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.