Trash, Migration, and Exclusion in the Borderlands

October 28, 2009

This is long overdue. I read Leo Banks’ article when I was in Tucson last spring and was beyond outraged at its racism and ignorance. This type of thinking has to be challenged and exposed for what it is and what it is really saying.

In the US/Mexico Borderlands, battles are fought over trash. For years the media and anti-immigrant activists—from the Minutemen to Sheriff Joe Arpaio to Fox News—have used the issue of trash left in the desert by unauthorized migrants as a rallying point to advocate for more vigilant border enforcement. More recently, federal authorities have begun issuing littering citations to humanitarian groups that leave water in the desert for migrants. These commentators and government representatives move easily from this representation of a fragile desert ecosystem under threat of destruction by migrants and their allies to a more general xenophobic representation of a US under threat of invasion by “illegal aliens.” Yet underlying these stories about desert littering—and, by extension, the discourse of an “alien invasion”—are extremely simplistic and problematic conceptions of nature, space, and migration in general. By working together to naturalize borders and a politics of exclusion, these misconceptions have very real material consequences, like the deaths of thousands of migrants in the desert in the last fifteen years.

Such an appeal to pop environmentalism is powerful—it is hard to argue that trash in the desert is not a problem. Leo Bank’s feature article in last spring’s Tucson Weekly is full of photos of piles of discarded backpacks and water bottles meant to inspire action on the part of a previously uninformed populace. “Have you had your holy-smokes moment yet regarding our illegal-immigration crisis?” he asks at the beginning. “If not, travel to Arizona’s border region, and go off-road to the game trails, mountain passes and grassland flats that make this area so magical. In many places, the magic is gone, lost beneath piles of garbage.” He then sets out to dramatically describe the amount of “trash has been dropped since this invasion began.”

There are a number of shortcomings to this logic. Most simply, it is based on a romanticized view of nature as something pristine and external to humans, something outside our cities to be visited, observed, catalogued, and enjoyed. Implicit in this characterization is the absurd assumption that the rest of us—the non-migrants—are not involved in the transformation and degradation of the environment, as if we exist independent of nature. Such naïve thinking is especially ironic in the southwest, where fast growing, sprawling desert cities and their thirsty golf courses are turning rivers into dry streambeds (Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, etc).

Likewise there is the ecological havoc wrought by the increasing militarization of the border to consider. The 2005 Read ID Act exempted construction of the border wall from all federal environmental regulations, from the Clean Air Act to the Endangered Species Act. The wall itself cuts through sensitive, protected habitat on both sides of the boundary, and is lined on the US side by wide dirt access roads for Border Patrol vehicles. Yet Banks’s seems to think that halting migration and picking up the trash will simply return the desert to its “pre-invasion beauty.” If “pre-invasion” is going to be our benchmark standard, it might be more useful to consider other invasions of the southwest, such as the colonization of the Americas by Europe.

Another issue here is the treatment of migration as an isolated incident that begins only when someone crosses the US/Mexico boundary. On the contrary, migration is tied to a complex web of interrelated environmental, social, economic, and political forces acting unevenly over space and time. A long history of US military intervention in the region, free trade agreements like NAFTA, and the mandated imposition of neoliberal policies are just a few of the factors that bear considering. Yet nowhere does Banks ask why so many people are walking through the desert to begin with, or why there are “backpacks, clothing, food cans, toothpaste, toys, water bottles,” as well as bibles, religious statues, birth certificates, and diapers, discarded along the trails. Calling all this trash obscures the reality of what is happening out there: people are traveling great distances and taking great risks, children in tow, hoping to establish a new life for themselves in the United States. But why? Instead of investigating this basic questions, Banks mocks an out-of-town church volunteer who, after picking up trash, said it “tells stories of ‘hardship and hope.’” “She’s delusional,” Banks says. “The hardship is mostly self-imposed, and there is no hope in garbage.”

Conflating concern for the environment with more controls of migration displaces a very political issue onto the environment and works to depoliticize the border and migration. In reality, the border itself was imposed on Mexico when the US won control of what is now Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah in the Mexican-American War in 1848. The border as we now know it has been produced by a series of conflicts, campaigns, and policies that are inextricably tied to economic, political, and social changes on both sides of the border. In the last fifteen years in particular, US border policy has methodically pushed people away from the more traditional urban crossing areas (El Paso, Tijuana, Nogales) and into remote areas where geography itself has been used as a tool of deterrence. In a very specific way, therefore, the presence of so many thousands of people walking through fragile desert has everything to do with the particular ways in which the border has been produced. As the number of Border Patrol agents and fences grow, people are left with few alternatives to walking for days—and so carrying the food and water with them that ends up as trash along the way—through ecologically sensitive areas.

The US government’s attitude toward migration is clearly written onto the landscape of the Borderlands. Crossers are confronted with an array of high-tech security tools, armed guards, and towering walls. When they venture away from urban areas they enter a desert that is endlessly described as harsh, unforgiving, and uninviting, much like the United States in general for unauthorized migrants. As the journey north takes place in more remote areas, the increasing danger and difficulty seem to come from the environment itself rather than from US immigration policy, thus naturalizing both the border and the structural violence that comes with it. Nature and geography, then, become implicated in these social and political struggles, revealing the very blurry boundaries between them. And as a result, the story of political and economic policies that leave many people with few alternatives to risking their lives to leave home in search of more opportunity elsewhere simply becomes the story of irresponsible people behaving badly in a place they shouldn’t be to begin with. Moreover, humanitarian volunteers who leave life-saving bottles of water on heavily trafficked migrant trails become litters with no respect for fragile desert ecosystems and criminalizing aid becomes protecting the environment. In the end the idea that there is a clear difference between “us” over here and “them” en route becomes simplistically external and absolute and a virulent politics of exclusion is projected onto the desert.

It is important to consider the ways in which the border was—and still is—produced; in other words, we need to denaturalize it. At the foundations of these competing discourses about migration are differing ideas about space more generally: on the one had space, like nature, is empty, something through which migrants pass; on the other, the border, and our ideas about its naturalness, is a space that has been produced through practices and policies over the last hundred and fifty years. Control of the border, then, comes to be about the control of space, which also is about the manipulation and use of nature to a political end. When seen in this sense, focusing on the destruction of the desert by migrants becomes rather inane; there are much bigger acts of destruction going on, from livelihoods all over Mexico and Central America to the lives of the hundreds of migrants who die in the desert every year.

It is important to understand how turning to the environment as a proxy for battles over migration misidentifies a very political international issue as very local and apolitical, and how it carries with it much larger ideas about the relationship between the US and Mexico. At their best the arguments of people like Banks are shortsighted or disingenuous; at their worst they are dangerously misleading. And at their root lurks the enduring violence and xenophobia that has plagued the relationship of the US to its southern neighbors for centuries.

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