Strange alliances along the border

border fence

In what he described as an effort to “help protect the American people,” President Bush signed the Secure Fence Act in 2006, authorizing the federal government to take a series of steps to secure the U.S./Mexican border.

The act increases vehicle barriers, checkpoints and lighting at the border, and empowers the Department of Homeland Security to intensify its use of advanced technology to strengthen border infrastructure.

Perhaps most controversially, the bill also authorizes the construction of nearly 700 miles of reinforced fencing.

South Texas native Margaret Dorsey, a professor in Penn’s Department of Anthropology, has been in Texas’s Hidalgo County since July investigating local opinion about U.S. immigration policy and the border fence.

Through grassroots forums, interviews with stakeholders, surveys and media analyses, she and anthropologist Miguel Diaz-Barriga of Swarthmore College have found that nearly everyone in the community—Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative—thinks the fence “is a terrible idea.”

Dorsey says opposition to the 18-foot-high, 8-feet-wide fence—which she describes as “like the Berlin Wall, but a car can drive on top of it”—has brought together “novel political formations.” Groups that have traditionally been at odds with each other have united for aesthetic, environmental and business reasons.

Environmentalists are against the fence because it will hurt ecotourism. The “Chamber of Commerce crowd” is against it because they fear it will retard the flow of money across the border. Human rights activists are against it on moral grounds and landowners simply do not want the government using their private property to build the fence.

Although Bush touts the fence as a barrier to illegal immigration, Dorsey says border residents “see it as a waste of money” that will have very little effect on the number of undocumented residents. Local commentators argue that it isn’t the fence that has slowed down immigrant traffic, but the lack of American jobs.

Many South Texans also view the fence as racist. Dorsey says that in focus groups and during one-on-one interviews, Mexican Americans and white Americans both agreed that racism is the primary issue behind the fence.

The U.S./Mexican border was established by 1848’s Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought an end to the Mexican-American War. The treaty set up an International Boundary and Water Commission, an international organization that oversees the border. By building the fence, Dorsey says Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has “waved laws, treaties with Mexico, and laws governing those treaties.”

Anti-fence forces had hoped to delay construction of the fence until a new administration with a new outlook takes office in January, but construction is already underway. Dorsey says the fence is such a priority for the Bush Administration that construction workers are working overtime. “We’re talking about our government being $700 billion in debt but they’re paying construction workers time-and-a-half to build this fence,” she says.

Even if the government compensates landowners, Dorsey says it’s not about the money. For some in the area, their land ownership predates the United States, stretching back to the original Spanish land grants in the 1750s. “It’s not just about financial compensation,” she says, “it’s about ties to family, to roots, and it’s a strong emotional connection and a very meaningful connection to land that’s at stake here too.”

At minimum, Dorsey and Diaz-Barriga plan to stay in the area until July 2009. She says their research will lead to a book and a series of journal articles. They have also started a blog——and are filming elements of their research that may translate into an ethnographic film.

Originally published on October 16, 2008