1869, Ep. 122 with Peter Andreas, author of Border Games, Third Edition
3:03PM Oct 19, 2022
us mexico border
Welcome to 1869, The Cornell University Press Podcast. I'm Jonathan Hall. In this episode we speak with Peter Andreas, author of Border Games: The Politics of Policing the US Mexico Divide, now out in a third edition. Peter Andreas is John Hay Professor of International Studies and Political Science at Brown University. He is the author, co-author or co-editor of 11 books, and has also written for a wide variety of scholarly and policy publications, including International Security, International Studies Quarterly, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Harper's, Slate, Time magazine, and The Nation. We spoke to Peter about how the political games surrounding the US Mexico border have evolved since he first started studying the issue over 20 years ago, how the escalation to a more militarized border has had extremely negative and deadly side effects, and how he expects border issues to be utilized by politicians in the upcoming midterm elections in the United States. Hello, Peter, welcome to the podcast.
Thanks for having me.
Well, I wanted to give you a hearty congratulations on your third edition of your book, Border Games. The first edition came out in 2000. And it's probably the most cited book about the US Mexico border out there. Nearly 2100 citations, congratulations on that second edition came out in 2009. And now, this month, your third edition has just been published. So what's the backstory?
Sure, I started working on this issue in the early to mid 1990s. When, in retrospect, it's clear that that was just a warm up to the border policing buildup. That escalated dramatically to the present. At the time, it seemed like, you know, dramatic and in and of itself, but it was, it was just a hint of really what was to come. So the book that came out in 2000 was really the story of, of of the 90s and didn't include the aftershocks of 9/11. And it didn't include obviously the rise of Trump and and the hyper-politicization of the border, through the through the Trump years. But you nevertheless, there is some consistency in the border politics from the 90s to the to the present. And so I sort of felt compelled, given the enormous attention to the border in recent years, to basically do a reality check to look back at the roots of where we are now and show that really, the escalatory border dynamics of recent years are not fundamentally new, but rooted in several decades of border politics, which have led to a seemingly endless process of escalation.
Interesting, interesting, what I think is brilliant about even just the title of your book, you describe them as border games. And in the book you describe the border itself, is in many ways a spectator sport for politicians and political parties. And there's a tension between image versus reality. Tell us a little bit more about that dynamic?
Yeah, I mean, the title border game. I mean, in retrospect, it's a it's a mixed blessing, because in some ways people might think I'm belittling, making making light of what's happened at the border. And that's not the intention at all. It's a deadly, deadly serious game with enormous human human toll and collateral consequences. But why it's a game is, is that so much of it is for an audience that isn't actually at the border itself, right. Most voters, whether in Mexico or the US have never been to the border, never will go to the border, don't know anyone at the border. So it's not firsthand. It's coming through media images and words of politicians and pundits and so on. And it does lend itself to, you know, manipulating some images, emphasizing some dynamics, ignoring others. And it's, it's the kind of imagery and language around the border does lend itself to sort of hyping of of a threat which You know, we see we've seen in an escalatory way for for years now, what I find fascinating is that before the 1990s, the borders really offstage politically untidily. But it was really more of a local issue. And then it became very much a regional issue. And then it was elevated to the national political spotlight. You know, what, Donald Trump's presidential campaign. So in some ways, it has been a border game all along. But it's it's escalating and in terms of what's going on not just what's going on the ground, but actually, the political attention, and the repercussions and the consequences and so on.
That makes sense. That makes sense. You mentioned in the book that, you know, this goes along to what we were just talking about the primacy of image management, and symbolic politics. That's a that's a heavy mix. But then that also, as you said, the majority of people in this country haven't been to the border don't really know what's going on there. And so media narratives can feed their imagination of in an imaginary way that they can expand issues that aren't even there. And then also they can these, this media coverage can also hide things that that don't want to be seen. So you say that this image management has revealed that there's actually persistent failures and negative side effects of this continued escalation that's get glossed over, no one talks about it. And that just fuels calls for further escalation. Tell us more about this vicious cycle.
Exactly. I mean, the type of remedies that had been pitched for years at the border, to resolve this immediate parent crisis have have often actually contributed to making the problem even worse, even if sometimes politically expedient and and beneficial for the politicians promoting it. So for example, you know, before the real escalation started in the 1990s, crossing the border for migrants, they're essentially almost transnational commuters. As they go back and forth, seasonally work in agriculture, go back home to Mexico, for the holidays, and so on. It wasn't an easy crossing, but it was nothing like it is today. And so one thing that happened with the crackdown on border crossings was to make the hiring of professional people smugglers, a necessity, rather than just a luxury. So you could, you know, in decades past, you could kind of self smuggle yourself, but because of the crackdown, you have to turn to and put your life in the in the hands of people's people in the people in the people smuggling business. And so in a weird, perverse way, the escalatory dynamics over years have have have been boom times for the people smuggling business along the border. That business has always been there. But it has just mushroomed in size, sophistication profitability. In the criminalization of migrant smuggling is also sort of making me a more sophisticated, hardened business, the stakes are much harder, higher, you're more likely to, you know, leave your human cargo in the middle of nowhere rather than get caught because of the penalties and so on. So that's just one example. Another example is just the geographic, you know, dispersion of flows. So for example, back in the 1980s, the US put an enormous amount of pressure on cocaine smuggling from Colombia to South Florida, and heroin and pitched his enormous success story when they were able to significantly reduce cocaine shipments from Colombia to South Florida. But the unintended perverse consequence was to not stop the flow but to divert it westward to Mexico. And so, you know, what was a success story in the war on drugs in the Caribbean was an absolute disaster for the US Mexico border, because suddenly excuse me, suddenly the US Mexico border was not just a highway for drugs entering the US, which had been for many years, but a superhighway for trans shipping Colombian cocaine into the US and that really changed transmitted transformer, the impact on the dynamics of drug smuggling across the border.
And you see that developing in To the growth of the drug cartels in Mexico, too.
absolutely I mean, Mexico, you know, I don't want to suggest that drug trafficking or drug traffickers are a new phenomenon in Mexico, but the sheer size and power firepower, and where they're challenged to the state is a relatively new phenomena, the sheer amount of violence in the drug trade in Mexico, which is what's gotten most of the attention. In recent years, I mean, more people have died in Mexico and drug related violence in the last decade and a half that have died in most civil wars across the world, right. So this is this is new. Drug trafficking is not new, but the stakes have grown, the fight battles over turf of who controls the entry points, the gateway to the US market, has really intensified in recent years. And, you know, part of that is because of the geographic dispersion of the drug trade from from, say, the Caribbean, to Mexico, I mean, the other dispersion of flows, has been, of course, a people. So historically, migrants would, would take the simplest route to say Los Angeles, from from the most westernmost point of the US Mexico border, and go straight through that way. But with the crackdown on Southern California, Operation Gatekeeper in the 90s, it pushed migrants to try more dangerous and difficult crossings, elsewhere further, further, further east, and in other states, such as Arizona. So Arizona is suddenly, you know, caught up in the politics of the border game and the way it never was before, partly because the flow has been pushed from California to Arizona, this is, you know, the intention was to stop the flow or to do or to turn the flow or to curb the flow. But the effect was to actually rechannel it to another area of the border, and then all sorts of political consequences.
Interesting. Yeah, it's, it's interesting to hear you, you mentioned that the flow is moved from California to Arizona. So then it becomes a state issue, but then it's also a national issue. And your books as the, you know, the that the issue has moved from low politics to high politics, we have an election coming up in November. How do you expect the border issue to be used in the coming weeks ahead of these midterms?
That's a really good, good question. I mean, I don't I don't know how successful pitching the border crisis will be, you know, for voters. But you can bet that, that Democrats are basically going to run from the issue because it doesn't win for them politically anymore. And Republicans are going to try to push it as hard as possible and hope that that's what voters care about. They're midterms, so there's going to be a lot of variation across different this is not a presidential election. But it's to be seeing how much that sells politically. You know, for for Trump, interestingly enough, the midterms when he was president, he tried to make the midterms to be about the border and unauthorized migration. And frankly, it was a mixed bag. I mean, a lot of his fellow Republicans. Were hoping the voters, you know, to focus on other issues, and not just, you know, the border. So it's unclear how much it will sell politically. But one big change is that, you know, in the 90s, and even through the first decade of the century, this is a bipartisan issue. Basically, both Democrats and Republicans gained political ground by touting how much they were for border security and toughening, building more fences and so on. It was, you know, there's some consistency between Clinton, George Bush, Jr. and the Obama administration's in terms of of consistent attention and prioritization of border security. That all changed when Trump basically said, Nope, I'm going to build a wall. Everything done before me has been anemic, the borders been wide open. And so suddenly, it was a much more polarizing issue than than ever before. More attention to it than ever before, but also more polarizing than ever before.
Yeah. In that vein, you'd mentioned Trump's policies, were the escalation on steroids. What are your thoughts on that, you know, the border is now moving in a way with the Republican politicians send immigrants to Democrat run sanctuary cities and north. What are your thoughts on that this evolution of the border game?
I mean, that is true. That's the right word, the evolution of the border game is, you know, before they would, they would use, you know, the border itself for publicity stunts, and now they're trying to basically take the border and move it elsewhere and get publicity for it. And so you have a Florida governor shipping migrants from Texas, from the Texas-Mexico border, to Martha's Vineyard in in Massachusetts. So this does indeed take it to a whole new level, the border game is no longer at the border, essentially, right? The idea here is okay, you take and try to embarrass and shine a spotlight on Democrats who basically are for sanctuary cities and so on, and and get political mileage. I think it's rightly been reported as a political stunt. But what's interesting is the plane to the base, it's actually arguably gotten its value for someone like Disentis. What's what's interesting is it's quite possible that various laws were broken. And and Florida taxpayers footing the bill for the for the for the whole thing. So, but as we'll see what happens, it's still too early to tell. But you know, think they might backfire a bit, but he certainly got a lot of political mileage out of it.
Yeah. So so this evolution of the border game, from the first edition, not that not that your book is the lynchpin of the of the progress, but you started analyzing this escalation in 2000. We're now 22 years later, in the third edition of your book, maybe there'll be a fourth edition of the book, you know, in 10 years? And who knows, who knows, but let's just say, you know, a magic wand appears, and you're suddenly an adviser to the President of the United States. What would you recommend? Like how do you? What's what's the solution here? It's getting out of control. What would be the sane political policy? What would be the policy that would would stop these games or make it more?
Yeah. I don't have, you know you're thinking of a magic wand? I don't have a magic solution or magic bullet is a very complicated issue. And, and the first thing I would I would advise is de-border, the debate. I mean, basically, the borders really just a place a symptom of a much larger problem, you know, what's going on Central America, restructuring of jobs and demand for low cost labor in the US demand for drugs in the US, shifting geographies of drug trafficking from South America to the US. So it's really, you know, the borders just a entry point. But it's, it's not necessarily the source of the problem, or even the most appropriate target of a solution. So, you know, try as best you can to D border, the border debate, it should be about, you know, okay, what what is immigration, about human rights, humanitarianism? It's also a labor market regulation issue. What's the drug issue? Well, is it primarily law enforcement or military? Well, maybe we should recast as a, as primarily a public health issue. So the Attorney General, Surgeon General would be more in charge than attorney general or even real generals in Mexico case. So, you know, one would, and the other would just be, you know, take a deep breath. And so part of what the book tries to do is historicize, the escalatory dynamics, so people don't think that what's going on now is suddenly fundamentally new and unprecedented. I mean, this idea that we must regain control the border, the border is out of control, projects, this mythological impression. Nostalgia for a border that was once under control, you can't regain control something that was never under control. So people need to sort of have a historical reality check to realize this borders, long been hyper porous. Its very founding was partly based on smuggling if you go back to the 19th entry, much of across the border after the war with Mexico was, in fact, smuggling of various sorts. And it's not going to be solved, you know, over overnight. The other issue is many of the things that we, you know, associated with the border, don't even actually even happen at the border. So for example, unauthorized migration, very few Americans realize that almost have been authorized migrant population in the US, didn't even cross the border didn't even come in through Mexico. There they are visa overstayers, for example. So if the issue is really unauthorized migration will then need to make it a much bigger discussion and debate than just just about the border. The other issue is just called nonsense on some of the language used to, you know, buy political opponents. I mean, you know, one of the favorite slogans for Republicans to sling at Democrats is called open borders, Democrats. And it's idiotic, because Democrats and Republicans alike have for decades, been building up, you know, border enforcement measures, whether it's doubling and tripling and quadrupling the size of the Border Patrol since the early 90s, to massively increasing border drug interdiction, and sending assistance and training to Mexico, for example. So it's downright silly to say that before Trump, the border was wide open. And then since Trump left office, it's now wide open again. But again, you know, that's the sort of political logic of the of the border game is to is to project a kind of black and white image of you either, you know, total border security, or my opponents are open borders, people. So some historical, you know, learning, it's easier said than done. Of course, sound bites don't lend themselves to, you know, telling people, you know, take a deep breath. And it's not, it's not unprecedented crisis, it's a serious problem and need serious attention. But it's more of a, you know, manage the border, rather than solve the border, it's not going to be resolved. overnight. I mean, the other really just heart wrenching issue that voters need to realize is, is just the high numbers of people arriving at the border today, claiming asylum, you know, to the refugee process.
And that was not true in the 1990s. Right. So this is a, this is a new problem, they're actually trying to find the Border Patrol to turn themselves in and get a process through the asylum system. So that is, is something that needs to be fundamentally fixed. Because right now, it's like, multiple years of waiting for your, for your, for your case, to be to be even looked at. So again, that's not going to be solved overnight. It's precisely because of this. I mean, Democrats are well aware of this. And so they, you know, there's no simple soundbite to say what I just said. And so they're hoping that voters will just care about other issues like inflation, and, you know, the economy and so on. And Republicans, even they've certainly know, it's a complicated issue as well, but they're going to hammer as hard as they can that this is these are open borders, Democrats, when you vote for, for Democrats, you're voting to keep the border open or open it more widely. So, you know, the last pages of the book, I mean, it's not a prescriptive book. But in the last chapter of the book, towards the end of the concluding chapter, I sort of, you know, try to speculate on where this is all all heading. And the reality is, is pretty sobering. It's not you know, I don't see the all out full blown militarization, I think militarization of the border has certain building limitations, but it's also not going to necessarily deescalate anytime soon, so it's going to be sort of muddling through, in in, in the middle, you know, in the middle. And so I think the border game is is most likely to persist in some form or fashion. I mean, there's certain things that, you know, whoever's in office. Things Are, are taboo. So Democrats will not call any barrier construction a wall, because Trump is basically and his supporters that basically own that term. And so Republicans will call for a wall and if they're in power, they will push For, for continuing building a wall. Democrats will call for more fences, more virtual walls using the latest technology and so on. But what's interesting is the, you know, miles of wall built under Trump, it's not like Democrats are tearing that stuff down, right? They're just they're building on it and making sure that to say that they're against a wall, but they're for border security.
Wow, wow. Well, I mean, this, this explanation is one refreshing because you don't really hear this, that the complicated nature of it is pushed aside by the sound bites. And I'm so grateful that you've written this book, you first, you know, first coming out in 2000. But this third edition, brings clarity to a complicated issue that, as you just said, is certainly not going to be solved, simply anytime soon. But if we at least have the facts that you lay out in the book, we can at least move forward with eyes open rather than eyes closed. And so I really want to thank you again for for updating this new edition of board games and encourage our listeners to take a look at this book and learn some more about this complicated issue.
Well, thank you. I hope I don't have to do a fourth edition. But we'll see. We'll talk in 10 years or so.
Exactly, exactly. What was great talking with you, Peter. And again, congratulations on your new book. All right, many thanks. That was Peter Andreas, author of Border Games: The Politics of Policing the US Mexico Divide. If you'd like to purchase Peter's new book, use the promo code 09POD to save 30% on our website, which is Cornell press.cornell.edu. If you live in the UK, use the discount code CSANNOUNCE and visit the website combined. academic.co.uk Thank you for listening to 1869, The Cornell University Press podcast