Border Activists Demand Changes

By Kent Paterson

Fed up with the status quo, elected officials, activists and residents from the US-Mexico border region are taking their demands for sweeping changes to Washington, D.C. In a fresh challenge to long-standing policies, many groups and political leaders are shaping new agendas they hope the Obama administration will adopt. High on the list of proposed reforms are the suspension of construction of the controversial US-Mexico border wall, passage of a comprehensive immigration reform that would include a path to legalization for undocumented workers and greater investments in border infrastructure needs. Also at stake is the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

“The thing is to begin now with a strong united border voice to make a new era in Washington, D.C.,” says Texas state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso). Shapleigh, along with other elected officials from El Paso, sent then-President-elect Obama a letter late last year requesting a halt to the erection of the Department of Homeland Security’s border fence that now passes through El Paso and many other border communities. Opponents of the multi-billion dollar fencing criticize the project for damaging the environment, encouraging deadly migrations through isolated, unfenced areas and conveying a racist, exclusionary message to Mexico.

While the political bent of border activists differs among organizations and leaders, most share a rejection of the post 9/11 Bush administration policies that treated the border as a dangerous, no-man’s land rife with drug smuggling criminals, invading aliens and even shadowy, bomb-toting terrorists. Crossings between US-Mexico sister cities, where residents maintain close commercial, cultural and family ties, sometimes now takes hours as traffic backs up and chokes the border with pollution.

“Security trumped not only trade but environmental concerns,” contends Rick Van Schoik, the director of the Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University in Tempe. Van Schoik’s staff is preparing a report on border issues that will be presented to Washington, D.C. policy-makers.

Many border region elected officials and leaders of Latino Beltway advocacy organizations were uplifted by the nomination of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to head the Department of Homeland Security. Although Napolitano is well known for dispatching the Arizona National Guard to the Mexican border and advocating a crack down on the employment of undocumented workers, Napolitano has also made past comments that were critical of the border wall and favorable to immigration reform.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based America’s Voice immigrant rights group, initially praised Napolitano’s nomination but later expressed disappointment that the Arizona governor did not take a clearer stand on behalf of immigration reform during her Senate testimony on Jan. 15.

“She failed to underscore President-elect Obama’s commitment to moving reform legislation in 2009,” Sharry said in a statement. “Though she made the case for smarter policy at the border and in the workplace, she failed to highlight the glaring need for an earned citizenship program and reforms of the legal immigration system.”

Others, pointing to Napolitano’s support for border militarization and for the E-Verify program that uses a questionable data base to check the Social Security numbers of prospective employees, wonder if the Southwestern politician will bring fundamental change to Washington.

“If we can expect this type of program on a national level, as has been proposed by outgoing President Bush, there will be no real ‘change’ from the incoming Obama administration, just further attempts to criminalize the right to work for migrant workers and their families,” says Caroline Issacs of the American Friends Service Committee’s Arizona program.

Many grassroots organizations ranging from the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights to the San Antonio-based Southwest Workers Union are not waiting for new officials in Washington to act. Since the election, they have been busy planning or conducting demonstrations, launching letter-writing campaigns and organizing community mobilizations to effect changes.

For instance, the Southwest Workers Union plans a border rights assembly from Feb. 27-28 in San Antonio, where activists will gather to discuss strategies and tactics to advance their causes. A major theme of the San Antonio gathering will be the repeal of NAFTA.

As President Obama settles into Washington, labor, pro-immigrant and human rights organizations are once again demanding a second look at free trade. An alliance between activists in the three NAFTA member nations is also gaining renewed momentum.

Despite Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s admonitions that NAFTA should not be touched, many political leaders south of the border say the time is ripe to review the trade pact and chart a new path in a US-Mexico relationship that has been defined by a hostile border in recent years.

According to Mexican political leader Victor Quintana, Chihuahua state legislator and advisor to the Democratic Peasant Front of Chihuahua, North American civil society organizations are fashioning a common agenda that includes the renegotiation of important sections of NAFTA, the inclusion of migrant and environmental concerns in cross-border trade relationships and stopping of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, a tri-national program that seeks to extend NAFTA into the military and public security realms.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Mexico and the US Southwest.

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 15, 2009

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