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Aviva Chomsky, What's at Stake in the Border Debate

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The militarization of the police has been underway since 9/11, but only in the aftermath of the six-shot killing of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, with photos of streets in a St. Louis suburb that looked like occupied Iraq or Afghanistan, has the fact of it, the shock of it, seemed to hit home widely. Congressional representatives are now proposing bills to stop the Pentagon from giving the latest in war equipment to local police forces. The president even interrupted his golfing vacation on Martha's Vineyard to return to Washington, in part for "briefings" on the ongoing crisis in Ferguson. So militarization is finally a major story.

And that's no small thing. On the other hand, the news from Ferguson can't begin to catch the full process of militarization this society has been undergoing or the way America's distant wars are coming home. We have, at least, a fine book by Radley Balko on how the police have been militarized. Unfortunately, on the subject of the militarization of the country, there is none. And yet from armed soldiers in railway stations to the mass surveillance of Americans, from the endless celebration of our "warriors" to the domestic use of drones, this country has been undergoing a significant process of militarization (and, if there were such a word, national securitization).

Perhaps nowhere has this been truer than on America's borders and on the subject of immigration. It's no longer "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." The U.S. is in the process of becoming a citadel nation with up-armored, locked-down borders and a Border Patrol operating in a "Constitution-free zone" deep into the country. The news is regularly filled with discussions of the need to "bolster border security" in ways that would have been unimaginable to previous generations. In the meantime, the Border Patrol is producing its own set of Ferguson-style killings as, like SWAT teams around the U.S., it adopts an ever more militarized mindset and the weaponry to go with it. As James Tomsheck, the former head of internal affairs for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, put it recently, "It has been suggested by Border Patrol leadership that they are the Marine Corps of the U.S. law enforcement community. The Border Patrol has a self-identity of a paramilitary border security force and not that of a law enforcement organization."

It's in this context that the emotional flare-up over undocumented Central American children crossing the southern border by the thousands took place. In fact, without the process of militarization, that "debate" -- with its discussion of "invasions," "surges," "terrorists," and "tip of the spear" solutions -- makes no sense. Its language was far more appropriate to the invasion and occupation of Iraq than the arrival in this country of desperate kids, fleeing hellish conditions, and often looking for their parents.

Aviva Chomsky is the author of a new history of just how the words "immigration" and "illegal" became wedded -- it wasn't talked about that way not so many decades ago -- and how immigrants became demonized in ways that are familiar in American history. The Los Angeles Times has hailed Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal for adding "smart, new, and provocative scholarship to the immigration debate." As in her book, so today at TomDispatch, Chomsky puts the most recent version of the immigration "debate" into a larger context, revealing just what we prefer not to see in our increasingly up-armored nation. Tom

America's Continuing Border Crisis
The Real Story Behind the "Invasion" of the Children
By Aviva Chomsky

Call it irony or call it a nightmare, but the "crisis" of Central American children crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, which lasted for months amid fervent and angry debate, is now fading from the news. The media stories have been legion, the words expended many. And yet, as the "crisis" leaves town, as the sound and fury die down and attention shifts elsewhere (even though the children continue to arrive), the real factors that would have made sense of what's been happening remain essentially untouched and largely unmentioned. It couldn't be stranger -- or sadder.

Since late June 2014, the "surge" of those thousands of desperate children entering this country has been in the news. Sensational stories were followed by fervent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations with emotions running high. And it's not a debate that stayed near the southern border either. In my home state, Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick tearfully offered to detain some of the children -- and that was somehow turned into a humanitarian gesture that liberals applauded and anti-immigrant activists decried. Meanwhile the mayor of Lynn, a city north of Boston, echoed nativists on the border, announcing that her town didn't want any more immigrants. The months of this sort of emotion, partisanship, and one-upmanship have, however, diverted attention from the real issues. As so often is the case, there is so much more to the story than what we've been hearing in the news.

As labor journalist David Bacon has shown, the children-at-the-border story was first brought to the attention of the media by anti-immigrant organizations, beginning with the radical right-wing Breitbart News Network in Texas. Their narrative focused on President Obama's supposed failure to control the border, his timid gestures aimed at granting temporary legal status to some undocumented youth through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the attempts of Congressional liberals to promote what they called "comprehensive immigration reform," and of course those children "invading" the U.S.

In fact, there was nothing new about the so-called surge. Rather, the Breitbart Network turned a long-term issue into a "crisis" for political reasons, and the media, politicians, and organizations on both sides of the political spectrum took the bait.

Breitbart's Texas bureau chief Brandon Darby "ignited a national firestorm," the network claimed proudly, when he released a set of exclusive photos of overcrowded detention facilities for child detainees. Darby did not explain how he was able to gain access to what he called "internal federal government photos." He did, however, provide an explanation for what Breitbart called the "invasion": the children "know they will not be turned away and that they will be provided for." In other words, it was the fault of Obama, the Democrats, and the liberals. The stage was set for a Republican and populist backlash.

Pro-Obama voices like Deval Patrick and some immigrant rights organizations played right into the sensationalist nativist narrative. "There's a humanitarian reason to try to find a solution, try to find a way to help," Patrick stated, insisting that at stake was an issue of "love of country and lessons of faith" -- and that it was explicitly not a political issue.

Massachusetts Republican politicians, like Lynn's Mayor Judith Kennedy Flanagan, complained instead about the impact on their communities, turning a fiscal problem into an occasion for xenophobia. "It's gotten to the point where the school system is overwhelmed, our health department is overwhelmed, the city's budget is being [un]sustainably altered in order [to] accommodate all of these admissions in the school department," she stated. State Representative Mark Lombardo concurred: "We just can't afford it. We're not adequately taking care of our own children; our own veterans, our own families who are struggling here in Massachusetts. We gotta put American families first."

Hundreds of protesters rallied on the Boston Common on July 26th demanding that the country put "Americans before illegals." It was easy for wealthy liberals, many commentators added, to foist the children on poor communities, but what about the domestic poor, the homeless, the veterans who can't get access to medical services? Why, under such circumstances, should we direct resources to Central American children? (Such Republican racial identity-based appeals to the white working class date back to the presidency of Richard Nixon.)

Which Central America?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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