The situation along the US-Mexico border is sometimes described as a “disaster,” but rarely a natural disaster. Yet in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s ten-year anniversary, I have been struck by the remarkable similarities that exist between post-Katrina New Orleans and the US–Mexico border. Criminalization of local residents, heightened militarization, increases in gender-based violence, overnight privatization of government institutions—as I read about the realities of post-Katrina New Orleans last month, I found myself transported, not ten years back, but to the time I spent this past spring, near Nogales Arizona, working with migrants crossing the US-Mexico border.
Seeing connections between what has been happening to the people of New Orleans since the storm and what is happening along the southern US border encourages us to look past the stereotypes that we have been taught—that black is not brown, that “the American South” is not the border region, that the “immigration crisis” is not a natural disaster—and to identify common ground between these two seemingly disparate situations. By highlighting some of these similarities here, I hope to open up new possibilities for imagining solidarity between marginalized communities in New Orleans and Latin American migrants crossing the US-Mexico Border.
Criminalization and Militarization
In New Orleans, the American government responded to a crisis that was largely its own creation by militarizing the city and criminalizing its most vulnerable residents. Decades of institutionalized neglect and racism, a botched evacuation plan and the delayed deployment of government aid all had dire consequences for New Orleans’s poor, sick, and elderly as the storm flooded the city on August 23, 2005. As the area’s most vulnerable fended for themselves in the search for food, water, and safety, the government branded them as looting, rampaging “thugs” and brought in the military to restore order. Instead of providing aid, the government surrounded the citizens of New Orleans with armed military, sending a message that the threat of chaos and violence stemmed from out-of-control communities of color rather than a lack of access to clean water, food, and safe shelter during an extreme crisis. Business owners, likewise, hired private security companies to guard private property from the poor, intensifying the militarization of New Orleans. Far from curtailing violence in the aftermath of the storm, this militarization lead to gross abuses of military and police power.
In the US–Mexico border region, too, criminalization and militarization have been the American government’s responses to a humanitarian crisis of its own making. NAFTA and backwards drug policies have resulted in widespread chronic unemployment and extreme violence throughout Mexico and Central America, heightening the numbers of those moving northward in search of better lives. Yet the routes taken by these migrants have been purposefully funneled into a vast and harsh desert in a bid to make the journey to the United States as difficult as possible. Moreover, the very act of migrating has essentially been criminalized. With the 2005 introduction of the “zero tolerance” policy Operation Streamline—a joint initiative of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice—undocumented migrants are now prosecuted as criminals rather than being handled by the civil immigration system as they once were. Both the detention of migrants and the filing of criminal charges against them have increased dramatically since the implementation of this policy. In 2013, immigration prosecutions reached the all-time high of 97,384 –a 367% increase over the number of prosecutions 10 years earlier. Practically all who are charged plead guilty, which bars them from applying for legal status in the United States for at least five years and sometimes for life.
Many academic studies have shown that increased immigration from Central America has not increased violent crime rates in the US. Nevertheless, the American federal government has used the flow of immigrants across the US-Mexico border as justification for militarizing the region. In addition to building nearly two thousand miles of fence between the United States and Mexico, Homeland Security has also authorized the use of watchtowers, low-flying helicopters, and internal checkpoints. The military infrastructure in the region is managed by U. S. Customs and Border Patrol, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security that has been given broad powers and little outside oversight, often with tragic consequences. In 2012, for instance, a Mexican youth named Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez was shot ten times for allegedly throwing rocks at a Border Patrol agent from the Mexican side of the border in Nogales. In response to public pressure, the Border Patrol commissioned an independent investigation on its use of deadly force in the field but has since attempted to keep the resulting report private.
The decision to militarize the US-Mexico border was not necessarily a democratic one. For many living in the region, the presence of the military is unwelcome. “Somos frontera, no zona de guerra.” We’re the border, not a war zone. A chant heard at local protests articulates the discontent that many residents feel toward the constant military presence. This summer, multiple rural-Arizona communities, including the Tohono O’odham Nation—which has previously cited detainment and deportation of its enrolled members from their own native land by Border Patrol—held a day of protest calling for “the Department of Homeland Security to stop the spread of military infrastructure that continues to degrade life in the border region.”
While many crimes did and do occur in post-Katrina New Orleans and along the US–Mexico border, characterizations of their populations as “thugs,” “robbers,” or “illegals” is incomplete at best, racist and xenophobic at worst. These descriptors abet the federal government in applying military force outside a genuine battlefield and in creating a situation in which abuse of authority is rampant. Increased militarization creates an atmosphere of insecurity for everyone by obscuring the root causes of these crises, and encouraging disenfranchisement and unjust profiling.
Heightened Rates of Gender-Based Violence
Militarization and the criminalization of marginalized populations both in New Orleans and along the US-Mexico border corrodes the trust necessary for people to go to the police when in danger. This is especially true when it comes to the victims of gender-based violence (GBV). Both in post-Katrina New Orleans and all along the US-Mexico border, there has been a notable increase in gender-based violence.
After Katrina, many women in New Orleans reported feeling hesitant to ask assistance from the security forces then in the city and shared concerns that those forces were hired primarily to protect private property rather than the well-being of those citizens who remained in the flooded city. Without access to usual community supports—hospitals, family networks, counselling centres—women in New Orleans had few places to ask for help or to report an assault. As one woman who tried to report being raped at knifepoint stated, “The police was stressed out themselves. . . . The National Guards didn’t want to hear it.” In one study of women living in post-Katrina emergency housing, the rate of GBV among women quadrupled its pre-storm rate in 2006, and by 2007 it was still elevated to more than twice its pre-storm rate. This increase was apparently not motivation enough for the state to prioritize rebuilding resources for women in the city. The rebuilding of hospitals, where rape examinations could be conducted and women could be connected to other social services, was notably slow, and public mental-health services remained absent four years after the storm.
For women migrants crossing the border or living near it, reporting an assault to US authorities can be similarly challenging. It often means deportation to a Mexican border town where a network underground and unregulated industries related to border crossing have grown in response to militarization of the official crossings. Kidnappers and brothel owners, for example, find easy prey in recent deportees who arrive at all hours, often without identification, money, or familiarity with the town. In a society that still struggles to equally value women’s rights and autonomy, speaking up can result in harsh consequences, exacerbating women’s vulnerability to violence while cutting off avenues through which attackers may be held accountable.
In the case of migrant women who reach the border zone, it is alarmingly likely that they have been assaulted during their journey. There is also a history of Border Patrol officials soliciting sex from women they apprehend, sometimes in exchange for the release or return of personal documents. While documentation of this practice highlights a steady history of abuse and extortion, lack of oversight and repercussions for offending agents leave this trend unaddressed by governments on both sides of the border.
Of course, GBV includes much more than physical assaults. Militarism, as an ideology, promotes GBV by creating a culture obsessed with control, masculinity, patriarchy, and national security. Scholar Cynthia Enloe’s work on militarized rape identifies several conditions that are likely to produce violence against women in the name of national security, including: “when a regime is preoccupied with national security…when the making of national security policy is left to a largely masculinized policy elite…and when those prevailing institutional cultures are misogynous.” All are present in post-Katrina New Orleans and along the US-Mexico border and help us to understand the de-prioritization of the health and safety of women living in both regions.
While fumbles and delays characterized the delivery of federal aid to many New Orleans citizens after Katrina, there is one area in which recovery efforts were adept and expedient: public education. One month after the storm, as many still waited for housing, the process of designing a privatized school system began. First came the money: $20.9 million from the Department of Education toward the building of charter schools, tens of thousands of dollars for libraries in eight charter schools from the Laura Bush Foundation, and offers from many private foundations to give money and expertise as the city schools are rebuilt. Even as psychologists and parents asked that children of the city be allowed to hold on to what few familiar places remained after such a drastic upheaval, no funds were designated for the rebuilding of public schools.Instead, Governor Kathleen Blanco issued an executive order to wave the requirement that faculty and students approve the conversion of their public schools to charter schools, and the state legislature passed a bill making it easier for the state to take control of a city-run school.
By November 2005, ninety percent of New Orleans schools had been taken over by the state and converted to charter schools. Teaching staff were fired en masse and those that remained employed were barred from unionizing. Of the district’s sudden conversion to a chartered system, the New Orleans Picayune pointed out, “With New Orleans residents scattered across the country, making it more difficult for people to stay involved in local government, several legislators say the push smacks of opportunism.” Though residents continued to fight for locally controlled public schools, the charter presence slowly increased until 2014, when the last five public schools were closed and the system became the first in the nation to consist entirely of charter schools.
The same process of capitalizing upon a precarious situation in order to privatize government institutions has also occurred along the US–Mexico Border. Like public education, immigration enforcement has traditionally been seen as a function of the state. However, immigration control is increasingly coming under the purview of private contractors. As with the overthrow of the public schools in New Orleans, this change seems to be motivated more by the ideology and interest of a political elite than by consensus in the affected communities. While voters have not expressed strong desire for increased immigration-related detention, the number of detained migrants in the United States has skyrocketed from less than 7,500 in 1995 to more than 33,000 in 2014, a more-than-fourfold increase.
More than fifty years ago, the United States passed the Immigration Nationality Act, eliminating the detention of immigrants under most circumstances. However, in 1983, one of the first (and what is now the nation’s largest) migrant-detention companies rented out a motel and got its first government contract. Three years later, the company spent nearly $100,000 in support of a prison-privatization bill in Tennessee. Since then federal policies have begun once again to favor detention of undocumented citizens. Mandatory detention without bond is now common practice. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) budget has increased by one billion dollars. Since 2009, a “bed mandate” requires the constant occupation of 33,400 beds in immigration detention facilities nationwide.
Given that private detention centers have a vested interest in keeping beds full, it is alarming to consider the implications of a completely privately run detention center. Far from simply building the structures and guarding the cells, contracted personnel make decisions about who gets asylum, who gets access to phones, food, lawyers, and restrooms. As unionized workers are not welcome and turnover is high, this often leaves life-changing decisions in the hands of new and poorly trained staff. Screening for asylum is done with “virtually no oversight,” with no participation by families or the public in interviews and hearings. Tracking the detained proves difficult for their families, and virtually impossible for the press and watchdog organizations, which have no way of finding out detained persons’ names.
Many organizations say that privatization is economically motivated. This is clearly true both for the booming prison and charter school industries and for the politicians they patronize. New Orleans has spent a large portion of its hurricane recovery funds rebuilding schools that have been leased at no cost to charter school companies. Such deals obviously contribute to the profitability of an industry that is growing between twelve and fourteen percent annually, and this growth has attracted investment from some of the leading hedge funds. The two largest private detention contractors, CCA and GEO, reported a combined annual revenue of over 3 billion dollars in 2014 and although there is not enough public information on federal contracts to know what percentage of that revenue comes from those detention center contracts, it is known that taxpayers have contributed an average of more than $1.5 billion annually to fund their work. The daily rate the government is charged for housing one inmate has risen from $80 in 2004 to around $160 in 2015, even as economies of scale have allowed companies to spend less on each inmate. Moreover, in both the education and prison industries, privatization has shifted labor that was formerly done by unionized workers to non-union workers, resulting in considerable savings—savings generally not passed on to the government by its contractors—on wages and benefits.
While the use of contractors does not necessarily mean a loss of government control over schools or prisons in these areas, in practice, privatization tends to further insulate these institutions from being held accountable to and by the public. In the case of New Orleans’s charter schools, as one dean of a public school put it, “They don’t answer to anyone. . . . The charters have money and want to make more money. They have their own boards, make their own rules, accept who they want and put out who they want to put out.” And in the end this may be exactly the point. These movements are not only about profit: they’re also about restructuring state capacities and responsibilities in ways that leave less room for democratic participation.
For a brief moment in 2005, the issues of Latin American migration and Hurricane Katrina overlapped. There was a public outcry when companies privately contracted to do cleanup and reconstruction were caught bussing in temporary Latino workers from Texas instead of hiring from the large pool of homeless-and-jobless storm victims. In his national address on Katrina, Bush declared that “as many jobs as possible should go to the men and women who live in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama”, but he then loosened protections on working conditions and contracted with KBG (a subsidiary of Halliburton), which was among the many contractors to covertly employ undocumented migrants.This episode highlights how barriers such as competition for work, and differences in legal status, keep us from connecting the struggles of the affected communities in post-Katrina New Orleans and along the US-Mexico Border.
Examining commonalities in how the state treats marginalized populations in both places leads us to reevaluate the nature of these crises. When we refer, for example, to Katrina as a natural disaster, we obscure the opportunistic policies that have caused much of the devastation experienced in New Orleans. Likewise, when we fail to acknowledge as natural the centuries-old process of human migration, we risk minimizing the state’s role in creating the disastrous situation now existing along the US-Mexico border. Furthermore, recognizing such commonalities forces us to consider the economic reasons for migration from the south today. The market imperialism that results in the exploitation of illegal labor from Latin America at present is not entirely distant from the exploitation of Africans who were brought to the US as slaves over two centuries ago.
While working for concrete institutional and policy changes is important for the attainment of more equitable conditions, the lasting value of connecting these seemingly disparate struggles is solidarity in itself. Instead of appealing to the existing powers for change people can invest in one another and work side-by-side to create it on their own terms. Solidarity directly counteracts the kind of neoliberal exploitation occurring both on the border and in New Orleans. As communities cultivate identities based on shared resistance to criminalization, militarization, gender based violence, and privatization, states and corporations intent on dividing and conquering will have a harder time drawing lines between them. “Solidarity, not charity” was the slogan of the Common Ground Relief Collective founded by citizens of New Orleans to provide mutual aid after the storm, and its message remains a radical one.