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Who's Illegal?

Shooting to Kill on the Border

by SHARON SMITH

On the afternoon of May 18, 22 year-old Oscar Abraham Garcia-Barrios was shot and killed at close range by U.S. Border Patrol and Customs agents. Garcia-Barrios was just 50 feet north of the border crossing from San Diego to Tijuana. He and a teenage passenger were transporting four undocumented immigrants-back to Mexico.

Border Patrol agents told reporters that they began following Garcia-Barrios’ black Dodge Durango after receiving a "tip" from a San Diego "citizen" that his car had picked up four undocumented Mexicans.

As he headed back toward Mexico, the agents alerted U.S. Customs to close down its busy border crossing. Armed agents surrounded the vehicle as it stopped in the far right lane on orders to pull over, 100 feet north of the border.

Agents smashed the driver’s side window with a baton when Garcia-Barrios refused orders to get out of the car. They opened fire when he then accelerated in the direction of the border.

Garcia-Barrios died at the scene of multiple gunshot wounds. The agents refuse to say how many rounds they fired. They had made no attempt to shoot at the vehicle’s tires. Although Chris Bauder, president of National Border Patrol Council Local 1613, claimed an agent’s "life was in danger," none of the agents reported even minor injuries. And no weapons were found in the Dodge Durango.

In response to critics, Bauer defended the agents shoot-to-kill policy, arguing that their "job is to apprehend people who are here illegally."

Expect to hear more stories like this one in the future. Both sides involved in the Congressional furor over immigration reform are jostling for red-state votes-and are mirroring the level of xenophobia and racism long associated with organizations of the far right.

Last week, the Senate unanimously passed a proposal by Republican Senators Jon Kyl of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas to deny citizenship to immigrants convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors. Senators overwhelmingly endorsed building a 370-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. They also passed an amendment by former Democratic Party presidential candidate John Kerry (not to be outflanked on his right by Bush’s plan for National Guard troops on the border) to increase number of Border Patrol agents by 1,000 in the current fiscal year.

Most significantly, the Senate voted for a Republican-sponsored proposal to declare English the "national" language of the United States. Democrat Ken Salazar of Colorado, representing the "opposition party," retaliated with a barely discernible motion to declare English as the "common, unifying" language of the United States-also passed by a substantial majority

The Far Right is Growing

In this political climate, it is not surprising that far-right organizations are beginning to grow significantly.

A new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racist and right-wing extremist groups, documented 803 such hate groups operating in the U.S. last year-33 percent more than in 2000.

The Center’s Mark Potok also noted a growing alliance between neo-Nazis and anti-immigrant vigilante organizations. "More and more [neo-Nazi] groups are turning to immigration to help recruitment," he said.

The American Border Patrol, a civilian group that rounds up and detains suspected undocumented immigrants to turn over to authorities across the Southwest, demonstrates this overlap. Glenn Spencer, the director of this vigilante group, defended the practice. "Our borders are unprotected, and the Border Patrol is derelict in its duty," Spencer argued. "We are trying to help by any means necessary."

The Southern Poverty Law Center has also accused the Border Guardians, a new organization based in Arizona, of working with neo-Nazis to harass and steal money from undocumented immigrants.

Border Guardians’ director Laine Lawless vehemently denied those charges. But she also called immigrants’ rights activists "brown Nazis" who are threatening to ignite a "civil war" in America, leaving considerable doubt as to whether she is capable of making such a political distinction.

Who’s Illegal?

Speaking of illegality, it might surprise Lawless to learn that the entire Southwestern U.S., including her home state of Arizona, was part of Mexico until the U.S. military invaded that sovereign nation in 1846 to force the Mexican government to "sell" one-third of its territory to the U.S. for a paltry sum. That military incursion, known as the Mexican-American War, allowed the U.S. to expand its territory "from sea to shining sea" across its South.

By 1847, many Northern politicians were clamoring for the U.S. military to annex all of Mexico. But Southern slaveholders were loath to extend U.S. citizenship to the majority of Mexicans, for no other reason than to maintain racial purity in their budding imperialist power.

Sen. John Calhoun of South Carolina expressed the majority’s objections in an 1848 Congressional debate:

"To incorporate Mexico, would be incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race."

The "Permanent Temporary" Labor Force

When the U.S. created its first broad immigration controls in the 1920s, Mexicans were singled out to play a unique role as a "permanent temporary" labor force for U.S. employers. While curtailing immigration overall, U.S. law allowed unlimited migration from Mexico and Canada.

This, as historian David Montgomery argued,

"institutionalized a revolving door for migrant field workers from Mexico, who numbered at harvest time as many as all immigrants from the rest of the world combined but could be, and were, returned to Mexico en masse when large growers did not need their labor."

Immigration laws have undergone a variety of changes since then, but this exploitive employment pattern for Mexican workers has remained. Even when federal law bans Mexican migration, immigration officials typically look the other way while employers openly flout the law. They reserve punishment for undocumented workers, arrested and deported in showcase immigration raids-to reinforce an atmosphere of fear in Mexican communities.

Two Sides of a Coin: Guest Worker Programs and Deportation

This was the case even during the notorious Bracero Program, which imported more than 4 million Mexican farm laborers to work in the U.S. between 1942 and 1964, as a temporary workforce without basic legal rights-all to be deported by their employers when their contracts expired. Working conditions were described as "legalized slavery" by Lee G. Williams from the U.S. Department of Labor officer in charge of the Barcero program before it ended.

While the Bracero program was in full swing, however, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service also instituted a mass deportation program in 1954, known as "Operation Wetback." Fueled by the anti-communist witch hunt already well underway, the INS, working with Border Patrol agents, rounded up and deported at least one million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the name of "protecting national security and American jobs."

U.S. employers thus found an ideal solution to their problems, two sides of the same coin: rigorous border enforcement and guest worker status for Mexican migrants-ensuring racist scapegoating against the entire Mexican and Mexican-American population residing in the U.S.

Both these elements-and only these elements–are present in the current Congressional debate over immigration now being waged in Washington over the Senate bill-which must still be reconciled with the House’s unilaterally punitive HR 4437, passed in December.

Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein has already suggested that that the negotiations will "not necessarily" be finished before the November elections.

Let’s hope so.

No legislation is much preferable to what is on offer in Congress. The future for immigrants rights will be determined not by election-year Congressional wrangling but by more bodies in the streets.

The mass outpouring of protest over the Sensenbrenner bill has thus far prevented Congress from passing anti-immigrant legislation. We need to redouble our efforts to continue to build a movement that stands squarely for full and complete legalization of undocumented immigrants.

SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: sharon@internationalsocialist.org