The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández is a film that points out the risks of using the military as domestic law enforcement — a role that the military, under the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, had been prohibited from taking. That changed in 1989, when the George H.W. Bush administration declared drug trafficking a "threat to national security" and authorized the deployment of thousands of troops to the U.S.-Mexican border. In 1997, during the Clinton administration, Esequiel Hernández became the first American killed by U.S. military forces on native soil since the 1970 Kent State shootings. Shortly afterward, the administration suspended all military operations along the border. By January 1999, the U.S. Department of Defense announced a new policy allowing armed groups along the border but only with specific permission from the Secretary of Defense or his deputy. Several years later, in 2006, the George W. Bush administration announced plans to deploy as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border as part of the war on terror and to stem illegal immigration. Find more details on the history of the military's role along the U.S.-Mexican border, please read the Background article in the Special Features section of this website.Watch a clip.
The wall that is presently being built is likewise phony. In the first place, it will not stretch across the entirety of our 2000-mile border with Mexico. It generally cuts across the property of ordinary people and skips over the property of resorts, the rich and the well-connected. Furthermore, it turns out that most immigrants enter the country—whether legally or illegally—at ports of entry not across shallow portions of the Rio Grande. The wall frankly doesn’t keep many immigrants out. So, what is it for?
One purpose of the wall is to create the impression that the U.S. government is doing something about unauthorized immigration. I believe, however, that there is a deeper purpose. That purpose is to divide “us” from “them.” In the absence of an effective federal policy toward immigration, cities and towns Across the U.S. have been taking matters into their own hands by passing English-only laws, restrictions against renting to undocumented residents and tasking their police officers with customs enforcement. These local measures, however, seem to be directed not just at immigrants but as Hispanics in general. Texas, in particular, has a history of using English-only instruction as a legal basis for racial segregation in schools. In other words, local immigration law is the new Jim Crow.
This can be seen partly as a nativist backlash against demographic changes taking place in our land. Hispanics represent the most rapidly growing ethnic group in our midst, and this growth is reflected in a growing political, economic and cultural presence. Some Americans feel that they need to reassert a national identity they believe is under attack. They assume this national identity to be Anglo-Saxon and will protect that fiction with a fierceness reminiscent of those who believed African American voting rights would lead inevitably to blood in the streets. The wall is, among other things, a national symbol meant to reassure the native-born and non-hispanic that their vision of Anglo-Saxon national identity remains intact. But as the story of Esequiel Hernandez illustrates, phony wars can have real casualties.