Monday, January 30, 2012

Newt Promises New Walls

By Scott Nicol

Newt Gingrich surged ahead of the pack in the South Carolina primary, soundly defeating his Republican rivals as the “anybody-but-Romney” contingent of the party appeared, for the moment, to have settled on him.

Hoping to show that he is serious about border enforcement, and to attract the voting bloc that abandoned Perry when they found out that he favored allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, last fall Newt followed Michelle Bachmann’s lead and signed a pledge to line the southern border with double-layered border walls by 2013.

The pledge was written by Americans for Securing the Border, whose national chairman is the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, Van D. Hipp Jr. Mr. Hipp’s push for enforcement of immigration laws is ironic, considering his own legal status. He is a convicted felon, who in 1997 pled guilty to accepting illegal campaign contributions. The Herald-Journal of Spartanburg, South Carolina, reported that, “In return for the guilty plea, the government dismissed a 14-count fraud and money laundering indictment stemming from operation of a phone sex business.”

Having lost his job with the Republican Party, Van D. Hipp is now a lobbyist and consultant for defense contractors who want to get work from the Department of Homeland Security. If Newt is elected and follows through on his promise it could mean a lot more business for Hipp’s clients.

To date, close to $3 billion has been spent on border walls. A mile of wall averages $ 7.5 million to build, though some cost much more. Levee-walls in Hidalgo County, Texas, cost $12 million a mile, with the Hidalgo County Drainage District ponying up $44 million, roughly a third of the cost. Walls through the rugged Otay Mountain Wilderness area cost $16 million per mile, and right now in San Diego $4.3 million is being spent to replace a section that runs for just 300 feet across the beach before plunging into the ocean.

650 miles, or around 1/3 of the southern border, already has either single-layered pedestrian walls or vehicle barriers. Adding another layer to the existing walls, replacing vehicle barriers with pedestrian walls, and building 1,300 miles of new wall would cost tens, and possibly hundreds, of billions more, at a time when Congress is trying to cut trillions from existing programs.

President Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, oversaw the construction of most of the walls that now line the southern border. From that vantage he also saw the huge amounts of money that went into them. It is no surprise then that shortly after he left the Department of Homeland Security he founded the Chertoff Group, which helps big defense companies land Department of Homeland Security contracts. Many other top officials have quit DHS to join the Chertoff Group and cash in on their Homeland Security connections.

When the “underwear bomber” attempted to blow up a passenger plane a few months after he left DHS, former Secretary Chertoff granted dozens of interviews in which he gave advice on how the U.S. could prevent similar assaults. Again and again he said that full body scanners were the best solution. The Transportation Safety Administration, which falls under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, subsequently required that airports install body scanners. Chertoff failed to mention in the first round of interviews that the company that made the body scanners was a client of the Chertoff Group. It is safe to assume that they were pleased with the return on their investment.

Hipp apparently hopes to emulate Chertoff and get his slice of the Homeland Security pie. Anything he can do to make that pie fatter, such as convincing the next president to commit to building more border walls, improves his odds of getting a piece. The hundreds of private landowners, and mile after mile of wildlife refuges, that the new walls would harm are of no more concern to Hipp than the 400 landowners whose property has already been taken or the damage walls have already inflicted on the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge were to Chertoff. In their eyes condemnations and habitat destruction are just the cost of doing business.
Of course those are costs paid by someone else; Chertoff and Hipp only reap the profits.

For Gingrich, signing Hipp’s border wall pledge is just good politics. On the one hand, it helps him look tough on immigration and border security. And following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, allowing corporations masquerading as people to spend unlimited sums on elections, cozying up to contractors who have made millions off of border security, and might like to see more contracts come their way, could prove to be quite lucrative.

Border walls are all about money and politics, not immigration or drug control. Kiewit does not have to refund the millions it was paid to build walls, even though those walls only take a couple of minutes to climb. Boeing gets to keep the huge sums that it received to build virtual fences that never worked. Like the phone sex business in the nineties, Homeland Security contracts are a sure-fire way for the unscrupulous to rake in big money, and Newt has pledged that if he is elected president the cash will keep on coming.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Frontier Injustice: Not Even the Pacific Ocean is Safe from Our Pernicious Effort to Wall Off the Border

by Char Miller

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a nasty habit of rubbing salt into wounds, fresh and old.

Just ask anyone who lives along the Rio Grande Valley, makes their home in the Sonoran Desert covering large sections of northwest Mexico and southwest Arizona, or inhabits the dense sprawl of those entwined cities, San Diego and Tijuana. Since 2006, wherever DHS has pounded down its infamous Border Wall, it has chopped up habitats human and natural, severing longstanding cultural links and environmental connections between the U.S. and Mexico. It is a haunting reminder that the post-9/11 hunt for national security has generated its own insecurities.

The most recent (and stinging) example of this painful paradox came in late November. That's when DHS began construction of the latest segment of the wall, dubbed the Surf Fence Project. This 18-foot-high barrier, hung on six-inch rust-proof steel piping, is being pile-driven out 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean. The goal is fortify Imperial Beach, making it impregnable redoubt, the first line of defense for San Diego.

"There is a clear operational need for this development," Michael Hance, field operation supervisor with the U.S. Border Patrol, told the BBC. "The southern side of the border is densely populated and in the past many people found an easy way into the US through these beaches. We need physical infrastructure as well as border agents in the area."

As for the urgency to thrust this wall so deep into the pounding surf, local border patrol agents point to the capture in November of several undocumented migrants attempting to swim around the current fencing.

At a cost of $4.3 million, this new wall will be a very expensive form of deterrent. But Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Bruce Parks assured the LA Times that the exorbitant price tag (amounting to $143,333.33 per foot!) is worth every penny, for this stretch of beach "still has the potential to be very dangerous, as beautiful as it is."

I'd like to think that Parks is just being silly: do we really spend this much money building a wall because of the potential that this stretch of seaside can be a dangerous gateway into the U.S.? But he's not being flippant. After five years of listening to the Border Patrol and its parent department, DHS, say similar things every time they have announced the launch of yet another segment to the 670-mile border wall, it is clear that there is a pattern to their patter.

If, as DHS asserts, the land and sea are so threatening; if the people who would cross these stretches of our sovereign territory are judged to be so unsafe, then we must militarize the first while demonizing the second. Every mile of steel pole and three-ply fencing, every searchlight, movement sensor, high-flying drone, and armed guard is a reflection of this American war on nature and the Other. A terrorism that may be as malevolent as the threat this thick bulwark is supposed to repel.

This deliberate violence against land and people is underscored in the title of a new and insightful collection of essays on the geopolitics of the borderlands: Wounded Border/Frontera-Herida. The injuries that its ten chapters probe cover a wide range: the deeply flawed law enforcement and judicial systems on both sides of the border; the inequities and humiliations that migrants face in U.S. labor markets desperate for low-wage, expendable workers (pressure that women disproportionately bear); the environmental despoliation that comes from a globalized economy that created maquiladoras in Mexico, industries whose toxic effluent damages ground and surface waters, pollutes the air, and poisons adjacent neighborhoods. The border is a fraught landscape.

No shock, this contested physical space is also a social construct. As co-editor Justin Akers Chacón argues: "Since its inception as a boundary imposed by war of expansion, the U.S.-Mexico border has functioned in a dualistic manner. It has served both as a gateway to economic opportunity and as a barrier that creates and maintains unequal power relationships." Out of this duality, he writes, flows "the identities of both people in relationship to each other," becoming a "signifier of status that sustains each population in its own form of isolation." Although the proponents of globalization like to argue that this force is flattening the distinctions between counties and cultures, the U.S. border wall stands in stark refutation, a vertical and visible barrier. Bluntly divisive.

Emblematic of the rending of the social fabric that this enforced divide can produce is Friendship Park. Its name once conveyed its binational significance: First Lady Pat Nixon was on site at its ceremonial opening in 1971, there celebrating the site that memorialized the two nation's close relationship. "There should be no more fences," she declared.

That amity turned into animosity when, as a result of the 2006 Secure Fence Act that the George W. Bush administration promulgated, DHS built a series of fences that turned the park into a penitentiary. "New rules for public access to the gathering place leave families feeling like they have entered a maximum security prison on visiting day," writes Jill Holslin at her blog At the Edges. Any who would like to enter the park today must "wait outside the border wall 150 feet away from Friendship Park, seek permission to enter a locked gate, then be escorted by a border patrol agent in a 'security zone,' a five-foot tall pedestrian barrier that confines the space of the concrete circle of Friendship Park." Detention, surveillance, enforcement: these are the markers of a "containment society."

More egregious still is the latest effort to cordon off the United States, our arrogant ambition to split the Pacific Ocean in two.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." This article originally appeared on KCET, and is reproduced with the author's permission.