On the Very Real Dangers of Artificial Borders

Patrick Strickland Considers the Tangible and Intangible Barriers That Divide Us

Borders dot the perimeter of every country and are present wherever you are at any given moment, no matter how far you are from the actual line separating one nation from the next. Borders are physical places, they are imaginary lines, and they are quite often deadly. People live on borders, and people die on borders. Food crosses borders, and people starve on borders. Borders produce profits for some, and borders generate poverty and suffering for most. Borders follow those who cross them. In the airport, near points of entry, and in the backs of police vans: the border is everywhere.

I don’t remember the first time I set eyes on a border, but it would have been in the late nineties, during a daytrip with my family. We crossed from Texas, where I grew up, to a town south of the Mexican border. It was when I moved to Israel and Palestine, where I worked as a reporter for four years, that I first saw a massive border wall. Known to Israelis as a security fence and to most Palestinians as an annexation wall, the mostly concrete barrier includes guard towers, barbwire, and soldiered checkpoints. Like all borders, Israel’s wall not only attracts violence—it is a magnet for clashes between Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers—but is in and of itself violent. The wall encroaches on Palestinian land, divides families, and crushes livelihoods.

I was fresh from visiting and writing about communities dotting the border between Lebanon and Syria, where militias armed to the teeth geared up for a battle with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), when I first traveled to Greece in late 2015, at the height of the mass refugee exodus from war-ravaged and economically devastated countries around the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, to Europe. During that trip, I stood on the shores of Skala Sikamineas, a village on the northern tip of the island of Lesbos. There, I stared out at the water—the border is everywhere, even at sea—as emaciated dinghies carried dozens of men, women, and children crossing the choppy waters of the Aegean Sea, all of them with the hope of reaching safety.

Some people wore lifejackets, some wore pool floaties, and some had nothing at all. A few days later, I flew back to mainland Greece and headed north. Outside Idomeni, a village on the Greek-Macedonian border, a tent city had popped up. Thousands of people slept in tents or under the purple skies, enduring the elements. Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians had fled war. Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and Moroccans had fled poverty. Bonfires blazed from nightfall onward, exhausted bodies and slack faces encircling them, sitting on the wintry earth cross-legged or with blanket-swaddled children in their laps. Smoke rose in the air, wraithlike. I heard, from every direction, hacking coughs, violent sneezing, and both loud and whispered conversations in Arabic, Farsi, French, Punjabi, Urdu, and Swahili.

The rank odor of decaying garbage and molding clothing stuffed in soaked knapsacks rode the gusts of wind that swept through the camp. Whether they left home to escape bullets or empty stomachs, one young man told me, they had left home with the most universal of human desires: to live. Even as borders slammed shut across the Balkans and the rest of Europe, warehousing tens of thousands of refugees and migrants in Greece, people continued to come. Solidarity With People Struggling In Idomeni, a letter tacked to a corkboard in the camp declared, And All The Migrants Who Are Breaking The Violent Borders Of Europe. You Are Not Alone In This Struggle.

Borders follow those who cross them. In the airport, near points of entry, and in the backs of police vans: the border is everywhere.

In late 2019, the number of boats reaching Greek islands from Turkey had hit the highest level since the crisis erupted more than four years earlier. In fact, around the world the number of people displaced across international boundaries had continued to soar. In 2018, the number of refugees and displaced people around the globe hit a record high when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) documented nearly twenty-six million people seeking international protection outside their home country.

Traveling back and forth between Europe, the Middle East, and the United States between 2015 and 2020, I found myself in border communities time and again, always attempting to make sense of the hate and violence that frontiers inspired. Over the course of two years and during several visits to a handful of communities in southern Arizona, I followed the story of militias and vigilante conspiracy theorists taking up arms to keep immigrants, migrants, and refugees out of the United States. Standing up to people who trafficked in fear, conspiracy theories, and violence was no easy task, and it was one that often prompted yet more fear, conspiracy theories, and violence.

Around the world, the border is everywhere, and everywhere you go, there are idealistic dreamers envisioning a world without it. While I researched and wrote my book, The Marauders: Standing Up to Vigilantes in the American Borderlands, I often thought back to a poster I saw in a squat in Exarchia, the central Athens neighborhood where I usually reside. When the global refugee crisis first reached Europe in 2015, I visited several squats popping up in and around the Greek capital, where anarchists and leftists had taken over abandoned buildings and repurposed them to provide safe housing for displaced people and provide an alternative to the overcrowding and decrepitude of life in the refugee camps.

Throughout the last five years, I’ve passed more hours than I can count in such squats, interviewing squatters and refugees, watching films and sitting in on lectures, and observing general assemblies: the process through which squat residents and volunteers make decisions on the basis of consensus. And I’ve read and photographed too many posters and graffiti slogans to count, but one has stuck with me. The Border Is Everywhere, it read. We Will Attack the Reason for Our Suffering.

*

On the brisk morning of November 1, 2018, only a few days before the midterm elections, I sat in Al Jazeera English’s office in Washington, D.C. The border had defined much of the election season, and then US President Donald Trump had turned it into the central issue. A so-called caravan of refugees and migrants, mostly from Central America, was en-route to the United States, and Trump repeatedly warned the nation that this constituted a national security threat like none other: an “invasion,” he said. Heeding the president’s call to arms, militia groups armed to the teeth were flocking south to communities all along the border.

As I did every day during my short time filling in at the network’s bureau in Washington, D.C., I scanned the Internet for potential stories, looking for some underreported tale from the border, some way to highlight an alternative opinion on what was happening on the southernmost edge of the nation. Then I stumbled across something that caught my eye. Some residents of a small community in southern Arizona, Arivaca, had put out antimilitia signs in front of their homes and businesses. “Border Town Takes a Stand Against Militias,” the article’s title declared. I clicked on the link and hit play on the video accompanying the text. The reporter narrating, Morgan Loew, had traveled to Arivaca. “Drive down the main drag in Arivaca, and it might look like any small town in Arizona: a general store, a cantina, and some cool old buildings,” he said. “But take a closer look, and you’re bound to spot something odd. Signs. Antimilitia signs.”

Borders are physical places, they are imaginary lines, and they are quite often deadly.

Clara Godfrey, a local resident, appeared on the screen. Her hair was long, thick, and straight, framing her suntanned face. “We do not want militias,” she said. “No.”

The television segment explained that militias and vigilante groups had arrived in town and launched a campaign accusing locals of working with Mexican drug cartels, human traffickers, and people funneling children into child prostitution networks. Three militia and vigilante groups had already arrived in Arivaca, and Godfrey was outraged.

The story lined up neatly with my journalistic interests. I saw in it the tale of a small town fighting back against a flood of extremely dangerous, virulently racist, and heavily armed outsiders who did not have the community’s best interests at heart. I started searching for Godfrey’s contact information, but it took a while. The phone numbers I found sent me to disconnected lines, to voicemails belonging to people other than Clara Godfrey. I couldn’t find an email address anywhere. Then I found her on Facebook. I sent her a message. I typed up a quick note explaining that I’d like to speak to her by phone, if she was able and willing, and highlight her community’s efforts to push out militias.

A few days passed and she didn’t reply. I figured that my message had landed in the “Other” inbox, where messages from non-friends go. I left a comment on one of her statuses, a few sentences explaining that I had seen her on television, hoped to talk to her, and had sent her a message. Two weeks after my first note, she replied. “Hola, Patrick,” she wrote, and explained that she hadn’t seen my message sooner. She apologized and provided a phone number where I could reach her. “I would like to speak to you,” she said. “I am in Green Valley now, and I will be back in Arivaca this afternoon about five. You have a good one. Thank you much. Clara.”

The next evening, we spoke for the first time. I asked a handful of questions I’d jotted down in a notebook, and Godfrey explained the town’s history—a history that includes a fatal brush with militias, a tragedy that had shattered the community nearly nine years earlier. In 2009, rogue militiamen had dressed as Border Patrol agents and raided a home in town. Believing the man that lived there was a bigtime cartel drug dealer, they hoped to steal drugs and money to fund their vigilante patrols in southern Arizona’s borderlands. But once inside, the plan went sideways. The armed vigilantes shot and killed the 29-year-old man they believed to be a cartel operative, Raul Flores Jr., and his nine-year-old daughter, Brisenia. They also shot Brisenia’s mother, but she survived.

Standing up to people who trafficked in fear, conspiracy theories, and violence was no easy task, and it was one that often prompted yet more fear, conspiracy theories, and violence.

Not long after that first phone call, I booked a plane ticket to Arizona. It was only after arriving in town that I realized how complicated the story would be. Dozens of locals—some were everyday townspeople, others humanitarians—had been holding town meetings to face the militia problem head-on. Some local businesses, such as La Gitana, the town’s only bar, had banned militiamen from entering. The militias had inspired other vigilantes to show up in town, including conspiracy theorists who made wild accusations of most of the town’s population being involved in a vast child sex trafficking operation. While the locals who were already organizing wanted to up the ante and push the newcomers from their town, not everyone was onboard. Some feared that drawing too much attention would backfire. As one man told me, taking on the militias could be like “kicking a hornet’s nest.”

Arivaca’s fight was not the isolated struggle of a lone community. It was a flashpoint in a conflict brewing across the nation. Around the United States, President Trump’s 2016 electoral victory had breathed fresh life into a white supremacist movement that had been stagnant, although always present, always waiting, for years. The militia movement enjoyed a decades-long history, but its most immediate incarnation traced back to none other than a series of anti-immigrant border patrols conducted by the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan on the country’s border with Mexico in the late 1970s.

In 2018, while much of the media and the nation fixed their attention on the white nationalists and neo-Nazis cropping up in Berkeley, Charlottesville, and Portland, among other places, during Trump’s first term in office, the militia movement, too, rode the president’s coattails. For those willing to take up arms to prevent foreign nationals from entering the country, Trump’s hyperfocus on immigration, immigrants, and the border offered a never-before-seen stamp of approval. For decades, federal authorities had sought to stamp out the armed vigilantes and militia groups organizing and causing mayhem in remote pockets around the country, but now they had a voice in the highest office in the United States.

In early 2016, as it became increasingly clear that Trump would face off with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in the November presidential elections, he accused the Democratic contender of being soft on terrorism and supporting open borders. Still far off from becoming president, Trump’s rhetoric had consequences, spurred extremists to action. That was around the time that the Federal Bureau of Investigation learned of three militiamen in Garden City, Kansas, who were planning to bomb mosques and homes belonging to Somali immigrants. Curtis Allen, Patrick Stein, and Gavin Wright prepared to launch the attack—one that, no doubt, would have led to multiple deaths—on November 9, 2016, the day after the US presidential vote. A fourth member of the militia foiled their plans when he tipped off federal authorities, the plot was stopped before it could be enacted, and the men were arrested and charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights. In April 2018, a federal jury convicted all three, and later down the line, the trio was sentenced to decades behind bars.

The border could find its targets far from the borderlands. It could foment violence hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Ahead of the sentencing, however, the lawyers made a startlingly accurate claim, albeit while trying to secure leniency for their clients. The man responsible for their actions, Stein’s attorneys insisted, was Donald Trump, whose rampant Islamophobia, anti-immigrant vitriol, and “rough-and-tumble verbal pummeling” during the 2016 presidential campaign season “heightened the rhetorical stakes for people of all political persuasions.” “The court cannot ignore the circumstances of one of the most rhetorically mold-breaking, violent, awful, hateful and contentious presidential elections in modern history, driven in large measure by the rhetorical China shop bull who is now our president,” the lawyers representing Stein wrote in their sentencing memorandum.

Kari Schmidt and Tyler Emerson, Wright’s lawyers, followed suit. Trump’s anti-Muslim hate—broadcast to the world in tweets such as the one in which he falsely claimed that “unknown Middle Easterners” had infiltrated a US-bound caravan—had signaled to their client that he needed to take action in order to defend the country from an impending “invasion.” “As long as the Executive Branch condemns Islam and commends and encourages violence against would-be enemies,” they argued in their client’s sentencing memorandum, “then a sentence imposed by the Judicial Branch does little to deter people generally from engaging in such conduct if they believe they are protecting their countries from enemies identified by their own Commander-in-Chief.”

If it had happened at the Oklahoma federal building in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh detonated enough explosives to kill 168 people, and if it had almost happened in Garden City in November 2016, I wondered, how could anyone in Arivaca feel safe with the same ilk of anti-immigrant hard-liners living next door?

All those years reporting in Europe, the Middle East, and North America inspired my approach to the book. The Marauders is the story of one border and the violence it inflicts on everyday people moving and residing on both sides of it, and it is the story of those who seek justice and equity in borderlands. It is not a comprehensive history of the border or of borderland militias but a snapshot of a moment in that history, and a story of resolve and resilience.

Although especially brutal, the US-Mexico frontier isn’t an anomaly, and the border could find its targets far from the borderlands. It could foment violence hundreds or thousands of miles away. The militias had trekked to Arivaca from around the country, and nativist vigilante groups like the ones in southern Arizona had formed in places around the world. I’d seen it as far away as in Europe and the Middle East, and now as near as in Texas and Arizona. It had happened in history and the present, and it remains as true as ever today: the border is everywhere.

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Via Melville House

The Marauders: Conspiracy Theories, Militias, and Violence on the U.S. Border by Patrick Strickland is available via Melville House. 

patrickstrickland
Patrick Strickland
Patrick Strickland is an author, journalist, and fiction writer from Texas. He previously worked as a senior reporter for Al Jazeera English.





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