Border Vigilantes and Mass Migration

Vigilantism along the U.S.-Mexico border, which dates back to the U.S. conquest of Mexico, refuses to die.  The latest vigilante group, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, claims 15,000 volunteers willing to patrol the border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.  During April, the group staged a border watch in southern Arizona to stop illegal immigrants from crossing into the U.S., and Chris Simcox, a Minuteman spokesman, recently announced that his group was finalizing plans to operate in Texas later this year.  Governor Schwarzenegger publicly praised their activities and made it clear that he would not oppose the group operating in California. 

In spite of the handguns strapped to their sides and their militant rhetoric, it would be hard for anyone who saw the vigilantes, lounging in lawn chairs in the backs of their luxury pickups with binoculars and cold drinks in hand, to consider them especially dangerous.  Not so Ranch Rescue, another active vigilante group that aggressively patrols the U.S.-Mexico border in full battle dress, armed with assault rifles and night-vision scopes.  This gang of jingoists, with chapters in five western states, has a history of armed confrontations and is planning military operations in Arizona during the spring and summer of 2005.

To understand the border conflict in the American Southwest, it is important to realize that the international boundary between the U.S. and Mexico is also the dividing line between the affluent North and the impoverished South in the western hemisphere, and the Southern U.S. border, from Texas to California, is the site of one of the largest migrations of workers and their families in modern times.  The current estimate of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. is between 3 and 4 million with another 300,000 to 400,000 crossing the border each year.  Though the majority of the illegal immigrants who cross the border in the Southwest are Mexican citizens, the mass migration includes significant numbers of political and economic refugees from Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.

Powerful economic forces push the migration from the South and pull it to the North.  The current push started with the economic austerity programs that the World Bank and IMF imposed on Mexico in the 1980s.  These policies, demanded primarily by American creditors, caused widespread dislocation of Mexican workers who moved north, seeking employment in the maquiladora industry — mostly American-owned — along the border.  NAFTA aggravated the situation in the 1990s by displacing even more workers, primarily from the agricultural sector of the Mexican economy.  By the end of the century, the population had doubled in the Mexican border towns.  Unemployment skyrocketed when many foreign firms abandoned their maquiladora operations in pursuit of even cheaper labor in China and Southeast Asia.

During the same period, the pull on the migration from the U.S. became increasingly irresistible.  By 2003, the average annual salary of a maquiladora worker was just over $2,500 compared to near $20,000 for illegal Mexican immigrants working in the U.S.  The lure from the North combined with the economic crisis in Mexico has triggered a new wave of illegal immigration that is in full force.  And make no mistake about it — Mexican workers are essential to U.S. capitalism, and the current prosperity in the U.S., especially in the southwestern and southeastern states, rests squarely on their shoulders.  In recent years, 20 percent of the workers joining the U.S. labor force nationwide have been Mexican born.  Certainly, the economies of all the major cities of the Southwest, from Los Angeles to Houston, would collapse without Mexican labor.

In historical context, the latest flurry of vigilante activity along the U.S.-Mexico border is nothing but a dangerous sideshow.  The melodrama of a handful of weekend zealots taking a stand against a torrent of desperate workers and their families that the U.S. government has neither the physical means nor political mandate to contain is ludicrous.  There is simply no way for the vigilante groups to deliver on their promises to heighten homeland security or protect private property along the border.  The real drama in the American Southwest is the mass migration that was put into motion and is sustained by American imperialism — a mass exodus that is shaping the future of both nations.

Richard D. Vogel is an independent socialist writer. He has recently completed a book, Stolen Birthright: The U.S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People.