Militarization and Border Communities: An Interview with Maria Cristina Morales

Maria Cristina Morales
August 21, 2016
Hannah Kim

Interview with Maria Cristina Morales on April 20, 2015

How did you first get introduced to the labor movement?

My general interest is migration and immigrant labor. One of the things that really intrigued me was looking at wages and working conditions. In addition, the resiliency of the workers was just very inspiring and stood out, particularly in my research in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is what most people refer to as a new immigrant destination. There’s quite a significant number of new immigrant arrivals working in the traditional immigrant occupations like infrastructure and service. The immigrant movement in Las Vegas is very strong and the leaders of the movement are from the immigrant population, so that was something I was really drawn to.

What was the impetus to your research?

I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border, so I’ve always been interested in issues of migration and insider/outsider boundaries and living along the physical and political boundary of the border and how social boundaries are formed as a result of that. This has always intrigued me since I was really young. How caught in a political boundary your status would change, your way of relating to people, how you navigate these different cultures was what really brought me to sociology and my focus on migration, borders, and labor.

What do you think are some of the unique challenges for border communities and having their voices heard in policy processes that affect them?

It’s a really important question that sometimes gets left out of the immigration debate. Even people who understand the complexities of migration and advocate for a legalization policy of undocumented individuals in the U.S. sometimes think it’s difficult to understand the border aspect of it. There are some discussions about an exchange for legalization, allowing more militarization at the border for instance. It’s like a tradeoff, we’ll have more border control in these areas, more patrol agents and technology in exchange for legalization, and I think that those arguments are with the concern of the immigrant population. I think that for the border residents, it’s a different situation. Militarization at the border affects a vast amount of people and communities. In terms of the framework that is used, the issue of national security versus community security and how these are not the same. Militarizing the border does not necessarily bring more security for border residents.

Where do we go from here to address these challenges?

There has been a shift since the article was written towards taking border issues and militarization into account, more so than in the past. There’s been more attention to the border control issues because these are life and death situations for some migrant groups. Even though the majority of undocumented individuals are over stayers, the issue of increasing border control makes it more dangerous to cross the border. Especially because of last summer, the number of unaccompanied youth saw an increase in numbers of detention centers. In terms of what is going on with the communities, border communities are under hyper social control. We have not only border control agents, but also customs and a large military base, and those issues of social control have in recent years started to expand. There is more policing of immigration and anyone who looks like an immigrant.

Do you think the Border and Immigration Task Force have had a positive affect overall in advancing the immigrant movement in this area?

It’s a really interesting coalition made up of individuals from very diverse backgrounds, immigrants and undocumented individuals, local politicians, academics, religious leaders, police department and sheriffs, and the coalition is all about how do we bring to light the issues that are going on at the border and tap them into the larger discussion of immigration reform. I think this type of coalition is unique to have those relationships coexist together. We’re fortunate that they do happen here in this region.

To achieve a more human approach to immigration reform, what is needed from us?

There needs to be more community input in terms of border control initiatives. In terms of streamlining what has happened when there are complaints against border control and customs, there are posters that say call this 1-800 number, and nobody really knows. The Office of Inspector General are doing these investigations, but the resources are so small and are not comparable to the resources that are spent for custom and border patrol agencies, which is another issue. Advisory groups of community people would also be a turn in the positive direction.

Is there anything else that you would like to share on the topic of border communities and immigrant movement?

Politically, when we talk about increasing border control in exchange for legalization, we need to be conscious of what happens to not just the communities along the border, but also to those that are clandestinely crossing the border and what the implications are for them as well. This should be a part of the discussion. Legalization is a very important issue but I think it’s equally important to look at the border control issues and the lives of undocumented migrants who cross the border.

Is there any research that you are working on right now?

I actually have a book that has been released called, “Latinos in the United States: Diversity and Change.” In that book, we look at several Latino groups and highlight several issues that are affecting the integration of Latinos in the U.S. There’s a chapter on border control, labor integration, and criminalization, some of the issues we have been touching on.

What do you think of the fragmentation of citizenship and immigration?

I think one of the things that I was really surprised about with the coming of age citizenship divide among “coethnics,” there are the social boundaries that are formed along immigration status. With native born and immigrant populations, it can be seen as internalized xenophobia. For example, some people would say, “I don’t want to do that, only Mexicans do that,” but the person would be of Mexican origin and I was very confused. With the concept of citizenship divide among Mexican origin groups, we expect a solidarity between native born and immigrant populations, but it’s not across the board, and it’s much more complex. Some perceive the immigrant population as bringing down the group, or even at the individual level want to be upwardly mobile but know the discriminatory stereotypes that exist about immigrants in the population and want to distance themselves from that. These perceptions play out in different ways. Citizenship divide looks at the heterogeneity of the Mexican population, and there is a lot of diversity and issues of citizenship whether you are U.S. born or not. These issues are going to affect whether you support the immigrant movement or not.