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Historian Greg Grandin on the Racist and Violent History of U.S. Border Agents

Web ExclusiveMarch 06, 2019
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Extended conversation with Greg Grandin, author of the new book, “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.” Grandin is a professor at New York University and a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, with Part 2 of our discussion with Greg Grandin, the prize-winning author, professor of Latin American history at New York University, soon to be at Yale. His new book, out this week, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. What most surprised you, Greg, in writing this book? I mean, you are steeped in Latin American history.

GREG GRANDIN: Well, what surprised me the most was the continuance of violence, how deep the roots go on the border, and particularly with the Border Patrol, how the abuse, that has now exploded in the headlines—separation of family, the beatings, the killings, the stress positions that migrants are putting on—it goes back well before Trump.

There was a series of articles by a Pulitzer-winning journalist in The New York Times named John Crewdson in the early 1980s, that to read them now is devastating. And he wrote a book, that—you know, it’s not hard to get, but it’s out of print—The Tarnished Door, based on these articles. And he documented that the INS, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which preceded ICE, was trading migrant women to the Los Angeles Rams for season tickets, that Border Patrol agents were running workers up to ranches in Texas and then raiding them before payday, and they were doing this as a service in exchange for hunting and fishing privileges, including, according to Crewdson, at Lyndon Baines Johnson’s ranch while he was sitting in the White House. This was happening in the 1960s. And Crewdson—

AMY GOODMAN: They were doing what?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, running migrants up—basically serving as labor brokers, bringing migrants to work on ranches, and then raiding them before payday and then deporting the workers, so they didn’t have—so the ranchers didn’t have to pay them. In exchange, the Border Patrol agents got hunting and fishing privileges. This is all—this is all in John Crewdson’s series of articles in the early 1980s.

And—because you asked me what surprised me, and I was just shocked by reading this. But it was a shock the way it didn’t receive any notice. I mean, you know, we know about the Church Committee’s investigation—Commission’s investigation into CIA and the FBI, these federal agencies, that had a reckoning. I mean, maybe not enough of a reckoning, but at least had some restructuring as a result of impunity and abuse. The Border Patrol and the INS had no such reckoning. They had no equivalent of a truth committee.

In fact. Crewdson talks about this investigation that was set up by the Justice Department in 1972 and headed by somebody named Alan Murray, called Operation Clean Sweep, that went on for four years, and it was shut down because it started identifying Democrats as being involved. Peter Rodino, who was a congressman in New Jersey, apparently, according to the investigation, according to Alan Murray, was—the INS arranged visits to Mexican brothels for Democratic congressmen and judges.

AMY GOODMAN: And INS is the earlier incarnation of ICE.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, yeah. And so, just the way that this was—just this has gone—this kind of brutalism and abuse and corruption just went under the table and was ignored, until what Trump does, is that he politicizes it. He turns it into spectacle. It’s not something that’s happening at the margins. It becomes the centerpiece of his political movement.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, it is a continuum, as you document so well in the book, from the early days. The frontier was this no-man’s land where basically no rules were followed. I was fascinated by one guy you wrote about in Pennsylvania in the colonial period, Frederick Stump, who Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania, is named after him.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And his constant forays to commit crimes, unspeakable crimes, against Native Americans.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, I mean, the frontier was always also a border. It was also always a border. It always was a site of violence and all of the brutality involved in expansion. And, you know, the Paxton Boys and people like Frederick Stump, they pushed that frontier forward, through an enormous amount of violence and, you know, Indian killing, as they called it. And then they eventually get reincorporated. What’s interesting about Stump is that he killed a number of Native Americans in western Pennsylvania as part of this—you know, in areas that white settlers were supposedly kept out of because of treaties, and then he just escaped down into Tennessee and then became an ally of Andrew Jackson and became a respected pillar of the community, a slaver and a planter and a militiaman. But there’s ways in which that kind of wild terror on the frontier gets whitewashed, both in the stories the U.S. tells about itself, but actually through families, and these families become respectable. I mean, Andrew Jackson, of course, is the biggest one of them all.

AMY GOODMAN: In Part 1 of this discussion, you started talking about the brutality on the border. If you could follow that theme, the whole issue of—you see the militarization of the border, the—what you see, these white supremacist organizations, of Border Patrol, what that is, and who they’re preventing from coming in, the kind of pressures on people, from Guatemala, from El Salvador, from Honduras.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah. Well, the Border Patrol, as we talked about in the first part, was set up basically as a consolation prize to nativists who didn’t get quotas placed on Mexico in the 1924 immigration bill. The 1924 immigration law is considered a nativist law. It brought immigration from Asia down to zero, which shifted the quota, gave larger quotas to northern, Protestant European countries. But Mexico was exempt because the U.S. needed Mexican labor, large planters and agriculturalists. And Mexico stayed exempt up through the 1960s.

But in some ways—but the U.S. also that year created a Border Patrol and staffed that Border Patrol with these men that were not of the same class as the large planters. And they used their position on the Border Patrol as kind of labor brokers. And they began to ritualize a certain kind of violence and making it more and more difficult and onerous and dehumanizing to come into the United States, in all sorts of ways, in disinfection campaigns, you know, in charging visa fees for crossing and whatnot.

But in terms of the people coming into the country, the pressure of the border does reflect—you can chart out 20th century history. At first it was mostly Mexicans. During the Mexican Revolution, there was an enormous amount of refugees spilling over from Mexico into El Paso, into other border regions. A lot of the violence directed at the International—the Industrial Workers of the World in 1917, around World War I, took place on the border. There was large-scale deportations. But then, as you move through the 20th century, it’s increasingly from Central America, and, in the 1980s, refugees from Nixon—from Reagan’s Central American wars.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Greg, one of the points you make is that the Border Patrol initially, when it was created, was under the Labor Department, and that, in fact, that Frances Perkins, the great labor secretary under FDR, attempted to reform or curb some of the excesses of the labor—of the Border Patrol, but that then the Border Patrol was shifted out from under the Labor Department. Could you talk about that?

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah. Well, under Hoover, under the—you know, when the Department of Labor was very active in deportation, its understanding of how to solve the unemployment problem was to cull the labor force, and understanding that culling in racial terms, basically terrorizing Mexican Americans and Mexicans to self-deport. There was a lot of that going on in the 1920s, particularly after the stock market crash and the Depression. So, being under the Department of Labor didn’t make the Border Patrol any less brutal.

But Frances Perkins and the rise of the New Deal and FDR, she had already criticized the actions of the Border Patrol before she became secretary of labor. And once in office, she did what she could to humanize the process, granting some due process and some rights or better treatment to migrants—they can make phone calls, you know—and trying to tamp down on raids.

But the New Deal had its contradictions. And one of its contradictions was basically cultivating large-scale agriculture. And one of the unfortunate measures that FDR did, I think in maybe '39 or maybe ’40, was to shift the Border Patrol from the Department of Labor, just at the moment that the Department of Labor was beginning to advocate on behalf of undocumented or migrant laborers, and shift it to the Justice Department and make it once again a branch of law enforcement and interdiction. And the way that that process has been militarized, it has long histories. There's lots of different markers, lots of different laws which criminalize migration, even as Mexico is exempt from quotas, up until 1960s. There’s other ways in which migration was criminalized. We don’t have to get deep into the weeds, but, yes, shifting it into the Department of Justice was one of those turning points.

AMY GOODMAN: And then these key Central American countries, that Trump has so villainized, demonized, but the pressures they face, directly related to U.S. policy in these countries—Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala—and what’s happening to those immigrants today.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah. I mean, there’s no better—the circularity and blowback and the vicious circle of U.S. policy abroad, running into the horribleness of U.S. militarization on the border. I mean, you know, at the end of 2018, two Guatemalan children died in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol—Felipe Gómez—

AMY GOODMAN: In New Mexico.

GREG GRANDIN: In New Mexico, Felipe Gómez and Jakelin Caal. Jakelin Caal was from Alta Verapaz, her family. You could see how the radius of dispossession and dislocation and displacement grows throughout the 20th century. Her family started out in the highlands. I don’t know—I don’t have any specific information, but many Q’eqchi’—she was a Q’eqchi’ Mayan—were displaced as a result of the 1954 coup in Guatemala, which the United States presided over. And they moved down into the Guatemalan lowlands and suffered enormous violence in the ’70s and ’80s. And then the end of the Cold War brought these communities no peace whatsoever, because countries opened up to “free trade”—”free trade” in quotation marks—intensified extraction, the expansion of African palm, the expansion of petroleum extraction and hardwood extraction. And so the migration and displacement continued. And, you know, at the same time, the U.S. was militarizing the border and making it more and more onerous to cross over. You know, again, the history is deep and wide.

But the Clinton administration, in the early 1990s, is a turning point, that at the same moment that they signed NAFTA, it went hand in hand with the militarization of the border. What the Clinton administration did, under a series of operations, was to make it more and more difficult, shut down relatively safe urban crossing routes in El Paso, in Nogales, and, you know, wherever, and force migrants to go out into the desert. I mean, this was calculated. I think the head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under Clinton—I think that was the position—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Doris Meissner?

GREG GRANDIN: What’s the name?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Doris Meissner, I think.

GREG GRANDIN: Maybe, yes, it was her. She said that geography will be an ally, meaning that, you know, desert torments will work as a detriment and slow migration. But the fact was that NAFTA and then Central American free trade and other economic policies basically created an enormous migration, of biblical proportions. Five million peasant families lost their farms during the first couple of years of NAFTA. They had to go somewhere. And so, you could see how it feeds off of each other, and how Trumpism, in some ways, is the resolution of that unsustainable contradiction.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does climate change fit into this?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, the book argues that the U.S. has hit limits—the endless war, an economic model that is no longer sustainable. But hovering over it all is climate change, right? I mean, it’s not—it’s the idea that the world is on the precipice of enormous change, that the promise of unlimited growth is no longer credible in terms of how the U.S. responds to social demands, that the U.S. has reached the ultimate limit, in some ways. Well, the world has reached the ultimate limit, I mean. And the book, the frontier is about—the myth and the image and the phrase “the frontier” is about the West. The West is literally burning. I mean, you know, large swaths of the West is on fire. Insects are dying, and oceans are acidifying. There’s a sense that the current model can’t go on much—can’t go on as it is. And Trumpism is a response to that.

I mean, there’s two—there’s different ways that—there’s different kind of politics that can be a response to the idea that there are limits, that the world isn’t—that resources aren’t infinite. One is that a more just system can be imagined. And this, in some ways, was what the New Deal was, that we have a social obligation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt often invoked the frontier thesis to explain both the wealth of the United States, but then also why the frontier was over. He would give a kind of 5-minute description of the frontier thesis, and then he would say, in one sentence, “But those days are gone.” And he used it as a way of arguing why we had to have, basically, social democracy.

But another response is Trumpism, right? And Trump—and what some theorists or some people call race realism, you know, a conscious assertion that the world isn’t infinite, that the promise of a kind of universal growth model in which everybody can rise up, everybody could sit at the table, is no longer—is no longer viable. So you have to build a wall and take care of your own.

So I say in the book that it’s tempting to think of the wall as a monument to disenchantment, right? A disenchantment with that old multinationalism, that was a fiction in any case. But the wall has its own illusions, right? Both it admits that the world has limits, that the frontier is over, that it can’t go on the way it was, but then it encourages this kind of petulant hedonism, right? This kind of cruelty that the politics of the wall encourages is a kind of insistence that we can do whatever we want. We could put children in jail. We could separate—we could separate children from their parents. We can—you know, no one can tell us what to do. So, it’s its own assertion of a certain kind of American freedom, freedom as cruelty.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the building of the wall then extends not just at the border, but it goes throughout the country. And it used to be that you would only find ICE agents—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —or Border Patrol at the border, and then it was within a couple of hundred miles of the border. And I’ll never forget one time I was talking to Congressman José Serrano, who was stunned that he was on an Amtrak train going between Washington and New York, and ICE agents came into the train trying to see if they could spot people who they suspected were undocumented, on an Amtrak train. And on buses in New York. And then you had raids of factories all across the United States. And so it became not just an issue of stopping folks as they’re coming in, but then beginning to create the same kind of surveillance throughout the country.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah. And this—again, this goes back, this expansion of border interdiction and its nationalization. Again, it long predates Trump. And in the 1970s, it was interesting that there were a number of writers, pundits and politicians who began to notice that this, things like workplace raids and raids in neighborhoods, was creating a kind of unique form of despotism. John Crewdson, the reporter we talked about earlier, in his book, you know, basically said that if politics continues like this, if we continue to chase the illusion that the border can be sealed, because it can’t—it’s a 2,000-mile border—for lots of different reasons, and not just geographically, but because of its unique role in North American capitalism, that we—the desire—chasing the illusion that the border will be sealed will lead to a kind of despotism.

Leonard Chapman, who was a general in Vietnam, he was a hard-liner. He was the head of of Nixon’s Immigration and Naturalization Service. He said the same thing. He said nobody wants to see workplace raids. Nobody wants to see that you—he said you can’t end immigration, undocumented immigration. It would—the measures that you would need to seal the border would end the United States’s constitutional system.

So, in the 1970s, there were these warnings that if despotism, if fascism was to come to the United States, it wouldn’t be through the normal reasons either offered by the left or right—the left, because in response to a strong workers’ movement, or the right, because of the expansion of the nanny state. It will be because of the exceptional nature of the U.S.-Mexican border and this increasingly dangerous illusion that the border can be sealed.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end with Anne Carson, the quote you chose at the beginning of your book: “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.”

GREG GRANDIN: It sets the—it’s the whole—it sums up, I think, the whole argument of the book, that, you know, Donald Trump has turned the frontier myth thesis on its head. And he did that on June 16th, 2015, when he came down the escalator in Trump Tower and announced his presidency, and promising to build a great, great wall and calling Mexicans rapists. I think that that was—that that marked the end of the frontier, the frontier—the end of the myth of the frontier as an organizing symbol in American politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Greg Grandin, we want to thank you so much for being with us, prize-winning author, professor of Latin American history at New York University. His new book, out this week, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.

To see Part 1 of our conversation, you can go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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