Post by Gabriella Sanchez, Assistant Professor of Security Studies and Associate Director for Research at University of Texas at El Paso’s National Security Studies Institute. Gabriella tweets @ smugglingpaths. In this post, which is part of our series on responding to the current political climate, Gabriella shares a series of thoughts about the impact of the new US President, how it affects her research and herself. The individual sections were written over a period of months and reflect a chronological development.
December 24, 2015
While celebrating Christmas Eve Mario – the father of a Mexican immigrant family whose border crossings I have followed over the years—approached me with a beer amid the feeling of happiness and loud excitement that filled his small house. He asked me in a tone that was intended to sound apathetic: ‘Is he going to win?’
I knew who that he referred to.
I wanted to have something barely smart or coherent to say – something like ‘no, we will defeat him at the polls’ or ‘no, he does not stand a chance.’ But Mario was not looking for that kind of answer. I am convinced he was looking for confirmation of what he feared. With some hesitation I replied. ‘He does have a shot at winning, yes.’ He smiled half-way, finished his beer, and went back to join his kids, wife and friends, who were laughing and signing to the upbeat tones of the Mexican banda songs coming from a karaoke machine.
Mario works anywhere between 50 to 60 hours per week cleaning offices in a city in the US Great Basin. He is undocumented. He has frequent nightmares of being apprehended and deported, but tries not to worry his children, who are doing well at school and are stable and happy, despite them being aware of the precarious status of their parents. ‘He wakes up covered in sweat, says he dreams la migra is chasing him and kicks him out,’ his wife Claudia shares with me some time after dinner. ‘The girls know they must not open the door to anybody if we are not home. We joke a lot about it too so not to let fear get to us. But he is scared.’
We finish putting the dishes away. The kids have finally gone to bed. The house is now quiet and all I can hear is the timid hum of the heater. I have nothing meaningful to say. By the time I wake up the next morning, Mario and Claudia have left for work.
May 13, 2016
Claudia calls. Immigration agents are carrying out raids and setting up checkpoints throughout the Latino immigrant neighborhoods in her city. A couple of days ago, police officers showed up at Mario’s best friend’s house to serve an immigration warrant for another occupant. At the local grocery store, Leslie, a Mexican undocumented woman who is Claudia’s friend and the lead cashier, was told ICE had been there to arrest her for using the social security number of an American citizen—or at least that was what the head of human resources, a white woman, told her the morning she showed up for work. Martha feared being arrested at work and that this could happen in front of her coworkers. She stopped going to work and moved to another city. Claudia asks me, ‘What should we do?’
I remember the reading materials the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other migrant advocacy organizations in the country have circulated about what to do in the event of an immigration raid or warrant. I can see in my mind the posts on list-serves and the articles from academics and activists of what ‘we’ (those of us privileged enough to earn a living from our research on immigration control and enforcement) can do to help undocumented migrants in our community. But I am over 900 miles away from Mario, Claudia, their family and friends, and I don’t know what to say. I feel helpless. I feel useless.
Claudia takes a deep breath and says with disappointment. ‘Fucking Obama, he let us down; so much for immigration reform, uh?’
September 19, 2016
My university is a ‘Hispanic Serving Institution’ or HSI: approximately 88 percent of our students are of Mexican American or Mexican origin, working class and often the first person in their family to attend university. In my ‘Border Security and Crime’ class we often discuss the narratives of the presidential campaign, particularly those concerning immigration control. We laugh and roll our eyes, even if discretely, every time we hear the now infamous reference to Mexicans or the fence articulated by the republican candidate. ‘Doesn’t he know we already have a fence?’ ‘Does he know that in South Texas the fence is way within US territory, forcing local residents to go through gates to reach their homes?’ ‘Does he have any idea of how long it takes to cross the border in the morning during rush hour?’ (An estimated 2,000 of our students cross the border from Mexico to attend the university, the processing waits often preventing them from arriving to class on time). We laugh. But I also get the sense that many of my students feel humiliated and hurt.
I wonder what may happen in a few months, once the electorate decides who will be the president. The border – the one we can see from campus on our way to meetings, class, or work; the one we cross to go into Juarez or El Paso – is already front and center in the electoral rhetoric. Yet Washington and its candidates only remember we exist every four years. This time around, amid the reports of unaccompanied minors flooding the border and El Chapo Guzman, the candidates promise increased border protection, immigration reform and heavier enforcement presence. The border – and by proxy, its people – are constructed as inherently violent and criminal. This is the paradise of transnational crime, the stomping grounds of the drug trade, and the operations center of anyone from sex traffickers to terrorists. Parades of commentators and specialists talk about the security challenges we pose and what the next administration should do about us.
As people from the border, we should be used to this narrative, and as our mothers and grandmothers would say, ignore it. But it is not that simple. There is something embarrassing, shameful about it. That is not what this place is. That is not who we are.
November 5, 2016
I voted early. I walked into the empty county building and my presence forced the four elderly women staffing the poll to take their positions. Ceremoniously, they greeted me, asked if I was a citizen, checked my identification card, verified I was registered to vote, gave me the key to access the computer station and finally sent me on my way to vote. I got an ‘I voted’ sticker for fulfilling my civic duty – the first one since I became a US citizen – and I walked out of a still empty building. Nobody else was in sight. I was on my own – all alone.
(I have often wondered if feeling lonely is an inherent condition of being a migrant.)
November 8, 2016
Election day was yesterday, and the outcome was revealed early in the evening. This morning as I leave my flat for work I can’t help to notice the streets are empty, and that the avenues surrounding campus are exceedingly quiet for it being a Wednesday morning. There is virtually no traffic at the main intersection into campus, and the faculty and staff parking lots I walk by every day and which are usually packed by this time are only sparsely occupied.
The parking lot attendant is there, though, bundled up inside his booth, listening to the radio. We wave at each other. There are no cars preventing me from approaching so I stop to say hi. ‘Where’s everybody?’ I ask in Spanish. ‘Some people can stay home whenever they want,’ he replies, before letting out a ‘lucky them!’
I walk into my office. The custodian– a woman who crosses the border every day to come work at the university – drops by to say hello. I ask her the same question I asked to the parking lot attendant. ‘Everybody is depressed, you know how gringos are. They get to stay at home when they feel down’ she says. ‘But we have to come to work.’
As soon as the custodian leaves I call Mario and Claudia. Neither one answers. I text their oldest kid, who is at school. ‘How’s everybody?’ I ask. She replies, ‘Good.’ ‘And your parents?’ ‘At work, shift started at 5am. Why?’
That same afternoon Elena, my colleague, a Mexican migrant and the mother and wife of US citizens, runs into my office without knocking and locks the door behind her. She looks like she has held back the tears all day. ‘What are we going to do? What am I going to do?’ she says as she covers her face and cries.
November 14, 2016
My first-year students had been waiting for this session for days. Rather than simply debriefing the day after the election I had them write their thoughts on paper first. When we meet we talk about the immediate aftermath of the election. They fear for their families, for migrants, for what a new administration will bring to the border. One female student describes having been accosted at the checkout line of a grocery store and being told her money was not good in the US and to take it back to Mexico instead – she is a US citizen. My students shake their heads in disbelief. ‘That is racist! That is racism!’ And so I ask: what is racism? What is race, for that matter?
There is a long silence in the room. My students know what racism is; they live it, they experience it, but they don’t have the words to define it. They know the presidential campaign relied on the mobilization of a racist anti-immigrant platform, yet they don’t know how to define that experience. I think of our own heritage as Mexicans, as mestizos, of our desperate efforts for redefining ourselves as non-Indian after the Conquest; of the remnants of colonialism, evident to this day on the way we perceive fair skin if not as a marker of race, as one of status, of wealth, of beauty. Living on the border, who are we? Who have we become?
As I continue listening to my students’ statements, there is another thought I cannot repress. When surveyed, of the 25 men and women in this class – there will be 23 by the end of the semester – 20 aspire to work for the US Border Patrol. Every student in this class identifies as Mexican or Mexican American.
January 20, 2017
On inauguration day I did my best to avoid the news. I got up early in the morning and went to meetings, then walked into a coffee shop to work with the hope that the place would be playing music and that the TV on the corner would be off.
The owner takes my order and says: Wake up! Did you know that Reagan is no longer our president?
January 21, 2017
There were demonstrations all over the country today and El Paso had its own. I had initially planned to attend the local march with friends but it is cloudy and cold, and I cannot shake off the feeling of sadness that invades me. I monitor Twitter with the hopes that the images and the posts will energize me, but they make me even sadder. The pictures show a pink wave that has descended upon DC and other US cities. Scores of smiling men, women – predominantly white women – and children march happily in the cold, carrying bright signs and wearing funny hats. I cannot help but wonder, where do we go from here? What will happen tomorrow? I turn off the TV and cross the border into Juarez for a meeting --and to avoid reading any more news.
By the time I cross the border back into El Paso it is already dark. I line up at the Santa Fe checkpoint. There are not that many people and so we all nod and smile at each other as we wait: women carrying young children, elder people protecting themselves from the cold which has not ceased, mature men with rough hands and their beaten up bicycles. Being among them makes me feel happy and safe. After a brief wait the US customs officer –a Mexican American man -- summons me to the station, and asks what I did while in Mexico. I open the little box containing my dinner’s leftovers. ‘I went for tlacoyos,’ I say. ‘Tla-what?’ He asks. ‘Tlacoyos!’ people scream in unison. ‘Ah jijo’ he utters in disbelief, as he stares into the box and tries to contain the look of hunger in his face, the smell of bean-filled, fried corn patties topped with chopped avocado filling the air. Everybody lets out a laugh, even the other officers. ‘You hungry, man?’ they tell him jokingly.
For the very first time this weekend, I can hear myself laugh.
Note: The names of every person mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Sanchez, G. (2017) Where do we go from here? A Personal Chronicle of the US Election. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/01/where-do-we-go (Accessed [date]).