Solidarity amidst disaster

Red Samaniego
October 13, 2015
"New Orleans" by gnalnad is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The situation along the US-Mexico border is sometimes described as a “disaster,” but rarely a natural  disaster. Yet in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s ten-year anniversary, I  have been struck by the remarkable similarities that exist between  post-Katrina New Orleans and the US–Mexico border. Criminalization of  local residents, heightened militarization, increases in gender-based  violence, overnight privatization of government institutions—as I read  about the realities of post-Katrina New Orleans last month, I found  myself transported, not ten years back, but to the time I spent this  past spring, near Nogales Arizona, working with migrants crossing the  US-Mexico border.

Seeing connections between what has been happening to the people of  New Orleans since the storm and what is happening along the southern US  border encourages us to look past the stereotypes that we have been  taught—that black is not brown, that “the American South” is not the  border region, that the “immigration crisis” is not a natural  disaster—and to identify common ground between these two seemingly  disparate situations.  By highlighting some of these similarities here, I  hope to open up new possibilities for imagining solidarity between  marginalized communities in New Orleans and Latin American migrants  crossing the US-Mexico Border.

Criminalization and Militarization

In New Orleans, the American government responded to a crisis  that was largely its own creation by militarizing the city and  criminalizing its most vulnerable residents.  Decades of  institutionalized neglect and racism, a botched evacuation plan and the  delayed deployment of government aid all had dire consequences for New  Orleans’s poor, sick, and elderly as the storm flooded the city on  August 23, 2005. As the area’s most vulnerable fended for themselves in  the search for food, water, and safety, the government branded them as  looting, rampaging “thugs” and brought in the military to restore order.  Instead of providing aid, the government surrounded the citizens of New  Orleans with armed military, sending a message that the threat of chaos  and violence stemmed from out-of-control communities of color rather  than a lack of access to clean water, food, and safe shelter during an  extreme crisis. Business owners, likewise, hired private security  companies to guard private property from the poor, intensifying the  militarization of New Orleans.  Far from curtailing violence in the  aftermath of the storm, this militarization lead to gross abuses of military and police power.

In the US–Mexico border region, too, criminalization and  militarization have been the American government’s responses to a  humanitarian crisis of its own making. NAFTA and backwards drug policies  have resulted in widespread chronic unemployment and extreme violence  throughout Mexico and Central America, heightening the numbers of those  moving northward in search of better lives.  Yet the routes taken by  these migrants have been purposefully funneled into a vast and harsh  desert in a bid to make the journey to the United States as difficult as  possible. Moreover, the very act of migrating has essentially been  criminalized. With the 2005 introduction of the “zero tolerance” policy Operation Streamline—a  joint initiative of the Department of Homeland Security and the  Department of Justice—undocumented migrants are now prosecuted as  criminals rather than being handled by the civil immigration system as  they once were. Both the detention of migrants and the filing of  criminal charges against them have increased dramatically since the  implementation of this policy. In 2013, immigration prosecutions reached the all-time high  of 97,384 –a 367% increase over the number of prosecutions 10 years  earlier. Practically all who are charged plead guilty, which bars them  from applying for legal status in the United States for at least five  years and sometimes for life.

Many academic studies  have shown that increased immigration from Central America has not  increased violent crime rates in the US. Nevertheless, the American  federal government has used the flow of immigrants across the US-Mexico  border as  justification for militarizing the region. In addition to  building nearly two thousand miles of fence between the United States  and Mexico, Homeland Security has also authorized the use of  watchtowers, low-flying helicopters, and internal checkpoints. The  military infrastructure in the region is managed by U. S. Customs and  Border Patrol, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security that has  been given broad powers and little outside oversight, often with tragic consequences. In 2012, for instance, a Mexican youth named Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez was shot ten times  for allegedly throwing rocks at a Border Patrol agent from the Mexican  side of the border in Nogales. In response to public pressure, the  Border Patrol commissioned an independent investigation on its use of  deadly force in the field but has since attempted to keep the resulting  report private.

The decision to militarize the US-Mexico border was not necessarily a  democratic one. For many living in the region, the presence of the  military is unwelcome. “Somos frontera, no zona de guerra.We’re the border, not a war zone.  A chant heard at local protests articulates the discontent that many  residents  feel toward the constant military presence. This summer,  multiple rural-Arizona communities, including the Tohono O’odham  Nation—which has previously cited detainment and deportation of its  enrolled members from their own native land by Border Patrol—held a day of protest  calling for “the Department of Homeland Security to stop the spread of  military infrastructure that continues to degrade life in the border  region.”

While many crimes did and do occur in post-Katrina New Orleans and  along the US–Mexico border, characterizations of their populations as  “thugs,” “robbers,” or “illegals” is incomplete at best, racist and  xenophobic at worst. These descriptors abet the federal government in  applying military force outside a genuine battlefield and in creating a  situation in which abuse of authority is rampant.  Increased  militarization creates an atmosphere of insecurity for everyone by  obscuring the root causes of these crises, and encouraging  disenfranchisement and unjust profiling.

Heightened Rates of Gender-Based Violence

Militarization and the criminalization of marginalized populations  both in New Orleans and along the US-Mexico border corrodes the trust  necessary for people to go to the police when in danger. This is  especially true when it comes to the victims of gender-based violence  (GBV).  Both in post-Katrina New Orleans and all along the US-Mexico  border, there has been a notable increase in gender-based violence.

After Katrina, many women in New Orleans reported feeling hesitant to  ask assistance from the security forces then in the city and shared  concerns that those forces were hired primarily to protect private  property rather than the well-being of those citizens who remained in  the flooded city. Without access to usual community supports—hospitals,  family networks, counselling centres—women in New Orleans had few places  to ask for help or to report an assault. As one woman  who tried to report being raped at knifepoint stated, “The police was  stressed out themselves. . . . The National Guards didn’t want to hear  it.” In one study  of women living in post-Katrina emergency housing, the rate of GBV  among women quadrupled its pre-storm rate in 2006, and by 2007 it was  still elevated to more than twice its pre-storm rate. This increase was  apparently not motivation enough for the state to prioritize rebuilding  resources for women in the city. The rebuilding of hospitals, where rape  examinations could be conducted and women could be connected to other  social services, was notably slow, and public mental-health services  remained absent four years after the storm.

For women migrants crossing the border or living near it, reporting  an assault to US authorities can be similarly challenging. It often  means deportation to a Mexican border town where a network underground  and unregulated industries related to border crossing have grown in  response to militarization of the official crossings. Kidnappers and  brothel owners, for example, find easy prey in recent deportees who  arrive at all hours, often without identification, money, or familiarity  with the town. In a society that still struggles to equally value  women’s rights and autonomy, speaking up can result in harsh  consequences, exacerbating women’s vulnerability to violence while  cutting off avenues through which attackers may be held accountable.

In the case of migrant women who reach the border zone, it is alarmingly likely that they have been assaulted during their journey. There is also a history  of Border Patrol officials soliciting sex from women they apprehend,  sometimes in exchange for the release or return of personal documents.  While documentation of this practice highlights a steady history of  abuse and extortion, lack of oversight and repercussions for offending  agents leave this trend unaddressed by governments on both sides of the  border.

Of course, GBV includes much more than physical assaults. Militarism,  as an ideology, promotes GBV by creating a culture obsessed with  control, masculinity, patriarchy, and national security. Scholar Cynthia  Enloe’s work on militarized rape identifies several conditions  that are likely to produce violence against women in the name of  national security, including:  “when a regime is preoccupied with  national security…when the making of national security policy is left to  a largely masculinized policy elite…and when those prevailing  institutional cultures are misogynous.” All are present in post-Katrina  New Orleans and along the US-Mexico border and help us to understand the  de-prioritization of the health and safety of women living in both  regions.


While fumbles and delays characterized the delivery of federal aid to  many New Orleans citizens after Katrina, there is one area in which  recovery efforts were adept and expedient: public education. One month  after the storm, as many still waited for housing, the process of  designing a privatized school system began. First came the money: $20.9 million from the Department of Education toward the building of charter schools, tens of thousands of dollars for libraries in eight charter schools from the Laura Bush Foundation, and offers from many private foundations to give money and expertise as the city schools are rebuilt.  Even as psychologists and parents asked that children of the city be  allowed to hold on to what few familiar places remained after such a  drastic upheaval, no funds were designated for the rebuilding of public schools.Instead,  Governor Kathleen Blanco issued an executive order to wave the  requirement that faculty and students approve the conversion of their  public schools to charter schools, and the state legislature passed a  bill making it easier for the state to take control of a city-run  school.

By November 2005, ninety percent of New Orleans schools had been  taken over by the state and converted to charter schools. Teaching staff  were fired en masse and those that remained employed were barred from unionizing. Of the district’s sudden conversion to a chartered system, the New Orleans Picayune pointed out,  “With New Orleans residents scattered across the country, making it  more difficult for people to stay involved in local government, several  legislators say the push smacks of opportunism.” Though residents  continued to fight for locally controlled public schools, the charter  presence slowly increased until 2014, when the last five public schools  were closed and the system became the first in the nation to consist  entirely of charter schools.

The same process of capitalizing upon a precarious situation in order  to privatize government institutions has also occurred along the  US–Mexico Border. Like public education, immigration enforcement has  traditionally been seen as a function of the state. However, immigration  control is increasingly coming under the purview of private  contractors.  As with the overthrow of the public schools in New  Orleans, this change seems to be motivated more by the ideology and  interest of a political elite than by consensus in the affected  communities. While voters have not expressed strong desire for increased  immigration-related detention, the number of detained migrants in the  United States has skyrocketed from less than 7,500 in 1995 to more than 33,000 in 2014, a more-than-fourfold increase.

More than fifty years ago, the United States passed the Immigration  Nationality Act, eliminating the detention of immigrants under most  circumstances. However, in 1983, one of the first (and what is now the  nation’s largest) migrant-detention companies rented out a motel and got  its first government contract. Three years later, the company spent  nearly $100,000 in support of a prison-privatization bill  in Tennessee. Since then federal policies have begun once again to  favor detention of undocumented citizens. Mandatory detention without  bond is now common practice. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement  (ICE) budget has increased by one billion dollars. Since 2009, a “bed  mandate” requires the constant occupation of 33,400 beds in immigration  detention facilities nationwide.

Given that private detention centers have a vested interest in  keeping beds full, it is alarming to consider the implications of a  completely privately run detention center. Far from simply building the  structures and guarding the cells, contracted personnel make decisions  about who gets asylum, who gets access to phones, food, lawyers, and  restrooms. As unionized workers are not welcome and turnover is high,  this often leaves life-changing decisions in the hands of new and poorly  trained staff. Screening for asylum is done with “virtually no oversight,”  with no participation by families or the public in interviews and  hearings. Tracking the detained proves difficult for their families, and  virtually impossible for the press and watchdog organizations, which  have no way of finding out detained persons’ names.

Many organizations say that privatization is economically  motivated. This is clearly true both for the booming prison and charter  school industries and for the politicians they patronize. New Orleans  has spent a large portion of its hurricane recovery funds rebuilding  schools that have been leased at no cost  to charter school companies. Such deals obviously contribute to the  profitability of an industry that is growing between twelve and fourteen  percent annually, and this growth has attracted investment from some of the leading hedge funds.  The two largest private detention contractors, CCA and GEO, reported a  combined annual revenue of over 3 billion dollars in 2014 and although  there is not enough public information on federal contracts to know what  percentage of that revenue comes from those detention center contracts,  it is known that taxpayers have contributed an average of more than  $1.5 billion annually to fund their work. The daily rate the government  is charged for housing one inmate has risen from $80 in 2004 to around  $160 in 2015, even as economies of scale have allowed companies to spend  less on each inmate. Moreover, in both the education and prison  industries, privatization has shifted labor that was formerly done by  unionized workers to non-union workers, resulting in considerable  savings—savings generally not passed on to the government by its  contractors—on wages and benefits.

While the use of contractors does not necessarily mean a loss  of government control over schools or prisons in these areas, in  practice, privatization tends to further insulate these institutions  from being held accountable to and by the public. In the case of New  Orleans’s charter schools, as one dean of a public school put it,  “They don’t answer to anyone. . . . The charters have money and want to  make more money. They have their own boards, make their own rules,  accept who they want and put out who they want to put out.” And in the  end this may be exactly the point. These movements are not only about  profit: they’re also about restructuring state capacities and  responsibilities in ways that leave less room for democratic  participation.


For a brief moment in 2005, the issues of Latin American migration and Hurricane Katrina overlapped. There was a public outcry  when companies privately contracted to do cleanup and reconstruction  were caught bussing in temporary Latino workers from Texas instead of  hiring from the large pool of homeless-and-jobless storm victims. In his  national address on Katrina, Bush declared that “as many jobs as  possible should go to the men and women who live in Louisiana,  Mississippi, and Alabama”, but he then loosened protections on working  conditions and contracted with KBG (a subsidiary of Halliburton), which  was among the many contractors to covertly employ undocumented  migrants.This episode highlights how barriers such as competition for  work, and differences in legal status, keep us from connecting the  struggles of the affected communities in post-Katrina New Orleans and  along the US-Mexico Border.

Examining commonalities in how the state treats marginalized  populations in both places leads us to reevaluate the nature of these  crises. When we refer, for example, to Katrina as a natural disaster,  we obscure the opportunistic policies that have caused much of the  devastation experienced in New Orleans. Likewise, when we fail to  acknowledge as natural the centuries-old process of human  migration, we risk minimizing the state’s role in creating the  disastrous situation now existing along the US-Mexico border.  Furthermore, recognizing such commonalities forces us to consider the  economic reasons for migration from the south today. The market  imperialism that results in the exploitation of illegal labor from Latin  America at present is not entirely distant from the exploitation of  Africans who were brought to the US as slaves over two centuries ago.

While working for concrete institutional and policy changes is  important for the attainment of more equitable conditions, the lasting  value of connecting these seemingly disparate struggles is solidarity in  itself. Instead of appealing to the existing powers for change people  can invest in one another and work side-by-side to create it on their  own terms. Solidarity directly counteracts the kind of neoliberal  exploitation occurring both on the border and in New Orleans.  As  communities cultivate identities based on shared resistance to  criminalization, militarization, gender based violence, and  privatization, states and corporations intent on dividing and conquering  will have a harder time drawing lines between them. “Solidarity, not  charity” was the slogan of the Common Ground Relief Collective founded  by citizens of New Orleans to provide mutual aid after the storm, and  its message remains a radical one.


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Red Samaniego