immigrant rights and border issues for over 25 years. He holds a master’s degree in ethnic studies.

This article was published on February 19 at WagingNonviolence.

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