Pat Nixon at the U.S.-Mexico Border
New America Media, Commentary, Joseph Nevins Posted: Aug 21, 2008
Editor’s Note: Nearly 40 years ago this month, First Lady Pat Nixon crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and embraced Mexican children, saying, “I hate to see a fence anywhere.” Times have changed, writes the commentator, and ironically, President Richard Nixon helped to bring about many of these changes. Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at Vassar College. His latest book is Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008). Immigration Matters regularly features the views of the nation's leading immigrant rights advocates.
The death of nine Central American and Mexican migrants in a vehicle crash near Florence, Ariz. on Aug. 9 is only one of the latest grisly manifestations of the mounting toll in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. More than 5,000 bodies have been recovered since the mid-1990s, the “collateral damage” of a war on unauthorized migrants that has led them and their guides to take ever-greater risks to evade the intensifying boundary enforcement apparatus.
As U.S. officials and politicians almost uniformly advocate more of the same policies and practices that have led to the deaths, it is useful to recall First Lady Patricia Nixon’s words and deeds—that are almost unimaginable today—at the international divide 37 years ago this month.
Mrs. Nixon was in Imperial Beach, Calif. on Aug. 18, 1971 to inaugurate a state park. A 370-acre, former naval base at the extreme southwest corner of the continental United States, it is the site of the initial international borderline after the U.S.-Mexico War ended in 1848. The park’s planners, according to the San Diego Union, envisioned free access to it for people on both sides of the boundary.
In her speech, the First Lady promised to cross the boundary to shake hands with some of the hundreds of Mexican nationals witnessing her visit. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, she declared, “I hate to see a fence anywhere.”
After a member of her security detail cut a section of the then barbed-wire barrier, she traversed the divide and embraced Mexican children, stating, “I hope there won’t be a fence here too long.”
There were no criticisms of Pat Nixon’s statements and actions—at least as indicated by press coverage.
The appearance of what many locals used to call Friendship Park reflects the radical shift that has taken place since the First Lady’s visit.
The southern limit of what is officially known as Border Field State Park is today the antithesis of Pat Nixon’s vision: it is the site of a sturdy, mesh-like fence, and tall steel barriers demarcating the line that separates it from Mexican territory, with a second layer of fencing currently under construction. These are manifestations of a larger enforcement build-up that has taken place nationally since the late 1970s.
Her husband, ironically, had a hand in bringing about the changes: Richard Nixon’s administration helped to create the perception of a U.S.-Mexico border region dangerously out of control, and of an influx of unauthorized migrants threatening the country’s socio-economic fabric. Subsequent administrations funneled ever-more resources into policing migrants and the boundary. It was during the Clinton years that growth in the enforcement apparatus exploded, with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the Bush administration adding even more fuel to the fire.
Since 1994, the size of the Border Patrol has quadrupled, while the number of migrant detentions, deportations, and workplace raids has skyrocketed. With Barack Obama and John McCain both championing an ever-elusive border “security,” there is little reason to hope for a de-escalation.
These developments over the last four decades have come at an extremely high financial and human cost: billions of dollars, thousands of deaths, and countless divided families. Meanwhile, though the boundary is now certainly more difficult to cross, most unauthorized Mexican migrants who try eventually succeed—92 to 97 percent of them, according to a recent study carried out by researchers at the University of California, San Diego.
While it is impossible to know exactly what Pat Nixon intended almost 40 years ago in Imperial Beach, her words and actions suggested an openness to imagining something fundamentally different in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. It is this openness that is so desperately needed today to end the institutionalized brutality and suffering that prevail in the border region and many immigrant communities. As Mrs. Nixon did, seeing people from the other side of the boundary as our neighbors and embracing them—rather than constructing them as faceless masses to be feared and repelled—would be a great start.
Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at Vassar College. His latest book is Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008).
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