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History’s Sinkhole

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Shapira says he wants to understand the Minutemen, but in fact he pities them. His portrayal of one pseudonymously named volunteer is indistinguishable from another, with “Earl,” “Gordon” and “Floyd” dissolving into a lost platoon of man-boys searching for meaning in the desert. They all say straight up that they don’t like Mexicans, but Shapira knows that what they really want is acceptance and appreciation. They do seem sad, these aging white veterans of foreign wars sitting in lawn chairs, scanning the desert with their thermal binoculars. Their nostalgia is free-floating and their bigotry seems farcical, considering it’s directed mostly at people who represent ideals that the Minutemen say they value. Strip-mall America would be even more barren if it weren’t for the pockets of Mexicans and Central Americans who have taken over empty stores and turned them into taquerías, carnicerías, pupuserías, peluquerías and other enterprises. 

Waiting for José
The Minutemen’s Pursuit of America.
By Harel Shapira.
Buy this book

About the Author

Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize...

Also by the Author

He taught us how to live with loss, and he told us, over and over again, that other utopias are possible.

Slavery was the flywheel on which America’s market revolution turned—not just in the United States, but in all of the Americas.

Except that the Minutemen have largely won the national debate. Since the founding of the MCDC in 2005, Washington has doubled the number of Border Patrol agents and quadrupled the amount of fencing separating the United States from Mexico. As president, Bush condemned the Minutemen as “vigilantes,” yet he put into place Operation Streamline, which prosecutes, tries and deports migrants en masse, a program that continues despite being strongly criticized by civil rights lawyers. The Democrats are the party of immigration reform, but they have conceded the debate to those who insist that “effective security” at the border is the precondition to legalizing the status of the estimated 11 million undocumented residents in the United States. The Senate’s bill, which passed in June, is “tough as nails,” says its chief sponsor, New York Senator Charles Schumer, providing billions more for policing, fencing and deporting but not a penny for the water stations or greater cellphone coverage that might save lives.

Turner depicted the borderlands as a place where individualism sprouted from the land like prairie weeds, and only after did government and big business arrive. But as Reagan might have said, that is the myth. The reality is that what we think of the West since its inception has been the domain of large corporations, including railroads, real estate, agriculture and mining. “Settlement tended to follow, rather than precede, connections to national and international markets,” the Stanford University historian Richard White argues—markets that were themselves created by federal action and protected by federal troops. In this sense, proposed immigration reform legislation, with its punitive, costly path to citizenship and further militarization, will make the border more of what it has always been: a vast private-public partnership. 

In the last two decades, federal trade, farm and immigration policy has been combined to create a three-tiered, nested market: free and common for capital; protected for US agriculture; divided and garrisoned for labor. Mexico can stay competitive with the United States only by keeping its hourly pay brutally low—a fifth lower than China’s. Wages are worse in Central America, which now has its own free trade treaty with Washington. South of the border, the price of US-imported and subsidized corn hovers in what might be called the Cargill sweet spot: high enough to generate widespread hunger, but not so high that local farmers can compete. In Mexico and Central America, an ever-greater percentage of the corn that is planted, along with sugar and African palm, is directed to produce biofuels, the demand for which is kept artificially high by yet more Washington subsidies, which further raises the cost of local food, accelerates rural dislocation and spurs migration. Meanwhile, the more militarized the border, the more fearful those workers who do make it across are of being deported and forced to cross again—a vulnerability that puts sustained downward pressure on wages in the United States, not just among undocumented workers but throughout the whole low-skill labor sector. 

* * *

The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps no longer exists, having splintered into a number of smaller vigilante and militia groups. Shapira hints that one of its problems was that the emasculation that many of its rank-and-file volunteers felt in society at large was replicated within the corps itself. Under close watch by groups like the ACLU, infiltrated by undercover reporters, and looking to avoid the kind of criticism that was directed at earlier rancher-vigilantes, the MCDC established strict rules as to what patrollers could do if they encountered migrants. They couldn’t pursue or apprehend them. They couldn’t even, on orders from the Border Patrol, “light them up”—that is, track their targets with bright floodlights. 

On the off chance that the volunteers were to spot a “José” or “María,” all they could do was call in the sighting and wait for the feds to show up. Shapira reports general grousing about these restraints. Others, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, say the group gave up its corporate status because it didn’t want to be legally responsible for the “actions of its fired-up volunteers,” many of whom apparently were tired of the rules and wanted to get back to the days of hunting, capturing and tying up migrants by the dozens. Just a year before the breakup, members of a rogue Minuteman unit broke into the home of a Latino family in southern Arizona, killing a man and his 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia Flores, and badly wounding his wife. (More recently, one of the original founders of the Minutemen, Chris Simcox, featured prominently in Shapira’s book, was arrested for sexually assaulting three girls under the age of 10.)

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Last year, the number of people crossing into the United States from Mexico without a visa dropped significantly, largely due to the United States’ poor economy. The number of known total desert deaths, however, rose—from 375 in 2011 to 447 in 2012, up 27 percent. Yet border militarization remains a racket, directing billions of federal dollars to the defense industry and private contractors, like the Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group, which are in charge of incarcerating and expelling migrants. If it should become law, the Senate’s immigration bill will spend $46 billion on border security, on top of the $18 billion already budgeted annually for immigration enforcement. According to The New York Times, with the wind-down in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense contractors like Lockheed Martin are betting on a “military-style buildup at the border zone,” hoping to supply helicopters, heat-seeking cameras, radiation detectors, virtual fences, watchtowers, ships and military-grade radar. Senator Patrick Leahy has called one Republican proposal “a Christmas wish list for Halliburton.” Ten Predator drones already patrol the skies, and defense lobbyists are pushing for more. The Times also describes a prototype ground sensor linked to a command center in Tucson that apparently resembles the set of Steven Spielberg’s science fiction film Minority Report. Maybe the border still is the future: the highest tech used to secure the lowest wages.

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