The thermometer peaks over 100 degrees and it is still late morning. Men and women crossing the US-Mexico border have already been walking for six or eight hours—some without water or in need of serious medical attention. As a volunteer with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, I’m riding in the back of a rickety pick-up truck full of water, food, and medical supplies. The deafening roar of a P3 Orion, manufactured and maintained by Lockheed Martin on an $821 million contract, bears down on us along the rough roads of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge south of Tucson, AZ. The US Customs and Border Protection surveillance plane is just one security feature of many in the technological toolbox utilized on an increasingly militarized border. The plane would radio in any suspicions of “unauthorized entry.” My friends and I continue toward the well-traveled migrant trails to restock supplies of food and water. It is on these dusty desert roads that I realize a border is more than a line on a map between two places.
“US citizen?” inquires the stoic Border Patrol agent at the Arivaca Road interior checkpoint—one of 71 traffic checkpoints in the Southern United States. I nod. He waves us on and we drive past the well-armed guards. I am reminded of the two young men I met the week before. After an emotional, tear-filled moment with one of the men, who had been deported from Broadview Detention Center in Chicago, the veil of my ignorant understanding of the border began to disappear. The difference between him and me was a piece of paper, and I felt guilty for having one, for being part of the “in” crowd. The consequences of that difference are profound and troubling. Citizenship is a racialized category; from immigration quotas to policing and profiling activities propped up by laws such as SB 1070 and 287(g), lines are drawn between “us” and “them.” The color of my skin and a passport privilege me to board a plane and fly home to Chicago. Meanwhile, undocumented people of color cross deserts, jump trains, hitch rides—without guarantee of success or safety—to return home, reunite with family or find work. As two young men, one Latino and the other white, we talked about our different Chicago neighborhoods, Pilsen and West Rogers Park. It was refreshing to share stories from home in such an unlikely place. Frankly, due to each of our respective physical and social landscapes, the probability of our paths crossing in such a segregated city as Chicago was slim. But here we were, sitting in the shade in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, sharing Gatorade and crackers but both knowing the difference a piece of paper can make. The experience I witnessed of the life-and-death division caused by citizenship has led me to question its moral, political and economic efficacy. So if borders are not good for people, what are they good for? Business.
There is money to be made on both sides of the border: criminal drug cartels turned human smugglers are charging individuals thousands of dollars to be guided across; tiendas sell water, backpacks, and other supplies for the mountainous trek; but the most lucrative markets are reserved for private security companies and weapons manufacturers banking on federal contracts. Boeing’s international headquarters, situated along the Chicago River, is reaping what it has sown along the US-Mexico border. Boeing received over $1 billion from the US Customs and Border Protection for the Secure Borders Ini-tiative project to construct a “virtual fence.” In January 2011, the project was scrapped due to poor performance and over-budgeted costs, but Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano promised that new forms of border security are being solicited and will be open for competition.
The emergence of the immigration industrial complex, with its commodity of undocumented persons in steep supply, results in a deadly demand for security contracts, private prisons, and racist laws. The struggle for border demilitarization and justice for the undocumented extends beyond Arizona. The securitization of the borderlands is a global phenomenon and one, I discovered, with deep roots in Chicago. In fact, political lobbyists representing the interests of Boeing, as well as the private prison corporations Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group, had a hand in authoring the Arizona SB 1070 legislation. We are witnessing the growth of an “apartheid wall”—both in policy and practice—between Mexico and the United States. The heartbreak and separation it causes, even here in Chicago, suggests to me that we must resist the rise of the immigration industrial complex by building a cross-cultural solidarity movement to proudly proclaim: no profits, no papers, no borders. ◊