The (Re)emergence of Nativist Mobilization along the U.S.-Mexico Border

By Matthew Ward

With much of the national media attention directed at the Trump administration’s (1) increasingly restrictionist policy measures, such as: the travel ban from predominately Muslim countries, family separation, and the potential denial of birthright citizenship, (2) it’s xenophobic and racist campaign advertisements, and (3) it’s punitive use of ICE, which recently set records in both deportations and detainments (see here), one might be forgiven for overlooking the relatively quiet resurgence of grassroots nativist mobilization occurring along the U.S.-Mexico border. Since Trump’s election, national news outlets like the Washington Post (see article here) and local outlets like the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson (see article here) have documented the return of armed citizen patrol groups to the U.S.-Mexico border. Proximately spurred by the Trump administration’s portrayal of migrant caravans as an invasion, citizen patrol groups feel a renewed sense of urgency and purpose.

But nativist mobilization along the U.S.-Mexico border is nothing new. Vigilante and state-sanctioned groups have roamed the borderlands since at least the mid-1800s (Spener 2009). And few would be surprised to hear that members of the Ku Klux Klan had an official, ‘Klan Border Watch Program’ in the 70s and 80s. During the mid-90s, under the U.S. government’s new ‘prevention through deterrence’ strategy (Andreas 2009), growing numbers of U.S. residents began taking up patrol efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border (Doty 2009). From the mid-90s through the early 2010’s, numerous grassroots patrol organizations—such as The Border Solution Task Force, U.S. Citizen Patrol, Voices of Citizens Together, American Border Patrol, Ranch Rescue, and Civil Homeland Defense—took to the border. Among the most well-funded, media savvy, and influential of these organizations were (the still active) Minuteman Project (website here) and (the now defunct) Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (old website here). During the early 2000s, these minuteman border patrol organizations garnered national attention by bringing hundreds of volunteers to the U.S.-Mexico border to observe and report unauthorized immigrants crossing through the desert. However, in some cases, minutemen volunteers engaged in detainment and even outright murder. These organizations’ goals were multi-faceted but largely revolved around raising awareness among the public and policy-makers about the growing threat of unauthorized immigration. Of course, they also wanted to send a powerful message directly to migrants—continue to break the law and you will be met with force!

The movement would eventually expand beyond the border states of California, Texas, and Arizona. According to data collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center, by 2009 grassroots nativist organizations totaled over 300 and could be found in most states (Beirich 2010). Much of the growth during this period centered on interior enforcement measures targeting migrants where they worked as well as their employers. After losing the battle over HR 4437 (the ‘Sensenbrenner Bill’), which among other things would have criminalized violations of federal immigration law and placed the onus of immigration enforcement on state and local authorities, the movement shifted its focus to reshaping local and state immigration policies. This change in strategy proved quite successful in that the nativist agenda was largely normalized across the country as various local governments considered or passed restrictive ordinances (e.g., Arizona’s SB 1070).

What can recent scholarship tell us about nativist mobilization? We know a fair bit about the social contexts facilitating anti-immigrant attitudes. A recent meta-analysis of attitudinal studies found that anti-immigrant sentiment is largely a function of cultural and political threats and—to a lesser extent—economic and demographic threats (Hainmueller and Hopkins 2014). However, in contrast to the wealth of scholarship on anti-immigrant attitudes, we know much less about non-institutionalized forms of anti-immigrant organizing. Existing work mostly looks at the role of political elites and policymakers in marginalizing immigrants, and studies of anti-immigrant activity tend to operationalize such activity in terms of its institutionalized forms. Broadly, researchers find that conservative voter composition, the proportion of population that is foreign born, and the proportion of the population that is Latino/a are positively related to the passage of anti-immigrant laws and programs. Research in the European context has uncovered a positive association between immigrant population size/composition and vote counts for extreme-right political parties at the department level (i.e., state or regional level), and a negative association between these at the commune level (i.e., town or city level) (Della Posta 2013).

Addressing the lack of empirical research on noninstitutionalized anti-immigrant activity, specifically the sort of nativist border patrol mobilization discussed in this post, a recent study I conducted (article here) found that although the relationship between the level of Republican voting in a county and subsequent nativist organizing was positive, this was only true in situations where Republican voters constituted relatively small proportions of a county’s residents. Why? Well, these contexts are likely conducive to the production of embattled nativist identities that facilitate a growing sense of threat and a heightening of group boundaries. If we think about nativist mobilization as an identity movement, it makes sense that it would thrive where conservative sentiment is just strong enough but, importantly, also weak enough to make the nativist identity nonnormative so that adherents can construct themselves as under siege from the ‘liberal, pro-immigrant threat’.

However, while we must continue our efforts to understand anti-immigrant mobilization in all its manifestations, in our haste to do so we can all too easily make the mistake of characterizing their targets, unauthorized migrants, as entirely passive and powerless. And we can also make the mistake of assuming that these migrants have the same motivations, resources, and ability to successfully manage the crossing process and deal with any threats they might encounter during that process. Compounding this misperception is the fact that there has been little systematic effort to understand how migrants and the crossing experience might intersect with nativist mobilization in ways that may neutralize the influence of such mobilization.

Taking this omission as a starting point, Daniel Martinez and I—in a recent study that can be found here—developed novel ways of thinking about migrant agency and resilience in the face of nativist mobilization by drawing on surveys with over 400 Mexican migrants that had crossed the U.S. border, been apprehended, and were repatriated back to Mexico. We did this by asking migrants about their awareness of minuteman activity and the extent to which potentially encountering minuteman patrols would deter them from crossing in the future. Answers to these specific questions not only provide insight into the extra-political consequences of nativist movement influence but also, perhaps even more importantly, provide an understanding of the social structure of migrant agency and resilience in the face of potential threats they might encounter during the crossing process. Under the Trump administration, this may include more frequent interactions with armed citizen patrols.

We found that unauthorized repatriated migrants from Mexico displayed different levels of both awareness and resilience. Roughly 42% of migrants had heard of armed citizen patrol organizations like the minuteman. And approximately 43% said they would potentially be deterred from crossing in the future if they were to encounter such patrols. What was it, specifically, about migrants and their crossing experiences that structured this awareness and resilience?  Migrants with more human and financial capital (and, counterintuitively, those not enlisting the services of a professional smuggler) were more likely to have heard of minuteman groups. Migrants with greater financial and migration-specific capital (and, again, counterintuitively those not relying on professional smugglers) were less susceptible to the potential deterrence effect embodied in armed citizen border patrols.

Given the current politics of fear surrounding immigration and the brazen xenophobia political candidates have been willing to display as of late, I would not be surprised at all to see a continued ratcheting up of civilian border patrol efforts in the near future. In light of what we know about the powerful economic, social and political forces involved in migration, such mobilization is unlikely to have a significant direct influence on migration flows; nonetheless, as has been the case in the past, there remains a potential to generate influence through more indirect and extra-political processes.

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