Connections between Border Vigilantism and U.S. National Ideology

Beyond Walls and Cages
the university of georgia press
Athens & London
Policing Our Border,
Policing Our Nation
An Examination of the Ideological
Connections between Border Vigilantism
and U.S. National Ideology
jodie m. lawston and ruben r. murillo
In February 2009 Maricopa County’s notorious sherif, Joe Arpaio, staged
a chain-gang-style parade of two hundred undocumented people down the
streets of Phoenix.1
Pictures of the parade disseminated in the media featured mostly Latino men—shackled at the feet and hands and clothed in oldfashioned black-and-white-striped prison uniforms—fanked by an array of
burly, shotgun-wielding ofcers dressed in commando garb. Te spectacularly
punitive and martial images were orchestrated to convey the message that
Sherif Joe is willing and able to go above and beyond the status quo of twentyfrst-century law enforcement; apparently, present law does not treat immigrants and incarcerated people harshly enough.
While some may dismiss Arpaio’s antics as aberrant or as a publicity stunt,
it is important to situate his tactics in the broader anti-immigrant context
and a longer U.S. history of chain gangs, lynchings, and posses, all of which
are inherently racist. Mainstream understandings of white supremacy usually focus on extremists like the Ku Klux Klan or other blatant hate groups.
Tere is more to it than that, though. We defne white supremacy as “the real
material, institutional, and structural forces that have been deployed to facilitate the accumulation of political, social, and economic power specifcally for
whites.” Such forces include slave labor, legalized segregation, Federal Housing
Administration (fha) redlining, miscegenation laws, unequal distribution
of educational resources, and numerous other forms of racialized inclusion
182 t jodie m. lawston and ruben r. murillo
and exclusion. Te law and its apparatuses—the police, court, and penal systems—historically have been deployed to establish and then perpetuate white
supremacy. For example, the 1790 congressional act which legislated that only
whites could naturalize as U.S. citizens established a telling precursor to present
immigration law. Given this social and political function of the law, it is not
surprising that present-day vigilante groups turn to discourses of legality to
target racialized immigrants.
In many ways, Arpaio’s parade mirrors the tactics, motives, and logic of
present-day anti-immigrant vigilante groups like the Minuteman Project,
Ranch Rescue, American Border Patrol, and the Civil Homeland Defense
Corps. Te tactics of Arpaio and such vigilante groups—who also dress in
military-style attire and sometimes wield guns2—both rely on creating a spectacle as they roam along the border or search ranches for undocumented migrants.3
Interestingly, the word “vigilante” has a highly visual dimension, as
it derives from the Latin, meaning “watchful”; however, there is no evidence
that vigilante tactics reduce undocumented immigration into the United States.
Likewise, increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border has failed to reduce unauthorized immigration.4 Te motives for their activities, then, must lie
elsewhere. In this chapter we locate the motives of the aggressive and punitive
nature of both vigilante groups and Sherif Arpaio within a history of racial
domination. We show that both Arpaio and vigilante groups are logical extensions of a white supremacist national formation. Treating them as anything
but extensions of white supremacy legitimizes U.S. migration policy, which is
inhumane, exploitative, and deadly.
Following the logics of racial domination, one motive of Arpaio and vigilante
groups is to intimidate and instill fear in migrants and Latino/as, who, even
when U.S. citizens, are racially profled.5
However, Arpaio and vigilante groups
insist repeatedly that they only aim to enforce the law. Jim Gilchrist—who
founded the Minuteman Project in 2004—explains on his website that he “is
only one of millions of twenty-frst century minutemen/women/children who
want the United States to remain governed by the ‘rule of law’ and who want
proactive enforcement of our national security protections and our immigration legal code.”6
Chris Simcox—founder of the Civil Homeland Defense Corps
in Arizona in 2002 and, later, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps—claims
he is merely working to protect national security and American sovereignty;7
his mission is “to secure United States borders and coastal boundaries against
unlawful and unauthorized entry of all individuals, contraband, and foreign
Finally, Arpaio claims that he is only enforcing the laws of Arizona
and “serving the public.”9
In a 2008 interview, the sherif defended his demean-
Policing Our Border, Policing Our Nation t 183
ing and humiliating treatment of undocumented immigrants: “We do know
there’s [sic] many illegals in [Maricopa] county, that have already been designated criminals. Just by coming here they are criminals. Everybody forgets
that. Illegal means that you’ve done something wrong, you’re illegal. But that
goes by the wayside, nobody talks about that.”10
Te anti-immigrant and “illegal immigration” crowds have been so successful at criminalizing immigrants that Arpaio’s comments refect the national
discourse that immigrants are indeed “criminals.” In fact, immigration law falls
under administrative law, not criminal law. Entry without inspection, which
is what most undocumented migrants are charged with, is an administrative
violation; it is neither a misdemeanor nor a felony, and does not carry a jail
or prison sentence. Te use of the language “criminal” and “lawbreakers” effectively justifes the bellicose posturing of anti-immigrant discourses and
Te paradox of Arpaio’s and vigilante groups’ claims to uphold the law and
national security is that they themselves push the envelope in terms of following
the law. Arpaio is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice
for allegations of discrimination and unconstitutional searches and seizures,11
while vigilante organizations function similarly to paramilitary groups in that
they act as law enforcement even though they are not. Moreover, “vigilante
groups have been responsible for cases of ‘immigrants’ being hunted down,
abused, or beaten with fashlights. Groups or individuals get in their pickups
or atvs, detain groups at gunpoint, and then call in the Border Patrol.”12 What
interests us in terms of this discussion is both parties’ decision to employ extralegal enforcement techniques to uphold the law. In the case of vigilante groups,
we have to ask why they do not join the Border Patrol if in fact they want to
uphold the “rule of law,” particularly given the anti-militia law currently on the
books in Arizona.13 Since these vigilante groups are militia-like in their zeal to
have the law enforced, they come close to breaking the letter of the law.
It is of critical importance to understand that the present “border wars” that
vigilante groups and Sherif Joe are fghting were directly engendered by an act
of war by the U.S. government when it militarily invaded the sovereign country
of Mexico. By the time the United States was preparing to invade Mexico in the
mid-1830s, it had forged an American identity that posited white Americans
as socially, culturally, and economically superior to Native Americans, Blacks,
and Mexicans. And the violence and wars that historically have driven the territorial and economic expansion of the United States are part of this racialized
identity. For example, the belief that people who are nonwhite are “uncivilized
and barbaric” justifed U.S. colonialism and the invasion of Mexico. Political
184 t jodie m. lawston and ruben r. murillo
leaders who agitated for the invasion ofen represented the coveted lands of
what are now Texas, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado
as “lawless” and underdeveloped.14 While the United States carried out numerous attacks against villages during the U.S.-Mexican War—massacring men,
women, and children—U.S. political leaders and non-state actors insistently
characterized, and continue to adamantly decry, Mexican people as posing a
threat to law and order.
It is not coincidental that the prototype for today’s vigilante groups was created during the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Mexico. In 1823 Stephen Austin
created the Texas Rangers to protect the “pioneers” from “hostile elements,”
“renegade Indians,” “outlaws and Mexican bandits.”15 Te Texas Rangers were
not state-sanctioned law enforcement, but were an extralegal group of civilians
who organized and led posses to police Mexican people. Te Rangers ofen
targeted completely innocent people, sometimes lynching them and leaving their dead bodies on the side of the road as a warning to other Mexicans
that they had better “stay in line.”16 Te Rangers have a folkloric place in the
U.S. imagination. One Ranger was said to be worth a hundred militia,17 and
countless books, short stories, television programs, and movies recount their
legendary feats.
Given the history of rationalizing—and celebrating—hostility and violence
against Mexicans, we can examine the recent history of contemporary vigilante groups, which also justify their actions as protecting and defending “the
homeland” against imminent threats. Congressman J. D. Hayworth, a former
representative from Arizona, echoed the sentiments of many Americans when
he said, in reference to a town in his constituency:
When you go to Douglas, Arizona, you step into a town that is literally on the
front lines of illegal immigration. And it is a town where just under the surface of
civility, it is being torn asunder by costs, by criminal elements, and by the strain
of law-abiding Americans getting up every day, trying to live their lives, trying to
do their jobs, trying to educate their children in an atmosphere that is growing
increasingly hostile.18
What is striking in this quote is the congressman’s reliance on martial language
such as “front lines,” “torn asunder,” “illegal,” “hostile,” and “criminal elements,”
juxtaposed with words like “civility,” “law-abiding Americans” who “live their
lives,” “do their jobs,” and “educate their children.” Te logic of this statement follows the bifurcated structure identifed by scholars like Takaki19 and
Limerick20 in which white America is coded as virtuous, and people of color
are coded as embodying vice. Does Hayworth really think that undocumented
Policing Our Border, Policing Our Nation t 185
migrants are not trying to live their lives, do their jobs, and educate their children? Tis logic aligns whiteness with American goodness and juxtaposes it
with Mexican depravity. Te essential objective of this form of discourse is to
rationalize or disavow white supremacy by ignoring U.S. hostility and domination and projecting it onto its victims.
Taking a cue from the political success of California governor Pete Wilson
and Proposition 187—and its expansion to other states—in 1996 Congress
passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act
(iirira), the most restrictive immigration policies the nation had seen in
more than seventy-fve years. Tis legislation recategorized a number of petty
crimes—including shoplifing and drunk driving—as aggravated felonies.
Tese, in turn, now served as grounds for revoking an immigrant’s legal status
in the country. Tis reclassifcation resulted in the immediate detention and
deportation of thousands of green-card holders, the vast majority of whom
were people of color, predominantly Latino/as. Because undocumented migrants are portrayed as “lawbreakers” who have entered the United States illegally, it is generally understood that a punitive posture should be taken toward
them. Exacerbating the perceived need for vigilance against undocumented
immigration is the popular tendency to racialize many of America’s social ills,
including crime, drugs, and poverty. Tus, undocumented immigration is easily understood as another threat from people who are “not white” and who
should be contained using the criminal justice apparatus.
It is not coincidental that the Minuteman Project, Ranch Rescue, Proposition
187, and iirira all emerged in the ten years or so afer the conclusion of the
wars in Central America. Proposition 187 and iirira efectively denied the
responsibility of the United States in the creation of immigration fows with
its support of repressive regimes in Central America and the violation of its
own laws. Anti-immigration rhetoric and discourses of criminalization place
culpability solely on immigrants for coming to the United States. Tis prevailing rhetoric does not recognize that the U.S. government has had a direct hand
in creating the circumstances that cause refugees to fee their countries in the
frst place.
Tere are two images of undocumented migrants that are widely disseminated
in popular culture. One image portrays a group of dark, shadowy fgures sneaking across the U.S.-Mexico border. Along Interstates 5 and 805 in California are
186 t jodie m. lawston and ruben r. murillo
neon yellow signs depicting what is presumably an undocumented family—a
male, a female, and a child; the purpose of the sign is to caution drivers to
watch out for undocumented migrants, and the graphic has become a popular
T-shirt. Te other image is of undocumented immigrants in detention, handcufed or shackled, or being escorted into the back of a Border Patrol truck.
Countless television broadcasts, newspaper articles, documentaries, and flms
keep these images in popular circulation. While considered extreme by some,
Arpaio’s parade of immigrants and the vigilante groups patrolling the border
are not far from the prevailing images about immigration that circulate in the
media today. Viewing migrants through the lens of criminalization, these images defect attention away from structural and institutional violence.
Vigilante groups and law enforcement agents like Joe Arpaio perform discourses of criminalization, thus consolidating U.S. national identity. Sherif
Arpaio and vigilantes justify their actions by claiming that they are doing the
job of law enforcement that the nation refuses to do. Tey position themselves
as being better law enforcement or “citizens” than everyone else. Te exceptionalism they claim for themselves parallels the American exceptionalist national identity, which recalls the history of U.S. expansion and war as virtuous
rather than colonialist and imperialist.
Our contention that their punitive and spectacle-driven tactics are not
extreme nor out of the ordinary is refected in the dramatic escalation in
Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and in the detention of immigrants. Highly publicized raids in Iowa, North Carolina, and Tennessee in 2008
generated images like the ones we have described here. Racialized logic underwrites vigilante groups and is mirrored in ice raids and detention, while the
escalation of immigrant detention corresponds to the more general expansion
of prisons in the United States. Entire groups of people are subject to racial
profling by law enforcement, the courts, and citizen groups.
Because this certainly belies U.S. national myths that espouse equality, social mobility, and opportunity, dominant discourses must disavow and justify racialized inequality and structural violence. Tese prevailing discourses
criminalizing Latino/as, such as on undocumented immigration, efectively
defect attention from U.S. structural racism and violence. Sherif Joe’s parade
of shackled migrants, the spectacles of vigilantes patrolling the border, and
Congressman Hayworth’s vitriolic condemnation of undocumented immigrants’ threat to “law-abiding citizens” are analogous to what Dolores Huerta
witnessed at the State of the Union speech. Perhaps the largest concentration
of power gathered in one building at the time remains overwhelmingly white.
Yet, under white supremacy, violations of the law by those charged to uphold
Policing Our Border, Policing Our Nation t 187
it are rendered invisible by the shadowy fgures of undocumented migrants.
Te actions of people like Sherif Joe and vigilante groups emerge from and are
empowered by hundreds of years of wealth, power, and privilege predicated
upon the conquest, domination, and exploitation of people of color.
One of the primary objectives of mainstream pro-immigrant activist organizations is to generate and disseminate discourses that will cultivate a favorable
opinion of migrants and pro-immigration law in the general public and political leaders. Typical examples of popular pro-immigrant narrative are Sonia
Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey and the flms De Nadie, Te Visitor, and Under the
Same Moon. All of these evoke sympathy for individual cases and characters,
but fail to ask the audience to think about the structural violence and racism
that has existed historically in the United States. While it is crucial to recognize,
acknowledge, and analyze the struggles of individual undocumented migrants,
we encourage pro-immigrant activists to speak about immigration on a structural level. More specifcally, we urge activists to think through and disseminate knowledge about the very real connections between social, economic, and
political value and privilege and racialized criminalization. Tis has the potential to shif how the general public talks and thinks about immigration and the
“rule of law.” Indeed, activist groups that underscore the ways that immigration
law—similar to criminal law—disproportionately targets people of color for
economic and political gain may efectively push groups and individuals in the
general public to join the collective struggle for social, racial, and economic
1. Tequida, “Arpaio dando circo, maroma y teatro.”
2. Anti-Defamation League, Border Disputes.
3. Chavez, Te Latino Treat.
4. Cornelius, “Death at the Border”; Massey, Durand, and Malone, Beyond Smoke
and Mirrors; Hondagneu-Sotelo et al., “Tere’s a Spirit Tat Transcends the Border.”
5. Romero, “Racial Profling and Immigration Law Enforcement.”
6. Minuteman Project,
7. Anti-Defamation League, Border Disputes.
8. Minuteman Civil Defense Corps,
9. Arpaio, website biography.
10. Ibid.
188 t jodie m. lawston and ruben r. murillo
11. “U.S. Investigating Sherif’s Ofce.”
12. Rosas, “Te Tickening Borderlands,” 342; Anti-Defamation League, Border
13. Border Action Network, petition no. P-478-06.
14. Acuna, Occupied America.
15. Texas Rangers,
16. Johnson, Revolution in Texas.
17. Paredes, With His Pistol in His Hand.
18. Quoted in Knoblock, Border War.
19. Takaki, Iron Cages.
20. Limerick, “Making the Most of Words.”
Acuna, Rodolfo F. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. New York: Pearson, 2007.
Anti-Defamation League. Border Disputes: Armed Vigilantes in Arizona. AntiDefamation League, 2003.
Arpaio, Joe. Interview with East Valley Tribune. April 18, 2008. http://www
—. Website biography. 2009.
Border Action Network. Petition no. P-478-06. 2006.
Chavez, Leo. R. Te Latino Treat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation.
Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008.
Cornelius, Wayne. “Death at the Border: Efcacy and Unintended Consequences of
U.S. Immigration Control Policy.” Population and Development Review 27, no. 4
(2001): 661–89.
Detention Watch Network. “About Detention.” 2009. http://www
Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette, Genelle Gaudinez, Hector Lara, and Billie C. Ortiz.
“‘Tere’s a Spirit Tat Transcends the Border’: Faith, Ritual, and Postnational
Protest at the U.S.-Mexico Border.” Sociological Perspectives 47, no. 2 (2004): 133–59.
Johnson, Benjamin Heber. Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its
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Kahn, Robert. Other People’s Blood: U.S. Immigration Prisons in the Reagan Decade.
Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1996.
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Policing Our Border, Policing Our Nation t 189
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Americans.” In Under an Open Sky, edited by Jay Gitlin, 168. New York: Norton,
Massey, Douglas S., Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone. Beyond Smoke and
Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration. New York: Sage
Foundation, 2002.
Paredes, Americo. With His Pistol in His Hand. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958.
Romero, Mary. “‘Go afer the Women’: Mothers against Illegal Aliens’ Campaign
against Mexican Immigrant Women and Teir Children.” Indiana Law Journal 83
(2008): 1355–89.
—. “Racial Profling and Immigration Law Enforcement: Rounding Up the Usual
Suspects in the Latino Community.” Critical Sociology 32, nos. 2–3 (2006): 447–73.
Rosas, Gilberto. “Te Tickening Borderlands: Difused Exceptionality and
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3 (2006): 335–49.
Takaki, Ronald. Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1979.
Tequida, Rosa. “Arpaio dando circo, maroma y teatro: El sherif Arpaio está usando
a los inmigrantes indocumentados para publicitarse.” La Frontera Times, 2009.
“U.S. Investigating Sherif’s Ofce.” Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2009. http://www,0,7881698.story.

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