October 28, 2006

Potemkin Village


by Chris Maynard

On Thursday, as he signed a bill authorizing the Mexican/U.S. border fence (but not the funds to build it), President Bush sounded like a progressive, noting that “Ours is a nation of immigrants” — just before jumping the political fence, adding “We’re also a nation of law.”

Off camera, I’m sure President Bush would admit that a giant fence along the Mexican/U.S. border is not the ideal way to solve immigration problems. But it’s election time, and politicians prefer to see how high they can fan the flames to protect America along its newest “front line.”

You can’t have legislative gestures, however, without real motions to demonstrate teeth.  That’s where the Border Patrol comes in.  These photographs recently ran in the Los Angeles Times with an article on the department’s training academy in New Mexico. Enrollment this year has climbed to 3600. Seen from a distance, they offer a small Potemkin village. Up close, it looks like an attempt to convince every concerned American that yes, the doors did indeed close after his or her family crossed the border, no matter how long ago they made the trip.

An instructor demonstrates boxcar navigation as recruits watch below. In the background, the railroad tracks come to an abrupt halt in the New Mexican desert. Is this a one-way street or a journey to nowhere? Bear in mind that much of the American railroad was produced by immigrants.


As a recruit knees an imaginary groin during a defensive tactics drill, a couple of torsos with heads wait against a back wall, ready to be pummeled as stand-ins for “illegals.” The floor is clean and shiny, and the light is more than adequate. (Does training for night duty call for switching off the overheads?) 


In a first-aid course, matching white plastic dummies get CPR. Again, it’s a picture of practically faceless objects compressed by a sea of uniforms, like a disaster aftermath in which the victims all managed to line up in neat rows.


Finally, a stand-in gets seized in a field in broad daylight as a cadet brandishes handcuffs. Physical domination is the rule, backed up by the red-handled stand-in gun. The faux perp?  He’s an Hispanic local (presumably, an American citizen) doing his patriotic duty for $20 an hour.

Politically, the best part is that it takes place mostly out of sight.

It’s like the old farm rule of not giving names to the animals you’re going to eat later on. Train on dummies, and pretend to arrest the same employee day in and day out. Keep everything at arm’s length on back roads, or on railroad sidings that dead end.

Candidates in states with no Mexican border (that would be 46 of them) get to pump their rhetorical muscles and, just like the training exercises, it all occurs in the ether. The rest of the U.S. eats its vegetables and admires its freshly mowed lawns. (Decorative) stone walls go up, new homes get roofed and sheet-rocked, and, once Election Day passes, it’s all good.

(images: Don Bartletti / LAT. Artesia, New Mexico. October 19, 2006. losangelestimes.com)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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