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John Nieto-Phillips
Department of History

Hal Kibbey
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Insecure borders and illegal immigration

March 22, 2006

John Nieto-Phillips

Print-Quality Photo

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- What are borders? We can't see them. Unless someone posts a sign or builds a checkpoint, we can't tell where they are. And there's no "line in the dirt" to go with the sign. Borders seem artificial, a peculiarly human invention.

The heavy emphasis on securing our nation's borders may appear to be a recent phenomenon, prompted by the climate of fear and suspicion generated by terrorism. But concern for border security is actually nothing new, according to John Nieto-Phillips, associate professor of history and Latino studies at Indiana University Bloomington.

"For more than a century, developed nations have periodically asserted control over their borders as an exercise of their sovereignty," Nieto-Phillips said. "Events of the last few years have once again brought the subject of border control to the forefront of public discussion, especially regarding immigration."

Nieto-Phillips studies the evolution of Latino communities in the United States and neighboring regions since the late 19th century. He is interested in the varied ways Latinas and Latinos have responded to their marginalization from the United States' body politic and have contested what "American citizenship" should be. His research and teaching involve aspects of Latina and Latino civic identities as defined by race, migration, gender, language, education and social class.

In the late 19th century, a definite line was drawn between nations which were members of "the international system" or "the family of nations" and nations whose civilizations, races or despotic regimes justified their exclusion or nonreciprocal treatment in matters of diplomacy, Nieto-Phillips said.

"I think it is safe to say that the line of distinction remains in effect today, but the criteria for inclusion or exclusion -- for nonreciprocal treatment in diplomacy, immigration policy and border control -- have been dramatically reconfigured to suit the 'war on terror' and the isolation of 'countries that promote terrorism,' such as the 'Axis of Evil,'" he said.

Some policies and practices from the Cold War are still in effect, he pointed out. One is the immediate granting of asylum to Cubans who make it onto U.S. soil without being intercepted by U.S. authorities at sea, the so-called "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy. On Jan. 4, the Bush administration sparked a storm of protest when it declared that an abandoned U.S. bridge in the Florida Keys didn't count as "dry land" and repatriated 15 Cuban refugees who had landed there as their boat was sinking.

The lack of reciprocity in terms of border control is also evident in policies implemented since 9/11, Nieto-Phillips said.

"In January 2004, for example, the United States initiated a biometric identification system at 129 ports of entry, which involved the fingerprinting and photographing of foreign visitors to the United States who require visas," he explained. The purpose was to prevent terrorists from entering the country. However, the policy exempted citizens of 27 countries, mostly in Europe, whose visits would not exceed 90 days. Other exempted citizens included those from Japan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Brunei.

"The policy effectively created a hierarchy by which visa-holders were sorted out and treated according to their citizenship," Nieto-Phillips said. "The measures prompted immediate outrage among countries not included on the preferred list. Brazil's President Lula da Silva implored President Bush to dispense with visa requirements for each other's nationals. But the United States was unmoved. 'We have to protect ourselves,' explained Secretary of State Colin Powell as the policy took effect."

But what happens when the shoe is forced onto the other foot? Just days after the United States instituted its biometric system, an American Airlines pilot was arrested at Sao Paolo International Airport for making an obscene gesture while being photographed by Brazilian immigration officers. The pilot was expressing his contempt for new Brazilian security measures that required the fingerprinting and photographing -- that is, the reciprocal treatment -- of U.S. citizens entering the country.

"The tendency toward binary oppositions -- the Christian civilized West versus the mongrelized idolatrous masses -- is at least a century old. The main difference is that the so-called Mexican 'illegals' of today are the Chinese 'coolies' of old," Nieto-Phillips said.

In the past few months, states across the country have been considering legislation designed to clamp down on illegal immigrants by denying them and their children health care, education or driver's licenses. "But these measures are driven less by a practical concern for the country's well-being," he said, "than by an ideological conviction that undocumented immigrants should be punished for breaching our nation's boundaries. Such laws merely create a category of people known as 'illegals' whose labor is valued but whose humanity, cultural capital and well-being are not."

Nieto-Phillips feels that this is a good time to reflect upon the nature of borders, as well as the structures that regulate them. "Such reflection might compel us to acknowledge that a border is not just a line in the sand between countries, but rather that borders are everywhere," he said. "They exist in the realm of law. They exist in our airports and cities and schools. And they exist in the intimate spaces of face-to-face human relations."