Whose "Border Crisis"?
February 9, 2023
On February 1, the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee held the first hearing on immigration, alliteratively calling it “Biden’s Border Crisis.” One of the three men who testified was Sheriff Mark Dannels of Cochise County, Arizona.
Dannels, who has been sheriff since 2012, was largely there to reiterate the anti-immigrant message that the U.S.-Mexico border is the site of intense danger – from human traffickers and drug smugglers – and the cause of America’s fentanyl overdose problems.
Dannels is not an innocent observer of anti-immigration proceedings. I saw him personally at (and his office helped organize) a “border rally” sponsored by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, one of the groups in the Tanton network that exists to create the (mis)impression that anti-immigrant sentiment is more widespread than it actually is. FAIR is openly anti-immigrant and racist, with the express goal of net zero immigration and a particular venomous hate for non-white immigrants. His anti-immigration views are fairly well-established, including accepting additional funding for border militarization from Warren Buffet’s son, who has become an honorary sheriff’s deputy. (More on that some other time.) His special unit for the border? SABRE -- Southeastern Arizona Border Region Enforcement Team.
Dannels also serves as the chair of the “Border Security Committee” for the National Sheriffs Association, which held its meeting in early February, just after the House Committee. How convenient.
Dannels was there in full military-inspired regalia to bolster the Republican narrative that the U.S.-Mexico border is a Dante-esque netherworld where there is constant disorder and “crime,” bringing a flow of fentanyl that threatens to kill the country’s youth. (Most fentanyl is smuggled through ports-of-entry, not in backpacks carried by migrants who are, remember, walking across extraordinarily harsh terrain and trying to avoid death,) The right has largely relied on the QAnon-human trafficking panic to imply that people are being smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border, making them both victims and perpetrators of a crime. (You’ll note the Nietzschean eternal return of the one-time policy of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas to arrest and charge migrants with their own smuggling.)
The story conveniently confuses two things. The first is immigration or migration, which is the movement of people between countries. People move around. Some people are displaced because of war, famine, economic, and environmental disasters. Some move because people move. The vast majority of people who come to the United States do not come by walking across the U.S.-Mexico border.
The second is border militarization, which more accurately describes the system of walls, surveillance, and police presence on the U.S.-Mexico border. (Note that while the U.S.-Canada border is geographically larger AND per the U.S. government has been the site of more “terrorists” entering the U.S., no one is worried about that.)
Sheriffs have been key drivers of the border militarization narrative, willingly embracing the idea that the borderlands are dangerous and home to excessive violence. Arizona Sheriff Mark Lamb, who has made an entire career out of border policing – despite being dozens of miles from the physical U.S.-Mexico border – has begun posting videos to his Facebook page where he detains drivers to accuse them of being “human smugglers.” Lamb also did a “documentary” with Turning Point USA on the U.S.-Mexico border in which he portrays himself as an AK-47-wielding savior. Fox News anchor and darling of the L.A. Times Bill Melugin is also planning a long “border” show with Tucker Carlson.
Demonizing migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border is a hobby for the right, and it serves their narrative that the federal government should cede its power to the states. Sheriffs and their allies have transmogrified this issue into a state’s rights issue, like all essentially racist policies eventually become. If, as they argue, the federal government isn’t policing the U.S.-Mexico border, then the states have the right to do so. We see this in Texas, Arizona, and (a state conspicuously not on the U.S.-Mexico border) Florida. Immigration is one of the few areas where the federal government unquestionably has legal control. Perhaps this is why sheriffs and their ilk are trying their best to make the U.S.-Mexico border about anything other than immigration – if the actual issues are drugs and human trafficking, then the states would have more leeway to police what is otherwise traditionally outside of their jurisdiction.
The tangible outcome, however, is racism. On January 30, two days before the House Committee, a rancher shot and killed a man that he said was crossing his ranch property. (He has been arrested and held on a $1 million bail.) Was it racist? Who can read into the hearts of men? In this case, the rancher has written a short and very bad book about a rancher (huh) who patrols his ranch with an AK-47 in order to shoot “drug mules.”
These far-right xenophobic fantasies have real consequences.