Unusual sights and sounds rose from the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande between Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. Stretched between two old black railroad bridges crossing the cemented and water-poor but trash-rich channel, which passes for the Big River in this section of the rio’s tormented journey to the Gulf of Mexico, 60 small white flags upheld by metallic poles, clasping wooden shoes and writers’ verses, stood on a spring evening as a jazz combo kicked out the jams.
Nearby, street graffiti proclaimed, “The Most Beautiful Border of the World.”
The creation of Mexico City’s Betsabee Romero, the flags and shoes represented the aspiration for peace and symbolized the weary feet of migrants who’ve traversed this land for generations, the artist said in an interview. Explaining her concept, Romero said she was inspired by Mexican writers and artists such as Juan Rulfo, Octavio Paz and Frida Kahlo, as well as events registered on this particular patch of Mother Earth, including the 2010 shooting death of 15-year-old Sergio Hernandez by a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
“This was a place with a lot of histories and when I was here people told me about them,” Romero said.
Romero’s exposition capped off a three-day forum held earlier this month in Juárez dedicated to the cultural rights of migrants across the globe. Co-sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Chihuahua state government, the Colegio de Chihuahua, the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez and the Autonomous University of Chihuahua, the gathering analyzed and debated often overlooked strands of the contemporary immigration question — including ethnicity, religion, language, food and other dimensions of human identity.
In a lively encounter, academics, Mexican government officials, media makers, artists, and members of non-governmental organizations assembled at the Paso del Norte Cultural Center and nearby university campuses, where they put U.S. and European immigration policies under the microscope, debated human rights violations and Mexican immigration policy, and contemplated how the academy can play a changing and more meaningful role in one of the pressing yet contentious issues of our time.
In a press release announcing the forum, UNESCO’s Mexico office said the United Nations estimates approximately 250 million people will live in a country other than their origin in 2017, a number representing a 45 percent increase since 2000.
Nuria Sanz, director of UNESCO in Mexico City, summed up the challenges confronting anthropologists and other researchers who, increasingly, must go outside the normal academic box to study and analyze the movements of peoples that are transforming the planet.
“How can social science capture something that is transitory?” she asked. “How are disciplines rapidly crossed?”
Journeys into New Mexico’s colonias
The migration touches both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Guillermina Nunez-Mchiri, professor of anthropology and director of women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), reflected on her experiences in the colonias (underdeveloped settlements lacking in basic infrastructure and services) of southern New Mexico’s Doña Ana County, where many Mexico-born farmworkers found homes after the 1980s. Nunez-Mchiri’s research for the U.S. Census was a homecoming for her: She had spent part of her childhood in Hatch, New Mexico, as the daughter of Mexican parents who followed the farm harvests in the U.S. Southwest.
Despite her years in Hatch, Nunez-Mchiri found she had to establish trust and rapport with frequently suspicious residents who didn’t know her and wondered why on earth they should open their fragile homes and busy lives to a stranger asking a lot of questions. Gradually, however, residents identified with the probing woman’s life story and cultural background and accepted the researcher’s sincerity, inviting her to “come in and eat” before opening up their worlds.
The UTEP professor outlined findings from her New Mexico projects — notably the existence of colonias “in one of the most developed countries of the world;” the weight of widespread depression among inhabitants; the presence of numerous residences of “mixed citizenship status;” and the persistence of “driving while brown” violations, or frequent police stops of drivers with old cars and a certain ethnic look.
On the other hand, Nunez-Mchiri said, she noticed the emergence of new community leaders, mainly women, who began to connect their neighbors to services and organize against illegal police checkpoints.
She discovered that a huge issue was “entrapment,” or the confinement of communities. At first entrapment was due to geographic and climatic factors, punctuated by the temporary isolation brought on by New Mexico’s notorious summer flash floods that trap people living down mud-prone roads, Nunez-Mchiri said. Later, she detected a more permanent form of entrapment triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent intensification of law enforcement patrols, checkpoints and high-tech detection strategies throughout the borderlands.
The 21st century security net was readily evident as this reporter drove down El Paso’s Paisano Drive, which parallels the fenced-off border, while heading to the Juárez migration forum. There, as traffic whisked by, Border Patrol agents had a man detained near two stopped civilian cars, one of which appeared to have crashed.
In return for data, Nunez-Mchiri pledged to the interviewees that her research would be accessible and produce documents that could go to agencies and institutions with power to impact their lives. According to the UTEP scholar, perhaps the most important words she heard from the colonia residents was a basic message: “We exist. Tell them we are here. Tell them we exist.”
In this spirit, Nunez-Mchiri said the foreign-born children of undocumented parents who were brought to the U.S. as youngsters — or the Dreamers, as they are now popularly known — have delivered a big lesson learned in turn from the likes of Martin Luther King, Dolores Huerta and Harvey Milk.
“What we learned from our young people is if they don’t go public, they don’t exist. If we don’t come out, we don’t exist,” she said.
Touching on the traumas of entrapment, Rodolfo Rubio, researcher for Juarez’s Colegio de Chihuahua, described the current mood among many migrants living in the United States without legal status.
“Migrants don’t go out in public. They are cooped up in their homes, afraid of being deported,” Rubio said. “If they were invisible before, now they are even more invisible.”
Participants in the Juárez forum differed in their assessments of whether a truly massive deportation of immigrants without legal status from the U.S. will occur under the Trump administration. Rubio reminded the audience that deportations soared to 2.3 million under the Obama administration, but perhaps did not garner as much attention because the U.S. president was deemed “cool.”
Now, under the Trump Administration, “there is a continuation of this (deportation) project, but we have a more aggressive discourse,” he said.
The Mexican scholar continued, “I’m not saying a massive deportation won’t occur, but it is impossible under present circumstances… the discourse of Trump could have an effect (on migration), but we don’t have (hard evidence) to say whether this is the case.”
U.S. media outlets reported last week that the 41,318 arrests of immigrants by U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement in the period between Jan. 22 and March 29 of 2017 represented a 38 percent increase from the comparable time frame in 2016. At the Juárez forum, Wilfrido Campbell, until recently the head of the Juárez office of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, reported that 34,900 Mexicans were repatriated to his country from Jan. 1 to March 27 of this year.
Global traps and camps
Putting a global perspective on migration, the University of Barcelona’s Nadia Ribas arrived in Juárez equipped with stunning visuals depicting the daily realities of tens of millions of people in the modern world, torn from their homes by war, political strife and economic collapse. Ribas’ graphics detailed the latitudes and longitudes of displacements, detention centers, fatal shipwrecks, border walls, refugee camps, and even confined migrant work zones on every continent except Greenland and Antarctica.
Defining the dots and colors on her maps as “stains of suffering,” Ribas contended, “the world is falling into a strategy of encampment.”
A global migrant crisis, from the waters of the Mediterranean to the fords of the Rio Grande, and from the sands of the Sahara to the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, is challenging definitions of borders, rights and national identities, according to the Spanish sociologist. For instance, she cited the predicament of homeless deportees from the U.S. living in Tijuana, including individuals who don’t really speak Spanish and aren’t from Mexico in the commonly understood sense of the term.
Political complexities aside, Ribas quoted a Syrian refugee as expressing an “emblematic” aspiration of peoples in movement: “We want only to get to the other side and give security to our children.”
(For a recent map portraying the migrant crisis in Europe, click here.)
The surge in racism and xenophobia sweeping different nations was a subject tackled by Swanie Potot, a French researcher with the University of Nice who studies the situation of about 20,000 eastern European Roma, or gypsies, who have moved to France in recent years. Living in shantytowns, many earn a living by scrounging for recyclable trash to sell — much like the so-called pepenadores of Mexico and Latin America.
Besides enduring regular government demolitions of their homes, the Roma encounter widespread discriminatory attitudes, Potot told this reporter.
Although ample media attention recently spotlighted the anti-immigrant rhetoric of unsuccessful French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and her National Front party, anti-Roma postures are widespread and even held by leaders of the Socialist Party, Potot said.
“Because they are Roma they are looked at more as ethnic than economic migrants,” Potot added. “(Discrimination) is expressed by politicians who say these people can’t be integrated into France because they are different than us.”
Potot contrasted the Roma with immigrants from the United Kingdom who live in her hometown and, not unlike the white undocumented Irish or Polish immigrants in the U.S., get by under the radar.
“I live in Nice. We have a strong English immigration but people don’t talk about English immigration,” she said.
Conversely, the trend of increasingly restrictive and exclusionary immigration policies in European Union member states is being met by an upsurge of pro-immigrant movements in France, Spain and elsewhere, according to both Potot and Ribas.
“There is a boom in solidarity,” Ribas said, “but (activists) aren’t people in the social movements. They are new (activists). ”
Forced displacements and deportations
Riveting the Juárez forum were accounts of forced displacements of entire populations. Victor Quintana, a veteran social activist and former Mexican lawmaker who now serves as secretary of social development for the state government of Chihuahua, had frank words about the displacement of people in his home state.
Quintana told the story of El Manzano, Chihuahua, an indigenous village in the Sierra Tarahumara where residents took up arms against an organized criminal group in March 2015. The inhabitants were initially successful in repelling their enemies, Quintana said, but soon fled their homes after realizing they did not have enough force to fight off criminal reinforcements likely on the way.
The incident raised deep questions about the right not to migrate, the right to return, and the incapacity of the government to guarantee either, Quintana said.
“Even though we don’t have an Islamic state in Mexico, we have something similar: a narco-state with displacement, forced migration,” he added.
Rodolfo Garcia, author and researcher for the University of Zacatecas, maintained that Mexico’s 12 million emigrants were really “expelled” because of the country’s social, political and economic conditions. Garcia warned about a health care crisis confronting older migrants repatriated back to Mexico at a time when the country’s national health care systems are “falling apart” and pensions remain in the hands of “speculators.”
Rubio provided additional context to the drama of longtime migrants deported from the United States. Citing the Migration Survey of the Northern Border regularly conducted by the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (Colef) and associates, he reported that the number of repatriated persons on Mexico’s northern border who were defined as long-term migrants jumped from 67,567 in 2007 to 202,338 in 2016. The migrants interviewed were mostly men who’d worked during their stay in the U.S., with the percentage of English speakers growing over the years, including persons who “only speak English.”
The Juárez immigration specialist challenged Trump Administration insistences that the majority of migrants currently being deported are criminals, adding that “99 percent” of the migrants without legal status in the U.S. who were interviewed by Mexican researchers on the country’s northern border “were deported for violating U.S. immigration laws.”
Garcia revealed thorny roadblocks in researching the post-return conditions of migrants, especially in violence-torn, rural areas of states like Michoacan. The Zacatecas academic recounted findings of a study partially funded by the McArthur Foundation that examined the lives of 1,800 returned migrants in Michoacan, Guerrero, Puebla, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Zacatecas between 2013 and 2015.
Researchers found returnees had problems enrolling in school, integrating back into the family and community and coping with the status of perceived failure. A returned migrant has the stigma of a “failed person,” Garcia said, and related behaviors include outbreaks of domestic violence.
The most “dramatic” experiences encountered by the researchers, he said, were undesired encounters with two organized crime groups in some rural communities, where delinquents demanded to review the questionnaires, engaged in extortion and attempted to charge the infamous “cuota,” or turf fee, in return for permission to work. Subsequently, researchers were forced to abandon some communities in favor of new ones, Garcia said. Social scientists merely experienced a “taste of the violence” that many communities live with every day, he said.
From the classroom to the community
Several migrant action initiatives were mulled at May’s Juárez forum. Chihuahua Social Development Secretary Victor Quintana said governments can start by establishing hospitable places for migrants and attending to their cultural rights. Along these lines, the Chihuahua state government will support a new multi-service migrant center in Juárez slated to open near the the Santa Fe Bridge that connects to El Paso in June, he said.
From the NGO side, Juarense Alfonso Herrera spoke about the ongoing struggle of ex-braceros and their family members, survivors of the 1942-64 guestworker program between Mexico and the U.S., to reclaim their dignity and finally get compensated for the 10 percent paycheck deductions that were intended to be paid to the workers after their return to Mexico — but never were received by many.
“I think the academy should lend its support,” Herrera said. “(Ex-braceros) are living social death, exposed to a lack of access to health care, social services.”
UTEP’s Guillermina Nunez-Mchiri talked about a Mayan immigrant community organization in San Francisco that formed as a response to racism, and a roving theater group in El Paso that takes the hard issues of the day to schools, domestic violence shelters and other venues where people gather.
The ethics, accountability and social utility of academic migrant research was a big topic debated at the meet, with many participants urging a closer relationship between the academy and migrant communities and organizations.
“University researchers have the obligation not only to ethically contribute, but propose projects for the community as well,” Rodolfo Garcia said.
In an interview, UNESCO Mexico Director Nuria Sanz said she had already noticed among academics “a shift in how to work and how to include ethics and better questioning in surveys.” The UN official said a work plan devised from the forum will be published by her agency within the next couple of months. Aimed at promoting the cultural rights of migrants, the plan will “take into account academia, government institutions and NGOs, discussing how to analyze and include cultural rights in agendas,” she added.
Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.