Sociology professor examines U.S.-Mexico relations

By EMILY MCDONALD and ISHA RAI | October 11, 2018

The International Studies department hosted the third event in its Midterm Elections Speaker Series, a talk titled “Mexico and border security,” in Maryland Hall on Wednesday. 

The talk focused on U.S.-Mexico relations and border security, and featured Christy Thornton, an assistant professor in the department of sociology. Casey Lurtz, an assistant professor of history, moderated the discussion.

Thornton and Lurtz first discussed the ways in which the upcoming midterm elections may impact U.S. foreign policy in regards to Mexico. 

Thornton noted that the idea that the U.S. midterm elections could have a significant effect on U.S.-Mexico relations is fairly new. 

“It’s an interesting time for thinking about Mexico vis-à-vis the U.S. elections, because as we know when Trump sort of announced his candidacy he did so by invoking Mexico — ‘they’re not sending their best, they’re sending rapists, drugs, crime,’” she said.

Thornton added that the issue of the United States’ relationship with Mexico has been a prominent focus of the Trump administration since 2016. 

“So Mexico has been a kind of through line of this administration since before it existed,” she said.

According to Thornton, the areas of U.S.-Mexico relations that are the most commonly politicized are immigration, trade and drugs. 

“Obviously when it comes to Mexico and U.S.-Mexico relations, we have a big three — immigration, trade and drugs — and those are the three issues that people in the United States always want to talk about, always want to bring up, that have become political issues,” she said.

Thornton also addressed immigration and drew attention to the recent calls to abolish Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

“One of the things that’s really been happening this midterm election season, particularly in primary races among democrats, has been the surprising insurgence of the abolish ICE movement,” she said. “The extent to which abolish ICE became a rallying cry for progressive democrats.”

However, she added, people on the political right have also rallied around issues surrounding immigration. She gave the example of President Trump’s frequent references to MS-13, a gang that originated in Los Angeles but has ties to El Salvador and has been linked to various violent crimes, as an argument for stronger immigration reform in the U.S. 

“One thing that I think is really interesting on that front, and I think maybe that swings back to my pessimism, is the extent to which immigration continues to be a hatchet for right-wing Republicans, and the extent to which particularly those who are aligning themselves with Trump in this election are using the spectre of MS-13,” she said.

According to Thornton, racial segregation within the U.S. prison system, not immigration, is primarily responsible for the creation of MS-13.

“MS-13 is actually a creation of the U.S. prison system. MS-13 comes out of... the way in which prisons here in the United States segregate people by race and have these de facto segregation policies,” she said. “It is in those conditions of repression and racial segregation that the gang MS-13 actually appears.”

Lurtz added that the rhetoric surrounding MS-13 and immigration perpetuates the harmful myth that most immigrants are violent. 

“There is this flattening of what a migrant looks like, that MS-13 can stand in for anybody coming from south of the border at this point, and that this violence and crime gets projected from the right for the most point, as the only image of migration that’s out there,” she said.

Furthermore, Thornton believes that this rhetoric around immigration contributes to a partisan divide in the U.S. today. 

“The idea that on the left, if Democrats are calling to abolish ICE, on the right they’re saying, ‘Look you love these Central American gangs, you want to let them in, let them run wild,’ and blaming all of this nonexistent violence on the formation of MS-13,” she said.

Thornton also addressed the JHU-ICE partnership, a multimillion dollar contract which provides training for federal employees, including some ICE employees. The contract will expire in 2019.

“It would be very easy for the Hopkins administration to take moral leadership and say, ‘We want to be an institution that protects the immigrant communities both in Baltimore and in our University,’ because it’s just not that important a program,” she said.

Thornton then discussed U.S.-Mexico relations in terms of the war on drugs. 

Lurtz noted that discussions about drugs have changed since the Bush era to become much more U.S.-focused. 

“The conversation about drugs that is going on in this country has also shifted away from cocaine... toward the opioid crisis, which has also much less to do with what’s going on in Mexico,” she said.

Thornton added that with the legalization of marijuana in some parts of the U.S., people are less likely to buy marijuana from other countries like Mexico. 

The discussion ended with a question and answer session. 

Sophomore Megan Rutkai attended the talk. She said she enjoyed the talk, particularly learning about potential changes to U.S.-Mexico relations under Mexico’s new president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

“This was a great chance to talk about Latin America, especially in the current setting,” she said. 

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