On a brisk autumn day, agents patrolling the US-Mexico border near Mexicali caught Trinidad Hernández Iglesias, a coyote, or human trafficker, who had been sneaking people across the line. At the time, Iglesias had been a target for the patrol for about four years, and his capture was an enormous victory. Over the years, he had sold a number of fraudulent American documents to Mexican citizens who had paid him to help them navigate the difficult environment of the borderlands and help them cross the border in one piece. He assured them that with his documents they would be able enter the United States as American citizens and safely “get through the fence at the international border.”1 After his capture, newspapers in Mexico covered the story, noting that the sixty-five-year-old coyote had been a well-known smuggler with “notable ingenuity and charisma.”2 Originally from Jalpa, Zacatecas, a town far to the interior of Mexico, Iglesias had moved north, learned what it took to cross the border, and then made a business out of smuggling people across it. Although he only confessed to smuggling six people into the United States, reporters had reason to believe Iglesias had sold documents and helped “many others that had entered the [United States].”3 In spite of the many people successfully smuggled by Iglesias and other coyotes, it is well known that migrants have not always made it across the line. Many cannot afford the fraudulent documents or the help of a guide like Iglesias, so they have made the journey on their own—a journey that, too often, ends fatally. Just one year before officials caught Iglesias, border agents found the body of a young boy named Nino Héctor Martínez along with the body of an unidentified Mexican woman at the Texas-Mexico line. Martínez had been trying to get across the dangerous Rio Grande with his father when something went wrong and he drowned. It is not clear whether the woman crossing the border knew Martínez and his father or not, but these two casualties—the woman and the boy—are just two among many who have died traversing the dangerous terrain along the US-Mexico divide. These two incidents, Iglesias’s arrest and the deaths of the Mexican woman and boy, took place in 1950 and 1951, and yet they could have appeared in the newspaper this morning. Surreptitious crossing and death are nothing new along the US-Mexico boundary. They are continuous realities despite dramatic changes over the course of the last century. Once an open range, the border landscape has morphed into a series of fences, checkpoints, watchtowers, stadium lighting, and other infrastructure for policing. This growing technological management of the border has been accompanied by US immigration policies that have become more exclusionary over time, from Chinese exclusion in the 1880s to the National Origins Act in 1924 that limited the number of immigrants who could enter the United States from the Eastern Hemisphere, to the Immigration Act of 1965 that set limits for nations across the globe, to an attempted ban on Muslims in 2017. Change at the border, in other words, has mirrored the growing exclusionary policies enacted at the federal level. In spite of the massive changes made to border infrastructure, migration across the line persists, making the borderlands a place of both change and continuity. Continuing a long trend of building up the border, Donald J. Trump proposed in June 2017 to build a solar wall along the length of the Mexican border. His planned wall has been both praised and criticized by environmentalists. Those in favor of it argue that it could help alleviate the rising need for clean energy and thus ultimately help fight climate change.4 Those who oppose it note that the clean energy it might produce will not outweigh the damage it will do to the important natural ecosystems along the border.5 However, few, if any, of the articles about the environmental impacts of this fence discuss the ways in which it would continue to force human migrants to pay coyotes like Iglesias to help them or else try to cross dangerous landscapes that threaten their lives. In the context of this larger history of construction at the border, past and present building projects provide an opportunity to look to history to understand potential outcomes of Trump’s proposed wall: put simply, history tells us that it will not work and that it will do more damage than good. This latest fence proposal, though, the one that promises to provide clean energy while also handling the so-called immigration problems in the United States, also exposes a central, long-standing, and hidden tension between border fence construction and environmental manipulation. In every phase of construction, arguments for environmental control have consistently worked to the detriment of human migrants, hardened racial divisions, and reinforced social hierarchies. In other words, the tension between racialized exclusion and efforts at environmental control are nothing new. The first construction projects at the border had little to do with human migration but were, at their core, attempts to control the natural environment. In 1906 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversaw a massive eradication campaign for a tick that had caused hundreds of cattle in the northern grazing lands of the United States to become sick and die. After pushing the tick south for several years, the USDA set up quarantine stations at the US-Mexico border to screen, disinfect, and quarantine cattle to avoid the tick’s reentry. The cumbersome policies created significant controversy among cattle ranchers in the United States whose cattle wandered into Mexico. Because the USDA forced these cowboys to comply with the same quarantine measures as Mexican ranchers who wanted to export their cattle to the United States, American ranchers began to describe and conceive of “Mexican cattle” as filthy and diseased in contradistinction to their “American cattle.” American cattle, they argued, should not have to go through the same quarantine measures as Mexican cattle, even if they wandered south of the border. Put succinctly, the ranchers’ frustration with the quarantine measure created a powerful discourse about race at the border, even if humans were not those being racialized.6 This controversy also resulted in the first federally funded border fence, constructed in 1911. Environmental concern and control, then, provided a fertile context for hardening racial categories along the US-Mexico border. With new protocol for the movement of cattle, ranchers created a discourse about Mexican animals and bugs as diseased and dangerous. To control those menaces, the USDA built fences and checkpoints along the border to search for and eradicate those threats. Later, US citizens and government officials adopted and applied earlier discourses about bugs and animals to human beings. 7 By the middle of the twentieth century, it was the Mexican human body that became the invasive pest, and fences became one of many tools for changing the nature of human migration. Figure 1. View largeDownload slide “Keeping Daily Guard over the Border” shows a Bureau of Animal Industry patrolman searching for itinerant cattle circa 1949. Source: ASI Archives coll. 178, Border Patrol Pictures, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, Maryland. Figure 1. View largeDownload slide “Keeping Daily Guard over the Border” shows a Bureau of Animal Industry patrolman searching for itinerant cattle circa 1949. Source: ASI Archives coll. 178, Border Patrol Pictures, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, Maryland. The Bracero Program, a guest-worker program that facilitated the migration of Mexican workers into the United States as short-term contract laborers from 1942 to 1964, transformed the border from a place that had been relatively open to Mexican migrants to one that was increasingly closed to them. Many scholars argue that the program ultimately created two streams of migrants: one sanctioned (young healthy men who became braceros) and one unsanctioned (any person who did not qualify for the program but tried to cross the border anyway).8 South of the border, Mexican officials and landowners worried that a mass exodus of laborers would deplete the labor force and damage the economy.9 North of the border, Americans feared a virtual Mexican takeover. In January 1954, William F. Kelly, the assistant commissioner for the US Border Patrol described the influx of Mexican workers as “the growth of a social fungus that infects any who come in contact with it.” Mexican immigration, he said, was “the greatest peacetime invasion ever complacently suffered by any country.”10 Concerns north and south of the border led both Mexican and American officials to increase patrols along the US-Mexico border and look to other ways to curb unsanctioned migration. By the late 1940s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, overseen by the US Department of Justice, built the first fences along the boundary meant to control human migration. Fences previously used for cattle became tools used to control and herd humans. Since then, fences have evolved from barbed wire to chain link, then to wire mesh, large metal landing strips, and large steel bollards erupting out of the ground.11 Figure 2. View largeDownload slide “Border Patrol Agent Demonstrating how people can slip through the barbed wire, east of Nogales, Arizona (1947).” Source: Folder 56084/946, Record Group 85: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC. Figure 2. View largeDownload slide “Border Patrol Agent Demonstrating how people can slip through the barbed wire, east of Nogales, Arizona (1947).” Source: Folder 56084/946, Record Group 85: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC. In the postwar era, fences meant to stop human migration continued to be linked to earlier environmental concerns about impurity. Racialized ideas about invasive and diseased Latino immigrants continued to raise concerns across the United States, and just one year after the Bracero Program’s end in 1964, Congress passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that placed the very first numerical cap on the number of people who could enter the United States from the Western Hemisphere. That cap did little, if anything, to stop migration from south to north though, so the United States built even more fences to help curb human movement. At the same time that Congress worked to place this cap on migration, a burgeoning environmental movement began making seminal contributions to rhetoric about restricting immigration. In 1968 the Sierra Club published Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb that essentially argued too many people in the United States would place unsustainable demands on US resources.12 In the years following the publication, John Tanton, a staunch supporter of immigration restriction in the name of environmental sustainability, chaired the club.13 These views, coming from such an influential environmental organization, reframed the environmental debate from one that pitted humankind against nature to one that pitted immigrants and their migration as the antithesis to a sustainable environment. Through the 1980s, 1990s, and into the twenty-first century, this immigrant versus nature narrative continued to permeate environmental debate in the US-Mexico borderlands. In southern Arizona, this became particularly evident in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a wilderness area that hosts “a thriving community of plants and animals.”14 The monument, designated as such in 1937, deemed an international Biosphere Preserve in 1976, and then given official wilderness status in 1978, was a place of increasing concern for environmentalists.15 As early as the 1940s, the National Parks Service (NPS) had worked with other US agencies to block access to the land in the name of conservation, specifically to keep cattle from wandering into the monument.16 But as fences and other structures sprouted all along the US-Mexico border, the NPS saw an increase in the number of human migrants funneled through parts of the monument’s 500 square miles of fragile desert ecosystems to make the trek. By the early 2000s, concerns about the ecological health of the monument and debates about national security and immigration were inextricably linked. One so-called green activist organization, Desert Invasion, held tightly to the immigrant versus nature rhetoric seen in earlier Sierra Club publications. “Our Fragile National Monuments, National Wildlife Refuges, and National Forests along the U.S. Southern Border,” its website reads, “are being annihilated—not by natural forces or by unwitting tourists, but instead by an overwhelming number of illegal aliens.”17 The environment became central to some arguments for building up the border to stop people who walked through the desert landscape, stomping over vegetation and leaving garbage in their wake. A study from 2007 concluded that at that time, an average of fifteen hundred migrants passed through the Arizona-Sonora border daily, each leaving roughly 9 pounds of waste behind them. The study thus alleged that migrants left 13,500 pounds of garbage per day in the Arizona-Sonora region alone.18 Moreover, that study claimed that shifting migrant patterns had severely impacted vegetation growth. The limited growth increased erosion and changed runoff pathways for rainwater. Finally, it pointed out that increased human presence also disrupted animal life and likely put endangered species at risk of being killed for human consumption.19 In short, migration through the monument was destroying it, but fences could help funnel traffic elsewhere. On the other side of the debate, organizations like The Nature Conservancy fought hard against fence construction and, by 2009, they had challenged the Department of Homeland Security in a legal case, arguing that fence construction would destroy habitats.20 In South Texas, for example, the endangered ocelot could be cut off from vital resources and become locally extinct. Curiously absent from articles covering this debate, though, was a concern for those human lives that would be funneled to more dangerous environments. Built structures along the border have created a hybrid landscape of built and natural environments that have killed thousands of people crossing the border. Fences funnel migrants to deserts, mountains, and rivers where they are forced to fight the harsh elements of those areas. In the Arizona-Sonora desert, the area where Organ Pipe National Monument is located, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner reported a stark rise in the number of deaths between 1990 and 2005.21 Those deaths continue.22 Whether for or against fence construction, mainstream environmental discourse about border fortification has ignored these human realities and dimensions of border policing and control. In doing so, it has reinforced racial and social hierarchies in the United States. In some instances, arguing for fence construction to save the environment fuels ongoing racialized forms of social exclusion by pushing migrants through deathscapes, where they die from exposure or drown, just as Nino Héctor Martínez did. Those who seek smugglers like Iglesias to help them also risk losing their lives. In July 2017, for instance, up to two hundred people were packed into a tractor-trailer after being smuggled across the border and driven to San Antonio, Texas. Ten of them died of heat exhaustion and thirty others were hospitalized, illustrating “the extremes that people will go to sneak into the United States.”23 In cases where environmentalists argue that fence construction is destroying critical habitats for animals, the lack of acknowledgment of human suffering and death in the borderlands reinforces the enduring notion in the United States that immigrant bodies are expendable, and it raises questions about the value of animal and plant life versus the value of an immigrant life. It also reifies the false dichotomy between nature and culture, ignoring the vast web of socioecological connections in the borderlands because projects of environmental control tend to separate nature from human realities. Rather than approaching the humanitarian crisis and the environmental crisis as one complex web of concerns, policymakers continue to view them as divorced from one another. Examining the history of environmental control and border fortification exposes the dangers of single-minded approaches to issues related to the environment. Thinking about preserving the flora and fauna of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument or other borderlands habitats, albeit a noble and important effort, is as seductive as it is destructive when it comes to the preservation of human life and dignity. A historical analysis of these issues reveals that the tension between race and environment at the border is nothing new. Change and continuity at the border has always been deeply entangled with environmental issues, and the current political climate suggests that both the environment and the plight of the immigrant will continue to be important issues to consider, but together, not apart. Environmental work must consider who is bearing the burden of efforts at conservation, which is often much more complicated than it seems on the surface. Mary E. Mendozais an assistant professor of history and critical race and ethnic studies at the University of Vermont. She received her PhD from the University of California, Davis, in 2015. Her research focuses on the intersections between environmental and borderlands history and has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Huntington Library. Notes The author would like to thank Lisa Brady, John A. Glover, Kate Johnston, Kathryn Morse, Traci Brynne Voyles, and anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments and feedback on this essay. 1. Los Agentes del servicio de Migracion Fausto Garcia de Alba y Ruben C. Gonzalez to el Jefe del Servicio de Poblacion, March 27, 1951, Mexicali, BC, Expediente 4-350-1940-295A, Archivo Historico Nacional de Migracion, Mexico City, Mexico (hereafter AHINM). 2. Newspaper clipping (newspaper unknown), “Alquilaba Documentos Para Pasar a los EU,” Matamoros, 1951. Expediente 4-350-1940-295A, AHINM. 3. Manuel Aguilar, Director General to Secretaria de Gobernacion, Sub: Hector Martinez, February 22, 1950. Expediente 4-357-1-1950-7527, AHINM. 4. Futurism: Earth and Energy, “Donald Trump Proposes Covering Mexican Border Wall with Solar Panels,” accessed July 5, 2017, https://futurism.com/donald-trump-proposes-covering-mexican-border-wall-with-solar-panels/. 5. Popular Science, “A Border Wall Made of Solar Panels Wouldn’t Actually Be Good for the Environment,” accessed July 5, 2017, last modified June 23, 2107, http://www.popsci.com/border-wall-solar-panels. 6. Mary E. Mendoza, “Fencing the Line: Race, Environment, and the Changing Visual Landscape at the U.S.-Mexico Divide,” in Border Spaces: Visualizing the U.S.–Mexico Frontera, ed. Katherine G. Morrissey and John-Michael H. Warner (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018). 7. For more on quarantine and public health for human migrants and animals, see Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation (Oakland: University of California Press, 2005); Alexandra Minna Stern, “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood: Medicalization and Nation-Building on the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1910–1930,” Hispanic American Historical Review 79, no. 1 (February 1999): 41–81; John Mckiernan-González, Fevered Measures: Public Health and Race at the Texas-Mexico Border, 1848–1942 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012); Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 (Oakland: University of California Press, 2006); Natalia Molina, “Medicalizing the Mexican: Immigration, Race, and Disability in the Early Twentieth Century United States,” Radical History Review 94 (Winter 2006), 22–37; Natalia Molina, “Borders, Laborers, and Racialized Medicalization: Mexican Immigration and US Public Health Policy in the Twentieth Century,” American Journal of Public Health 101, no. 6 (June 2011): 1024–31; Manuel A. Machado Jr., Aftosa: A Historical Survey of Foot-and-Mouth Disease and Inter-American Relations (Albany: State University of Albany Press, 1969); J. I. Saloma, La profilaxis de tuberculosis en México (Mexico: Distrito Federal, 1908), Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin. 8. For more on the Bracero Program, see Kelly Lytle Hernández, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); Kitty Calavita, Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the I.N.S. (New York: Routledge, 1992); Deborah Cohen, Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Peter Andreas, Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009); Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); Lori Flores, Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); Mireya Loza, Defiant Braceros: How Migrant Workers Fought for Racial, Sexual, and Political Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); and Linda Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). 9. Kelly Lytle Hernández, “The Crimes and Consequences of Illegal Immigration: A Cross-Border Examination of Operation Wetback, 1943–1954,” Western Historical Quarterly 37, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 421–44. 10. William F. Kelly, Assistant Commissioner, Border Patrol, Detention and Deportation Division, “The Wetback Issue,” The I&N Reporter 2, no. 3 (January 1954), INS Historical Library, Washington, DC. 11. Mary E. Mendoza. “Unnatural Border: Race and Environment at the U.S.-Mexico Divide” (PhD diss., University of California, Davis, 2015). 12. Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Sierra Club Ballantine Books, 1968). 13. Brentin Mock, “How the Sierra Club Learned to Love Immigration: A Racist Fringe of the Nation’s Oldest and Largest Environmental Group Lost Its Battle Over Immigration. A Look Inside the Power Struggle,” accessed June 30, 2017, last modified May 8, 2013, http://www.colorlines.com/articles/how-sierra-club-learned-love-immigration. 14. National Parks Service, “Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona,” accessed July 12, 2017, last modified September 1, 2016, https://www.nps.gov/orpi/index.htm. 15. For a fabulous analysis of anti-immigrant rhetoric and environmentalism at Organ Pipe, see Chapter 3 of Sarah Jaquette Ray, The Ecological Other: Environmental Exclusion in American Culture (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013). 16. For a fantastic overview of the National Park Service and Border Control in the early years of Organ Pipe National Monument, see Jessica Piekielek, “Creating a Park, Building a Border: The Establishment of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Solidification of the U.S.-Mexico Border,” Journal of the Southwest 58, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 1–28. 17. Desert Invasion-U.S. Homepage, accessed July 23, 2017, http://www.desertinvasion.us. 18. Paul Ganster, “Environmental Protection and U.S.-Mexican Border Security: The Border Fence Issue in Context,” in A Barrier to Our Shared Environment: The Border Fence Between the United States and Mexico, ed. Ana Cordova and Carlos A. de la Parra (Mexico, D.F.: Instituto Nacional Ecologico, 2007), 36. 19. Ganster, “Environmental Protection,” 5. 20. John Burnett, “Nature Conservancy Fights Planned Border Fence,” National Public Radio, accessed July 24, 2017, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99882066. 21. Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, M. Melissa McCormick, Daniel Martinez, and Inez Magdalena Duarte, The “Funnel Effect” & Recovered Bodies of Unauthorized Migrants Processed by the Pima Country Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990–2005 (Tucson: Binational Migration Institute, 2006), 2–3. 22. Manny Fernandez, “A Path to America, Marked by More and More Bodies,” New York Times, May 4, 2017, accessed June 30, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/05/04/us/texas-border-migrants-dead-bodies.html. 23. Manny Fernandez, Richard Pérez-Peña, and David Montgomery, “In San Antonio Smuggling Case, a Fatal Journey in a Packed and Sweltering Truck,” New York Times, accessed July 24, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/24/us/san-antonio-truck-trafficking.html. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
It’s your single place to instantly
discover and read the research
that matters to you.
Enjoy affordable access to
over 18 million articles from more than
15,000 peer-reviewed journals.
All for just $49/month
Query the DeepDyve database, plus search all of PubMed and Google Scholar seamlessly
Save any article or search result from DeepDyve, PubMed, and Google Scholar... all in one place.
All the latest content is available, no embargo periods.
“Whoa! It’s like Spotify but for academic articles.”@Phil_Robichaud