Book/Film Reviews

Chris Simcox looks out for border crossers along the Arizona-Mexico border (Crossing Arizona)

Border Watchers: Catching Anti-Immigrant Vigilantes on Film

Walking the Line
Jeremy Levine & Landon Van Soest (57 minutes, 2005).
English & Spanish with English subtitles. $12 for individuals

Crossing Arizona
Joseph Mathew & Dan DeVivo (95 minutes, 2006)
English & Spanish with subtitles in both languages.
To inquire, visit; producers available for community screenings.

Rights on the Line/Derechos Sobre la Línea
Ray Ybarra & Tamaryn Nelson (25 minutes, 2006).
Subtitled or dubbed in Spanish. $25 for 3-DVD kit.

Reviewed by Tarso Luís Ramos
The Public Eye Magazine - Summer 2007

These days it's not just coyotes, Homeland Security agents, and vigilantes surveilling the U.S. border with Mexico. Back before the Minutemen became darlings of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, several documentary film teams headed to the border to explore the role of anti-immigrant militants in shaping the national debate on immigration and the fate of Latino migrants. The films considered here are among the best video resources on this topic available to educators, organizers, and the general public.

Made by a pair of Ithaca College students who in the fall of 2003 traveled to Cochise County, Arizona, Walking the Line is a polished product that captures many of Arizona's leading anti-immigrant players showing off their armaments and justifying why they organize undeputized posses to hunt migrants in the desert.

A migrant lost in Arizona's Sonoran desert. (Crossing Arizona)

Most of these white men migrated to Arizona from other states specifically to confront border crossers. Chris Simcox, in his Tombstone Militia days (prior to the Minuteman Project), calls on U.S. armed forces to "eradicate these non-English-speaking thugs who rule entire neighborhoods in communities across this country" and constitute "sleeper cells, potential terrorists." Glenn Spencer of American Patrol - who the filmmakers neglect to mention was a major backer of California's landmark anti-immigrant ballot initiative 187 - declares, "I became convinced this is part of what they call ‘La Reconquista,' essentially reversing the result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo by migratory means and placing the Southwest under the jurisdiction of Mexico."

Throughout, the filmmakers give the vigilantes just enough rope to hang themselves. One episode involves an internal power struggle in which Casey Nethercott ejects Ranch Rescue founder Jack Foote, prompting Foote to label Nethercott "a sociopath" with "psychotic tendencies." As if determined to prove the charge correct, Nethercott runs a Border Patrol roadblock, precipitating a confrontation with the FBI that results in his arrest and the shooting of his bodyguard. The following year, a federal judge awards the entire Ranch Rescue compound to a pair of undocumented migrants whom Nethercott was convicted of assaulting. In another case of apparent just desserts, retiree Richard Kozak, who tells harrowing tales of shootouts with Mexican drug smugglers seeking to cross his property, is later arrested following the discovery of 224 pounds of marijuana in his home.

If Walking the Line's main virtue is allowing anti-immigrant militants to speak for themselves, its treatment of the larger forces driving migration is less satisfying. Handled more deftly is the tragedy of desert migration across the Tohono O'odham Nation, the busiest point of entry for border crossers and also the deadliest - accounting for some 1500 crossings each day and 87 of 205 known migrant deaths in a single year. Addressing the strain on her impoverished community, Tribal Chairwoman Vivian-Juan Saunders soberly observes, "If this happened anywhere else in America this would be viewed as a crisis. But it's not here on Indian land."

In 1993, U.S. Border Patrol began pushing the migrant stream from cities and towns into Arizona's deadly Sonoran desert by militarizing urban crossing points, first in Texas, followed by California and Arizona. Crossing Arizona demonstrates how the current humanitarian crisis was shaped by a combination of this border militarization, anti-immigrant hysteria, and the decimation of Mexico's farm economy as U.S. exports flooded that country following implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. The longest of the three documentaries, Crossing Arizona is also the most compelling and has won jury and audience awards at festivals from Munich to Austin. Its complexity and nuance make it a good option for audiences with diverse or undecided viewpoints. Indeed, its producers use screenings - facilitated by local pastors - to spark community debate over immigration policy.

Crossing Arizona opens in Altar, Mexico, a stopover on the migrant trail, where a coyote relates that the journey has gradually increased from two to forty hours - three days of walking in temperatures that often exceed 100 degrees. A young man preparing himself for the crossing observes, "Some people leave and never return and their families are waiting, thinking that they're working - but they never made it."

Douglas, Arizona, Mayor Ray Borane, who once advocated border militarization, describes how it has forced migrants "further and further into the desert - and that's when the dying started." Rather than deterring migration, the strategy resulted in over 3,000 migrant deaths. "You can hold the American government specifically responsible for that," he concludes.

Some of the same players float through all three documentaries, casting into relief how large social, political, and economic forces are playing out on the small stage of Arizona's border communities. The film tracks Chris Simcox's emergence as a national figure with the success of the Minuteman Project, a media-ready event that mobilized anti-immigrant activists along a stretch of Arizona border in April 2005. As the calls pour in from national news bureaus, he perceives the significance of the moment: "We're going for the masses now." Lou Dobbs of CNN is captured chumming it up with anti-immigrant activists in the desert and championing their cause on the airwaves.

Pursuing the anti-immigrant movement from bullet cartridges to the ballot box, Crossing Arizona documents Proposition 200, the ballot initiative in 2004 which required voters to provide proof of citizenship, barred undocumented immigrants from receiving many public services, and compelled state employees to turn undocumented clients over to immigration agents. At a pro-200 conference, anti-immigrant standard bearer, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Col.), implores his audience to "battle with this philosophy of extreme multiculturalism that tries to tear Americans apart." In a poignant moment, a Latino hotel employee cleaning up after the conventioneers laments, "I heard really bad things about immigrant people... We come to do better this country, not to destroy this country."

Produced by American Friends Service Committee and two other activist groups, Rights on the Line: Vigilantes at the Border is an excellent option for those seeking a concise and compelling summary of conflict at the border. Its examination of vigilantism, though brief, in some respects surpasses the other documentaries by exposing how the anti-immigrant backlash has reinvigorated white supremacist groups. At just 25 minutes (there's also 12 minute version), the film makes an ideal opener for community group discussions and a companion organizing guide can be downloaded online.

The compelling storylines and astonishing footage of these films entreat audiences to take action, and demonstrate the importance of alternative media to human rights education and progressive movement building. Don't expect to see these films at the local Cineplex. Seek them out.

Tarso Luís Ramos is research director of Political Research Associates and on the editorial board of The Public Eye.


Medical Apartheid
The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present
by Harriet A. Washington
Doubleday, 2006, 501 pages, $27.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Eleanor J. Bader

No matter how much you think you know about America's racist underpinnings, medical ethicist Harriet A. Washington's Medical Apartheid will make your head spin. This is the true stuff of shock and awe, an almost numbing account of three centuries of heinous experimentation on people of color.

Washington begins at the beginning, in the colonial United States. She tells us that in 1700, the country was home to approximately 20,000 Africans-turned-slaves; by 1776 their numbers had reached 550,000, comprising 20 percent of the total population. In her rendering, backbreaking labor, poor nutrition, and medical neglect collide with the pathogens of North America, Europe, and Africa. The result is a "bewildering array of unfamiliar infectious diseases, such as hookworm, types of malaria, and yellow fever" that inevitably disabled a large number of the enslaved. Of course, owners and overseers saw it differently and cast aspersions on the slaves, calling them indolent and inferior.

Some colonists compared slaves to beasts, others compared them to children, but the common denominator was their subordinate status. Since planters had the power to call - or not call - a physician to care for a sick worker, it was the planter, not the worker, who decided what, if any, treatment to allow. What's more, Washington writes, slave-owning physicians profited from their slaves not only in the usual ways - from field-work, housework, and as breeders - but often used them "to conduct experiments too painful, too risky, or otherwise too objectionable to inflict on whites."

Slaves were routinely subjected to hazardous chemicals with neither their consent nor their understanding. Not surprisingly, women were particularly vulnerable to medical research. In one of Medical Apartheid's most stomach-churning sections, Washington describes the efforts of Dr. James Marion Sims to staunch tetany, a neuromuscular disease characterized by muscle spasms and convulsions. Although the disorder was eventually linked to malnutrition, Sims believed it was caused by displacement of skull bones during childbirth and utilized cobbler's tools to surgically pry apart the heads of newborn babies. His ministrations invariably killed his patients. His response? He castigated "the sloth and ignorance of their mothers and the black midwives who attended them."

Sims was not deterred by his medical failures. In fact, his horrific track record encouraged him to devise new strategies not only for tetany but for a host of other ills. He also refused to use ether to anesthetize his patients and boasted that Black women did not feel the same pain as their more-sensitive white counterparts.

"Sims' surgical exploitation of enslaved blacks was consonant with the medical practice of his time," Washington writes. "For black women, forced experimentation was the standard of care."

Elders were also targets, and owners regularly sent aged slaves to hospitals as "clinical material." Slavemasters "were glad to rid themselves of old, sick and unproductive slaves," Washington continues. "It was a sage bargain on the slave owner's part because the hospital took over all or most of the cost of feeding, housing and treating the unproductive. If the slave died, his owner was spared the inconvenience and expense of burying him, because the hospital would retain the body for dissection or experiment. If the slave recovered, the master would once again profit from his or her labor and breeding."

The Civil War did little to free African Americans from being scientific objects. Rampant racism led White Americans to devise outrageous programs to scrutinize the Black body. In the early 1900s, for example, Benga, a pygmy from the Congo, was put in a cage at the Bronx Zoo alongside an orangutan and gorilla. Although New York's African American community expressed outrage, Whites interested in Darwin's increasingly popular theory of evolution flocked to the installation. P.T. Barnum and other hucksters also lured curious onlookers to sideshows showcasing Black anatomy.

Such lurid fascination carried into medicine, and African Americans remained fodder throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. "Because of the widespread use of blacks as teaching material, new physicians left their medical school training with a deeply ingrained habit of looking upon blacks as demonstration material," Washington concludes.

Her catalog of horrors includes a nauseating array of examples:

  • In 1932, a U.S. Public Health Service study of syphilis, aka the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, ostensibly offered free medical care to 600 impoverished Black sharecroppers from Macon County, Georgia. The 40-year investigation was meant to monitor the disease's progression. Participants believed they were being treated, but they were not. Instead, the study sought to eventually track the ravages of the disease in the men after their deaths through autopsies. The men were never given the option of taking the life-saving treatment then in existence;

  • During the early years of the 20th century, the eugenics movement worked to restrict procreation to the "mentally fit" and "well born." Highly educated women from the upper classes were considered eugenically superior; the uneducated, recent immigrants, the poor, and those labeled "feeble-minded" were deemed inferior. By 1941, Washington writes, between 70,000 and 100,000 women were subjected to forced sterilizations, usually without either their consent or knowledge. Although Nazi experimentation sullied the eugenics movement, as recently as the 1980s risky forms of birth control such as Norplant and Depo-Provera were tested on Black women;

  • Prisoners, disproportionately Black, were burned by radiation and used to test hundreds of drugs between 1962 and 1966. Other inmates, she writes, took psychotropic drugs from the mid-1950s until the 1970s to see which might work as a "truth serum" during interrogations. Subsequently, several experienced "temporary paralysis or helplessness" while one man went into "a catatonic state from which he could neither communicate nor react to his surroundings." Others suffered from prolonged nausea or became uncharacteristically violent. Although today's inmates typically receive a small stipend for their participation in medical testing, Washington nonetheless questions the efficacy of using prisoners, especially if they are not told the nature of the experiments they're going to participate in.

  • At least 126 boys were given fenfluramine between 1992 and 1997 by the New York Psychiatric Institute and a Columbia University research program. Parents/guardians were told they'd receive $100 for allowing their children to receive a single dose of a "harmless" medication, slated as a mood regulator. Predictably, the boys were all from low-income African American or Latino households. In adults, Washington writes, fenfluramine is known to cause symptoms including anxiety, headaches, visual impairments, pulmonary hypertension and heart valve damage. It was taken off the market in 1997. And the boys? Complaints of severe headaches, panic attacks, hyperventilation, breathing problems and nightmares now fill their medical charts.

Medical Apartheid is a brilliant, enraging, grotesque, and tragic narrative that situates medical abuse within the pathology of racism. The legacy of race-based medical exploitation that Washington exposes will knot your stomach and drop your jaw, but it will also leave you aware of a shameful piece of American history.

Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn-based teacher, writer, and activist. She is the coauthor of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism (St. Martin's Press, 2001).

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