The history of violence is distinct from the history of crime. This is partly because violent acts are not typically classified as crimes when they are committed by the state, and because many individuals who are categorized as criminals have not committed violent acts. When we think about the US-Mexico border in light of these crucial distinctions, it becomes clear that the way policing agencies and politicians have portrayed the international divide—as a criminal zone—does not match the history of violence in the borderland. The majority of the bloodshed, incarceration, and forced expulsion has been triggered or perpetrated by the state itself, directed against some of the most politically weak, economically vulnerable, and historically excluded people on the continent.
Today, the United States is experiencing a surge of law and order fundamentalism in the US-Mexico borderland. As it pertains to the international divide, law and order fundamentalism as a political ideology has a long genealogy that stretches back to the late nineteenth century. It is grounded in anti-Mexicanism as well as the abiding conviction that the border is inherently dangerous and “needs” to be policed. In recent years, these ideas have been rapidly amplified. Law and order fundamentalism is rooted in the allure of security for all. Precisely because the fantasy of perfect safety has such a deep human appeal, it is easily captured and converted into a tool by the very few to dominate the many. The borderland is a particularly ripe target in this regard because it is tied up with notions of territorial sovereignty, nationalism, and patriotism, each of which is freighted with notions of purity, separatism, and exceptionalism. Law and order fundamentalism is uninterested in the broader social good or in any sort of social contract. To the contrary, it eliminates the very concept of unjust laws, and thereby forecloses upon a broader debate about equality and humanitarianism. It bestows the US code with an absolute authority, as if immigration laws and drug prohibition regimes had been on the books since time immemorial.
Belief in such authority reflects a complete indifference to social and historical context. Immigration laws, for instance, have been radically overhauled many times since the US-Mexico War. During the first half of the twentieth century, there were no quotas on immigration from Mexico, yet immigration from China was almost completely banned. Similarly, anti-drug laws follow a meandering and inconsistent logic as is demonstrated by the fact that alcohol was once criminalized and cocaine was once legal. Nevertheless, law and order fundamentalists insist that there is a “right” way to immigrate and comport oneself within society, despite the fact that the legal landscape of the borderland has been remarkably unstable.
This inflexibility connects law and order fundamentalism to the most illiberal and undemocratic traditions in American history. It equates illegality and immorality, thereby eroding the rights of those accused of crimes and upending an “innocent until proven guilty” paradigm. It also casts aspersions on entire groups that are associated with crime, even as it disregards the extent to which some groups are policed far more heavily than others. It obsesses over the infractions of the poor, but ignores the crimes of the rich. And although it draws its authority from anecdotal acts of violence, it leads border police overwhelmingly to sweep up nonviolent offenders. More than any other law enforcement tradition in the United States, border policing is connected to profiteering. This is another way in which it is divorced from the public good. Especially since the end of the Cold War, weapons manufacturers have found lucrative markets in selling high-tech surveillance equipment to border policing agencies, and in recent years private prison corporations have reaped enormous profits from incarcerating non-citizens, including asylum seekers.
These phenomena are highly resistant to critique because failure is politically ambiguous in border policing. To law and order fundamentalists, increases in unauthorized border crossing or bigger seizures of drugs fail to indicate that criminal justice responses do not work, or that non-coercive solutions to social problems should be sought. Rather, border problems trigger greater funding and expansion of police, guided by no consistent metric of what constitutes success. This way of developing policy is uninterested in structural, root causes, but instead understands “crime” simplistically and intuitively as the result of lax enforcement.
The border is now the crown jewel of law and order fundamentalism in the United States. It is also the site where the liberal democratic traditions of transparency, government accountability, due process, equal protection, nondiscrimination, and the right to privacy are under the greatest threat. It remains to be seen whether the political ideology responsible for the massive police buildup in the borderland will seep inward and permeate other aspects of American life, or whether the police apparatus on the border will come to be understood as too extreme.
Featured image credit: US border patrol car on the US-Mexico border by Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.