Culpable

Martin-Springer Institute, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, 2015

Materials: Douglas fir flooring, BFK Rives Heavyweight paper, silhouette paper, sculpture wax, resin cast hummingbirds, hand and ankle cuffs, steel

I am waiting for my case to come up

and I am waiting

for a rebirth of wonder

and I am waiting for someone to really discover America

and wail

and I am waiting for the discovery

of a new symbolic western frontier

and I am waiting

for the American Eagle

to straighten up

and fly right.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1958

On October 17, 2014, my daughter and I crossed the U.S./Mexico border to work with the Kino Border Initiative at the comedor in Nogales, Sonora.  Each day, KBI provides humanitarian assistance by preparing two hot meals and giving clothing and toiletries to migrants who have tried crossing the border, migrants who have been caught by the U.S. Border Patrol and returned, served time in a federal prison and then have been deported, or are on their way to el Norte and need to be fed and clothed.  Chiara Rose and I helped serve breakfast to nearly ninety migrants that morning.  The majority of them were from Mexico.  But a Guatemalan couple was travelling back to Phoenix to see their two young children.  With them was their 27 day old infant.  He had been born in the Mexican desert while they travelled from Guatemala to Nogales.  Another Guatemalan mother was travelling with her eight year old son, escaping the violence in that country. 

The portraits in this installation represent many of the migrants who I met in October who allowed me to photograph them as they ate at the comedor.  Many of them had already been through Operation Streamline.  Culpable was designed after I visited Operation Streamline at the Tucson Federal Courthouse in 2012 and 2013.  As I sat and witnessed this process, where migrants are sent to prison for between 30-180 days, I had an overwhelming feeling of deep sadness and guilt, not so much for the migrants, but for the process, and where this country is going.  I am as culpable as they are.  Before them, it was me.  This nation was built on migration, and its destiny continues to be manifested by a natural human desire and need for familial economic sustainability.  Why does our country allow commerce to cross borders while refusing individuals that same right?  

The contemporary Latin American migration to the United States is directly influenced by foreign policies drafted by the federal government, policies that allow for subsidization and exportation of resources for the benefit of the country.  These policies not only hurt small farmers within the United States, but disintegrated similar communities in Mexico, turning maize farmers into unemployed, impoverished citizens. Since 1994, when NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) became a policy, large amounts of American corn flooded into Mexico.  The agreement decimated many Mexican communities, leaving thousands of farmers unable to support their families — the main reason for the influx of Latin American migrants into this country.

To prepare for NAFTA, the Mexican government, with pressure from the United States, amended Article 27 of their 1917 constitution, thereby allowing peasants and indigenous communities to sell communal lands.  This policy to privatize land came directly from what the U.S. government did to the Native Americans in the nineteenth century.  In 1887, the Dawes Act became law.  It followed on the heels of the Homestead Act of 1862.  Its goal was to break up tribal landholdings and reservations, disintegrate the tribes as social/cultural constructs, and encourage individual Indians to sell their acreage to white settlers for profit.   

NAFTA accelerated U.S. companies to set up shop across the border through the Mexican government's 1965 Maquiladora Program.  The attraction to work in these factories (maquiladoras) drew hundreds of thousands of migrants from southern Mexico who had lost their farms.  These maquila jobs were mainly filled by women for low pay, leaving a vacuum of men without employment.  Then to make matters even worse, hundreds of U.S. companies packed up and fled to China, leaving migrants the choice to either cross the border or starve.  

What is Operation Streamline?

Operation Streamline is the federal judiciary system of processing undocumented migrants as criminals en masse as a way to discourage future illegal immigration. Just as the Clinton Administration believed that Operation Gatekeeper (1994) would stop illegal migration by “prevention through deterrence,” and that the “geography would be an ally to us,” the Bush Administration also believed that Operation Streamline (2005) and its zero-tolerance policy by branding undocumented migrants as criminals would also discourage future illegal immigration. Because history has proven that Operation Gatekeeper was a tragic mistake, I believe it became a policy of genocide because it was never terminated.  “It was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle, once people realized what it’s like,” stated INS chief Doris Meissner.  In fact the Clinton Administration knew exactly what would happen.  The actual blueprint for this policy states that, “most of the ‘influx’ would not be deterred by the ‘mortal dangers’ which came with the new routes.”  It may be safe to say that 10,000 migrants have died in the Southwestern desert since 1994.

And just as Operation Gatekeeper became a policy of genocide, for me, because of the way Streamline operates, it also qualifies as a crime against humanity.  

We have a knack in this country for inventing expediency, whether it is food prepared fast, cars built on an assembly line, college degrees aimed at getting jobs, whole mountains destroyed and mined for coal, or even the dispensation of justice. 

Simply put, Operation Streamline is unconstitutional.  It is a crime against humanity — a means directed at a population (Latin Americans) on specious grounds without regard to individual guilt on such grounds.  How can thousands of people be prosecuted for doing something that is a natural desire — to provide for and sustain the family economy — to help put bread on the table?   

These migrants are branded criminals because all three branches of our government do not view Latin American migrants as individuals, as human beings.  Our government views them as illegal aliens, “strangers and foreigners,” the other.  Yet these men and women are our brothers and sisters, and yes, the majority of them are culpable — for indeed, they are guilty either of trying to escape poverty and provide for their families in Central America, or for trying to be reunited with their families in the U.S. 

Someday in the future, we will look back at Operation Streamline as a peculiar brand of justice, done with expediency, without grace or mercy — a crime against humanity.

Thanks to:

Bjorn Krondorfer for the invitation to do an installation and the Martin-Springer Institute.

The Arizona DREAMers in Action: Gerardo Alvarado Vidal, Norma Delia Aguilar Saucedo, Alberto Monarrez Urguidi, Laura Longoria and Ernesto Alvarado Vidal for allowing me to cast their hands, and the migrants at the Kino Border Initiative comedor who allowed me to photograph and draw their portraits.