Bound at the Border, or How to Make Border Porn
by Greg Grandin
On February 15th, Donald Trump declared a state of national emergency in order to fund his “great, great” border wall without having to go through Congress. There is, of course, no emergency, despite the rape fantasy that the president has regularly tried to pass off as public policy. In speech after speech, including his declaration of that emergency, he has told the same story: the United States needs a border wall to prevent sex traffickers from driving women into the country, bound with duct tape.
“Women are tied up,” he typically says. “They’re bound. Duct tape put around their faces, around their mouths. In many cases they can’t even breathe.”
It’s a scenario he’s only continued to elaborate over time. “They have tape over their mouths, electrical tape, usually blue tape, as they call it. It’s powerful stuff. Not good. And they have three, four, five of them in vans, or three of them in back seats of cars.” As they approach ports of entry, he swears, the vehicles carrying them “get off the road, and they drive out into the desert and they come in, they make a left turn — usually it’s a left, not a right.”
Fact-checkers and experts in border sex trafficking have been quick to insist that they know of no such incidents, however elaborately imagined — not one. Instead, most women and children forced into prostitution, they report, enter the country through legal ports of entry.
Border Patrol headquarters even sent out a request asking agents to provide any evidence whatsoever that might help support the president’s tall tales. None apparently did. It’s worth noting that Trump first added stories of duct-taped women to his border repertoire in early January, not too long after the heartbreaking news broke of the discovery of two Saudi sisters, 16 and 22, found dead in New York City’s Hudson River, duct-taped together. Their deaths were ruled suicides, committed after the United States denied them asylum and ordered them deported to Saudi Arabia, a close American ally. Their bodies even washed up on West 68th Street and Riverside Drive, close to Trump Place Condominiums. (He seems inescapable.)
In any case, one doesn’t need Sigmund Freud to grasp the crude displacement evidently underway here. By narrating the “crisis” on the border in a pornographic manner, painting it as a hellscape ruled by MS-13 murderers and rapists, President Trump is undoubtedly using ever more salacious fables to sublimate guilty desires, as well as his and the nation’s complicity in hellish atrocities.
Currently, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has nearly 50,000 migrants in custody. That’s roughly the number of people Canada incarcerates in its entire prison system. And no one knows how many migrant children the U.S. is detaining, except that the number is much higher than the 2,737 listed in court documents. The Department of Health and Human Services can’t even provide journalists with an accurate count: “The total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown” is all its spokespeople can say.
Many of those children are housed in tent compounds in the desert or vacant Walmarts, forced to eat in shifts and sleep on the floors of chain-link cells covered only by a thin, metallic blanket. In one Florida detention center, children are packed “like sardines” in large halls stacked with bunk beds with little room even to walk. At such places, they are reportedly taunted or even sexually terrorized, either by staff or older migrants. They are overprescribed psychotropic drugs to numb them, given pills to make them sleep, and often refused medical attention when sick.
Border Patrol agents have even reportedly snatched babies from their mothers as they were breastfeeding them. Families have been tear gassed at the border and children have already died in Border Patrol custody (though “custody” is undoubtedly too soft a word to describe what the U.S. is doing to the progeny of nearby republics). “These kids are incarcerated,” said an MSNBC reporter who visited one of the detention complexes.
Some of the incarcerated migrant children are then delivered to a Christian adoption service with links to Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. According to the Associated Press, the Trump administration has all but given up trying to reunite children placed in “sponsor” homes with their actual families, since returning them, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, “would present grave child welfare concerns.”
Make Heaven Weep
Racial and sexual violence on the border has a long history. In Washington’s 1846 war on Mexico, for instance, which established the current boundary between the two countries, state militia volunteers and Army regulars rampaged across that region, burning churches, raping women, and scalping men.
On February 9, 1847, for example, a member of an Arkansas volunteer regiment raped a Mexican woman near the regiment’s camp at Agua Nueva in the state of Coahuila and Mexicans retaliated by killing a U.S. soldier. In response, more than 100 of those Arkansas volunteers cornered a group of war refugees in a cave. Screaming “like fiends,” according to one witness, they raped and slaughtered their victims, even as the women and children among them were “shrieking for mercy.” By the time it ended, scores of Mexicans lay dead or dying on a cave floor thick with clotted blood. Many of them had been scalped. (That’s hardly surprising since more than a few of those U.S. Army volunteers had, in the pre-war years, made their livings on those same borderlands by scalping Apaches for bounty money, or “barbering” them, as one Texan scalp-hunter put it.)
Even before that massacre, General Winfield Scott, commander of U.S. forces, wrote Washington to complain of other atrocities being committed by such volunteers, organized under the command of future president Zachary Taylor. The crimes of Taylor’s men, Scott said, were so heinous they would “make Heaven weep.”
When the war ended, Washington had taken all of Mexico’s northern territories, including all or parts of present-day Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, western Colorado, Utah, and southwestern Wyoming. About 500,000 square miles, home to an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people, had been added to the United States.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Chief Pimp
Sexual violence only continued, committed by members of the Border Patrol (founded in 1924) and other security forces like the Texas Rangers.
Starting in the 1970s, ever more middle-class families in the U.S. began hiring undocumented Mexican women as live-in servants, cooks, maids, and nannies. Many of them found themselves far from home in peonage-like conditions, unable to leave the houses in which they worked. Some of those women quickly found themselves not just trapped, but sexually and emotionally battered. One was locked in a house in Nevada for months, according to a witness: “She worked from sunup to way after dark. She requested that her wages be sent to her father in Mexico. No money was ever sent to her father. This went on for about a year and a half. Then she flipped — she became insane, broke out of the house and ran down the street. That’s when the Border Patrol got her.”
Others were raped by their employers and, if they complained, beaten or told that they would be handed over to the Border Patrol, which came to double as a labor procurement service for wealthy households and large ranchers. During those years, in fact, the Border Patrol and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) were notoriously corrupt, violent federal institutions. In Texas, Border Patrollers worked closely with ranchers, delivering workers to their properties (including one owned by Lyndon Johnson when he was still president), then raiding those properties just before payday and deporting the same workers. “The ranchers got their crops harvested for free, the INS men got fishing and hunting privileges on the ranches, and the Mexicans got nothing,” a New York Times reporter, John Crewdson, wrote.
An investigation into INS corruption revealed that agency officials traded young Mexican women caught at the border to the Los Angeles Rams for season tickets. One such official was known within the INS as the service’s “chief pimp.” Part of his job was to help other officials and politicians, including New Jersey Democrat Peter Rodino (who presided over Richard Nixon’s impeachment in the House of Representatives), “get laid” by arranging visits to Mexican brothels.
In his memoir, a former guard, Tony Hefner, described the INS detention center in Port Isabel, Texas — overflowing in the 1980s with refugees from President Ronald Reagan’s Central American wars — as essentially a rape camp. There, underage Salvadoran women, summoned by the center’s guards and wardens, were forced to dance, watch gore films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and submit to sexual demands. They were given abortion pills in case such encounters resulted in pregnancy.
For decades, the border also gave liberty to nativist fantasies, as vigilantes of one sort or another ran wild there.
In the era after the United States lost its war in Vietnam and began to make its fast turn toward deindustrialization, such fantasies became ever more sadistic. In 1990, for instance, a group of San Diego high school students fashioned themselves into a neo-Nazi paramilitary group, calling themselves the Metal Militia, and began staging “war games” on the border, hunting down and robbing migrants. The spree was notable in that it was covered by a new broadcasting network, Fox, on a show called The Reporters.
Racism and nativism would become Fox News’ bread and butter, but here it went for sensationalism, titling the episode “Human Prey.” Its host, former Newsday investigative journalist Bob Drury, depicted migrants sympathetically. In a wide-lapelled white blazer, he interviewed one vigilante who estimated that there were about 10 militant groups in the San Diego County area who would “hunt, track, and stalk” migrants for sport. The film crew accompanied one such group as they captured a family, including a baby and a terrified grandmother.
Drury linked this upsurge in border extremism to the end of the Vietnam War: many of the vigilantes were veterans of that war. Others were teenagers who modeled their tactics, including the setting of booby traps, on Vietnam War movies they had seen. The most disturbing portions of Drury’s report were his interviews with vigilantes. Disguised so as not to be recognizable, they expressed unalloyed hate. “Grab a kid,” one said, discussing his favored method of terrorizing migrants, and “nobody is going to do anything.”
Rome at the Colosseum
“Human Prey” helped launch a genre of TV “border patrol porn.” Even before Trump came on the political scene, the National Geographic channel ran five seasons of Border Wars. Since then, more such shows have aired, including Discovery Channel’s Border Live and Netflix’s Border Security. Copying the style of law-and-order series like Cops, these shows offer viewers ride-alongs with Border Patrol agents as they guard the country’s frontier. The set-up is familiar: greenish night-goggle cinematography, Black Hawk helicopters, battered-down doors, and sunrise jeep runs through mesquite scrub. While driving, Border Patrol agents in dark sunglasses hold forth on life, duty, manhood, and their occasional doubts, as an unseen camera films them from the passenger seat or back seat.
One episode from season two of Border Wars, “Lost in the River,” reveals a common, often deadly Border Patrol practice: the use of helicopters and all-terrain vehicles to scatter border crossers, forcing them ever deeper into the dangerous desert or fast-flowing rivers. It’s a game — patrollers play scatter, chase, catch; migrants surrender or die — that pits desperate people with next to no resources against one of the best-funded, high-tech, armed-to-the-teeth law enforcement agencies on earth. “We’ll let him tire himself out. If he wants to run, we’ll let him run,” says one agent. “You kind of have to pick your battles, and I usually pick the one who runs the most… We’ve got bodies running all over the place… It’s a never-ending game for us.”
Some of those migrants are chased back into Mexico, others caught, but many simply disappear and die, either from drowning or dehydration. Those that do make it to the United States go on to work at some of the lowest-paying but essential jobs around: they pick crops, slaughter and pack meat, clean houses, tend to the sick, watch kids — and for the privilege of all this, the federal government has put them through a dystopic death race, which is then transformed into reality-show entertainment for the masses. Watching such spectacles on cable TV, it’s hard not to feel that the United States is now ancient Rome — an empire that, in its later years, held compassion to be a vice — and the whole of that southwestern desert our Colosseum.
Occasionally, these shows humanize immigrants, but only long enough to super-humanize their pursuers. In one Border Wars episode, a group of 24 detained migrants sit around in the cold morning desert air, looking alternately scared and bored. “It tugs at your heart string[s],” says one of the Border Patrollers who chased them down. “When you see people that are in a bad position, you know, it’s tough, it plays on you emotionally as an agent, even though you have a job to do. To keep America safe.” None of these shows, however, reveal what happens off screen, including reports that Border Patrollers gratuitously tackle non-resisting migrants, beat those they catch, piss on their belongings, destroy their sources of drinking water, and deny them humanitarian aid.
If the images that do appear on screen sooner or later come to numb the moral senses and if viewers need to up the ante, they can always click on PornHub, which offers a whole subgenre of actual Border Porn, including actors dressed as border agents and as migrants: “If you are caught, you are fucked,” is the title of one video.
“Like the Sabine virgins,” the New York Herald wrote a century and a half ago about how Mexicans would come to enjoy being ruled by Washington, Mexico “will soon learn to love her ravishers.”
Maybe there’s a better metaphor than describing the United States as decadent Rome. Maybe Trump’s wall, whether built or not, is psychologically refashioning the country into a besieged medieval fortress, complete with its own cult of martyrs. As a candidate, Trump campaigned with the victims (or the families of victims) of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, using their grief to stoke grievances. As president, one of his first acts was to establish a government office charged with providing support services to “victims of crimes committed by removable aliens.” (Never mind that such aliens have a lower crime rate here than the general population.) Trump’s never happier than when, at one of his rallies or speeches, he’s able to call the name of someone who had a family member killed or raped by an undocumented immigrant.
A few years before Trump’s election, as Robin Reineke of the Colibri Center for Human Rights has reported, the sort of men who would later become Trump’s followers began showing up at Tea Party conventions with binders full of photographs of migrant corpses, gruesome images of the desiccated remains of those who had died in the desert trying to enter the United States. The anti-migrant activists who displayed such books of the dead claimed they were humanitarians, trying to raise support to build a wall to stop poor migrants from crossing over and so dying. But really they, like the president today, were necromancers, a kind of American priesthood of the lost frontier, offering a new litany of hate and using the fetish pornography of death to reassure racists that their cruelty was actually kindness.