Migrants die and disappear in staggeringly high numbers along the U.S.-Mexico border, as Washington over the years has shut down relatively safe, traditional urban entry points, forcing border crossers into hostile desert terrain. Migrants also sustain severe life-threatening or crippling injuries. They fall into mine shafts and break their backs. Dehydration damages their kidneys. Others are bitten by snakes or injured in chases. The tall metal fences that run as barriers along segments of the border also serve as weapons. Migrants sever limbs climbing the barriers and break bones falling off them.
“Border-related trauma is so common,” anthropologist Ieva Jusionyte writes, “that it has become normalized.”
First responders who work the borderlands around Nogales, Arizona, told Jusionyte that they believe the sheet-metal border fence that used to separate Nogales from its Mexican sister-city was intentionally designed to sever body parts. Border crossers, one Nogales firefighter said, regularly used to get their fingers cut off. That fence was replaced in 2011, but the new high bollard-style fence, 20 or 30 feet high in places, frequently causes broken bones when migrants fall from it.
In recent months, Border Patrol agents and federal troops have festooned long stretches of the border fence with razor wire, including in Nogales. “That wire is lethal, and I really don’t know what they’re thinking by putting it all the way down to the ground,” Nogales’s mayor complained. Now, six coils of concertina wire cover the fence like vines, facing a residential neighborhood, onto a street that serves as a route for school buses. Every weekday, the city’s children look out and can imagine that they are living inside a concentration camp. More than two years into the administration of Donald Trump, such gratuitous displays of cruelty are common, working to wear down on the nation’s moral sensibility.
But the use of border barriers to inflict pain, in the hope that news of injuries and deaths will serve as a deterrent to other would-be migrants, long predates the Trump presidency. The idea reaches back at least to the 1970s, to the presidency of Jimmy Carter, when the U.S. began to turn its attention away from Vietnam toward its southern border. A weaponized fence is a feature, not a bug, of federal policy.
In 1978, Carter’s Immigration and Naturalization Service requested, and Congress approved, $4.3 million to build a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border. The plan was to quietly replace some 27 miles of existing slack, rusted chain-link around the ports of entry in San Ysidro, California, and El Paso, Texas, and then add a new fence along an additional 6 miles of border.
After consulting with the U.S. Army, the INS hired Potomac Research, a Virginia firm, to design the new barrier and then signed a $2 million federal contract with Houston-based Anchor Post Products to build the fence. The Carter administration had inherited the project from Richard Nixon, who was the first president to propose building some kind of barrier along the entire 2,000-mile border.
The project moved forward largely ignored by the press until October 1978. That month, a big-mouthed manager from Anchor Post named George Norris told a reporter that the “razor-sharp wall” was designed to be bloody, built with “punched-out metal that would leave edges sharp enough to cut off the toes of barefoot climbers.” Norris said that his company had double-checked with the engineers at Potomac Research whether they “wanted the metal deburred (filed) when we first got the job.” The engineers, according to Norris, said no. Leave it sharp, they instructed, as “part of the deterrent.” The cut metal was meant to sever body parts, Norris said; a climber would “leave his toe permanently embedded in it.”
The remarks were picked up by Mexican dailies. As outrage spread, representatives from the INS and Potomac Research issued denials. “Nobody in the INS ever told anyone to design a fence that would hurt people,” said one of Potomac Research’s engineers. “We were told explicitly that there could be no barbed wire. No barbed tape, no electrification.” But, Carter’s head of the INS, Leonardo Castillo, admitted, the proposed “steel latticework” did appear “sharper than it was intended to be.”
Carter, who would soon visit Mexico City, was caught off guard, telling a reporter that he didn’t know anything about the fence and that “any sort of fencing device that would injure people is certainly contrary to my own inclinations.” The “Tortilla Curtain,” as the scandal was soon dubbed, was condemned by Mexican politicians as an assault on national “dignity.” Mexico’s president, José López Portillo, claimed that he first learned of the fence from press reports, calling the matter “serious, very serious” and criticizing efforts to “form walls of separation in the world.”
“No more walls,” López Portillo said.
López Portillo was right to fear a new era of geopolitical barrier-building. A quick survey of State Department cables from the time reveal walls and fences going up in many places — along borders in South Africa, India, Israel, and Northern Ireland — with much diplomatic energy spent on figuring out how to justify them according to the principles of international law.
The Border Lobby
There existed, in the mid-1970s, a number of domestic constituencies in the United States pushing for more stringent border control, of the kind that a razor-sharp border fence might provide.
One was the INS itself, which around 1973 had become more vocal in lobbying Congress and the public to expand its power. The service was notoriously corrupt, involved in many of the illicit moneymaking operations associated with border crossing, including migrant, drug, and sex trafficking. Operation Clean Sweep, established by Nixon’s Justice Department in 1972, investigated hundreds of agents, revealing widespread Border Patrol and INS involvement in selling immigration documents, smuggling migrants, and running drugs. Agents also arranged visits to Mexican brothels for U.S. judges and congressmen, and then used knowledge of such visits as kompromat to secure favorable rulings and votes.
Operation Clean Sweep might have done to Border Patrol and the INS what the Church Committee, later in the 1970s, did to the CIA and FBI: reveal to the public rogue operations engaged in widespread, systemic abuse. It didn’t. The inquiry was sidelined when, as reported by New York Times’s John Crewdson, it turned up damaging information on Rep. Peter Rodino. An INS official — described by an informant as the service’s “chief pimp” whose job was to get U.S. officials “laid” in Mexico — had reportedly arranged for Rodino to visit a Juárez brothel. A New Jersey Democrat, Rodino was, as Crewdson wrote, too powerful a figure to bring down. He not only chaired the House Judiciary Committee, which oversaw the INS, but was in charge of the impeachment vote against Nixon.
Nixon resigned in April 1974, and Clean Sweep was shut down for good. Hundreds of agents had been investigated for “every federal crime,” as its lead investigator, Alan Murray, put it, “except bank robbery.” Few were indicted.
Rather than facing constraints on their activities — as the CIA and FBI soon would — Border Patrol and the INS’s power only increased. Their budgets and staff grew and new laws were passed giving them even more enforcement authority, and giving corrupt agents what in effect was a federally funded monopoly advantage as they competed with Mexican criminals over the routes used to traffic migrants and drugs.
A second constituency for border militarization came from Vietnam-era research-and-development firms. Founded in 1966, Potomac Research, the designer of the controversial fence, was one of many companies looking to keep signing federal contracts in the wake of the Vietnam drawdown. “War technology is Americanized,” wrote David Rorvik in Playboy in 1974, of the move to use Vietnam weapons and surveillance equipment for domestic policing. Sylvania Electronics successfully pushed for its ground sensors — developed as part of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s multibillion dollar project to build a physical and electronic fence separating North from South Vietnam — to be used on the border. “Vietnam’s $3250 million automated battlefield is coming home to America, the land where it was conceived,” wrote New Scientist in 1972; “Smugglers on the US/Mexican border are treading softly these days, now that the US Board Patrol (an arm of the Justice Department) has adopted the same anti-infiltration barrier used by the military to detect troop and truck movements on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.”
A third group that wanted less Mexican migration was organized labor, including both the AFL-CIO and the United Farm Workers, since it applied downward pressure on wages. For its part, the UFW — largely unprotected by New Deal labor laws guaranteeing the right to form unions — feared the use of undocumented workers as strikebreakers. For about three months in 1975, writes Frank Bardacke, in “Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers,” an extralegal “UFW Border Patrol” — comprised of between 35 and 300 people paid $10 a day — “hunted illegals” near Yuma, Arizona, with federal Border Patrol agents and local police officers happy to turn migrant interdiction into an intra-racial conflict.
And elected politicians, both law-and-order Republicans and reform Democrats allied with organized labor, supported increased border control. In 1978, the “unreconstructed” New York City liberal, James Scheuer (who, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez today, represented the Bronx and Queens) called for a “firm, hard sealing” of the border (it was around this time that the verb “to seal” — a phrase usually applied to more militarized, war-ravaged border zones, like the one that separated Israel from Gaza or West from East Berlin — began to be applied to the U.S.-Mexico border). Earlier, in 1964, Democrats pushed for the end of the guest-worker Bracero Program and, in 1965, for an unrealistically low quota on the number of visas available to Mexico. And in 1974, none other than Rodino, working with Sen. Edward Kennedy, sponsored legislation that would have made it illegal to hire undocumented migrants. The bill passed in the House, 336-30, but lost in the Senate.
By 1978, no one wanted the controversy sparked by Norris’s confession that the fence was meant to maim. But the idea of a fence itself was uncontroversial. “The new fences would be no more of a symbol of exclusion,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, “than are the present barriers.”
Cheap Labor and Cheap Oil
The weaponized fence was one complaint that López Portillo, the Mexican president, presented to Carter, when Carter landed in Mexico City on February 14, 1979. Another had to do with oil.
Two momentous events preceded Carter’s visit. First came the confirmation, in early 1977, that Mexico possessed much more petroleum, in vast onshore and offshore fields, than had heretofore been realized. Then, on January 16, 1979, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled Iran, marking the triumph of that country’s Islamic Revolution.
Washington already had been pushing Mexico, before the Shah’s downfall, to make up for the falling supply of Persian Gulf oil. An alliance with the Shah was key to Washington’s post-Vietnam pivot: Iran’s ample supply of crude mitigated the worst effects of the ongoing energy crisis, with the country’s petrodollars either deposited in New York banks or spent lavishly on U.S. weapons. In response to the crisis in Iran, which led to a drop in the nation’s oil exports, the Carter administration began pressuring Mexico in late 1978 to sell its fuel to the U.S. at below global market price. Mexico refused.
Then — just a few days before the story of the border fence’s “razor-sharp” design broke in the press — the White House voided a deal to buy Mexican natural gas. The move was meant to force Mexico to reconsider the asking price for its oil. With a pipeline to the U.S. half-finished, where else was the country going to sell its gas? Mexico was left “hanging like a paintbrush,” López Portillo said.
Mexico wasn’t a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. And its oligarchy and security forces were brutal to their own people. But its political elite were heirs to the economic nationalism of the Mexican Revolution. López Portillo was something like the Hugo Chávez of his decade, though more mannered: Petroleum, he said, was the “patrimony” of all of humanity, and its profits should be used to finance the development of “a more just international order.”
Access to cheap fuel and cheap labor are the two elements absolutely essential to the functioning of global capitalism, though they aren’t often linked together in discussions of foreign policy. López Portillo though, in response to Washington’s demand that Mexico serve as its private oil spigot, repeatedly — in discussions with China and Japan, even in sidebar talks with California’s governor, Jerry Brown — emphasized the connection between energy and migration. Mexico’s untapped oil reserves, he said, would help the country “enter the coming century as a country that offers full employment to its people. We either do that, or we risk a full financial failure and suffer the humiliation of becoming a country of wetbacks.”
Other Mexican policy and opinion-makers made similar connections between petroleum production and migration. One columnist warned of “big trouble along the border” were Mexico to capitulate to Washington and sell its fuel at below global market value. Economic inequality between the two countries would only grow worse, he said, predicting that by the year 2000, “Mexicans will flow into the U.S. at the rate of 5 million a year, instead of the 1 million a year now.” “Mexico will eat its gas,” said a Mexico City banker, “before it will sell it at less than $2.60” — then the going global rate.
And so Carter landed in Mexico City on Valentine’s Day to a cold welcome. The airport reception was cordial but brief, with López Portillo using his lunchtime remarks to lecture his U.S. counterpart. Referring to the borderlands as “scars,” López Portillo complained of Washington’s “sudden deception” and “abuse,” warning that manipulative policies on the part of the United States would only worsen the “silent migration” and deepen resentment and fear on both sides of the border.
Newspapers reported that Carter was “stung” by the criticisms, to which he responded with a joke that didn’t go over well: He said he first started jogging during an earlier visit to Mexico City, when he “discovered I was afflicted with Montezuma’s revenge.”
Terrorizing the Borderlands
Carter’s fence fiasco receded from public attention, after his administration promised a scaled-down, humane design. But the controversy, along with diplomatic tensions over energy policy, signaled a major realignment of politics on both sides of the border.
In the United States, the rising Chicano movement broke with the anti-immigrant position of both the United Farm Workers and the middle-class League of United Latin American Citizens (which earlier had supported Operation Wetback, as Border Patrol’s mass deportation campaign of the 1950s was called). Activists mobilized against the fence, and then against INS raids in East Los Angeles, describing them as a form of domestic terrorism. One INS officials admitted that the “symbolic content” of the green uniform worn by Border Patrol agents “is very high, sort of like showing a swastika in a synagogue.” Soon, both the United Farm Workers and LULAC (followed years later by the AFL) reversed their positions and began advocating on behalf of undocumented migrants.
The fence scandal likewise marked the growing importance of Mexican migration to domestic electoral politics.
For instance, Sen. Ted Kennedy, in April 1980 shortly after announcing that he would challenge Carter for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, flew to Mexico City to meet with López Portillo. Kennedy had a few years earlier backed legislation meant to crack down on the hiring of undocumented workers. Now, in Mexico City, he criticized Carter’s “unilateral” approach to border security and said that he favored an “amnesty” to legalize the status of undocumented residents in the United States. There was, the Massachusetts senator believed, a “growing consensus” within his country for such a solution. “Electric fences,” he said, are not the answer.
Ronald Reagan, shortly after securing the Republican nomination, also jumped on both the fence controversy and the energy crisis. “You don’t build a 9-foot fence along the border between two friendly nations,” he said on a campaign swing through Texas in September 1980. “You document the undocumented workers and let them come in here with a visa,” he continued, and let them stay “for whatever length of time they want to stay.” Reagan quickly gave up the idea, careful as he was, to thread between the business and nativist wings of the Republican Party. But he also, in response to the United States’s energy dispute with Mexico, put forward the first real proposal for what would evolve into the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The details of Reagan’s “North American Accord” were fuzzy, and the final NAFTA treaty, as negotiated by Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush and signed, in late 1993, into law by Bill Clinton, didn’t include, as Reagan had suggested, the integration of Mexican, U.S., and Canadian fuel markets. The agreement focused mostly on non-energy-related trade and investment. But in the decades following ratification, Washington steadily pushed to break the Mexican government’s monopoly on oil and gas production. That push was eventually successful, with Mexico’s Congress passing legislation in 2014 to open up its energy sector to U.S. corporations, a move which hastened the worldwide decline of energy prices.
The cost of labor, too, remains cheap. Back in 1978, the country’s “Roma”-era business elites, in contrast to the public indignation voiced by Mexico’s politicians, privately told U.S. diplomats that they supported the idea of a border fence, so long as it was put up without fanfare. A hardened border, they hoped, would keep their labor costs down. And so after López Portillo, Mexican presidents gave up the idea of creating a more just international order and instead promoted the opening of its economy, while at the same time, largely going along with Washington’s hardening of its border policy.
NAFTA freed investment and commodities, allowing them to cross borders at will. But the treaty didn’t grant the same freedom to workers. In fact, the opposite occurred. Continued militarization of the border — including the expansion of sharp-edged sheet-metal border fences that did sever body parts — limited the range of movement allowed to Mexican workers, ensuring that Mexico’s comparative advantage for the U.S. economy — low wages — remained intact.
Mexican wages today are among the lowest in the world, significantly lower than, for example, in China.
Meanwhile, after the “Tortilla Curtain” controversy died down, the border fence continued to expand, including, in the 1990s, using the Army Corp of Engineers to build 60 miles of fence out of old surplus steel landing pads that the military had used to land Hercules cargo planes and Huey helicopters in Vietnam. The pads included an “anti-climb guard” that regularly severed the fingers of migrants.
Those pads are now considered obsolete, though many are still in place in California, New Mexico, and Arizona. And U.S. border policy is weaponized beyond anything imaginable to 1970s-era engineers. In the last months of Barack Obama’s presidency, the migrants’ rights organizations, No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos, produced a series of harrowing reports examining how Border Patrol “treats the borderlands as a low-intensity war zone where federal agents commit violence with impunity.”
Border patrollers often violently tackle nonresisting migrants and beat those they catch, gratuitously destroying sources of drinking water and denying humanitarian aid. “Habitual acts of cruelty by agents are entirely consistent with the logic and objectives of deterrence,” one of the reports states, “which are premised on amplifying the risks and harms inflicted on border crossers in order to deter future crossing attempts.” Agents regularly use helicopters and terrain vehicles to scatter border crossers, chasing them over cliffs, into fast-flowing rivers, or deeper into the desert. Many, as a result, die from exhaustion of dehydration or simply disappear: The borderlands have “been transformed into a vast graveyard of the missing.”