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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User Comments

Jason on Aug 28, 2008 at 12:33:22 said:

I will tell you why they hire illegals or even legal Mexicans, it is simply because they show up for work, don't complain, and you can pay them less money to do it!!
Case in point,
I used to work for a major chain restaurant, we would hire some guys from Mexico and Nicaragua and they would get right to work, busing tables, cleaning floors, arrived ON TIME every single day. We hired good ol "American" = white, black, brown, Indian, it didn't matter, first thing they would say is I want such and such day off, I can't come to work because of __________ (fill in blank), kids, problems at home, schoolwork, etc. They complain about everything under the sun, and on top of everything were rude to customers! I would take these guys from Mexico any day of of the week over this lazy, spoiled crop of so called labor. We have devalued an honest days work in our society.
I had to "teach" a 20 year old white girl how to mop the floor when it was her turn.
Can you believe it?
That is why these workers from Latin America come here, do the work, get paid less
and you wonder greedy companies hire them? Its no wonder - they do the work and the company can always dangle the threat of deportation or retaliation over their heads.

Ransome on Aug 27, 2008 at 13:23:21 said:

George Borjas, a leading Harvard economic scholar indicated through 40 years of census data, "a strong correlation between immigration and black wages, employment, and incarceration rates", with 30 to 40 percent job losses among low-skilled blacks. Liberals support illegal immigration so blacks sacrifice jobs.

Studies show that over 22% of construction jobs are currently held by illegal foreign nationals. These jobs could go to American citizens, browns, blacks or whites.

For you “elitists” who are sheltered in your intellectual and economic ivory towers, constructions jobs are considered to be good middle class.

Just wait until the liberals give drivers licenses to the illegal foreign nationals, just watch the transportation jobs disappear.

Ransome on Aug 27, 2008 at 10:24:26 said:

Why Native Americans Support Immigration Reform

"Cindy Yurth works for Navajo Times, a newspaper that caters to the Native American community of Arizona. Contrary with my Hispanic counterparts, immigration is not among Yurth's primary interest. Her people believe that immigrants take jobs that belong to Native Americans," says Eduardo A. de Olivera, covering the Democratic Convention for New American Media. "A lot of Navajos are for stronger border control. Because the conditions on the reservation are quite comparable to those on the other side of the Mexican border, with no plumbing or electricity on most of the reservation, and the Navajo people are desperate for any kind of jobs," Yurth said.

Read the full story

ransome on Aug 27, 2008 at 09:52:33 said:

27 Aug 2008 @ 03:38 am Read/Add Comments (2)


Applicants line up to fill jobs open after plant raid

LAUREL -- Howard Industries found itself at the center of activity again Tuesday. Hundreds of job applicants lined up, eager to take advantage of the sudden job openings at the plant located in Jones County, where the unemployment rate is 6.3 percent. ICE agents on Monday seized 595 plant workers suspected of being in the country illegally. Several workers, who did not identify themselves, said Tuesday they were working and trying to keep the plant operational in the wake of the sudden loss of co-workers. They said it was common knowledge many of their co-workers were suspected to be illegal.

So much for unwanted "manual"labor jobs

Judy on Aug 26, 2008 at 18:28:25 said:

"Infidelproudinfidel" wrote that Mexico is a "not a poor country but a rich one with many poor people and a few rich elite." Fine, I agree 100% but then he follows that statement up with this with a baffling non sequitur:
"But never fear the liberals are working hard to make the US that way also." ? HUH?

What EXACTLY are "LIBERALS" doing to turn the US into a Mexico, i.e. to follow this "Infidelproudinfidel" 's argument that the US will end up with a few elites such as Billionaire CEO's and then a huge underclass with no Middle Class? Is that what you mean? Was not the great American Middle Class a product of "liberal" New Deal policies, certainly the "conservative" agenda is not pro-middle class? Is John McCain pro middle class and Obama not? How can you blame "liberals" for turning the once great American Middle Class into a system that in your opinion resembles a Third-World Mexico of halves vs. have nots?

I would really like that explained. Also how does Mexican workers coming to fill unwanted manual labor jobs here in USA promote this, uh, what do you call it? "Liberal" agenda? Please enlighten and educate us !

Infidelproudinfidel on Aug 24, 2008 at 07:30:58 said:

Once again the bleeding hearts ignore the obvious. Mexico is foisting it's poor on us with their associated costs and laughing all the way to the bank. Mexico is not a poor country but a rich one with many poor people and a few rich elite. But never fear the liberals are working hard to make the US that way also.

MaryJ on Aug 23, 2008 at 22:37:09 said:

I humbly ask why it is that Mexico, nestled by the same two oceans as the US, built on the same dirt as the US, and founded as an independent nation only 70 years after the US, cannot provide a decent life for its citizens. Why are Americans made to feel guilty because our ancestors were successful at establishing a prosperous and advanced nationk, while the Mexicans' ancestors were so woefully unsuccessful at attempting the same thing. Sorry but I have no sympathy for rewarding failure. Fix your own country and leave us alone; we are not responsbile for your endemic failures.

Mike Williams on Aug 23, 2008 at 10:28:13 said:

National immigration laws are fundamentally unjust. No government should have a right to determine who can enter or leave a particular territory. Just as fugitive slave laws were wrong, a violation of basic human rights, so, too, are laws that aim to control migration and migrants. May Pat Nixon's vision be realized!

bob munro on Aug 23, 2008 at 09:13:15 said:

I think most Americans think that illegal aliens should be deported, and that a fence would be a good part of border enforcement. Here are a couple of websites that agree with this.


RJ on Aug 23, 2008 at 02:30:41 said:

Not sure what would be "ironic" about Nixon and immigration, inlcuding illegal immigration, policies, as many political scientists consider Nixon to have been the last "liberal" President in many ways (leave partisanism in your definition behind.)

While a physical fence probably won't help (these folks will cross mountains, desert, and rivers to get here- a fence is going to stop them) any nation- including ours- has the right to protect it's borders, restrict entry, decide for itself what critieria it will use in allowing foreigners to enter and settle there. Greater LEGAL immigration, greater legal immigrant numbers are welcome, so that we get the workers we need while @ the same time ascertaining (as best we can) just WHO is entering our country, for what purpose, length of stay, etc...

We do need to restrict unlawful entry into our nation.

Karen on Aug 22, 2008 at 19:53:06 said:

My grandparents were immigrants, not illegal aliens. My grandfather did not sneak into this country, get a job that supports one person at best by undercutting U.S. labor, then sneak in a wife and several children and proceed to breed more and more and more. My grandmother did not sneak into this country eight months pregnant and unwed to give birth in our hospitals at our expense to something we have to call a U.S. citizen then trot down to the welfare office to sign up for everything from soup to nuts. My grandparents had too much character for that. They were engaged for several years before my grandfather found a job that could support a family. Had he not picked up English during that time, he never would have gotten that job. They did not fall to mating, then dump the responsibility for providing for their children on the backs of everyone else. These illegals have no respect for our laws, no respect for the people of this country and our culture, no honor, and no character. They have over-bred, over-mooched, over-marched, over-threatened and over-demanded themselves out of any sympathy I had for them. Now I have nothing but contempt. Go back to your sewers.

Nezzie on Aug 22, 2008 at 07:25:57 said:

Pat Nixon bless her heart, is dead, she died in 1993 after suffering two strokes. I am sure, even with her open heart,it would be painful to watch our beloved United States turn into a third world country, where American Citizens are put last and our money and resources first, to assist people who should not be in our country. Illegal immigrants, anchor babies, filth, thefts, killing, murders, rapes, stabbings; all the things we already have in America, but don\\\'t need from illegal immigrants trying to take over our country by invading it and not respecting our way of life. Well white and black people, now is the time, alas, we must pull together, as this is our country, this is one of those times where we stand sholder to sholder and do what we must, however we must, we have got to take back our country. If the illegal immigrants have no shame, and think we are supposed to do anything for them, they are wrong. There are two sides to every story, I am on the side of saving my country, at all cost. Say goodbye to those politicians that have run us in the ground in the last 20-30 years, they have meant us no good, they have chosen which side they are on and it is not the side of the American taxpaying citizen. Please lock arms and join any anti-illegal immigration group in your area, please join Fair, NumbersUSA, and Don\\\'t vote for anyone that wants to give away our country in the name of a path to citizenship or amnesty, goodby Mikulski, Biden, Cardin, O\\\'Malley, Leggett, Johnson and Donna Edwards who thinks she has it made, goodby CASA de Maryland, goodby to all legislatures who are committing crimes against our beautiful America, they are all traitors.

Llewellyn Cobb on Aug 21, 2008 at 18:54:12 said:

We must have I.D.'s for immigrants as if we loose control of the borders we loose control of our country. Illigals can come in but there has to be law and order and illegals must follow the rules. Pat Nixon, does not believe that whom ever can enter this country but fence's must be if need be.

soulnote on Aug 21, 2008 at 13:33:57 said:

It is not about you or I
but rather, it is about we
fenced in by a revolving door of sayings
that say very little
we do not speak
we grunt
one side opposes another favors
but who listens?
sons, daughters
we are giving them a tradition
we are giving them a heritage
not of separate but equal but of
human and whole




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