The Border Thickens: In-Securing Communities in C-U and Beyond

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The despotic policing apparatus found at the U.S.-Mexico border now reaches into Champaign County and across much of the United States. Under federal initiatives “Secure Communities” and related police-ICE collaborations, local law enforcement agencies in communities across the United States have been enlisted in the enforcement of immigration laws. Indeed, the apprehension of “the undocumented” through the criminal justice system is now the primary focus for enforcement. In the last 3 years ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement of the US Department of Homeland Security) has rounded up over half a million people through such Criminal Alien Programs. Yet, there is no legal definition of what a criminal alien is.

“Secure Communities” is in effect in more than 1,000 jurisdictions in 40 states, including locally. The plan is to take it nationwide by 2013. This prerogative was once exclusively reserved for the federal government and the nation’s largest militarized police force, the Border Patrol.  “Secure Communities” is an automated screening system. Fingerprints of presumably everyone booked into participating jails are run through vast immigration databases. ICE agents then are supposed to have 48 hours to pick up those deemed “criminal aliens” to process them for deportation.

In Champaign County, consular forms that are designed to protect foreign nationals by alerting their representatives of their arrests and that are given to foreign nationals once they enter the County Jail have become the modus operandi for in-securing community. The Immigration and Criminal Justice Working Group, comprised of local community members, students, and faculty, has discovered that in Champaign country these forms are being shared with ICE.

Moreover, although “Secure Communities” was ostensibly designed to find and deport illegal immigrants found guilty of serious crimes, concerns have emerged that a significant number of arrestees hold no criminal record through February 2011. Over 50% in Illinois of those deported through “Secure Communities” were of non-criminal status as of September 30, 2010. 71% of those arrested and processed through “Secure Communities” were not criminals. Moreover, 66% of the deported were not criminals. Indeed, the aforementioned working group found that an overwhelming majority of the “Secure Communities” related arrests are for minor offenses, such as having no car insurance or lacking a Driver’s license. Traffic stops and other mundane elements of policing so taken for granted in daily life thus now sow terror among the undocumented community. The undocumented can be ripped from the fabric of their communities and deported to places that they haven’t lived in many years.

“Secure Communities,” related ICE-police collaborations, and the insecurity it generates on marginalized communities, must be situated in a cauldron of white supremacy, capital flows, and political violence infusing immigration law and its exercise. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, limited the availability of Chinese laborers as southern landowners then sought to replace these workers with black migrants, but they encountered significant popular resistance.  Later, business interests experimented with Japanese labor, and Filipino labor. Notably the Border Patrol emerged from the paramilitary police force of the Texas Rangers, an organization that terrorized Black, indigenous, and Mexican people. It was established in the 1920s, days after the passage of the National Origins Act of 1924, which implemented a system of national quotas to protect “American racial stock from further degradation or change through mongrelization” and which outlawed virtually all ‘immigration’ from the western hemisphere. It is further revealing that the US Border Patrol, from 1924 – when it was first created – until 1940, operated under the auspices of the Department of Labor. By the late 1920s, the Border Patrol had very quickly assumed its distinctive role as a special police force for the repression of foreign, all-too-often, Mexican workers in the US. Indeed, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) or ICE’s predecessor once estimated that Mexicans comprise 54 percent of all undocumented migrants in the United States. Yet, modern organized vigilance and enforcement against ‘illegal aliens’ has been primarily directed against Mexicans.

Since at least the late 1970s military strategies and tactics derived from low intensity conflict doctrine have been incorporated into immigration policing in the southwestern United States. On the eve of the implementation of NAFTA, which liberalized the flows of commodities, flora, and fauna, across the borders of Canada, Mexico, and the United States, dramatic militarized border policing campaigns occurred in regions surrounding El Paso, and later in south Texas, San Diego and Arizona. A 1990s government document warned that said campaigns would make undocumented crossings perilous, exposing “illegal aliens” to  “increased violence,” and ostensibly diminishing them. Instead, approximately 5,000 corpses and countless other human remains have been found in the “killing deserts” of Arizona and other regions of the Southwest. And, undocumented migrants in the borderlands now become subject to United States’ own death squads, such as the Minutemen and other nativist vigilante groups. Nevertheless, the vast majority of “undocumented” migrants succeed in crossing, having been violently inaugurated to the subordinate position in the US economic and racial order. “Secure Communities” and related police-ICE collaborations serve to reinforcing their subordination, effectively thickening the border.

Nevertheless, community groups in Champaign Urbana and across the country have mobilized and intervened. Vast networks of activists have held trainings on “Secure Communities” and related programs. Recently, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn bowed to political pressure and sought to end our state’s participation in this program.  But the federal government has held that participation in “Secure Communities” is.  Recent efforts have been made to inform law enforcement that of the problems with “Secure Communities” and related ICE-police collaborations. They risk alienating the undocumented community and their allies from local law enforcement. On March 31, a well-attended Foro Comunitario or community forum was held. Local community members explained the stakes and processes of “Secure Communities” to the public. That is to say, just as the mammoth policing practices that characterize the US-Mexico border severs community and its “thickening” can render other communities all too insecure, borders also serve as bridges. They bring people together who can imagine a better, ultimately borderless, world.

About Gilberto Rosas

Gilberto Rosas is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Latina/o Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His expertise includes questions of state formation, immigration, criminality, political economy and the ever thickening US-Mexico borderlands.
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