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  • A New Kind of Company Town
  • Scott Warren

In the 1990s, u.s. government policies of deterrence pushed millions of border crossers into remote areas along the U.S.-Mexico border, such as the desert that surrounds Ajo, Arizona (see Figure 1). A small town, Ajo lies approximately 40 miles north of the border and sits on traditional Hia C-ed O'odham territory. Whereas Ajo had long been a Border Patrol outpost, deterrence policies transformed it into a major hub of activity. In 1989, for instance, twenty-one Border Patrol Agents were stationed here. By 2012, when a new $22-million Border Patrol station opened, the number of agents had risen to 500.

This growth is a local manifestation of the ascendance of the border security industry. In the Ajo corridor alone, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on border walls, new Border Patrol stations, highway checkpoints, surveillance towers, forward operating bases, vehicles, aircraft, and personnel. Additional millions are spent each year by other federal, state, and local agencies that also contribute to border enforcement work. Altogether, this new border security industry functions like an extractive industry. Some jobs and additional spending are created locally, but the vast majority of wealth is funneled to distant corporations and people who do not live in or anywhere near Ajo. Meanwhile, local residents, and significantly those of O'odham and Mexican descent, bear the burden of living in "high-intensity enforcement" zones. The very land itself is transformed as it is scarred by infrastructure, roads, and thousands of miles of vehicle tracks laid down in protected conservation areas.

Border security, though, is not the first extractive industry to remake Ajo's landscape. In the 19th century, Ajo was a mining outpost in which mostly people of Mexican and O'odham descent lived. At the turn of the 20th century, an Anglo venture drilled a well, built a railroad, and began excavation of an open pit copper mine.

The original settlement called Ajo was consumed by the pit. A new company town was laid out and built, which, over time, became the Ajo of today. The company imposed a three-tiered racial hierarchy, where the highest pay and best jobs went to Anglo workers, then down to Mexican workers, and lastly to O'odham workers. Reflecting this hierarchy, the new company town was built with segregated districts literally called American Town, Mexican Town, and Indian Village.

Eventually, the company did provide housing, health care, and some education to its workers and their families. It also reacted violently against labor protest, union organizing, and strikes. Some of the more sinister practices were "deportations," in which not [End Page 188]

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Figure 1.

Southern Arizona (map by author).

only striking workers but also those in the community who supported them would be rounded up and shipped off to distant towns or left in the middle of the desert. Company men made sure these undesirables did not return. In Ajo, for instance, company guards screened all arrivals at the train depot, deciding who belonged and who did not.

In the 1980s, the company responded to a major strike by hiring replacement workers. Protests, pickets, and violence ensued as a largely Hispanic and Native workforce faced off against white supervisors, managers, and mine owners. Families who had lived in Ajo for generations were evicted from their homes because, according to a company spokesman interviewed in the Arizona Daily Star, "A replaced striker is no longer an employee, and his presence doesn't make any sense" (Rosenblum, 1984). Once the strike was broken, the company closed the Ajo mine and refocused its efforts on its foreign mines. Ajo was left traumatized, a post-industrial shell of what it had once been.

The border security industry, with its long tendrils to the military- and prison-industrial complexes, filled the vacuum.

Like the old company, the new company [End Page 189] imagines itself benign. Border security, they say, is about defense, protection, and safety. One hundred years ago, mining and other extractive industries imagined themselves benevolent, mounting a "peaceful invasion" of the borderlands, Mexico, and Latin America, and bringing progress and...


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pp. 188-191
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