After eighteen years in South Carolina, the first state with its own border patrol unit, a woman makes the decision to “self-deport.”
By U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Department of Homeland Security) via Wikimedia Commons
The police always put the checkpoint at the entrance to the mobile home park where María and Manuel live. A road barely two lanes wide leads through the park with its approximately sixty gray, white, and beige mobile homes tightly concentrated in a two-block area. Just in case, María and Manuel check to make sure the shiny black police cars and orange cones aren’t there. They decide to risk it and go to church.
Even though they are in South Carolina, María says the placement of the checkpoint makes it feel as if the U.S.-Mexico border were right at her doorstep. That’s saying something. María, though originally from the Mexican state of Michoacán, grew up in Naco, Mexico, right on the border. Although police checkpoints are often used throughout the state of South Carolina to find people driving under the influence, they are also there to make sure a driver’s residency status is in order.
“They put it in the entrance of the trailer park,” María tells me. “You have to go through the checkpoint.” There isn’t any other way to get in or out. The authorities at this particular checkpoint have already busted Manuel three times, each time for driving without a proper driver’s license. And this checkpoint has caused serious havoc for María’s neighbors, family, and co-workers, many of them non-citizens who have come into the area to work in the booming construction industry around the island of Hilton Head. Many are carpenters, landscapers, and construction workers who now live in the small town of Ridgeland. They are the people who have sculpted and landscaped gigantic gated communities built around golf courses and fake waterfalls. These modern subdivisions are now filled with mainly affluent white retirees, the majority from the Northeast and Midwest. Some places, like the ten-thousand-person town of Sun City, didn’t even exist fifteen years ago.
This is the border-policing apparatus advancing into the interior of the country, the “elastic border” that make places like Ridgeland, South Carolina, seem like the U.S.-Mexico divide.
If it were a weekday, and María and Manuel were returning home from work, they would look to see if the checkpoint was there. They would park at the post office, and then either María or Manuel would walk several blocks to check it out. But it’s Sunday, and coming home from church, they don’t do this.
When they see the police checkpoint, their spirits drop to the floor. They know the police have seen them. They know they can’t avoid the checkpoint. They know they can’t turn around, or the police will chase them.
This is the border-policing apparatus advancing into the interior of the country, the “elastic border” that make places like Ridgeland, South Carolina, seem like the U.S.-Mexico divide. Criminologist Nancy A. Wonders says that in this new world, “border performances occur in locations that may be far from the actual geographic border” and the day-to-day decisions by government agents, police officers, airport workers, employers, and others “play a critical role in determining where, how, and on whose body a border” will be imposed.
María has been living in South Carolina for eighteen years. But looking at the police yelling at them to stop the vehicle, she knows that she has had one too many clashes with this border police state. She has two sons, one daughter, and several grandchildren living here. While through these years there have been many ups and downs, she has never felt so relentlessly targeted by police, so immobilized. What happens next at the checkpoint is a crucial decision. María decides to return to Naco, Sonora, Mexico.
María’s ordeal takes place in June 2011, just before the time that the South Carolina legislature votes to pass a strict immigration law known as SB 20. With this, South Carolina joins the ranks of states such as Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Utah, and Indiana, all of which have passed sweeping, draconian legislation obligating local or state police to enforce federal immigration law.
No other state has created its own “Immigration Enforcement Unit,” as it is officially called. Not even Arizona’s SB 1070, the father of all these laws, has such a provision.
But South Carolina’s state law has something completely new. A state congressperson, Jake Knotts, has added a startling new provision to the law that sets it apart. The provision calls for the state to form its own “border patrol,” as a headline put it. This is a first. No other state has created its own “Immigration Enforcement Unit,” as it is officially called. Not even Arizona’s SB 1070, the father of all these laws, has such a provision.
María has already been in a “deep state of depression” for quite a while. She has already lost her full-time job, and for a year she has been without a driver’s license. Being without a driver’s license means that she, and all the other undocumented people in Ridgeland, have to figure out the basics of mobility: how to get to work, how to get the groceries, how to get basic services.
Even if there isn’t a checkpoint, you have to worry about getting pulled over. Esteban, María’s son, who lives in the mobile home next to hers, tells me that Mexicans are simply criminals in Ridgeland. If the police see you, they “get behind you,” he tells me. “So before you even leave the house you have to make sure everything is perfect,” he says: “no broken lights or blinkers. And if you are driving and they are behind you and you do one”—he pauses, then stresses—“one mistake, if you go on the white line, even if you barely touch the white line or yellow line, just something, and they pull you over.”
Those who have licenses drive people who do not. People without documentation know to transit at 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., the times when the local police work shift changes. If there is a checkpoint, people communicate quickly with each other and know to avoid certain areas.
Facing such a reality, people have formed a loose protection network: Those who have licenses drive people who do not. People without documentation know to transit at 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., the times when the local police work shift changes. If there is a checkpoint, people communicate quickly with each other and know to avoid certain areas.
What Esteban and María describe is something undocumented residents along the U.S.-Mexico border have lived with for a long time—a persistent feeling of being cornered, detained, rounded up, “trapped like cattle,” according to researchers Guillermina Gina Núñez and Josiah Heyman. They describe the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as a “tightly interlocked” and heavily policed zone with “multiple trapping processes.” “People who might solve one of them cannot resolve all of them at once,” they say, “and, as a result, suffer high degrees of anxiety and discouragement.” In their ethnographic study of locations around El Paso and southern New Mexico, they describe a world of confined mobility that would be unthinkable for the average documented white person, a world in which risks—even for the simplest of chores—must be constantly evaluated.
On top of this, local cops in the ten years since 9/11 have received $34 billion in Homeland Security grants dedicated to counterterrorism and have received equipment such as military-grade assault rifles, Kevlar helmets, and even armored trucks with rotating turrets. For those targeted in the entrapment areas, this creates ever more menacing-looking police forces now using “the sort of gear once reserved only for soldiers fighting foreign wars,” according to journalist Andrew Becker. But others see this as good TV: In March 2011, actor Steven Seagal, for his television program Lawman, oversaw an operation for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department in Arizona in which an armored assault vehicle that looked like a tank leveled a gate to the yard of sleeping, unarmed Jesús Llovera, and blew out two windows in his house. Seagal was accompanied by a SWAT team in full gear, several other armored vehicles, and a bomb-detecting robot in search of Llovera, who was the alleged ringleader of a cock-fighting operation—and who has since filed a lawsuit against Seagal and the police department.
In 2005, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies discussed how the use of entrapment as a border-policing tactic should be spread to the interior and complemented with a series of “virtual choke points.” Although the Center for Immigration Studies is known as a conservative organization, it describes itself as a non-partisan research group that provides “reliable information about the social, economic, environmental, security, and fiscal consequences of legal and illegal immigration into the United States.” Krikorian used the analogy of “computer firewalls” that people can pass through only if their legal status is verified. He said that these “firewalls” should be placed between people and the “events that are necessary for life in a modern society but are infrequent enough not to bog down everyone’s daily business.” So if you want to get a job, a car loan, a mortgage, or a driver’s license, or obtain a government service of any kind, there should be a firewall. In other words, he wanted to live in a world where everyone employed by the government and certain key business sectors would constantly police for “illegals.” A world of innumerable de facto border patrol agents.
Krikorian’s world of perpetual firewalls—along with the constant “trapping processes” seen on the U.S.-Mexico border—had already arrived in Ridgeland before the Immigration Enforcement Unit and SB 20. A year before María’s encounter with the checkpoint, she had a driver’s license and was able to transit without problems. (“She got lucky,” her son said, in the late 1990s.) She regularly gave rides to other undocumented people in the area, and even helped some get car insurance. One day, she went to the Department of Motor Vehicles after receiving a letter regarding the renewal of her license. When María came to the window, they called over the supervisor. “Let me see your license,” the woman told her. María produced it with great reluctance, since a license is like gold in a place where almost no undocumented people have them. With her hand slightly trembling, she pulled it out of her wallet and showed it to the supervisor. She grabbed the license out of María’s hand, saying, “You shouldn’t have a license.”
Astonished, María stood there a moment and then said the only thing that came into her head: “How am I going to get home?”
“Your problem,” the supervisor said, without missing a beat.
The company quickly let her go after a co-worker accused her of using false documents to get the job.
It had also become policy in South Carolina, as it is in many other states, to show proof of U.S. citizenship in order to obtain or renew your driver’s license.
This happened around the same time that María, reported to management by a co-worker, lost her job at Boat and RV on Interstate 95, where she had worked for eight years. At the time María was vying for a management position. For the second time, she was taking classes to improve her English. The company quickly let her go after a co-worker accused her of using false documents to get the job.
South Carolina’s Immigration Enforcement Unit encourages such acts of civilians policing their co-workers or neighbors. A “citizen call” is now one of the three ways that the new agency can “make a case” through a state-level “If You See Something, Say Something” policy. Cases are also initiated if the agency receives calls or complaints from ICE or local law enforcement.
She lost her driver’s license, then her job. It was a year of anguish leading up to the detainment at the checkpoint.
The two officers are agitated before they even arrive at the orange cone. Even though Manuel is already putting on the brakes, one officer yells, “Stay right there!” When they stop, the officer says, “Don’t move. Don’t touch anything.” When they are satisfied that María and Manuel are not going to pull out a weapon, they ask for the papers. Manuel produces his Mexican driver’s license, the registration, and insurance.
The police look at the papers and ask, “Whose car is this?”
“It’s mine,” María says.
“So why is he driving?” ask the police.
María thinks about how to answer that one.
“In Mexico the men always drive,” she says.
“And where is your license?”
“They took it away,” María says.
“Okay, get out of the car, both of you.” The police handcuff them right in the entrance of the mobile home park.
Later, María tells me: “They treated us like criminals.” They say they are going to tow the car, as they always do. This is the fourth time that they have arrested Manuel. The total costs of getting both Manuel out of jail and recovering the car will be about $1,000, again.
Looming over this is the threat of deportation. In Ridgeland, it is usually just the fine, the brief incarceration, the towing fee, as if police were squeezing the undocumented population for a quick buck in a cash-strapped county. Esteban guesses this might be the case. He says that in Ridgeland, which is in Jasper County, maybe “one out of every twenty” people gets deported. However, in 2010 ICE implemented Secure Communities in Jasper County. If you get booked, as Manuel is about to, ICE could begin your expulsion process and put a detainer on you. While this wasn’t happening with any regularity yet in Ridgeland, Esteban told me they were “deporting people left and right in Beaufort County,” down the road from Ridgeland, near the South Carolina coastal resorts where many of Ridgeland’s residents work. Equipped with a 287(g) agreement, Beaufort has a task force of deputized police officers who can enforce immigration law. But the differences in deportations might have more to do with unevenness of enforcement, since both counties have programs with ICE And now both work under SB 20.
“From 2005 to 2010, nearly a thousand laws were passed by state legislatures addressing illegal immigration,” writes Sonia Nazario, the author of Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with his Mother. “In 2008, the federal government told all police departments to turn over any unlawful migrants they arrested to federal immigration authorities, a program called Secure Communities. A result: deportations nearly doubled between fiscal 2006 and 2012 to more than 409,000 a year.”
Nancy Wonders and Meghan McDowell, another criminologist, see Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio as the embodiment of this countrywide advance of border policing. They argue that Arpaio is a local version of the harsh global disciplining strategies meant to keep people in their proper place. This means that he, like any police in any part of the United States with similar practices, represents a “mobile, elastic border.” This internal policing underscores people’s “illegality” and “deportability” if they are in the United States without the right papers. And out of sheer fear of brushing up against the state or its surveillance technology, there is a process of self-segregation of undocumented people. This has an effect of “cleansing” or “purifying” the body politic to ensure that “public space—parks, libraries, streets, and hospitals—will be largely reserved for those privileged by citizenship, wealth, and, most important, whiteness.”
For María, constant reminders of her “illegality” begin the second she leaves her trailer park. Now she pleads with the police not to tow the car; someone with a license will come to pick it up, she tells them. But the police response is a blunt no. “We’re towing the car,” they say. It is at this moment, handcuffed, María says, that she thinks it will be best to return to Mexico. “I was imprisoned and I couldn’t go out even to buy food.” She repeats again: “It is as if they are at my front door. They are at the front of your house and you can’t even enter.”
An excerpt from Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security by Todd Miller, forthcoming March 2014 with City Lights. Reprinted with permission by City Lights Books.
For the past fifteen years, Todd Miller has researched, written about, and worked on immigration and border issues from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico divide for organizations such as BorderLinks, Witness for Peace, and NACLA. His writings about the border have appeared in the New York Times, TomDispatch, Mother Jones, The Nation, Al Jazeera English, and Salon, among other places.