As one gazes down a thousand feet from the highest point on El Paso’s Scenic Drive, it’s almost impossible to discern any frontier separating this sprawling, dun-colored westernmost Texas city from its Mexican neighbor, Juárez. From this vantage, the two metropolises are an identical and unbroken whole, save for Juárez’s tiny, gaily painted homes and a colossal vermilion X-shaped steel sculpture by the renowned Mexican artist Sebastián that is visible for miles. But altitude and distance obscure the formidable boundary one readily apprehends from close up—a 20 foot-high steel fence version of the border wall that Donald Trump has incessantly called for is already in place here, vigilantly guarded by hundreds of border and immigration control agents.
It wasn’t always thus. Between 1902 and 1974 an electric streetcar regularly ran between El Paso and Juárez, facilitating the easy passage of workers and shoppers in both directions (so much so that beleaguered Juárez retailers, losing local customers to rival American stores across the Rio Grande, eventually pressured their city government to shut down the line). Yet even when the modern Paso del Norte border was at its most porous, it was never completely open, given the various restrictions and quotas in place throughout most of the 20th century.
To be sure, thousands of people still cross in both directions every week for commercial and personal reasons. Even with a border fence/wall whose rusted steel plates look in some places like Utah Beach on D-Day, the El Paso-Juarez-Las Cruces area is in many ways an economically, culturally, and socially integrated “Borderplex” featuring the daily movement of a huge number of goods and people every day. But as Veronica Escobar, the Democratic congressional candidate for Texas’s 16th District, observed recently in the New York Times, “[E]ven as El Pasoans and our southern neighbors have built up a vibrant economy, politicians from Washington and other places far from the border have made our region the centerpiece of their efforts to restrict immigration.” Since the militarization of the local border commenced in 1993 with “Operation Hold the Line,” the El Paso-Juárez boundary has steadily and inexorably become a moat, into which traumatized Mesoamerican children, along with the parents from whom they have been snatched, are currently tumbling.
The Museum of Immigration Restriction
After driving through the sere brown mountains that rise in the midst of El Paso, one arrives at the modest, isolated building that is the U.S. Border Patrol Museum. It is at once an informative and disquieting institution, with its uncritical placards describing and at times implicitly lauding the discriminatory immigration codes the Border Patrol has been called on to enforce over its century of existence, such as the self-explanatory 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the mid-1950s “Operation Wetback,” which saw the arrest and deportation of more than a million illegal Mexican laborers (the anti-Mexican slur for an illegal immigrant who crosses the Rio Grande is repeatedly rendered without comment).
When I visited recently, at least half of the museum’s visitors were Hispanic and conversing in Spanish among themselves. The two staff members on duty were Latina as well. They were pleasant and spoke Mexican-accented English. I wondered what they thought of a prominently displayed 1929 photograph of two armed, crisply uniformed officers triumphantly looming over a tiny, sad-faced Mexican boy perhaps six years old apprehended in El Paso, accompanied by what was meant to be a humorous caption: “The Border Patrol’s ‘smallest’ catch.” It is almost too obvious to note the continuity between this nine decade-old photo and the recent similar images of Hispanic children who have been taken from their parents to be deposited at far-flung detention centers.
As the museum proudly notes, the U.S. Bureau of Immigration established the embryonic “Mounted Guards” in 1904 to interdict illegal immigrants from China who were attempting to enter the United States at the Texas-Mexico border. Headquartered in El Paso, the Mounted Guards slowly expanded over the next two decades as additional exclusionary statutes were enacted. Congress passed a 1917 law that barred entry of virtually all Asians, a 1921 statute that capped total immigration at 350,000—the previous year the number had exceeded 800,000—and finally the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 (at which point the agency was formally dubbed the United States Border Patrol), which almost completely shut out Southern and East Europeans, who since the 1880s had been coming to America by the millions.
Summing up the eugenically inspired sense of national peril (indeed, Congressman Albert Johnson, co-sponsor of the 1924 bill, was the honorary president of the Eugenics Research Association), Calvin Coolidge warned, “There are racial considerations too grave to be brushed aside for any sentimental reasons. Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races the outcome shows deterioration on both sides. Quality of mind and body suggests that observance of ethnic law is as great a necessity to a nation as immigration law.”
The Border Patrol was vigilant in stopping the newly forbidden ethnic groups, including (mostly East) European Jews. In fact, during the 1920s enough illegal Jewish immigrants came up through Mexico, sought to slip illegally past the El Paso border, and were apprehended by U.S. authorities that Rabbi Martin Zielonka of the city’s Temple Mount Sinai attempted, with only modest success, to encourage large-scale permanent Jewish settlement in Mexico. But by the end of the 1920s, the Border Patrol’s energies refocused primarily on illegal Mexican immigration as well as south-of-the-border smuggling. This focus remains to the current day, as the bulk of the museum’s exhibits emphasize—makeshift, weather-beaten ladders, rafts, motorcycles, and even gliders confiscated in various regional arrests.
The Border Patrol Museum includes a gift shop that sells insignia hats, t-shirts commemorative coins and keychains, as well as uniformed teddy bears, each adorned with an official badge. Across from the shop entrance stands a ten foot-tall replica of the Statue of Liberty, next to a poster proclaiming “Never Forget” in honor of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There is no reference whatsoever to “The New Colossus,” the 1883 poem Emma Lazarus dedicated to the then-uncompleted statue and to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But the omission is unsurprising, as the poem’s theme—certainly as it has come to be understood over the years—runs diametrically counter to the Border Patrol’s interdictory vocation.
The Internment Camp
About an hour’s drive east of the Border Patrol Museum sits the remote and expansive Tornillo Port of Entry. The crossing gets little traffic going in either direction—a source of deep disappointment after some $133 million was spent on its construction—but its isolated location adjacent to farmers’ fields, at present verdantly carpeted with alfalfa, is precisely the reason why the U.S. Department of Homeland has situated a prison-like tent city there to confine hundreds of adolescent Latino boys whom immigration agents have apprehended traveling solo or separated from their families.
It is around 100 degrees Fahrenheit and blindingly sunny, typical for this time of year, as I park my car and begin walking around the Port’s perimeter, which is demarcated by a 12 foot-high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Guards are not readily in evidence; indeed, much of the fenced-in expanse has an eerily deserted look from the outside. It is hardly the approximation of a “summer camp” as claimed by a high-ranking immigration official in recent congressional testimony. Rather, the overall appearance is reminiscent of a Boer War-era internment camp—what the British, like the Spanish before them in rebellious Cuba, called a “concentration camp”—and as late as 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt would candidly employ this term in suggesting that his staff draw up contingency plans to deal with Hawaii’s ethnic Japanese in the event of U.S.-Japanese hostilities.
FDR’s dark suggestion came to fruition six years later with Executive Order 9066. The term Konzentrationslager was by then already widely associated with Nazi Germany, so most of the Japanese residents and citizens who were rounded up were detained in what were called “internment camps.” While there were some true “enemy aliens,” most were incarcerated out of paranoia spiced liberally with racism. One of several camps was set up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in an area that today includes a pleasant residential neighborhood and a large community pool where my children learned to swim a decade ago. Only a modest marker in a nearby public park acknowledges the wartime travesty.
Among those in the Southwest who were traumatized by the Roosevelt Administration’s policy, which also touched German- and Italian-origin immigrants, was the late Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), who grew up in Albuquerque as the son of Italians who had arrived in America decades earlier. Domenici’s mother came as a toddler but was never properly naturalized as a U.S. citizen—which made her an illegal alien and was enough to get her arrested and detained by Federal agents in front of her terrified young son. In 2006, Domenici told the story in an impassioned speech to his surprised fellow Senators, in which he advocated passage of a humane comprehensive immigration policy reform bill. The bill was ultimately defeated, with opposition pressure growing so great that Domenici and 18 other Republicans and Democrats who had initially supported the bill switched their votes at the last minute from yea to nay.
On the day I visited the Tornillo camp the temperatures were so sky-high that no amount of water consumed would adequately ameliorate the physical effects. Nonetheless, a group of boys energetically played football in a dusty field near their khaki-colored tent barracks, seemingly oblivious to the scorching heat. The scene was poignantly reminiscent of World War II photographs of British prisoners of war disporting themselves in the Stalag. Many industrial-size air-conditioning units and huge portable generators rest in the open air on wooden pallets, waiting to be deployed. They serve as silent confirmation of recent news reports that the facility, which was ostensibly slated to be closed down by July 14, is not soon going away.
Back in the heart of El Paso I paid a visit to Annunciation House, a private, Catholic-inflected non-profit refugee shelter that has been operating since 1978, located about a half-mile from the Good Neighbor International Bridge. The organization inhabits a century-old, roughly rectangular two-story brick building that, like Doctor Who’s time-traveling police callbox, seems considerably larger on the inside than on the outside. With its energetic response to the Trump Administration’s immigration crackdown, Annunciation House has of late achieved national and even international coverage of its efforts to provide food, shelter, legal aid, and other services to those who manage to make it over the border into the United States. Founding director Ruben Garcia has become an unlikely celebrity with his fearless and persistent efforts to escort on foot across the Paso del Norte bridge refugees seeking asylum who are being physically restrained by armed officers from touching U.S. soil.
I first learned of Annunciation House through a Temple Mount Sinai service project. Visitors are greeted by enthusiastic bilingual staffers, all unpaid volunteers, who bustle about in the controlled chaos of the shelter’s receiving room-cum-office and the adjoining walk-in food pantry. They efficiently organize donated goods, including at least a dozen large boxes brimming with fresh white mushrooms, to which I add a sack of potatoes and some chocolate cookies.
Volunteers reside in Annunciation House alongside the refugees who cycle through the shelter; it is integral to the organization’s philosophy of living in solidarity with those they serve. Two of them pause briefly from their work to rest and chat. Kevin is a lanky young Midwesterner who has just graduated from college and will be entering law school this coming autumn, where he intends to focus, unsurprisingly, on immigration law. He has been a full-time volunteer since May. James, a wiry, quietly intense professor of sociology at a small Catholic college in northern Kentucky, was a full-time volunteer for years but now comes down to El Paso whenever there’s a refugee crisis. They are both friendly and self-effacing, but their seemingly nonchalant talk about their strenuous daily effort hints at a deep, spiritually grounded commitment, as per Annunciation House’s mission statement, to live out “a Gospel spirit of service and solidarity,” accompanying “the migrant, homeless, and economically vulnerable peoples of the border region.”
Their credo and comportment provide a powerful echo of the American Settlement House movement more than a century ago, with its grounding in the Social Gospel’s admonition to aid the vulnerable in emulation of Jesus’ words and deeds. This call inspired Jane Addams to found Hull House in a poor Chicago neighborhood as a place of refuge, education, and counsel: “easily accessible, ample in space, hospitable and tolerant in spirit, situated in the midst of the large foreign colonies which so easily isolate themselves in American cities,” as she put it in 1892. In fact, Mexican immigrants who had taken up residence in Chicago in increasing numbers began frequenting Hull House in the aftermath of World War; by the 1930s Hull House was holding an annual “Festival of Mexican Culture.”
Annunciation House has traditionally kept a low public profile while carrying out its work, which enables the organization to operate without sparking political controversy. As a result, over the decades U.S. immigration authorities have quietly reached out to the shelter and transferred immigrants whom they have detained and preliminarily processed, since it’s far less costly to house them there than in official facilities while they are being prepared to be sent off to sponsoring families around America. To the staff’s relief, the current rash of unsought publicity has not caused any political blowback, so far. It has greatly increased donations of food, clothes, hygiene supplies, and money.
Ordinarily, many families with children make their way through the facility, but this came to a virtual halt when the Trump Administration began carrying out its child-separation policy. Now that a combination of political pressure and judicial rulings have ended the separations (for the time being), the staff are expecting at least 500 people to arrive at Annunciation House via ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in the near future, as immigration officers complete the process of transporting children from their detention sites all around the United States, save for the several hundred families dubiously declared ineligible.
During my early afternoon visit there were about a dozen refugees, a mix of neatly if unassumingly dressed men and women in their mid-30s, conversing in Spanish in low voices as they sit on sagging couches in the common room. They responded with understandably weary smiles when I bid them “buenas tardes.” It was the proverbial calm before the storm, as James and Kevin expected a substantial influx of guests within the hour, with more slated to arrive during the night. This pattern became routine at Annunciation House for the next several weeks.
Let me be clear: Every state has the right to control its borders and to decide who, how many, and on what schedule they should be admitted. This is as true for the United States as it is for any other country. At the same time, America’s history as a land of opportunity and a haven for refugees puts it on a different moral-historical plane than other states, at least for those of us who still embrace the notion of American exceptionalism and Ronald Reagan’s vision of “a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.” But the basic, indeed defining, concept of a viable state having the capacity to maintain secure borders and exercise discretion over entrants is incontrovertible.
The central question is: How do we decide what constitutes how many, and on what schedule? And then how should we carry out that policy? It is here that things get particularly sticky, given the noxious molasses of racism and xenophobia coursing throughout American history and the difficulty of separating it out, both intellectually and instrumentally, from the necessary task of making and enforcing rational immigration policies.
I have always maintained, including in classrooms full of Hispanic immigrants and their children at New Mexico State University where I teach, that completely defensible arguments concerning the devising and implementation of immigration quotas—including reducing as necessary the number of legally admitted immigrants per year—can be made on the basis of economics, costs of social service provision, infrastructure and environmental stresses, preservation of respect for the rule of law, and national security. Furthermore, circumstances change so that potential immigrant cohorts who are an asset at one juncture can legitimately be perceived as a liability at another. The devil is in the criteria, the fraught historical context, and, crucially, the tone.
Moreover, cavils aside, George Borjas makes a serious, micro-economics-based argument that a constant, unregulated influx of unskilled, low-skilled, and even skilled workers willing to accept rock-bottom wages hurts the job prospects and salaries of unskilled, low-skilled, and skilled blue-collar U.S. citizens and permanent residents. We can argue numbers and weigh macro- versus micro-economic benefits and liabilities to various constituencies, but a good-faith immigration policy debate must be conducted with a maximum of analytical rigor, humility, and mutual respect on all sides: It is not a morality play with only saints and devils.
Borjas isn’t the only one to have made this argument. For example, American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers, himself an Austrian-Jewish immigrant, inveighed against Chinese immigration to the United States on precisely these grounds: “[I]t is of the utmost importance that the American workman,” he declared, “should do all in his power to prohibit the importation of those who would still further press him down.”
But Gompers also illustrates the perils of blending the rational with the xenophobic. He added in the same presentation—a spirited debate with Harvard president Charles Eliot in early December 1905 at Madison Square Garden—that he favored the exclusion of the Chinese because “his ideas and his civilization are absolutely opposed to the ideals and civilization of the American people. Never in the history of the world have the Chinese been admitted into a land save to dominate or to be driven out. The Chinaman is a cheap man.” Gompers underlined the vehemence of his Sino-xenophobia on another occasion, averring that “[r]acial differences between American whites and Asiatics would never be overcome. The superior whites had to exclude the inferior Asiatics, by law, or if necessary, by force of arms.” There is, of course, an obvious irony in the Jewish Gompers proffering a racist anti-Chinese immigration argument that is essentially identical to that made against Jews by Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard just a few years later (not to mention Henry Ford as well as Hitler, a fan of both American writers—Godwin’s Law does not always apply).
The rational-xenophobic intermixing that vitiated Gompers’ immigration restriction arguments still occurs in our own time, as demonstrated by the imbroglio several years back over right-wing political economist Jason Richwine’s tendentious assertions in his doctoral dissertation that non-Caucasian (except Asian) immigrants’ average IQs are “substantially lower than that of the white native population” in the United States, and that “the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.” Adverse publicity over Richwine’s questionable scholarship ultimately led to his resignation from the Heritage Foundation, which pointedly disavowed his ideas. George Borjas, it must be noted, was on Richwine’s Ph.D. committee at the Kennedy School of Government (my former employer), although he dismissively stated after the fact that his advisee’s “focus on IQ is a bit misguided.”
The bottom line is that there has been and continues to be a segment of the population—today especially it is white, working-class, less-educated, and older—that has been driven into the waiting arms of Donald Trump over, at least in part, an overpowering sense of encroachment and even existential threat over the arrival of new cohorts of immigrants, whether economic migrants or refugees. It didn’t have to be that way, but, unfortunately, as Thomas Edsall puts it, quoting pollster Stanley Greenberg, “The Democrats have moved from seeking to manage and champion the nation’s growing immigrant diversity to seeming to champion immigrant rights over those of American citizens.” Trump moved opportunistically and ruthlessly to fill the vacuum of responsible policymaking that this has created.
I have severely limited sympathy with the cultural displacement anxieties of the cohort that conservative writer Kevin Williamson has taxonomically described as the latter-day version of peasants (to be sure, he used the same term, in a less flattering context, in relation to Mexican immigrants). One can be deeply sympathetic over the dreadful state into which much of rural as well as urban blue-collar America has collapsed without indulging the prejudices that many of its residents hold.
Again, tone matters greatly. President Obama’s immigration and expulsion enforcement policies were vigorous to the point that liberal immigration advocates denounced even him. But even as they did so, no one believed that the President of the United States harbored racial animosity toward Mesoamericans or countenanced it in others, much less that he had made it a central plank in his appeal for support. But from the moment Donald Trump rode down the escalator of Trump Tower in June 2015 to vilify Mexicans coming illegally into America as “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he drew a blood-red line between his predecessor’s policy and his own.
The fact that so many of Trump’s assertions are easily proved to be factually wrong and are, from the vantage point of almost any longtime resident of the Southwest, risibly preposterous underscores the racism and xenophobia underlying Trump’s appeal for votes. Once in office, his repetition of these lies became a core element of ginning up support from his political base and so have continued to do even more harm as time has passed. It has clearly energized and, at least up to a point, legitimized some of the most vicious historic tendencies in American politics, society, and culture. A pitch-black straight line runs from Trump Tower in June 2015 through Charlottesville in August 2017 and back to the White House thereafter.
Pope Francis’s emissary from the Vatican’s Migrant and Refugees Section, visiting El Paso as I composed this brief eyes-on account, declared in the Pontiff’s name that it is “immoral to criminalize people seeking refuge and asylum and separate their families.” His message found a welcome audience, as did a video message from Pope Francis to El Paso that is prominently posted on the website of the city’s main newspaper: “A responsible and dignified welcome of our brothers and sisters begins by offering them decent and appropriate shelter. . . . Defending their inalienable rights, ensuring their fundamental freedoms, and respecting their dignity are duties which compel one and all.”
Almost 70 percent of Americans agree with the Pope’s admonition, including of course most El Pasoans (immigrants make up one fourth of the city’s population, which in turn is some 80 percent Hispanic). The problem for El Paso, for America, and of course for the immigrants themselves, is two-fold. The first problem is the simplistic “Passion Play” depiction of a complex issue amenable to reasoned if vigorous debate by analysts of good will, which has encouraged more than a few people to fall in line behind blatant bigots. But the second, considerably greater problem is that the most prominent and vociferous member of the minority that disagrees with the Pope’s exhortation happens to be a blatant bigot: the current President of the United States.
When Emma Lazarus wrote The New Colossus, about eighteen months after the anti-Semitic May Laws were promulgated in Russia, she specifically had Jewish refugees in mind. However, as Esther Schor points out in her biography of Lazarus, her poem’s original meaning eventually migrated in the hands of others. Schor along with Paul Auster notes that the placement in 1903 of a plaque bearing the sonnet on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal enlarged and universalized the scope of the “huddled masses” to encompass all immigrants. The result was to reframe and generalize both the Statue—which had originally been intended to symbolize shared American and French republicanism—and Lazarus’s subtly ethnically particularist poem. Another three decades on, The New Colossus reverted back toward its original Jewish-centric theme, as “a Slovenian-American immigrant named Louis Adamic….seized upon the sonnet” as well as Lady Liberty to serve as an exhortation to an American “generation poised to receive thousands of refugees from Hitler’s Europe”. After World War II, the context changed yet again. Schor notes that the plaque bearing the sonnet was given a more prominent place at the entrance to the Statue; and then a series of shifts, marked by the 1949 Broadway debut of Miss Liberty, with music composed by Irving Berlin, re-generalized the meaning of both poem and statue, thus blurring the distinction between refugees and economic migrants simply seeking the American Dream. That blurring remains today. See Schor, Emma Lazarus (Knopf, 2017 [orig. ed. 2006]), pp. IX-XI, 186, 254–5.