Be careful what you wish for

An aerial view of the Santa Fe bridge that links the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, bottom, with the U.S. city of El Paso, Texas.

An aerial view of the Santa Fe bridge that links the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, bottom, with the U.S. city of El Paso, Texas.

By Raymond Caballero

If you study examples of unintended consequences, immigration history is your textbook.

The line at the food cart selling “simple” panaceas is always long; it’s the fried onion rings on the policy menu. Irresistible, but they come with clear warnings. So it is with immigration. That is one reason why, in this presidential season, Donald J. Trump is in demand. He’s selling “simple” solutions to complex problems, with immigration topping his list.

He’s not alone in this, but is most publicized, and he’s forcing other candidates to adopt his position. As for the undocumented, he will stop them by building a huge border wall — not the high fence that we already have, but an additional wall — and he will deport all those who are already in the U.S. whether or not they have citizen or resident children. It’s a family deal; he’ll deport them all. Donald is quite a guy, but his followers, apparently, are not reading the warning labels that come with his snake oil and its history of adverse reactions.

Raymond Caballero

Raymond Caballero

More than 20 years ago, the Border Patrol came up with a “simple” solution to stop the undocumented from crossing in urban areas. Instead of looking for them in cities, they invented new border “Operations,” took agents off patrol and had them sit in their vehicles at the border, creating a formidable obstacle to those crossing in urban areas.

El Paso, and Ciudad Juárez across the border, are examples of border twin cities. In fact, it is one community split by a boundary. For many years, thousands lived in Cd. Juárez and worked in El Paso and commuted to work each day, some legally, some illegally. That was part of the rhythm of border life.

What happened after the new “Operations”? Folks were not going to stop working, so they moved permanently to El Paso to avoid detection. This immigration operation was then taken to other cities along the border with the same consequences. The operations were hailed as successes because of reduced arrests and crossings, which was true because the Mexicans who had moved permanently to the U.S. were no longer crossing, and the agents, being deployed directly on the border itself, couldn’t look for the undocumented inside urban areas. Thus, there were indeed fewer arrests as we would expect. Others wanting to enter the interior of the U.S. were forced to cross in remote areas.

Thanks to “Operations” and similar policies, the Texas border today looks like a combination of the 38th Parallel’s DMZ in Korea, Auschwitz and, with Trump’s proposed contribution, it might soon look like Leavenworth.

Essentially only Mexicans or Mexican-Americans harvest our food in this country, and many of them are undocumented. Mexico has long provided America with its farm and other labor, much of it hard and unattractive work. They too had a rotation pattern similar to El Paso-Cd. Juárez’s, except it was seasonal agriculture or construction work. At the end of the season, they would return home to their families. No longer finding it possible to cross near cities, these seasonal workers found themselves crossing the harsh Arizona desert, and many died in the attempt.

The U.S.-Mexico border fence stretches into the countryside near Nogales, Arizona.

The U.S.-Mexico border fence stretches into the countryside near Nogales, Arizona.

Arizona’s governor claimed the state was being invaded by hordes of criminals and that started the fence building program in 2006. With the crossing made so difficult, what happened? Given the border operations’ history, it was no surprise that instead of the undocumented workers returning to their families in Mexico, they brought their families to the U.S. They are now here for good, and many have citizen children and also undocumented children who know no other country.

Now The Donald wants to build a wall and his supporters are thrilled whenever he says so. In fairness to Trump, I feel like telling him, “Watch out, Trump, don’t do it!”  Or should I instead tuck Trump in bed and tell him the story of James K. Polk and his unintended consequence?

How absurd and obnoxious would it sound to Americans if in 1835 a Mexican president would have said: “Mexico has California, with about 2,000 miles of the Pacific Coast, also Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It is written on a Mayan stela that God intended Mexico to have the Atlantic Coast as well, therefore — sorry, U.S. — but Mexico will now take the territory from Texas to the East Coast including Florida, Georgia and South Carolina and everything in between.”

It would sound as absurd to Americans as it did to Mexicans when Polk said it in the 1840s and claimed that it was America’s God-ordained, Manifest Destiny that its territory go coast to coast. It also sounded absurd and obnoxious to Abraham Lincoln as it did to U.S. Grant, John C. Calhoun and to a majority of the U.S. House that passed a resolution condemning Polk for having invaded Mexico and then lying about it. Or as absurd as when Saddam Hussein said that Kuwait belonged to Iraq, a recent example of Manifest Destiny.

Polk first tried to buy California, the prize he sought, and when Mexico refused, he invaded Mexico and forcibly took California, New Mexico, Arizona and the Nueces Territory. Having taken Mexico City also, some in the U.S. were clamoring for the U.S. to annex all of Mexico. The problem they had was that they wanted the land but not its people. Sorry. So, Polk, happy with California plus, settled and only kept 54 percent of Mexico’s territory instead of all of it.

lynching-pascual-orozcoWe could have told those wanting Polk to take all of Mexico that, from their American viewpoint, it would have been a short-sighted decision in that the U.S. would have then become majority Latino in the 20th Century. As it turned out, we can now say that down deep, Polk must have loved Mexicanos, because by having taken more than half of Mexico, he will have made the entire U.S. a largely Mexicano nation in this 21st Century.

Photographs: The world in photos by day ( 2015 )

Raymond Caballero is the author of “Lynching Pascual Orozco, Mexican Revolutionary Hero and Paradox,” available on order from your favorite book store.


Editor’s note: I met Ray through my daughter Simone and my friend Andrea Cano. He lived on the border for years and remains an interested observer. Now living in Portland, he can often be seen at my neighborhood gym, keeping a steady pace on the treadmill while laser-focused on whatever is streaming through his earbuds. I suspect he and my stepmother, Ora Caballero Rede, are somehow related as distant cousins.

Tomorrow: “Mum’s dilemma” by Natasa Kocevar Gabric


5 thoughts on “Be careful what you wish for

  1. When my wife and I first moved to Salem in 1973, by my casual observation the permanent resident population appeared to almostly completely Anglo-Caucasian-white. Being of that same skin tone and having grown up in a rural community in Iowa populated, at the time, almost entirely of descendants of northern European immigrants, it was easy to not notice the lack of diversity in Salem. As far as I could tell, when I thought to pay attention, there were a few African-Americans and most of the Hispanic people in the area were probably seasonal workers who would follow the agricultural work elsewhere when the crop harvest was finished in this area. Over the years, the Hispanic population has become noticeably more visible year-round. I recently read that 25% of the residents of northeast Salem are Hispanic, and once again, casual observation shows that the surrounding small towns – Woodburn, Mt. Angel, Silverton, Gervais, Brooks, Independence, etc. – have numerous established businesses bearing Spanish names.
    I am fairly certain there are tens of thousands of communities throughout the country where the Hispanic populations have similarly transitioned from seasonal to permanent in the past few decades. Mexicans and migrants from other Central American countries have become integrated in every aspect of the U.S. culture, as marital partners, public and private employees, business owners, educators. I assume as much is also true of Asian immigrants. So, Trump’s simple solution is not only bullshit rabble-rousing, it is probably absolutely impossible.

  2. This was a fascinating essay so thank you for that. It’s too bad so many Americans have lost sight of the fact their ancestors also were immigrants at one time, and depending on from what country, also treated poorly as many white Americans treat our Mexican immigrants and Mexican-American citizens. I’m often ashamed to say I am American and the saddest part of that statement is that every immigrant I meet says America is the best country. I miss the country I was raised to believe in and think Trump and his cronies are driving our global reputation even deeper into the ground than I thought possible.

  3. I cannot believe what I hear coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth. He’ll remove illegal immigrants using….”management”. Any mid-level manager could figure out that what Trump is suggesting is impossible, and probably illegal. It isn’t a simplistic answer, it’s isn’t really a plan at all. No specifics, just jingoism. It makes me pine for Reagan (and I’m a liberal saying that). Even George W. Bush ponied up a decent plan, but was rejected by his own party. Come on, Republican Party, you could do WAY better than this.

  4. While I despise Trump and virtually everything he stands for, I suspect he has an almost even chance of winning. He appeals to the lowest common denominator in the Republican Party. He has identified a group of people for them to blame. He wants to lock them up and deport them. He even wants to strip them of their citizenship. And he can self finance his election.
    Sounds like Germany 1930. Most think that it can’t happen again, but I’m not so sure.

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