The historian Mary Mendoza has a good piece on how there is often more attention to the diversity of plants and wildlife on the border than diversity of people and suggests how we might think about this.
These animals and plants are important and valuable to people living near the border as well as the broader public. For the Tohono O’odham nation, the destruction of nature directly affects human life and cultural practice. Sacred cacti are dying, and valued animals are disappearing. These environmental threats are also concerning to the broader public, who value biodiversity and fear the extinction of cherished animals, such as the bighorn sheep and the jaguar. As a result, both government and non-profit agencies are working to monitor populations to ensure their survival.
But no government agencies are working to ensure the survival and well-being of human migrants. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security is currently working on plans for even more fences and walls to ensure that migrants never make it into the U.S. All of these structures, past and present, are tools of racialized state violence.
As the border control apparatus has grown, it has become more dangerous to humans. Fences, which the U.S. has increasingly converted into walls, have pushed migrants to the most dangerous landscapes where many of them risk death by dehydration, heat stroke, and, along rivers, drowning. Since the middle of the 1990s, death by border crossing has ballooned as built environments merged with natural ones making journeys even more arduous and treacherous.
But that goal of total exclusion does not always work. As a result, those migrants who do make it across the border often feel as though they cannot go home because they would be sacrificing an opportunity to support the families they left behind. In short, people, too, have been separated from their mates—their families—by the border control apparatus. More recently, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and detention centers have augmented the chilling effect of border enforcement by forcibly separating and caging families.
But we should not kid ourselves into thinking that family separation is anything new.
In some sense, family separation at the border dates back to the Bracero Program—a guest worker program from 1942-64 that involved importing Mexican men into the United States to work. Because the program was only open to men, women and children had to stay behind. When women tried to enter the U.S. to work or join their partners, border patrol agents argued that the U.S. government should build fences to keep women out. By the late 1940s, the first border fences built to stop people from crossing the border targeted women and thus worked to keep the Mexican family unit apart. These efforts ensured that Mexican women could not enter the U.S. and give birth to American children. For much of the twentieth century, U.S. immigration policies have targeted Mexicans and other Latin Americans, consistently fighting against the growth of the Latino population in the United States. As such, they have been tools of white supremacy.
In the decades following the Bracero Program, border fence construction became a critical tool for the exclusion of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants. In the name of “border security,” Americans have allowed politicians and lawmakers to build fences, detention centers, and other infrastructure to push migrants to dangerous areas. The result has been a rising death toll for humans and non-humans alike. But while many government agencies and nonprofits are working to maintain a diversity in plant and animal populations, few environmental organizations show much regard for human diversity. And, although there are humanitarian organizations working against state-sanctioned violence, those humanitarian organizations often ignore the environmental issues.
In other words, separating nature from humans never makes much sense except as a social construct. On the border, the perils of ignoring either side of that construct are tragic and should be unacceptable.