On the Edges of Fascism and Other Unsettling Possibilities

In this series commissioned by Catherine Ramirez and A. Naomi Paik, contributors examine the legacy of the Immigration Act of 1924 and the simultaneous launching of the Border Patrol, which, together, inaugurated the most restrictive era of US immigration history until our own.
“Borders generate more human possibilities: citizens standing for the rights of noncitizens, finding them refuge, seeking them sanctuary, pushing at the margins of the state and its sovereignty.”

In the region surrounding El Paso, in September 1993, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)—which was later absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—inaugurated a new campaign of militarized policing at the border: Operation Blockade. Seemingly without warning, agents of the Border Patrol—the US’s largest police force—descended on a small stretch of the border, blocking thousands of people from crossing to their jobs and families in El Paso. Quickly renamed to the more politically palpable Operation Hold the Line, this campaign began just months before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was imposed in Mexico: consolidating economic liberalization in Mexico, and dramatically augmenting Mexican immigration to the United States. Even as jobs were threatened in Mexico (particularly in the agricultural sector, as demanded by NAFTA), the United States ensured that the border would now be far more difficult to cross for those leaving Mexico in search of work.

Thus, the year 1993 inaugurated our long moment of crisis across the southern border of the United States. Some 10,000 deaths of would-be border crossers, thousands upon thousands put into detention, and an incredible militarized policing presence in the US-Mexico border region, are the result.

The very next year, the Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond: National Strategy advanced a new strategy of border and migration controls called “prevention through deterrence.” According to said plan, it was expected that with the Border Patrol’s intensified campaigns across the border region, “violence will increase as effects of strategy are felt.” Furthermore, “The Border Patrol will achieve the goals of its strategy by bringing a decisive number of enforcement resources to bear in each major entry corridor.” The government document further notes, “The prediction is that with traditional entry and smuggling routes disrupted, illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.”1

Militarized policing and related machinations aggravated conditions for unauthorized crossings. Today, it sets the material conditions for unauthorized border crossings: forcing undocumented crossers into more and more perilous terrains, where they take more and more risks.

Indeed, the social life of borders—how they are talked about, how they are contested, how they are rendered poetically and representationally in popular culture—reveals the global reach of white supremacy and its disruptions. This can be traced through militarization and its complex and dialectical mirroring, what I elsewhere termed the “criminal abandonments” of the state in the acts of vigilantes, related forms of border criminality, and the rendering of migrants in disposable life, all attributes of the commodification of their life, and the hyper-policing of the region.2The social life of borders reveals that the transnational connections of white supremacy are a truly global structure of domination, a paramount force within the contradictions of racial capitalism.3

News from the southern border of the United States instigates a deep sense of vertigo: the Border Patrol has been momentarily repositioned as an ally. It checks the right-wing populist or neofascist policies of a Texas governor, who places razor wire in buoys in the Rio Grande, macabrely seeking to wound the men, women, and children crossing the international boundary. This, as the Democratic president of the United States decries “an illegal” for murdering a citizen on national television, while he adopts much of his white-nationalist predecessor’s xenophobic policies.

These conditions demand an interrogation. For years, empirical scholarship on the US-Mexico border has documented this long moment of border hardening: how the police, military, Border Patrol and national guardsmen have generated deadly conditions for border crossers at the southern border of the United States.4 Related scholarship takes the US-Mexico as paradigmatic or exceptional, although it is well documented in certain traditions of critical border studies that US-Mexico border enforcement both informs and is informed by domestic and international dynamics: including the genocidal dispossession unfolding in contemporary Palestine, perfected in the settler colonial processes of the United States.

Yet, the vast border enforcement regimes over the past 30 years signify that those who maintain borders understand the radical possibilities of border crossings. Such crossings would unsettle dominant formations of power.

In the global North, dominant conventions hold that it is global disconnections that generate poverty, insecurity, and transnational migration. Such perspectives are contested by scholarship from the global South, which argue that migration and subaltern diasporas originate from global military, corporate, and NGO interventions. International migration constitutes the afterlife of neoliberalism, its chickens coming “home” to roost.

Whatever the explanation, those that cross borders are condemned by the “global white ethnoclass” and complicit others goose-stepping to the glow of their iPhones. As they fight to sustain borders, this group implicates itself in a colonial modern death drive. They reveal what beats at the heart of these modern ruins of contemporary states: the elimination of Indigenous peoples, ideologically, symbolically and materially.5 Yet even they are not the only ones now threatened. The return of this repressed is the killing and caging and related oppressions of anyone defying the international borders of things.

Contemporary international borders thus constitute an instrumental element of “global apartheid,” enacted by a global North that invests in militarization. This “militarization of the border” appeases dominant ethnonationalist currents in the global North, particularly white nationalists in the United States, who bear totalitarian nightmares of  hermetically sealed, heteropatriachic, societies. In so doing, the project generates an exploitable labor force, as well as an ability to deter those deemed racially, nationally, ethnically, queerly, or otherwise undesirable, while punishing “the migrant-resembling.”6 At the US-Mexico border, racialized contradictions have only intensified from multiyear border enforcement.

It must be underscored that it was the neoliberal Democratic administration of William Jefferson Clinton that was responsible for Operation Blockade and other similar deployments. At the border, his administration infused military tactics, equipment, and strategy into law enforcement, and, particularly, the Border Patrol. They also did so in the rare—but not rare enough—use of actual armed forces, trained specialists in state violence.

Moreover, the Border Patrol drew on the advice of outside entities such as the Department of Defense Center for Low Intensity Conflict, which codified the strategy of low-intensity warfare employed by the US in Central America and other regions across the globe. Notably, a central tenet of low-intensity conflict doctrine is high-intensity policing, and, as such, the ongoing border crisis ultimately hails an ethnonationalist backlash, burning hot and white. These dynamics include family separation, or the taking of children from their caregivers as they border cross, which I find in the ghostly hauntings of “The New Lloronx,” a figure of Mesoamerican folklore now filled by mother, fathers, and other biological and chosen kin, who have lost their children to these cruel bureaucratic machinations.7

But, the intersecting oppressions at the US southern border also highlight alternative currents that migrants and aligned communities live, imagine, and desire. Abolitionist futures flicker within today’s mass refusal of hard borders across much of the globe, and even many of the routine crossings of international boundaries in border communities. It is such futures that forceful militarized policing would contain.

Consider the work on Central American caravans of anthropologist Amarela Varela-Huerta. She maintains that today’s migrant caravans constitute a social movement of women, struggling to preserve life in communal fashion. One might also view las caravanas as an insurgency, a rebellion of survival at the margins of neoliberalism’s death logic. Las caravanas could also be understood as a strategy of migrant self-defense or collective self-care, what Varela-Huerta deems “a new type of migrant struggle.”8

But all alternative ways of viewing migrant caravans should reframe our assumption that border crossing are inconsequential. The robust policing of such crossings demand an intellectual recalibration of migrant political agency, resistance, and refusal.

When someone crosses ever-hardening international boundaries, it reveals how all undocumented migrants radically refuse projects of militarized policing of the border. It invites a reconsideration of “movement” itself. It must be taken more capaciously. There is, of course, the literal movement across space and time. Yet, defiant movements by vulnerable populations across international boundaries should be considered as collective border-crossing praxis. They are the culminative processes of undoing hard borders, revealing them to be a dangerous fiction. Indeed, undocumented border crossings in the age of hard borders constitute a radical refusal of dominance modalities of sovereign control of land and territory. And this, in turn, highlights how international boundaries are founded in unjust relations, relations that can be defied, and perhaps abolished.

Consider ordinary life in border regions. Every day, banal border crossings upset the singular and sealed imagined communities of the past. They upset ethnonationalists across the globe, who demand more and more enforcement.

They also generate more human possibilities: citizens standing for the rights of noncitizens, finding them refuge, seeking them sanctuary, pushing at the margins of the state and its sovereignty, pushing back against the eliminations of natives and other injustices at the serrated edges of contemporary states. Those who cross without authorization expose the rickety architecture that hold up hardened borders, and life could be without them. They gesture to repressed notions of property, identity, and the like that preceded the 1648 consensus of nation-states at Westphalia, and a return to times both recent and long ago when borders were meant to be crossed. Such a return tells of a future struggling to be born again. icon

This article is part of a series commissioned by Catherine S. Ramírez and A. Naomi Paik on the border crisis 100 years after the Immigration Act of 1924.

  1. Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond (United States Border Patrol, July 1994).
  2. See: Aretxaga, Begoña. “Maddening States.” Annual Review of Anthropology 32, no. 1 (October 1, 2003): 393–410; Rosas, Gilberto. “Cholos, Chúntaros, and the ‘Criminal’ Abandonments of the New Frontier.” Identities 17, no. 6 (December 15, 2010): 695–713.
  3. See Aisha M. Beliso‐De Jesús and Jemima Pierre, “Special Section: Anthropology of White Supremacy,” American Anthropologist, vol. 122, no. 1 (2020), pp. 65–75; Achille Mbembe, “The Idea of a Borderless World,” Africa Is a Country (accessed November 21, 2018).
  4. See: Miguel Díaz-Barriga and Margaret E. Dorsey, Fencing in Democracy: Border Walls, Necrocitizenship, and the Security State (Duke University Press, 2020); Gilberto Rosas, Barrio Libre: Criminalizing States and Delinquent Refusals of the New Frontier (Duke University Press, 2012).
  5. See: Shannon Speed, Incarcerated Stories: Indigenous Women Migrants and Violence in the Settler-Capitalist State (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019); Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (Verso, 2016).
  6. See: Catherine Besteman, “Militarized Global Apartheid,” Current Anthropology, vol. 60, no. S19 (2019), pp. S26–38; Gilberto Rosas, “The Thickening Borderlands: Diffused Exceptionality and ‘Immigrant’ Social Struggles during the ‘War on Terror,’” Cultural Dynamics, vol. 18, no. 3 (2006), pp. 335–49; Timothy J Dunn, The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978-1992: Low-Intensity Conflict Doctrine Comes Home. (Center for Mexican American Studies, 1996); Walia, Harsha. Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism. (Haymarket Books, 2021).
  7. On the “New Lloronx,” see Gilberto Rosas, Unsettling: The El Paso Massacre, Resurgent White Nationalism, and the US-Mexico Border (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023).
  8. Valera-Huerta’s work was inspired by Silvia Federici’s work on women rebellions in epochal transition from feudalism to capitalism, manifesting the self-government of their bodies and resources whose everyday life threatened the old and the new regime. See Amarela Varela-Huerta, “Notes for an Anti-Racist Feminism in the Wake of the Migrant Caravans.” translated by Liz Mason-Deese, The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 119, no. 3 (2020), pp. 655–63. Also see Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (Autonomedia, 2004), among other work.
Featured-image photograph: Paso Del Norte POE in El Paso, Texas, where 800 protesters gathered in 1993 to protest Operation Blockade, via US Customs and Border Patrol (Public Domain).