The border military parade
Raymond Ramirez | Tuesday, April 10, 2018
In response to a largely illusory threat of an unprecedented wave of immigrants assaulting the U.S. border with Mexico, President Trump has called for a surge in federal military forces to assist Homeland Security. More than a thousand Central Americans recently trudged through southern Mexico as part of an annual Holy Week event, bolstered by efforts to bring the world’s attention to the dangers the refugees seek to escape. A great percentage of the caravan is made of Hondurans fleeing poverty, violence and political unrest which escalated since last year’s election of President Orlando Hernández. The caravan apparently never intended to reach the U.S. border “en masse,” but rather was destined for a migrant’s right symposium in central Mexico.
Mexican immigration officers took people’s names to sign them up for 30-day transit visas, which allow them to stay in Mexico for a month while they apply for asylum there or seek individual passage to another country. While persons might then travel to the U.S. border, possibly to seek asylum here, in no way did this excursion represent the existential threat to the U.S. invoked by Trump as a rationale for military action. Sending federal troops to the border carries its own risks, which have repeatedly surfaced anytime an armed force interacts with civilian populations.
Nogales, Arizona, a small town south of Tucson, was the site of a 1918 border confrontation that came close to triggering a military conflict with Mexico. Along with its paired town of Nogales, Sonora, in Mexico, the communities were known as Ambos (“Both”) Nogales, and International Street, which represented the U.S.-Mexico border, and ran right down the center of the towns. The railroad depot, stores and saloons straddled the border. When trains arrived, first class passengers rode across the border in the cars, while those in coach got off the train, walked and then re-boarded after passing through customs.
One day a carpenter was walking back into Mexico. As he crossed the border with his tools, a U.S. customs inspector ordered him to halt. Only a few feet away, Mexican customs officers told him to continue into Mexico. The carpenter hesitated as the two groups of agents shouted instructions to him. In the subsequent commotion a shot was fired, and the carpenter dropped to the ground. Thinking that the man had been shot, a Mexican customs official opened fire, wounding a U.S. soldier. A U.S. customs officer drew his pistol and returned fire, killing two Mexican customs officials. Unhurt, the carpenter jumped up and ran down a nearby street.
Citizens on the Mexican side of the border grabbed their rifles to join the Mexican troops. World War I was still raging in Europe and Germany had made infamous overtures to Mexico seeking them to abandon their neutrality. In this atmosphere the situation rapidly escalated. The U.S. 10th Cavalry — some of the fabled Buffalo Soldiers — rode into town and crossed the border into Mexico. The troops mounted an assault on the heights immediately to the east of the towns, while militia on the Arizona side started firing their weapons from the windows and rooftops of their houses. Members of the 35th Infantry placed a machine gun on top of a stone building and fired into Mexican positions.
Hoping to quell the furor, the mayor of Nogales, Sonora, tied a white handkerchief to his cane, and pleaded with the angry crowd to put down their weapons; he was killed by a shot from the Arizona side. By sundown the skirmish was over, and peace was restored. Some contemporary reporting hinted at German ‘agents’ that were fomenting trouble, but an investigation by Army officials could not substantiate such accusations, rather tracing the origins of the violence to the abuse of Mexican border crossers in the year prior to the Battle of Ambos Nogales. Following this incident, U.S. and Mexico authorities divided the communities with a chain-link fence, the first border wall put in place between the two countries.
More recent interactions with military forces assisting U.S. border control efforts have been similarly senseless and tragic. On an overcast afternoon in 1997, 18 year old Esequiel Hernandez, set out after school on his regular walk to the Rio Grande near Presidio, Texas, with his herd of goats and an old .22 rifle, useful for fending off snakes and coyotes. Unknown to him, he was trailed through the brush by four armed and heavily camouflaged Marines from Camp Pendleton in California, sent in days earlier to watch for drug smugglers along the river.
Hernandez was shot and killed after he allegedly pointed his rifle at the Marines. The Marines involved in the shooting were exonerated and their version of the incident became the official government response, though the Texas Rangers investigating the matter came to a different conclusion. Hernandez was right-handed, so if he shouldered and aimed his rifle at the soldiers he would have presented his left side to his target — instead he was shot through his right ribcage. His family was paid more than a million dollars in a subsequent civil suit.
The killing of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil by American soldiers is thankfully a rare event. When National Guardsmen fired on protesting Kent State students in 1970, killing four and wounding nine others, the nation was revolted. Officials realized that using armed military personnel to meet public protests was dangerous and re-examined how armed soldiers should be deployed.
Our armed forces should be used carefully in all situations, but especially sparingly to deal with domestic, political concerns. The specious and capricious invoking of a crisis along the border — when immigration is at a 21-year low — to justify putting troops and civilians in harm’s way should be viewed with suspicion. People living along the border should not be made to pay for the ill-considered and perilous promises of pandering politicians.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.