Not Border Crisis
of US Border Formation
The history of the US border is one of nearly unimaginable terror and grief, land theft, ethnic cleansing, forced marches, concentrated resettlement, war, torture, and rape.
—Greg Grandin, “American Extremism
Has Always Flowed from the Border”
In the summer of 2019, a photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his toddler Angie Valeria went viral. The child had her tiny arm wrapped across her father’s back, as both lay facedown, dead, in the murky waters of the Rio Grande. That same summer, the world also watched in horror as images poured in of children in cages, bodies crammed on floors flooded with sewage, and families torn apart at the border. These images captured the cruelty of President Donald Trump’s restrictive and punitive immigration policies. The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) reported from the Texas border: “Hundreds of migrants are locked up in what are akin to disaster relief camps the day after an earthquake. Families are cramped together, porta-potties and mylar blankets are strewn across an industrial wasteland. Cleaning facilities appear non-existent and families are forced to wait outside throughout the day in sweltering heat.”1
At least seven children died in US immigration custody in 2019, and thirty-three adults died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody between 2017 and 2019.2
sixteen-year-old Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez contracted a dangerous flu while in Border Patrol custody in Texas, he was not taken to a hospital but quarantined in a cell instead. Carlos died in a pool of blood on May 19, 2019.
A record 69,550 migrant children were incarcerated in the US in 2019, more children separated from their families and detained than in any other country on the planet.3
This mass caging was the culmination of Trump’s abominable “zero-tolerance” policy mandating criminal prosecutions of all migrants, including families, for irregular border crossings. Since July 2017, as many as 5,400 children have been separated from their caregivers at the border and detained, 89 percent of whom were from Guatemala and Honduras, and at least 207 were babies under the age of five.4
Young children have described devastating symptoms, like “every heartbeat hurts” or “I can’t feel my heart.”5
Beatriz, a young Maya girl, was beaten with the metal end of a belt while in custody at a child migrant shelter; she sustained bruises on her legs and a scar on her back. Her father, Jairo, was tricked into signing deportation documents and deported without her. By the time Beatriz was reunited with her family, she could no longer speak her language and was unable to communicate with her mother.6
In addition to the zero-tolerance policy, Trump instituted a Muslim ban, issued an executive order to expand detention and expedite deportations, authorized greater local powers in immigration enforcement, and increased funding for thousands of additional miles of the border wall. He capped refugee admissions at the lowest level in decades, reserving spots for Iraqis and Afghans loyal to US war efforts. He also implemented new rules making it more difficult for refugees to establish “credible fear” and restricted asylum claims for women fleeing gendered violence. Furthermore, Trump attempted to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program impacting seven hundred thousand undocumented youth and ordered an end to Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for people from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan. In 2020, weaponizing the coronavirus crisis, he issued an executive order to curb immigration green cards for permanent residents and implemented new border regulations so all migrants and refugees, including unaccompanied minors, crossing the US–Mexico border irregularly could be turned back. This unprecedented policy authorized an expedited deportation process, averaging ninety-six minutes, and over ten thousand migrants and refugees were summarily expelled from the border within the first eighteen days of its implementation.7
Between March and May 2020, only two people were able to exercise their right to seek asylum at the US–Mexico border.8
Even though most of these orders have been challenged in court and some even blocked, they have created a chilling effect in racialized communities and emboldened white supremacists. After Trump’s election, reported hate crimes increased by 17 percent, and by 2019 as many as 216 militia groups were active in the US.9
For the first time in its history, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was forced to admit that white nationalism is a major domestic threat, especially after the armed United Constitutional Patriots militia kidnapped and illegally detained hundreds of migrants at gunpoint in 2019.10
State-sanctioned white nationalism has also intensified. The Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, signed in 2018, was the largest border enforcement and immigration budget in history. Receiving a whopping $23.7 billion for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and ICE, DHS became the country’s largest enforcement agency, with a budget 6,000 percent larger than in 1980.11
While Trump’s overtly malicious and cumulative policies of separating families, caging children, banning Muslims, building the border wall, and overturning minimal protections for refugees and undocumented migrants has garnered international condemnation, US immigration enforcement has been routine and bipartisan practice for over two centuries. Liberal lawmakers and their supporters may critique the overt, racist treatment of migrants under Trump’s reign, but they too naturalize the border’s existence and uphold the state’s right to exclude migrants through border rule. It is essential, however, that we ask how and why the border is made. US bordering practices traverse many land and maritime jurisdictions, and the US border is externalized far beyond territorial limits; this is explored further in chapters 2
. This chapter conceptualizes the formation of the US–Mexico border through the historic entanglements of war and expansion into Mexico, frontier fascism and Indigenous genocide, enslavement and control of Black people, and the racialized exclusion and expulsion of those deemed undesirable. The US–Mexico border must be understood not only as a racist weapon to exclude migrants and refugees, but as foundationally organized through, and hence inseparable from, imperialist expansion, Indigenous elimination, and anti-Black enslavement. US–Mexico border rule intersects with global and domestic forms of warfare, positioned as a linchpin in the concurrent processes of expansion, elimination, and enslavement, thus solidifying the white settler power of racial exclusion and migrant expulsion.
We see the rhythms of these overlapping histories reverberate at Oklahoma’s Fort Sill army base, a former prison where hundreds of Chiricahua people including Geronimo were incarcerated, then a World War II internment camp
for seven hundred Japanese Americans, and subsequently a detention center holding thousands of migrant children under President Barack Obama. Fort Sill made headlines again when Trump also considered using it as a detention facility for children. In response, the base became a site of regular protests bringing together Indigenous people, Japanese Americans, and Latinx community members, drawing connections between their experiences of forced family separation. In early 2019, DHS also floated the possibility of detaining migrant children at Guantánamo Bay, America’s first overseas naval base.12
This omnipotent symbol of US imperialism in Cuba is maintained by thousands of Jamaican and Filipinx migrant workers employed in construction, cleaning, and cooking. The gulag is a legal black hole, where thousands of Haitian refugees were detained in the 1980s and 1990s and a thousand Muslim detainees from thirty-five countries were imprisoned and tortured at the height of the war on terror. Lisa Lowe reminds us that “settler seizure and native removal, slavery and racial dispossession, and racialized expropriation of many kinds are imbricated processes, not sequential events; they are ongoing and continuous in our contemporary moment.”13
Conquest as Border Formation
We may wish to rearticulate our understanding of white supremacy by not assuming that it is enacted in a single fashion; rather, white supremacy is constituted by separate and distinct, but still interrelated, logics.
—Andrea Smith, “Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy”
Interrogating the formation of the US–Mexico border exposes the moorings of the US as a settler, slaveholding, expansionist, and exclusionary state. The southern border has been particularly pivotal in the ideology of manifest destiny, a tenet of territorial expansionism wherein northern and southern US states found common ground in the belief that God had ordained frontier wars.14
Frontier fascism was most forcefully enacted by President Andrew Jackson, whose bloody reign from 1829 to 1837 included massacring Indigenous people and expanding slavery. Jackson also attempted to negotiate with the Mexican government for the purchase of Texas, while tacitly supporting the flow of white Anglo-American settlers into the region to mount a revolt. During the 1830s, Mexico’s decision to outlaw slavery and refuse Anglo-settler immigration from the southern US fueled a white secessionist Texian movement. In 1837, Jackson officially recognized the independent Republic of Texas, where Texians affirmed slavery and
free Black people required special permission to live.15
The US annexation of the Republic of Texas as a slave state in 1845 was followed by a full-blown US military invasion of Mexico and debt manipulation by President James Polk, eventually resulting in the forced annexation of half of Mexico through the imposition of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.
The treaty forced Mexico to drop any claims to Texas and authorized the US to capture land comprising all or part of present-day Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. In total, the US seized more than 525,000 square miles of territory in Mexico, shifting the border south, and rendering Mexicans living in what was now the US “a conquered people.”16
An Anglo-American racial order of conquest was enforced. Mexicans in the captured territories were given the hollow option of US citizenship, while enduring systemic racial discrimination and segregation as alien citizens.17
Indigenous lands were seized, and sovereign nations, including the Comanche, Apache, Seri, Coahuilteca, and Kiowa, were forcibly assimilated into the US nation-state. Enslaved Black people were subject to the Fugitive Slave Act, while all Black people continued to be denied citizenship, a pillar of white supremacy in the expanding slavery frontier.
Most mainstream analyses of US immigration ignore this history of border and state formation, even as it continues to animate US imperial ambitions and racial-capitalist rule. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues that the liberal narrative of a “nation of immigrants” is grossly inaccurate, erasing the violence of conquests and borders upon Mexican, Indigenous, Black, and colonized communities to produce the sanitized myth of a melting pot.18
In contrast to the inaccurate framing “We are a nation of immigrants,” the more subversive chant “We did not cross the border, the border crossed us” destabilizes the southern border by interrogating the assumption of “migrant” on seized lands and exposing the hypocrisy of colonizers calling people “illegals.” Subjugated communities, particularly Indigenous and Black (importantly, not mutually exclusive), are often folded into the liberal narrative of “racial minorities.” Further, Indigenous decolonial and Black abolition struggles are largely seen as disconnected from the immigrant rights movement, except in identifying shared struggles against racism. However, the war on migrants does not exist separate from or simply parallel to anti-Indigenous and anti-Black violence. Early US bordering practices were, in fact, conceived of as a method of eliminating Indigenous people and controlling Black people, and US border imperialism is structurally bound up in these genocides.
Border Formation through Indigenous Elimination
No one is illegal on stolen land except those who stole it.
—Red Nation, “The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth”
The US not only expanded beyond its borders to build its empire but was founded as
a genocidal empire upon Indigenous nations. Originating from a series of papal bulls in the late 1400s, the Doctrine of Discovery declared that any and all lands uninhabited by Christians could be claimed. This colonial doctrine of conquest formed the socio-political justification for the dispossession of Indigenous lands and jurisdiction, and it was formalized in law in the 1823 unanimous Supreme Court decision Johnson v. McIntosh
, wherein Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that “the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.”19
Within a few years of the decision, Jackson enacted the Indian Removal Act of 1830, forcing fifty thousand Indigenous people to relocate west of the Mississippi River to a specifically designated “Indian territory.” The militarily enforced process violently displaced eighteen thousand Cherokee and killed another four thousand, while opening twenty-five million acres of ethnically cleansed land to white settlement and cotton plantation slavery. An economy of dispossession was solidified, rooted in colonization and racial subordination to turn both land and people into property. This racialized economy of dispossession is described by scholars as “the multiple and intertwined genealogies of racialized property, subjection, and expropriation through which capitalism and colonialism take shape historically.”20
The Trail of Tears, as it came to be known, was but one part of the Indian Wars, marked by thousands of forced relocations and massacres by the US military and state-led militias, as Anglo-American settlement pushed violently westward and southward. Spanning two hundred years and continuing into the present day, extermination campaigns have been supplemented by a system of elimination that includes apartheid confinement on reservations; biological warfare and starvation; child kidnapping and forced assimilation in boarding schools; epidemics of missing and murdered women and two-spirit people; criminalization through the Court of Indian Offenses; control through the Bure...