When Larry Hopkins, the leader of a right-wing militia that rounded up migrant families in the New Mexico desert, was arrested by the FBI this week, his lawyer, Kelly O’Connell, wondered: “Why now?”
Although it may not have been O’Connell’s intent, he asked a good question. Because for more than a century, racist paramilitaries operated on the U.S.-Mexican border with a free hand, encouraged by local authorities, enabled by the state and condoned by the courts. It is the arrest of Hopkins—a convicted felon charged with illegally possessing firearms and ammunition—that is the exception to a baleful history of intimidating and exploiting Latinos that goes back to the origins of the border itself.
This inglorious record is most recently chronicled in Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, required reading for anyone interested in the subject. Grandin pulls no punches, making a direct connection between the naked racism of Anglo vigilantes and deputized enforcers who’ve long preyed on a porous frontier and the nativist animus fueling Donald Trump’s crusade to build a wall against “invaders.”
If anything, the invasion came from the north. The Mexican War of 1846-48 brought a third of Mexico under U.S. sway. Ulysses S. Grant, who fought in it, characterized the war as “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Were President James K. Polk not thwarted by a disobedient envoy—who preempted his expansionist ambitions with a peace treaty—we would have swallowed Mexico whole.
As Grandin recounts, in the half-century after the Civil War, thousands of Mexicans and American Latinos in the Southwest were lynched. Mexican-Americans were terrorized by night-riders, menaced by mob violence, disenfranchised at the ballot box by law officers and herded into a segregated labor market. But, in Grandin’s telling, it wasn’t until 1907 that the border was cleared of brush, and even then it remained porous until World War I. Nor was there a Border Patrol until it was established as part of the 1924 National Origins Act. Ironically, although the legislation imposed racial quotas on immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, Mexicans were exempt from its strictures because Texas business interests needed cheap labor from south of the border.
As a consolation prize, Grandin writes, “white supremacists took control of the newly established U.S. Border Patrol and turned it into a vanguard of race vigilantism.” Whatever the immigration laws, it was the Border Patrol agents that decided who could enter the country. They turned the seasonal ebb and flow across the border into what Grandin describes as “a ritual of abuse.” As a capstone to this, with the onset of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover criminalized informal border crossings in 1929 and, in his failed bid for re-election in 1932, gave a green light to a deportation plan designed to frighten aliens into leaving the country. By a conservative estimate, 300,000 migrants, as well as Mexican-Americans, did so.
But 10 years later, Mexicans were wanted again to fill the job shortage created by World War II, a need met by the Bracero program that fed a reliable supply of low-wage workers to American farmers. Over the next two decades, until the Bracero program ended, five million Mexicans entered the U.S. legally, and millions more illegally. The Border Patrol responded by building detentions centers and, by 1952, more than a million migrants were deported annually. Ironically, just as the racialist 1924 Immigration Act “helped” Mexicans by insulating them from its strictures, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which ended the racial quotas, set limits on how many migrants could enter from Mexico. Magistrate courts were established to prosecute migrants for unlawful entry. The flow of legal migration was staunched but not the U.S. need for cheap labor. Consequently, illegal immigration grew and along with it arrests, which jumped to a million and a half by 1986.
The influx continued, driven by a new source: refugees fleeing the civil wars of Nicaragua and El Salvador and the chaos of crime-ridden Honduras, a triangle of anarchy that sent its people fleeing north, a phenomenon abetted in good part by self-serving U.S. policies. The migrants were thrice abused: first, driven from their native homes by criminal drug gangs or economic despair; second, exploited by coyotes who often robbed or abandoned them on their journey north, and finally, at the border, where they sought a haven only to be incarcerated by the Border Patrol and ill-treated by local law enforcement. Worst perhaps, were the depredations of self-appointed militias composed of white supremacists posing as patriots, who came to national prominence over the last two decades.
Which brings us back to Larry Hopkins, whose patriotic bona fides include impersonating a police officer and a prison sentence of 16 months to two years for a felony possession of a loaded firearm. He is the leader of a group which calls itself the United Constitutional Patriots and posted videos of its activities detaining hundreds of migrants for transfer to the Border Patrol, which it claimed were simply “verbal citizen’s arrests.” The F.B.I. became interested in Hopkins and his friends after reports of “alleged extremist militia activity” in New Mexico. In arresting Hopkins the F.B.I. seized a cache of firearms from his trailer-park home. It is also looking into reports that the United Constitutional Patriots “were training to assassinate George Soros, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.”
There is a long tradition of racism in U.S. immigration policy. Trump did not invent it but he has battened on it to inflame his base and sow national discord for political advantage.
Every country has a duty to control immigration; the question is how best to go about this, and what to do with those undocumented people already here. In 2013, the U.S. Senate, with a strong bipartisan majority and popular national support, passed a reform bill 68-32 that would have provided a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, reduced current visa backlogs, streamlined permanent residence for preferred occupations and expanded an improved job verification system. The House, under pressure from anti-immigration forces, never acted on the legislation. Having prevented a popular reform from becoming law, nativist leaders moved to prosecute undocumented immigrants for breaking the law that remained.
This has led to two related forms of premeditated cruelty: the seizure of undocumented immigrants already here, leaving a trail of destroyed and distraught families, and the detentions of refugees seeking asylum at our borders. Neither torment has discouraged immigration, as the current chaos at our border demonstrates. At most, they offer a dollop of satisfaction to nativists who take solace in retribution as a substitute for immigration reform.
Jack Schwartz was formerly book editor of Newsday.