In the year and a half since I spent a week volunteering with human rights and humanitarian group No More Deaths/No Más Muertes in Nogales, on the U.S.-Mexico border, the images and stories I was confronted with there have continued to haunt me. The physical border wall itself, along with the expensive, labor-intensive, and violent infrastructure employed to enforce it, led to the horrifying and tragic testimonies I took and scenes I observed on the Mexican side. Near my own home town, north of Boston, Massachusetts, live hundreds, probably thousands, of undocumented immigrants who succeeded in crossing this violent border, and this violent desert, to live behind a new set of walls in Massachusetts. My experience in Nogales also opened my eyes to the invisible walls that operate throughout the United States.
No More Deaths released a new report this past September entitled "A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short-Term U.S. Border Patrol Custody." Cruelty on the border is an inevitable handmaiden to a set of policies that create and enforce inequality and systematically dehumanize those on the losing end.
When U.S. citizens rail about "illegals" or ask "what part of 'illegal' don't you understand?" they are subscribing to a set of beliefs that justify cruel and inhumane treatment. What they themselves fail to understand is that "illegality" is not a scientific fact, but a social construction. If a society creates a legal structure that deems some of its members unworthy or "illegal," then illegality comes to be naturalized as an attribute of those who have been accorded that status.
The concept of illegality, the wall between the US and Mexico, the institutions and structures that reinforce the wall's meaning on the border itself, including the cruelty documented in this report, are part of the system for justifying and enforcing inequality. So are the ideologies and laws that create walls of exclusions that enforce the status of illegality inside the fifty states. Laws and policies naturalize and legalize differences in status. In a circular argument, cruelty and exclusion then become necessary to enforce these socially constructed categories. A legal status becomes the justification for mistreatment.
Modern borders are recent historical creations. The U.S.-Mexico border dates to 1848, though the idea of patrolling the border to control human movement across it into what was now the United States did not enter the picture until 1924, with the creation of the Border Patrol. Even then, the purpose was not to prevent Mexicans from entering the United States. In fact, at that time there were no limits on Mexican immigration. The quota laws that restricted European immigration, and previous laws prohibiting immigration from a broadly-defined "Asia" on racial grounds, explicitly did not restrict Mexicans, because U.S. business and agriculture interests in the southwest were utterly dependent on Mexican labor.
Today not only southwestern businesses, but rather the entire U.S. economy, depend on cheap Mexican labor. From the fruits and vegetables, petroleum, minerals, and manufactured goods that the U.S. imports from Mexico itself, to the restaurant work, landscaping, cleaning, food processing, and newspaper delivery industries that employ large numbers of undocumented immigrants, the entire U.S. economy depends heavily on low-paid Mexican labor. Without it, the cheap goods and services that U.S. citizens are accustomed to enjoying would vanish. The law, and the wall, in their multiple incarnations, ensure that Mexicans will continue to be excluded and exploited, and that U.S. citizens will continue to benefit--guilt-free--from discrimination and cruelty.