Border Insecurity: Immigration Reform on “The Line”

The line between the United States and Mexico is drawn thickly. The border serves as a test site for military surveillance technology, a dumping ground for spending on national security infrastructure, and a rhetorical battleground for Congress. U.S. lawmakers toured Nogales, Arizona, in March and looked with approval at the city split in two by an eighteen-foot fence. Even after watching a woman successfully scale the boundary, Senator McCain called for another $1.5 billion to build more border fencing.

As announced in mid-April, the bipartisan “Gang of 8” Senate proposal for immigration reform makes border security the hinge for any path to citizenship for the vast majority of undocumented U.S. residents. Despite the security spending and border militarization paid for by the past two administrations, the proposal allocates $6.5 billion to security operations on the southern border, adding to the $18 billion spent on immigration enforcement in the last fiscal year.

The line between the United States and Mexico is also the place that we have made our home for the last few years, in order to work as humanitarians trying to mitigate the death and suffering caused by U.S. border policy. As volunteers with No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, we work to provide humanitarian aid to migrants crossing the border in southern Arizona, where thousands of men, women, and children have died in the last fifteen years on their journey into this country. We believe that further militarization of the border is not an acceptable tradeoff for immigration reform. We offer these reflections to show how border security spending materializes on this land, and how it impacts those crossing through it.

Face to Face with U.S. Border Policy

No More Deaths/No Más Muertes maintains a humanitarian presence in a remote, mountainous corridor between Nogales and Sasabe in the Tucson Sector, the busiest part of the border since 1998. This area is not a natural crossing point for humans. It is relatively uninhabited, compared to border metropolises such as San Diego and El Paso, and it is characterized by several beautiful, rugged mountain ranges.

However, twenty years of border security buildup, beginning with Operation Hold the Line in 1993, has pushed migration out of the cities and flat areas, which are easier to survey and enforce, into the mountains. People who make the trek through this part of the border face at least a three-day walk; if they become sick, encounter enforcement, get lost, or otherwise run into trouble, the trip can stretch into weeks. The hostile terrain, and the length of time required to cross it, can make the journey deadly.

As humanitarian aid workers, we are front-line witnesses to the consequences of U.S. immigration and border policy. We do what we can to prevent death and suffering: we leave out water, food, and blankets on migrant trails; we drive remote roads and hike migrant trails in search of those who are lost, sick, or have been left behind; we evacuate critically ill people we meet to emergency care; we give medical aid on trails and at our camp; and we search for those reported missing. In this remote part of the Sonoran desert, we have witnessed human suffering on a mass scale. Our observations stand in stark contrast to the idea that a secure border is a safe border.

Most migrants who do not run into our supply drops turn to cow tanks, green pools contaminated by the feces of livestock, to quench their thirst. Drinking this water often causes further sickness and dehydration. Becoming sick or injured increases the likelihood that someone will be left behind by his or her guide. Because of the area’s remoteness, help is rarely at hand. Many die far from any road or human presence, and in many cases their remains are never found.

Death from exposure is not the only threat faced by migrants. Sexual assaults of women crossing have become so frequent that many report taking birth control pills in order to ward off a pregnancy resulting from rape. We see the signs of sexual assault on our walks through the desert—perpetrators of rape often mark their acts by hanging the bra and underwear of the survivor in trees and bushes.

Those who survive the crossing carry its trauma with them. One day, a fifty-year-old woman limped into our camp. She was left behind by her group after a fall, and walked alone for three days before encountering us. She spoke adoringly of her family in the United States, which was her home for sixteen years before she was deported. In the middle of telling us a story about her granddaughter, her gaze drifted and her speech slowed. After a pause, with tears rolling down her cheeks, she described finding dead bodies while she wandered lost. One was a woman who died sitting beneath a tree, under circumstances that were not unlike those she faced as she passed her.

A Deadly Journey Becoming More Deadly

The precise mechanisms of militarization that the Department of Homeland Security declares as essential to our national safety have turned the journey northward into a death march for many.While politicians and law enforcement agencies measure success on the border by the number of people apprehended trying to cross it, in our role as humanitarian volunteers we focus on the number of recovered human remains. Taken together, these numbers document the border’s increasingly deadliness—tragic evidence to back up our anecdotal observations.

The number of deaths on the border in Arizona, as tracked by human rights organizations, has remained essentially unchanged over the last five years. However, comparing this number to the number of apprehensions reveals a sobering trend. In 2009, 241,673 individuals were apprehended on Arizona’s border, and the remains of 183 individuals who died crossing were found in the state. In 2011, only 123,285 individuals were apprehended in the state—but the remains of 183 individuals who died crossing were found.

Over the course of just two years, by the best measure we have available, the rate of death for those crossing in Arizona doubled.

While the death rate rises in Arizona, we increasingly hear about another part of the border where individuals are taking extraordinary risks to cross into the country. In Brooks County, 70 miles north of the border in southeast Texas, a total of 129 individuals died in 2012 trying to walk around a Border Patrol checkpoint. We see no indication that the proposed increases in security will be able to seal the border—only signs that each additional wave of enforcement results in more suffering and deaths.

The Other Side of Deportation

The border is not quiet. While an often-cited study from the Pew Hispanic Center stated that net migration from Mexico for 2005-2010 equaled zero, the side of the equation that is rarely discussed is the number of people who were forced to leave the United States, balanced against those who have succeeded in entering. From fiscal year 2005-2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement undertook a staggering 1,923,887 removals of individuals from the United States. While this figure includes some duplication, the mania for deportation has increased yearly under President Obama, to fiscal year 2012’s record of 409,849 removals.

Even as talk of immigration reform progresses, deportations have continued apace. The impact of deportation is visited not only upon the deportee, but also upon their friends, family, and communities. Border security and immigration reform are woven together by the story of deportees who will risk everything to return to the lives that they know. Undocumented families live not only with the dread of deportation, but also with the horror of knowing what the return trip would entail. We cannot trade a path to citizenship for those who have remained in the United States for losing those who have already been deported.

These days, nearly all of the migrants from Mexico whom we encounter are crossing the border after having been deported from their community inside the United States. The drastic rise in deportations has a clear impact on the border, as people who have been torn away from their families, jobs, and communities attempt to rejoin their lives. We have met people who grew up in the United States and never learned to speak Spanish. It is rare for us to meet someone from Mexico who is attempting to cross for the first time.

The chilling logic of “net migration is at a standstill” emerges: each person forcibly removed from the country means one more person trying desperately to return.

Refugees from the South

What’s more, over the last year, a great number—perhaps a third—of the individuals we have encountered on the border have been coming from Central America, primarily Honduras and Guatemala, along with El Salvador and Nicaragua. Alongside stories of economic insecurity in these countries, we consistently hear tales of murder, assault, and torture by narco-trafficking gangs and paramilitary operations. Honduras and El Salvador currently have the highest murder rates in the world. Migrants from these countries aren’t just seeking work—they are fleeing for their lives.

Once we met a Honduran man sitting at one of our water drops who had been in the desert for a total of fifteen days, five without food and water. In Honduras, he had witnessed the execution of fourteen of his friends by members of the Mara Salvatrucha, a brutal gang that originated in Los Angeles and was exported through deportations to Central America, where its members now play a major role in the drug trade. In Honduras, the gang has infiltrated the police and all levels of government.

Knowing that he was a witness, gang members visited his family repeatedly with threats of violence, to the point that he, his wife, and children stopped leaving the house. Eventually, he and his wife finally came to the agreement that the best option for his family was for him to flee north.

We have yet to hear news coverage of a Honduran refugee crisis. U.S. asylum claims seem to go nowhere. We suspect this is because the United States recognized the Honduran government installed by the 2009 coup and continues to support it with police and military aid. However, many of us believe that we face a situation with striking parallels to the conditions that sparked the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s, when people of faith organized to give shelter and asylum to refugees of the U.S.-funded military coups in Guatemala and El Salvador.

Who Profits from Border Militarization?

Finally, discussions of border security rarely make clear who profits from border militarization. On the U.S. side, $90 billion in border enforcement spending from 2001-2011 has created a massive buildup of surveillance and enforcement infrastructure. Predator drones fly over our aid camp. Surveillance towers constructed by Boeing as part of the failed billion-dollar SBInet program loom over the desert hills. Vans operated by the corporation G4S sit idle on the few paved roads, holding migrants who have been apprehended by Border Patrol before transporting them for processing. The company has become the world’s second-largest private employer (after Wal-Mart) due in large part to lucrative contracts to transport and imprison migrants in many parts of the world. Its employees consistently tell us that corporate policy disallows them from giving food or water to those in their custody.

Even less discussed are the enormous profits that the Mexican cartels have reaped from a border that is increasingly difficult to cross. As the movement of people across the border has been pushed to remote and dangerous desert areas, and Border Patrol checkpoints have been established 25-75 miles north of the line on all paved roads, the journey to cross has become a complicated trek stretching from days into weeks, nearly impossible to attempt without a paid guide. This has created greater opportunities for cartels to exploit migrants.

Over the last several years, we have watched as cartels warred for control of the lucrative routes around Nogales and Sasabe, eventually consolidating their operations to move people and drugs across the border and pushing out any remaining independent operators. The price tag of crossing has increased greatly as a result, to $5,000 and up, often financed by loans from the cartels themselves that leave people even more closely tied to their smugglers. Contrary to popular understanding, investments in “border security” have in this way been a boon to the cartels.

Financial Security vs. Human Life

For those of us who have witnessed the impact of border militarization, the question becomes: what do we mean by security? The current border security apparatus primarily translates into financial security—for the employers who exploit undocumented workers; for the privatized prison industry that benefits from a massive population of immigrants held in detention centers for years; for the corporations that win contracts to build walls, towers, and drones; and for the cartels that have a constant source of people desperate to get across the line to safety or to their family.

The entrenchment of Border Patrol agents, military contractors, surveillance technology, and fencing on our southern border has not made us safer. The last decade of border spending has left the border more deadly and more corrupt than ever before. We hope that Comprehensive Immigration Reform will bring relief to many families who will no longer fear that going out to buy milk could end in a deportation. We look forward to a day when fewer people have to trek through the desert to reunite with their families. However, if the compromise we are presented with is immigration reform that benefits some portion of the undocumented population living inside the United States in return for consenting to further militarization of the killing field that has been created on our southern border, then our answer must be a firm no.

Deportation in 90 minutes or less

Five days a week, between 40 and 80 men and women in handcuffs and shackles are brought into Tucson’s DeConcini Courthouse, a high-rise that houses the U.S. District Court. The prisoners are dirty, hungry and sometimes injured from days spent walking across the desert before Border Patrol agents caught them entering the United States along the southern Arizona border without the proper documentation. Led into a second-floor courtroom, they sit quietly in neat rows on spectator benches and in the jury box. Across the courtroom sit two men in dark green shirts with “Border Patrol” across their backs.

Upon arriving, the judge advises the migrants en masse of the charges and their constitutional rights. In a few cases the charge is simply “illegal entry,” a misdemeanor. But for most of the defendants, this is not the first time they’ve been caught trying to enter the country, and they are charged with both the misdemeanor and felony “illegal entry.” The judge then offers those defendants a plea bargain: Plead guilty to the misdemeanor entry, and the felony entry charge (which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison) will be dismissed. The felony entry charge is “the easiest felony to prove and the fastest-growing felony in the country,” says Isabel Garcia, the co-chair of the Coalición de Derechos Humanos and Pima County Legal Defender.

All of the defendants take the deal.

Once they leave the courtroom, the migrants will have criminal records, be transferred to complete their prison terms of 30 to 180 days and then be formally removed (previously called “deported” guaranteeing that they cannot lawfully return for at least five years, with slim-to-no chance of getting a visa thereafter. Any subsequent foiled re-entry attempt guarantees a felony entry charge.

This proceeding is Operation Streamline, an eight-year-old, little-known provision of immigration policy that was intended—along with the new fence that currently stretches 650 miles long and as high as 20 feet—to discourage illegal entry to the United States along the Mexican border. The provision is meant to “streamline” cases so that more undocumented immigrants can be efficiently processed in court. The harsh punishments are meant to deter subsequent re-entry attempts, and thereby eliminate future border problems.

If the comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced on April 17 by the bipartisan Senate “Gang of Eight” passes, it will triple the budget of Operation Streamline in Tucson and expand the program elsewhere. The new goal in Tucson will be to process 210 immigrants a day.

A Flawed Approach

Introduced in Del Rio, Texas, in 2005 as a joint operation of the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, Operation Streamline was expanded to Tucson in 2008. The program is just one component of a deterrence strategy employed unevenly by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol. Proponents of Operation Streamline such as Arizona Sen. John McCain (one of those who drafted the Senate immigration bill) have long claimed that it works well as a deterrent. But there’s scant evidence to confirm that belief. Countless interviews with immigrants and multiple reports—the most recent a March 2013 study published by the University of Arizona—have shown that enforcement measures like Operation Streamline do little to deter people from re-crossing the border. Many immigrants picked up in the desert are not first-time crossers but people who have lived and worked in the United States for years. Some went back to their country of origin for a visit, commonly to see a dying parent; the majority were sent to Mexico after a traffic violation or a workplace raid. They have strong incentives to keep trying to get back to their jobs and families in the United States.

Legal and human rights activists consider Operation Streamline to be seriously flawed. Its opponents in Tucson have formed the End Streamline Coalition to raise public awareness about the little-known program and to challenge the way it is being applied. Members point out that many aspects of the operation—improper venues, lack of evidence, mass hearings and predetermined outcomes—pose constitutional and moral problems. The coalition is drafting a letter to all attorneys and magistrates participating in Operation Streamline, asking them to recuse themselves from further participation on ethical grounds.

How ‘Streamlining’ Works

Under Operation Streamline, each defendant is assigned an attorney, who may have as many as a half-dozen other clients in the courtroom on any given day. Called to microphones in groups of five or six, defendants and their attorneys stand before a judge to be instructed and processed with the assistance of Spanish-translation equipment.

In exchange for a guilty plea, a defendant in Operation Streamline waives his or her right to appeal and to a trial. Instead, each migrant, in a very brief attorney-client meeting, is coached to reply “guilty” (after a pause for the translator, defendants uniformly say, in Spanish, “culpable” when asked how he or she pleads. Depending on the judge assigned, the process may take anywhere from two hours to as little as 30 minutes.

Once in a while a migrant will say he doesn’t understand, that he’s just trying to return to his family. Sometimes someone will start to cry and say he—or she—is worried about a dependent family member. When this happens, there is usually an embarrassed silence until the judge explains that there is nothing she or he can do.

On a recent Tuesday, nearly all 68 people accused of illegal entry into the United States spoke in Spanish. Fifty were citizens of Mexico, 14 of Guatemala, four of Honduras. A few Guatemalans were identified as being speakers of indigenous dialects. One indicated he was having trouble understanding proceedings because he could not understand Spanish. Predictably, all took the plea.

That day, the judge sentenced each group to 30 to 180 days in prison, depending on the number of times each migrant had been caught attempting to cross. The judge, who seemed to take care to be sure that defendants understood her questions, finished the hearing in 90 minutes.

At the end of each group’s sentencing, prisoners are led out of the courtroom by the Border Patrol agents to buses that will transport them to the small private prisons that dot the Arizona desert, where they will serve out their terms. After that they will be herded into unmarked gray buses operated by private contractors and removed—“repatriated”—driven the 70 miles to Nogales, Mexico, regardless of whether they have ties there. Or they will be delivered to another point along the border, called a “lateral repatriation,” intentionally meant to separate people from their friends and connections to make re-crossing more difficult.

In either case, they will essentially be dumped, with no money or papers, on the other side of the fence that at first glance resembles a rusty Great Wall of China.

The Prison-Industrial Complex

The human toll is not the only cost of Operation Streamline. Taxpayers foot the bill: Under the immigration proposal before the Senate, the price of immigration enforcement, which was $18 billion in 2012, would be increased by $4.5 billion. Operation Streamline’s share last year was an estimated $180 million in the Tucson sector alone. The proposed bill’s 200 percent hike for Operation Streamline would ensure greater profits for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the Tennessee-based private prison corporation.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), another member of the Gang of Eight, has received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the nation’s two leading private prison corporations, CCA and GEO Group. Sen. McCain has received more than $30,000 from CCA.

This is the reality of having more “border security,” which both political parties agree is a necessity for comprehensive immigration reform. But that doesn’t mean just fences, drones and more Border Patrol agents; it also means breaking up families as a matter of principle.

Pima County public defender Margo Cowan, an End Streamline Coalition lawyer and a founder of the No More Deaths group, which provides humanitarian aid to border crossers, is blunt in her assessment of Operation Streamline: “Poor migrants will never be lawfully admitted to the United States because they are but pawns in our government’s great show of ‘border security’. ”

In June 2012, a year after the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would begin reviewing deportations on a case-by-case basis, President Obama praised his administration’s handling of illegal border crossings. “We focus and use discretion about whom to prosecute,” he said.

But the push to expand Operation Streamline suggests otherwise. “We should not be prosecuting innocent people—‘streamlining’ them—just because we can,” says Cowan. “Operation Streamline brings shame on the very democracy it purports to protect.”

No More Deaths Organization History

No More Deaths was founded in 2004 as a coalition of existing organizations with the objective of expanding upon ongoing humanitarian efforts by aggressively asserting and extending the right to provide humanitarian aid in the Arizona borderlands. Although organizations like Humane Borders and the Samaritans were well-established and had been providing aid in the borderlands for years, the number of migrant deaths occurring in southern Arizona continued to rise. Perceiving the need for an expanded humanitarian presence on the border, a group of community and faith leaders assembled a coalition under the banner of No More Deaths and presented its model of operation and principles for immigration reform at the Multi-Faith Border Conference in March of 2004. Throughout the summer of 2004, No More Deaths maintained volunteer-staffed desert camps called “Arks of the Covenant” in order to ensure a permanent humanitarian presence during the hottest, most dangerous months of the year.

In July 2005, two No More Deaths volunteers were arrested by Border Patrol while evacuating three medically compromised individuals from the desert to a hospital in Tucson and were later indicted on felony charges of conspiracy and aiding and abetting. In response, No More Deaths launched a support campaign called “Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime,” prompting an overwhelming international response and eventually resulting in the dismissal of the charges against volunteers Shanti Shellz and Daniel Strauss. Following the arrests, the coalition that had originally formed No More Deaths began to dissolve and No More Deaths separated as an independent organization, eventually becoming a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson in 2008.

In 2006, No More Deaths began to provide humanitarian aid to recently deported individuals in Mexico, collaborating with organizations in Sonora to establish and staff a migrant aid station in Nogales and eventually broadening partnerships to support humanitarian work in Naco and Agua Prieta, Sonora, as well. It was during the course of this work that volunteers first began to document reports of abuse and mistreatment of detainees in Border Patrol custody, culminating in the publication of Crossing the Line in 2008 and A Culture of Cruelty in 2011. Following the passage of Arizona’s SB 1070 in 2010, No More Deaths collaborated with Tierra Y Libertad Organization to launch the We Reject Racism campaign with the goals of increasing visible resistance to the law and building a network of people committed to non-compliance. Today, No More Deaths continues to pursue new points of intervention to act in solidarity with those targeted by racism and state violence while carrying on the important work of providing humanitarian aid and defending human rights on both sides of the border.

Current Context


In recent years, a variety of factors has led to a decrease in Border Patrol apprehensions, and by 2011 the number of people apprehended had fallen to 327,577, the lowest number since 1971. At the same time, U.S. authorities continue to pursue a policy of aggressive and deadly enforcement through massive militarization of the southwest borderlands. Under the Obama administration, 1,200 National Guard troops were deployed to the border to assist in enforcement operations and Border Patrol has grown to employ nearly 21,500 agents. This continued expansion of enforcement has had horrific but predictable consequences: even as annual apprehensions drop, the number of recorded migrant deaths has remained constant or grown from year to year. The border is now more deadly than at any point in history.

In the interior of the country, the expansion of the Secure Communities program and a recent surge of anti-immigrant legislation at the state level has extended the reach of enforcement and resulted in further criminalization of immigrant communities. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has deported people at a record pace – nearly 400,000 people every year – separating hundreds of thousands from their families and undermining communities across the nation. Consequently, those individuals attempting to cross the border without authorization today, in addition to being economic refugees and those fleeing the violent consequences of the drug war, are often long-term U.S. residents displaced from their homes by U.S. immigration authorities.

The work of humanitarian aid organizations like No More Deaths is more important now than ever. U.S. immigration authorities have turned what was once described as a “humanitarian crisis” into a human disaster of nearly inconceivable scope. Providing humanitarian aid to help address the immediate needs of individuals in crisis in the desert or after being deported is critical to help mitigate the consequences of state violence along the border. Documenting the systemic brutality of Border Patrol challenges the legitimacy of the agency and the deadly policies it enacts. In the interior, efforts to fight back against racism and the resulting policies that detain and deport thousands each year is a vital response to the current climate of criminalization and expanded enforcement.

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