Borderline Lesson – An Austrian Sees a Third Country on the U.S. Mexico Border

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GRAZ, Austria — In my degree thesis I tried to present El Paso as a political nation-state buffer zone between Mexico and the United States, an unconventional view of the Sun City sparked by the near-omnipresence of the Border Patrol.

Everything started with naïve questions to my Mexican-American roommate regarding the Border Patrol. I would sometimes see them eat tacos at the table next to mine – in the first couple of weeks after my arrival in El Paso in August 2007. What were they doing? What were they after?

After several discussions with Border Patrol agents at the international border over the purpose of my stay in Mexico and my current legal status in the U.S., I came to regard the southwest U.S. border region as a sort of political nation-state buffer zone.

Especially the checkpoints located on the main highways leading toward the “interior” of the U.S. – one of which I had to pass whenever taking some European visitors to the national monument “White Sands” – only reinforced my “buffer-view.”

The more I delved into literature about El Paso, the more I started thinking about other kinds of buffers. Besides the obvious economical buffering qualities of El Paso, the average income level of U.S. border towns being much lower than the national average,

I also chose to include socio-cultural aspects, such as the personality traits “biculturalism” and “bi-nationalism” among border inhabitants, into my buffer-framework.

What became soon apparent to me were the contradictory trends, especially within the last 20 years, of fortifying the border against undocumented immigration and at the same time opening the border for goods and capital.

While calling for economical integration (e.g. NAFTA 1994), the militarization and policing efforts, which started to gain momentum with the launching of Operation Blockade/Hold-the-Line in El Paso, is resulting in the gradual separation of Mexico and the U.S. in general, and of local micro-cultures in particular.

In Austria things are not as different as one might think. Just one month ago the Austrian parliament agreed to extend the, now called, “NEW military assistance” (as a follow up to the “military assistance”) for the eastern borders with Hungary and Slovakia for one more year until the end of 2010.

Austria (dark green) and its surrounding neighbors (Photo from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of CrazyPhunk)

Austria (dark green) and its surrounding neighbors (Photo from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of CrazyPhunk)

As a country located at the fringe of “Western Europe” Austria had to keep its borders secure for several decades until the Iron Curtain finally fell in 1989. Even after the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the fading threat of communism Austria had to keep its borders tight, admittedly with varying rigidity regarding the 8 neighboring countries (see map).

Not even Austria’s becoming member of the European Union (EU) in 1995, allowing for the free flow of capital and goods while maintaining the doors shut for people (not unlike the U.S. Mexico-cooperation today), changed the border enforcement policy significantly.

Eventually, Austria’s joining the Schengen in 1997, enabling the free flow of people between certain “Schengen States” within the EU, made redundant the systematic controls at most of Austria’s international boundaries.

Hungary and Slovakia became “Schengen States” only recently on January 1, 2008. Contrary to the premise of the Schengen Agreement, however, Austria refrained from removing the military from its Eastern border; officially not due to reasons of national security but, according to Austria’s minister of defense, out of “respect for the subjective sense of security” of the eastern Austrian “borderlanders” (86% of the most eastern province of Austria, Burgenland, were in favor of the extension of the military operation).

Schegen Agreeement (Photo from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of NuclearVacuum)

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of NuclearVacuum)

Thus, what we are facing is the contradiction that there are 800 men strong armed forces “protecting” a 300 miles stretch of international border; a border that, by now, should not be more than a symbolic line between friendly nations.

In times of near-total economic integration and cross cultural cooperation and dialog not only between countries located within the EU, but moreover of countries sharing the “Schengen-Agreement”, by law making possible the free flow of people, the situation is paradoxical.

It is not my position as an outsider to openly call into question the policies of a nation in which I was only a visitor and guest (the U.S.) for almost two years (2007-2009), but I may call into question the policies of the nation in which I am allowed to vote; and the deployment of almost a thousand soldiers armed with rifles not only directly at the border, but also in front of supermarkets and train stations, is, besides being arguably unconstitutional, highly questionable.

Hence, ironically it was the practices employed for the sake of border enforcement along the southwest U.S. border that made me reflect on border enforcement in my home country. Measures of border enforcement in the U.S. and Austria are undertaken at a whole different scale and with a different rationale.

While in Austria the motives for deploying the military to the border is crime prevention; in the U.S. efforts of border protection serve the greater goal of curtailing immigration and the smuggling of contraband (aside from various motivations related to “homeland security”); however; any kind of border enforcement in any country certainly is prone to provoke (or reinforce existing) tensions between countries. At least within the European Union there should be no place for such practices of border enforcement.

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3 Comments

  1. Roberto Perezdiaz
    Roberto Perezdiaz on

    From the Mexican Free Zone 20 kilometers south of the international border and from this same border to the inland Border Patrol check points I have heard pronounced in federal courts that Border Patrol agents have the “almost” unlimited right to check for everything and anything because these inland check points are the “legal equivalent of the border” (meaning the international border between the US and Mexico). Mr Klamminger has drawn a valid comparison that is thought provoking. Few of us are willing to incur the wrath of Border Patrol agents by telling them you do not give your permission to search your vehicle (which you have a right to do). They will not let you go until they get a court order to search your car. If you’re lucky, they will not want to bother because it means extra work. Just try it and see for your self. Most of us (including me)just hope they wave us through.

  2. Gregory Gordon

    Very interesting article Georg. I had no idea that Austria had a border patrol of its own.

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