Thursday, July 1, 2010

Border Smokescreens

Fear of encroaching drug violence from Northern Mexico increasingly provides cover for anti-immigrant measures and ramping up border enforcement—whether at the state level through malicious laws such as Arizona’s draconian immigration crimes, or federally through funding of enhanced border security. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer defended her state’s immigration law by contending outlandishly that most undocumented immigrants are drug mules. Media and xenophobes now routinely mention rampant violence in the drug trade as additional justification for constructing Mexican immigrants as a threat to local communities and even national security given the conflation of the international drug trade with the war on terror. The fact that Mexican traffickers supply about 65 percent of all narcotics sold in the United States is seen as further indictment of the Mexican character as criminal rather than of the insatiable U.S. demand for narcotics from suburban soccer moms to college fraternities.

Over the years, the drug trade has converged on Mexican smuggling routes. When U.S. enforcement impeded the 1970s French Connection funneling heroin through Turkey and France into the United States, the Mexican cartels filled the void. When Miami Vice-style enforcement found success in scuttling the cocaine trade from South America through Florida, the Mexican alternate route flourished. When the United States ramped up internal detection and eradication of marijuana growing operations, Mexican traffickers took up the slack. And when the U.S. began tightly regulating the core ingredient of methamphetamine, Mexicans imported mass quantities of pseudoephedrine (legally at first and now unlawfully) and took over that trade.

Rather than serving as an indictment of the Mexican character, the preeminence of Mexican drug traffickers mostly reflects a combination of the absence of financial opportunity that breeds illicit economies, geographical proximity and, most important, exploiting the world’s busiest border. Without counting sometimes millions of crossings into the United States on foot outside the official ports of entry in bordertowns or U.S. arrivals by plane or boat, in one recent year the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics counted 4.23 million semi trucks, 7,774 trains containing 266,469 loaded rail cars, 88 million passenger vehicles, 319,087 buses with 3.7 million passengers, and 48,663,773 people crossing the U.S./Mexico border on foot. Border traffic of this magnitude offers cover to smuggling operations given the impracticality of methodically searching every person or vehicle, as proven by Nixon’s failed Operation Intercept that essentially shut down the border in 1969. The interconnectedness of the Mexican and United States economies and cultures increases over time, bolstering the appeal of illicit border crossings taking advantage of the incessant border traffic.

U.S. drug policies belong in the consideration of any comprehensive immigration/border reform. Until the United States confronts its own demand for cheap labor and illicit narcotics that pulls both Mexican labor and drug trafficking north, border solutions will be flawed and continue to emphasize security over reason at any cost.

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