Here Miguel Levario, author of Militarizing the Border: When Mexicans Became the Enemy (Texas A&M University Press, 2013), explains the historical precedent for the lens through which American policymakers view immigration – rooted in the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution more than a century ago.
In your book you posit that current tensions and controversy over immigration and law enforcement issues on the US-Mexico border are historically rooted. Can you tell us more about that?
If we look back to the early decades of the twentieth century we can see that the concerns and issues plaguing the two countries are very similar to what we are seeing today. The outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 ignited a series of concerns for the United States that I argue serve as parallel examples to some of the issues today.
First, the movement of over a million refugees and migrants into the United States filled labor pools, overwhelmed local resources, and dramatically altered the social demographics along the U.S. side of the border.
Secondly, the invasion by Francisco Villa of Columbus, New Mexico threatened national security, and xenophobic nativists were concerned of ethnic Mexicans residing in the United States that resulted in ethnic tensions and rioting, especially in major cities like El Paso, Texas. Today, we cannot ignore the subsequent stereotyping and racial profiling of people of Middle Eastern decent and Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11.
Lastly, the smuggling of illicit alcohol and the consequential violence that often occurred during Prohibition reminds us of the dangers of today’s so-called “War on Drugs” and its violent context.
In other words, a historical precedent exists when dealing with today’s “hot topics” of national security, mass migration, and smuggling. Our approach to today’s border concerns should consider the shortcomings of interventionist and militarized methods, as well as, the subsequent criminalization of a community of people regardless of their innocence or guilt but simply marked by their ethnicity or religious faith. For example, the failure of Prohibition curbing alcohol use and the Punitive Expedition’s inability to capture Francisco Villa serve as stark examples of how perhaps we should and should not approach today’s “War on Drugs” and border security.
TAMUP: In a recent interview with Texas Tribune, Shannon K. O'Neil, a senior fellow for Latin American Studies with the Council on Foreign Relations, said the U.S.-Mexico relationship has changed dramatically from even 30 years ago. Do you agree? Why or why not?
ML: Naturally, things have changed in Mexico in the past 30 years with increased access to technology for many, a growing economy, and stable economic and diplomatic relations with the United States. However, I wouldn’t say its relationship has changed dramatically.
NAFTA continues to shortchange Mexican farmers and is a major factor in contributing to out-migration. Mexico’s manufacturing sector, which served as a major economic stimulant for much of the border cities, is disappearing.
Lastly, the binational anti-organized crime program known as the “Mérida Initiative” fails to curb much of the drug violence plaguing Mexico today and is considered by some to be a dismal failure. It is my contention that relations between the two countries have changed superficially but true and equal bilateralism remains largely absent.
TAMUP: Can you tell us about "Mexicanization" in El Paso and the racial tensions to which it contributed?
ML: "Mexicanization" references the demographic shifts that occurred in the mid 1910s along the border, especially in El Paso. Thousands of Mexican refugees were migrating to the U.S.-Mexico border for safety, work, and general well-being.
The influx of refugees changed the demographic landscape of El Paso and prompted federal authorities to quantify this influx. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson called for a special census to quantify the number of ethnic Mexicans living in El Paso. This was the first time ethnic Mexicans were separated as a different race in the Census.
Prior to the 1930 Census (with the exception of 1916), ethnic Mexicans were categorized as "white." The substantial increase in the ethnic Mexican population in El Paso triggered fear and xenophobia from many of the Anglos living in the city. Many believed that ethnic Mexicans would take up arms and overrun the city and Fort Bliss if Mexican revolutionary general Francisco Villa issued the command.
Local, state, and federal authorities in El Paso felt that punitive measures such as unwarranted neighborhood sweeps for firearms were needed to keep ethnic Mexicans "in check" and the Anglo population safe from suspected subversive activity.
TAMUP: What lessons might current policy makers take from your historical perspective on US-Mexico relations?
ML: I think there are many lessons to take away from the events of the early twentieth century because all of the same issues such as national security, mass migration, smuggling of illicit goods, and political subversiveness were present then as they are now.
Intense militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border by the U.S. Army and Texas Rangers greatly antagonized ethnic Mexicans living in the U.S. and led to racial tensions and violence. Much of this antagonism can be seen today in places like Arizona and along the southern international boundary as ethnic Mexicans are treated as second-class citizens or what immigration scholar Mae Ngai calls “alien citizens” despite their innocence or length of citizenship in the United States.
In addition, as policy makers wrestle with the complexity and violence of the so-called “War on Drugs” we could look back to Prohibition and its utter failure and perhaps pursue more unorthodox approaches like legalizing marijuana, which continues to be the main cash crop for drug cartels.
Lastly, militarization of the United States’ southern boundary in the early decades of the twentieth century proved that complete border security was difficult if not impossible despite the massive presence of soldiers along the border. Instead their massive presence resulted largely in antagonizing a community of people in the United States who despite their innocence in a large majority of cases were seen as criminals, outsiders, and second-class citizens.
In my research of the past 100 years, the United States’ policy towards border security and migration has changed little if at all, thus yielding the same results over and over again. Why? In part, the United States federal government and its people fail to acknowledge the complexity and interdependence of the two countries.
Immigration and border security are NOT one in the same but separate issues. Joining the two issues with a proposed singular solution exposes its inherent contradiction: immigration translates to open borders, and border security suggests closed borders.
The vast majority of immigrants migrating to the United States want to improve the country not destroy it. Those that wish to do the United States harm do not want to stay or be an active part of its future.
Therefore, the historical evidence suggests that the United States’ treatment of immigrants as a national security threat is misguided and contrary to our historical roots since the United States was founded and developed by immigrants.