No Winners When It Comes to Border Security

While many progressives are resigned to border security as a tradeoff for “comprehensive” immigration reform, a new study published earlier this month by the University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute revealed the stark reality of such a compromise: during times of increased border security migrant deaths along the border have soared. In the south-central Arizona area alone, deaths peaked at 225 in 2010, and were only slightly lower in 2011 and 2012.

The report goes on to suggest that if we continue to beef-up the already steroid-overdosed border enforcement, there will be more deaths and at higher and higher numbers.

Yet, at the same time, the call for enhanced border security continues to dominate the conversation about immigration reform. Last Thursday, border security, the Republicans’ most pressing concern, domineered the debate as never before as senators announced an official border security compromise. By Monday, Senate lawmakers backed a new amendment by Republican senators John Hoeven of North Dakota and Bob Corker of Tennessee that calls for the U.S. government to aim for a state of "persistent surveillance" along the border.

Here’s what that means:

By 2014 there will be 20,000 more border patrol agents on the border, making the already largest police enforcement concentrated in one area even bigger, topping off at nearly 42,000. The use of drones will be dramatically expanded, an additional 700 miles of fencing will be built, and a slew of new military technologies will be updated.

And (surprise!) this will cost nearly $40 billion over the next decade.

It’s hard to imagine, when looking at the already militarized border, how these determined politicians are thinking so big when the U.S. has been implementing its top-notch technology along the border for years. There are already more agents on the border than ever before — so many that there is one border patrol agent for every 500 feet. We have unmanned drones monitoring the border at all times (which costs the government $3,200 an hour, or $43 million a year). Border patrol agents have night-vision goggles, ground sensors, cameras, helicopters, military-style trucks and miles upon miles of fencing.

Perhaps even more war-like, border patrol agents are known to go around destroying life-saving resources like water, food and blankets, while also shooting, and sometimes killing Mexican citizens on the other side of the border for throwing rocks at them. (A recent lawsuit is even claiming that border patrol policy allows agents to “get away with murder” in situations like these.)

Today, the current state of border security costs taxpayers $18 billion a year, more than what taxpayers contribute to the FBI, U.S. Marshals, DEA, and the Secret Service combined.

But, as many Republicans have argued, it’s not a matter of thinking too big when it comes to protecting our state from the invasion of illegals, criminals and 'potential terrorists.' So, as John McCain has put it, “[In order to] actually secure our border we must deploy the latest drone and radar technology developed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.” (Even though, according to the most recent State Department's Country Report on Terrorism reads, "No known international terrorist organization had an operational presence in Mexico and no terrorist group targeted U.S. citizens in or from Mexican territory.")

But all of this romanticized, “tough guy” militarization of the border has not in fact deterred migrants from crossing the border. Though apprehensions have indeed lowered, migrants are still crossing despite drones and cameras and soldier-like agents. (In April 2012, the Pew Hispanic Center found that the net migration from Mexico had fallen to zero or perhaps even lower, meaning there are equal numbers of immigrants staying in the U.S. as there are immigrants leaving the U.S.)

If anything, the obession over border security has only contributed to the deaths of more migrants.

And the reason why? Nothing, either in past border measures or in the current reform bill, addresses the factors that drive northward migration to the United States (such as the inherent conflict of allowing the free-flow of capital but not the free-flow of people).

The mere fact that there is no conversation in the immigration reform debate about the root causes of immigration is rather telling of what this “comprehensive immigration reform” is actually about: creating the illusion that everyone is getting what they want, when, in actuality, no one is.

Let’s play a game:

Let’s say both Democrats and Republicans were to get what they want out of the immigration reform bill. Undocumented immigrants would indeed be put on a path to citizenship, and the border would be given an extra dose of steroids. Yay – we’re all happy.

Ah, but alas, things are not as they seem. If Republicans were to get what they want out of the bill, that would mean, as McCain has put it:

 "Further, under our bill, the Border Patrol’s fencing strategy must be operational before any illegal immigrant can be granted a green card."

This means, that not only would the border need to be 90 percent effective in order for undocumented immigrants to even begin the process towards obtaining legal status, but it also means that someone (we don’t know who yet) would have to define “operational.”

This could be a problem. As City University of New York political science professor Alfonso Gonzales put it to the Real News Network:

And this concept of the border being secured is such a subjective concept that we're in a situation where the DHS and, depending on what amendments go through, possibly border civil society groups that can be anti-immigrant, governors such as Jan Brewer [incompr.] of governors from the border states, it might be up to them to say when the border's secure.

Essentially, then, we’ll have undocumented immigrants playing a very long, very undetermined waiting game before they can be granted legal status. It is a game that is already predicted to take at least 10–15 years.

This can’t possibly be what the Democrats want. And when it comes to Republicans, beefing up the border won’t achieve much for them either.

A quick look at the border’s “prevention through deterrence” rhetoric reveals that the border wall and all its militarization has not been very successful in deterring migrants. Migrants continue to cross the border every day because of very real issues like a lack of opportunity in their home countries, or reuniting with family. 

It is important to consider, then, how the endless militarization of the border has been an illusion in which we believe that something is “being done about the border,” but actually people are continuing to cross because, as Joseph Nevins has put it in his book Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond, borders are innately unstable because “they exist to contain the uncontainable – life itself.”

The militarization of the border has been not simply a means to an end, but the end itself. And it continues to be a politically successful failure, where we all think we got what we wanted, but nothing has really changed.

As Obama put it during his speech Saturday on immigration reform:

The bill isn’t perfect. It’s a compromise. Nobody is going to get everything they want – not Democrats, not Republicans, not me. But it’s consistent with the principles that I and others have laid out for commonsense reform.

He’s right about nobody getting what they want, but what he doesn’t address is how this “commonsense reform” does not address the root causes of migration. Therefore migrants will continue to attempt crossing the border, which means many will continue to die on their way here. As two humanitarian volunteers put it in an article in the Nation:

While many progressives have accepted border security measures as the tradeoff for achieving immigration reform, we know that the terms of this compromise will be paid in blood. 

That’s “commonsense reform,” according to the President.

Meanwhile, this summer half a dozen military firms will rush to the border in an effort to secure a Homeland Security contract worth as much $1 billion if the current immigration bill goes through. And as of last Thursday, it seem this might very well be the case.

The firms will show off their military-grade radars, cameras, tracking devices and more (some of which were initially built for the Pentagon) with the hope of grabbing those dollars and making it big. As Arizona State University economics professor Dennis Holland said:

"This push toward border security fits very well with the need to create an ongoing stream of revenue."

Lucky for them, if the current bill passes, they’ll be the ones definitively getting what they want.


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