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Interview with Maria Jiménez (1998)

The Militarization of the U.S.- Mexico Border
Border Communities Respond to Militarization
From Slave Patrol to Border Patrol

Houston, Texas


Maria Jiménez is director of the Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project (LEMP), a project of the American Friends Service Committee. Founded in 1987, it's goal is to reduce the abuse of authority in the enforcement of immigration laws. LEMP works with community based groups in four areas of the U.S.-Mexico border: San Diego; southern Arizona; the El Paso/New Mexico area; and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

In Texas, LEMP works with the Valley Coalition for Justice. Their work is primarily in the McAllen area of the Border Patrol and covers a large area including Brownsville, and Harlingen County. In El Paso, LEMP works with the El Paso Border Rights Coalition. In Arizona LEMP works with the Derechos Humanos Arizona Border Projects Coalition, a coalition of social justice groups, unions, and members of indigenous nations effected by border policies. In San Diego, LEMP works with the AFSC Office of the U.S. Mexico Border Program. Nationally LEMP works with the National Network of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the National Immigration Project of the Lawyers Guild, and Coordinadora 2000. Cross-border, LEMP coordinates with human rights organizations on the Mexico side of the border, and, in Arizona, with indigenous nations whose members are on the Mexican side of the border.

The interview was conducted and later edited by Nic Paget-Clarke in Houston. Published in In Motion Magazine, February 2, 1998.

Community organizing on the U.S.-Mexico border

In Motion Magazine: What's is an example of your work, and how many people are involved in a major campaign?

Maria Jiménez: You can't quantify. In each of the areas it's a coalition matter. There are many, many people involved in the different phases. Sometimes in a certain campaign there will be many more involved who we meet on the way and who we may never know - for instance in the area of public awareness.

A concrete case that I can point to is the young man, Ezequiel Hernandez, shot by the U.S. Marines on a drug patrol in Redford, Texas.

In that particular case, we had been monitoring the activities of Joint Task Force 6 since their formation in 1989. We were highly critical of their involvement because of the implications of using the military in policing civilian populations. World-wide this involvement has always resulted in serious human rights violations and a deterioration of democratic institutions.

We were aware. We had been monitoring incidents of shootings between military units and civilians along the border. When we heard of the Ezequiel Hernandez case it was unfortunately not a surprise to us. It was to be expected.

We went down to Redford the week after the incident and we were part of a town hall meeting. We talked to the family. We explained that we were there to coordinate work with them not to substitute for them or to do anything that was not in coordination with them. One of the ways we coordinate our work is to make sure we are synchronized with the people who are directly affected.

With the town hall meeting, with the family, we planned a two-part strategy. One part , so that the incident wouldn't be forgotten, was to develop a national movement. We called for national days of reflection and days of action on the 20th of each month, the day he died.

Then we talked about a delegation to Washington, D.C. with many of the Redford people, members of the family. They commented that they were an isolated community, that they would be forgotten. The community had invited their congressional representatives but they didn't show up to the meeting. Our work is to give voice to the voiceless.

The delegation went to D.C. in July. They met with the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Defense in charge of these operations, with General McCaffrey, the Drug Czar; the Hispanic Caucus; with the Senate and House members of the National Security Committee; individual Congressional people; and with the INS. It was the Redford residents who put forward their view of what had happened and why it was important to keep the military out of border communities.

And with the delegation went a lot of press. It was the first time for many parts of the country that people knew that there were military units along the border. Before then they had not known. That of course helped to create a current of opinion which ultimately lead the Department of Defense to withdraw ground troops. Although they haven't withdrawn all military operations because they do have other types of military operations in place, but ground troops have been withdrawn from the border. This is a reversal of ten years of policy that had been growing.

Many actors became aware of the problem. I had calls from people who said "I see you are working on this and I'd like to give a donation to the Redford committee". That is you create a current of public opinion which then tends to take part in effecting decisions such as this. We felt there were many thousands of people involved from the reporter who made this an issue and placed importance on it, to the editor of the newspaper who did the editorial once they found out this situation existed, to the person who read about it and called their Congressman and said "Hey I didn't know this was happening. Something should be done."

It is a very collective process. We begin with the victim, the community affected, and help them to articulate the problem, as opposed to substituting. Occasionally we'll have to be spokesperson for the community when we're asked to testify before Congressional committees. We have always approached this not as advocates but as organizers. From the beginning, the momentum we set in defining this particular project was the involvement of the local border residents in defining the politics. That's why we organized these coalitions and work with persons who articulate their own reality. We simply provide the means, the technical support, to be able to affect these policy decisions and outcomes.

Holding the Border Patrol Accountable

Sometimes the outcomes have not been positive. For example, the Dario Miranda case in Arizona in '92. This young man was shot in the back by a Border Patrol agent. That Border Patrol agent was the first agent charged with murder, capital murder.

The agent was taken to the state court. We organized a monitoring both in the local community and border-wide. People would come to monitor the trial, provide voice for the press, as it was happening. But the jury found the agent not guilty even though the strongest witness against him was his own partner. It reflected the prejudice that the American people have against the undocumented.

We worked nation-wide to get this case tried at the federal level for civil rights violations. The Department of Justice responded. We wound up with a very good case, but again he was acquitted. The federal jury found the agent not guilty. Again his partner was against him, and as a matter of fact Tom Watson, the partner, was fired from the Border Patrol.

Even though it was very disappointing to have this agent acquitted, we can say, and all the editorials were shocked by the decisions of the juries, it was the first time that an agent had been charged with murder. Secondly, even though he was not found guilty the fact that the community could move and take them to court I believe creates the awareness within the institution and with the agents that they will be held accountable in some way, even if it's through the public scrutiny of different sectors of the community. Ultimately, even though there was no formal justice for the victim, the actual community involvement and the remembrance of Dario Miranda, and he is remembered in Arizona, brings some sort of relief at least at the community level.

Accountability and Direct Involvement

In Motion Magazine: Do you feel your work develops the idea of what democracy ought to be?

Maria Jiménez: It does develop it because it obligates accountability of government and, I think the most important thing, highlights the need for citizen direct involvement. For me, one of the most interesting things about the Redford delegation, and probably Washington has seen few delegations like that, is that these were ordinary citizens at the border. They've lived there many, many years. Many grew up at the border. There wasn't any direct lobbyist or direct national organization who spoke for them. These residents were able to deal with the highest level of decision-makers on these issues very adequately, very forcefully. In that sense, this shows that citizen involvement is key and important. Decision-makers need to be sensitive not just to the professional groups that do lobbying on Capitol Hill but to the ordinary citizen who experiences the policies they pass without many times their consultation or involvement, such as border policy. It is important in that sense - the issue of accountability and citizen involvement.

The Militarization of the U.S. Mexico Border

In Motion Magazine: At what point did you realize you were going to start using the word 'militarization'?

Maria Jiménez: Immediately. The first thing I did when I was hired in April of '87 was to do document research of what the problem was. I wrote an article for the National Immigration Project newsletter called "The Militarization of the Border". It was immediate that the context of our work would be this. One, because of the large number of not only Border Patrol agents and INS concentrated on the border, but also numerous federal agencies. Currently about 46 federal agencies work on the border. Secondly, we had already begun to see sectors speaking about the use of the military directly. There were even some laws like the 1986 law which authorized the use of military bases for keeping undocumented people.

Even though we won many battles in the area of accountability, the area of holding individual agents accountable for their actions as well as targeting policies and being able to get recommendations we were making accepted, in the area of a de-militarized border -- we were losing the war.

The anti-immigrant sentiment was growing because of the changes in the global economy, the re-structuring in the country that was exciting the economic insecurity of residents of the U.S. There was the view that problems come from south of the border. Statistically, the Urban Institute in '94 indicated that out of ten undocumented people in the United States only four crossed the southern border, but the national view is that everybody who is undocumented comes through the southern border. Again the Urban Institute found that out of 100 undocumented people in the United States only 39%, the INS says 55%, are Mexican nationals. Yet 90% of the people arrested are Mexican nationals, and 85% of the resources to deal with "the undocumented problem" are placed in communities along the U.S.-Mexico border. That problem, the problem of the national perception of viewing the border as a war zone and immigrants as enemies and subsequently border communities - you can conclude when you have military patrols in your town that somehow somebody thought you were the enemies of this country -- that was why we were losing.

The Ezequiel Hernandez case highlighted the very serious nature of how we were defining our border politics with respect to, in this particular case, the drug issue. Redford had not seen an arrest of a drug trafficker in ten years according to the DEA ( federal Drug Enforcement Administration). Again according to the DEA, and even General McCaffrey admitted it, 70-85% of the drugs in the country come through legal ports of entry. It's one of the courtesies of NAFTA. The fact that they don't check conveyances on the Mexican side. The Attorney General of Texas calls it the North American Free Trafficking Agreement.

Why have covert military operations in a little town like Redford where, as a resident said, somebody would be crazy to run drugs in an isolated place like this, knowing that they could easily go through El Paso?

In Motion Magazine: Why are there covert military operations in Redford?

Maria Jiménez: Again it's because of these perceptions that people have in the interior of the country. There's drugs in Washington D.C., why don't they put covert military operations in Washington, D.C.? The border is viewed as a war zone, where evil enters, as if economic problems ended and began at the border. Particularly the populations at the border are seen as suspect.

I remember the words of Enrique Madrid, one of the residents of Redford who went to Washington, when he said, "My grandfather was one of the original founders of Redford". He had the charter that his grandfather had for the land at Redford. Generations grew up in Redford. He served his country in the military. In many different ways they built the community. Now all of a sudden there are covert operations, "My God we suddenly realized we were an enemy."

The perception is that there are expendable populations in terms of what we would call democratic institutions. With all its sophistication, the military in the training of these Marines could not tell the difference between the good guy and the bad guy, so to speak. This shepherd fit the profile of a drug-runner. So if he fit the profile of a drug-runner then it means everybody on the border fits the profile of a drug-runner. There are stereotypic views that are concretized into policy and institutionalized.

I think militarization deals with the historical relations of the border - the fact that these were lands violently incorporated in the United States. Also there is the persistent view of how some look at the people of Mexico - the prejudice that exists among the population. I think it deals more with the prejudice than the facts.

Decisions are made by transnational corporations that are not democratic

In Motion Magazine: It does seem ironic that at the same time as we have free trade which you would think would make the border more open, the border is actually being closed. How do you explain that?

Maria Jiménez: I don't think it's an irony. I think it's a function of the global system in which the decisions are being made by transnational corporations and by entities that are not democratic. When we look at the function of mobility across the border we must look at that global system. The U.N. says there are five billion people in the world. Two billion are in the labor market, and of those something like 125 million are actually people who live outside of their countries of origin. The U.S. receives 1% annually of these migrants. Each year, since the '80s, there's been an increase in the number of refugees, people who move across international borders because of natural disasters or civil strife. There's also economic migrants, people who move to incorporate themselves into labor markets. Of these there are about a million a year.

When you look at the scheme of globalization and restructuring one sees that the economic and political elites of the world have no problems in getting across borders. The CEO's, wealthy refugees - we saw the case of Kuwait - can easily come into the United States. If you are in a political elite you have no problem moving back and forth legally between countries. The militarized borders, the walls, the agents, are really to impede the mobility of the international working poor who attempt to cross borders. In that sense border politics for me is a strategic aspect of economic development policy apparent in our global system. It's a policy that seeks to create a world of low wages and high profits.

When you regulate labor but do not regulate capital then you create the conditions of: 1) attempting to immobilize populations that are left in countries to which you can move your assembly plants and pay workers very low wages. And 2) if people can get across illegally into your country then the illegality creates the conditions for a group of people who are socially disenfranchised, politically disenfranchised, and economically vulnerable. They are placed in industries where again the motive is low wages and high profits.

From Slave Patrol to Border Patrol

Leobardo Contreras-Mendoza - Photo by Nic Paget-ClarkeThe only comparison I can make on the issue of mobility in the United States is during the slavery period in the South. I think one of the first police forces to be paid by governments were the famous slave patrols of the South. The function of the slave patrols was to impede the mobility of the slaves and to insure that if one did escape a plantation that person would be returned. This reinforced the existing social and economic structure. It's in the same sense that we have a Border Patrol and the INS. We have a police force whose function is to reinforce immobility, to reinforce the conditions that maximize profits and ensure low wages.

I remember once our (INS) District Director was present at a presentation here . I said "Isn't it true that in terms of employer/employee relations, of labor/management relations, the only area enforced through the use of force, through the use of armed agents, is the one where the international worker is not authorized to work?"

Of all the labor laws of the United States, violations of safety and health, violations of minimum wage, violations of the use of toxic entities in plants, of all the violations of laws between labor and management, none of these are enforced by a group of armed individuals who come to your work site to make sure that you comply with these laws. The only area is the area of the international worker - the authorized or unauthorized worker.

That's why I think it's similar to the slave patrols of the South. Why is it so important in our economic system to have armed agents come into a work site to enforce this? That's what gives me the impression that it's a key area that ensures and reinforces the existing inequalities on an international level. It guarantees for the transnational corporate strategy the mechanism of low wages, high profits.

That's why it's not illogical. It's illogical from our view because what we seek is justice for all sectors of the world politic. Many times I talk about the idea that the real issue in border politics is the issue of equality of border mobility. Border mobility is not equal. The wealthy can go all over the world without any problem.

In Motion Magazine: So the work of the Border Patrol is not so much to keep Mexican workers out of the United States as to keep them being available for work in Mexico?

Maria Jiménez: And highly exploited if they do cross. We saw this for example with the incident of the deaf people who were brought from Mexico to New York and who literally lived in slave conditions.

In Motion Magazine: What are the primary reasons that people cross the border?

Maria Jiménez: I think that the driving force is the conditions in the countries of origin -- economic deprivation and the closing of democratic practices and spaces. Most of Latin America has fallen under structural adjustment programs of international banking institutions which demand a reduction in government services, privatization and readjustment of land policies. Because these are very harsh measures, the apparatus of political repression grows. This creates the conditions for people to cross the border. In the case of Mexican immigrants there is the added facet that there over a hundred years of migratory streams. We have a lot of family connections that move people from one side over to the other side of the border. Many people will also return.

The primary constant is economic disparity and the need in the U.S. for workers in certain areas of economic growth. Originally these migration patterns began because U.S. employers went to Mexico for contract labor.

Life and culture in U.S.-Mexico border communities

In Motion Magazine: What is the relationship between the Border Patrol and the Houston police?

Maria Jiménez: In Houston, precisely when the current new Mayor Lee Brown was chief of police, the organization of Spanish-speaking officers who grew up in the philosophy that Lee Brown brought to Houston, which is community-oriented policing, these particular officers pushed so that there would be an internal regulation in the City of Houston in which the local police and the local city jails would not be associated with the INS. The officers argued that this was not about less enforcement but about more effective local law enforcement. That is, if the major component of community-oriented policing is gaining the confidence and trust of the population that you police, and if your role is more of peace officer and the idea that you should be using more the skills of arbitration and conciliation and less of the tough cop mentality, then that trust and that confidence is immediately eroded in the immigrant population if you associate with the INS. This regulation would show to the immigrant population that public safety and police protection are there for them as well. That they could access these services.

This is critical in the case of domestic violence. Many times all the woman wants is for the man to stop the abuse. She does not necessarily want him be charged or for herself or him to be deported. If she knows she or he are going to be deported she's not going to report him.

The same thing is true for other forms of abuse. For example, an undocumented group of Mexican and Honduran workers went to protest the fact that a contractor had robbed them of wages. This contractor took out a gun and began shooting at them. He shot one of them in the foot. The injured man was taken to a hospital. When the security guard at the hospital insinuated that if the worker did not give the name of the contractor to him he would call the INS the worker left the hospital untreated. This indicates the degree of fear of local authorities reporting to the INS that makes the immigrant population more vulnerable to crime and to the lack of reporting of crime.

So this is the current policy in Houston. But under current immigration law within the counter-terrorism act it is now authorized that a local jurisdiction can ask the Attorney General to be deputized as INS agents. As far as I know Salt Lake City is one of the first cities to do this. From our perspective, because we've learned from the Spanish-speaking officers here in Houston, this a serious situation regarding public safety for everyone. It's not about less enforcement but about more effective enforcement at the local levels. People won't report crimes or help in an investigation. It leaves a whole group of people vulnerable to the criminal element. This is a deterioration of the community per se.

In Motion Magazine: What is the long-term impact on the community of the constant presence of the Border Patrol?

Maria Jiménez: Often when I address Mexican-origin audiences in the United States, I talk about how we are the only ethnic group in the whole country who can claim to have a national police force we can call our very own.

When I've addressed Border Patrol agents, because I have addressed them at a couple of training sessions, I tell them about the complexity of our relationship, given that policy has thrown us together. It wasn't their choice to police us. It is policy that has placed them in the position of policing us. We are the police constituency. There's a whole folklore about it. There's songs, there's jokes, there's stories. And the jokes particularly are revealing. Sometimes the agent is the butt of the joke, sometimes it's the immigrant, sometimes it's both of them together.

I tell them about La Jornada, one of the most widely-read newspapers in Mexico. Every Sunday has a cartoon column called "When the Border Patrol Catches Up with Me". The Border Patrol is such an ingrained part of our existence in the United States, I tell them, I can't imagine living in the United States without the INS. They are part of our existence.

There was an old (INS) sector chief who retired in El Paso and a reporter from Juarez told me that he asked him "What do you think of Mexicans?" He said "I know them very well. I've been arresting them for 25 years." And the same is true for us, we who have been arrested. We are always confronting them. In that sense there is a complex relationship developed with them.

Some were surprised that people weren't afraid to go to the INS offices during amnesty. A Mexican wouldn't be surprised. Why? Because when you know them, you know both their good and their bad. Many times I see the anger expressed more by the native-born, the U.S. citizen, "You stop me, you question me", more than the Mexican immigrant who deals on a daily basis with the Border Patrol. There are even songs like "The Migra (the Border Patrol) - I Eat It like an Appetizer".

By the same token, our detention facilities are staffed 90% by Latinos and Mexican-origin people. Why? Well, part of it is the poverty, that's the job that is available. But the second thing is the familiarity. I coined a phrase - the abused-community syndrome - like the battered-wife syndrome. It's gone on for so many generations that we no longer see the abuse. It's become a way of life. Part of our work is increasing public awareness that we are an abused community. This doesn't happen to other communities. Particularly the issue of U.S. citizens being stopped, and questioned and detained, and sometimes even deported. It doesn't happen to Anglo Americans, African Americans. It happens to Americans of Mexican origin.

When I address Mexican American audiences I talk to them about the fact that even in our own self-definition, if you listen to Mexican Americans, we are the only ones who keep saying, "Oh yeah, I'm a 4th -generation, 5th-generation, 8th-generation American." We are continually reinforcing our right to be here because we are constantly being questioned about our right to be here. I hear many Americans saying "It doesn't bother that they stop me and ask me for my papers." But it doesn't happen to anybody else. Its a 4th amendment violation to be stopped based on appearance.

There's a song, a very popular salsa song. The guy proposes to the girl. He says "Let's live together 'till the INS separates us." When I talk to agents, I say "That's how predominant you are in our lives. It's no longer until God do us part, it's until the INS do us part."

On career day here in Houston, talking with second and third graders in ESL classes, which are predominantly Spanish-speaking I tell them about the work I do. I ask "Do you know anything about the Border Patrol?" I've discovered nobody raises their hand. "How about La Patrolla Fronteriza?" Nobody raises their hand. I say "La Migra" and invariably out of a group of twenty about eleven will raise their hands and say that they've had experience with la Migra. They begin to tell me their family stories. When it happened to them at the bridge, at the checkpoint, to their mother and their father. Then I'll say "Any other stories?" Someone will always say, "We ran into one on the street the other day." Then I ask them "What color was the uniform?" "Oh it was blue." And I say, "No that's the Houston police department." What I tell the Border Patrol is "You are so predominant in our community that for these children the first uniformed authority that they learn to fear and learn to interact with is the INS or the Border Patrol. All other uniformed authorities extend from there." It's a predominant experience.

The Border Patrol destabilizes the community. Our own history tells us that if you raid a factory today, in a week, a week and a half, everybody's back. What does this do? The individual becomes unstable. The family unit is destabilized. The parents are gone, or the father is gone, whoever is gone, until they come back. You destabilize the community. You create a lot of instability. I think this is part of the mechanism of oppression.

In Motion Magazine: Is that still true that everybody is back within a week?

Maria Jiménez: It's harder to get back. It used to be when we started in 1987 and talked to immigrants, they could usually could come through on the fourth try. Now it's taking them from eleven to fourteen tries. In some areas if they catch you again they are prosecuting. The Department of Justice has instituted special prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office to deal with repeat-crossers. Some of them are serving jail time in federal prisons.

Published in In Motion Magazine - February 2, 1998

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