The Deadly Reverberations of U.S. Border Policy

As demonization of immigrants from Latin America continues at a fever pitch, two recent analyses of U.S. border policies and their consequences could not be more timely: John Carlos Frey’s Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border and Todd Miller’s Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World.

Like Empire of Borders, Frey’s Sand and Blood examines U.S.-Mexico border history by placing the present brutal treatment of undocumented migrants in the context of a long history of white supremacist U.S. politics. Frey, a veteran investigative reporter, writes in clear, down-to-earth prose about the impact that U.S. immigration and border security policies have had on Latinx migrants.

Frey himself had a traumatic childhood experience with border authorities which gave him first-hand insight into the darker side of U.S. law enforcement. He was born in Mexico but his family moved to the United States when Frey was a toddler. Since his father was a U.S. citizen, Frey became naturalized but his mother remained in this country thanks to a green card. When he was about 12, Frey was taking a walk with his mother near their home in rural San Diego and briefly separated from her. When he went looking for her his mother was gone. She had been picked up by a Border Patrol agent who targeted her because of her dark skin. Though in the U.S. legally, she had not brought her ID with her. The agent did not allow her to return home for her ID; instead he took her into custody and she was deported. [See also NACLA’s review of The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez.]

Frey opens Sand and Blood by describing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, an early example anti-immigrant racism in the United States. That legislation allowed the military to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border to block Chinese workers from entering this country. By the time the Border Patrol was officially established in 1924, U.S. laws restricted entry to “Asians, illiterates, prostitutes, criminals, contract laborers, unaccompanied children, idiots, epileptics, the insane, the diseased and defective, alcoholics, beggars, polygamists, anarchists,” among others.

Large agricultural interests kept Mexicans from being added to that list because those big landowners needed underpaid laborers to maintain hefty profit margins. Mexican workers crossed the border regularly, sometimes daily, to toil on large farms in California, Texas, and Arizona. Though granted entry, these men and women were treated abysmally: for more than 40 years, the “delousing” of Mexicans crossing between Juarez and El Paso involved being sprayed with cyanogen, which is toxic to humans.

Frey describes how, in 1917, a teenager named Carmelita Torres stood up to that inhumane process by refusing to strip for the spraying ritual, then convincing 30 other women at the bridge between Juarez and El Paso to resist also. These women sparked a wave of resistance later called the “bath riots,” and Mexicans began avoiding the official checkpoint altogether. Authorities in El Paso responded by assigning patrols of mounted agents, precursors to the U.S. Border Patrol, to monitor unauthorized crossings.

Sand and Blood fast-forwards from that initial wave of illegal crossings to the Bracero (“manual laborer” in Spanish) program created by the U.S. and Mexican governments during WWII labor shortages. This program, which ran from 1942 to 1964, allowed millions of farmworkers to work in the United States. Some of the workers stayed in the United States without government permission, contributing to a much greater Latinx population in the Southwest and elsewhere. Big agribusiness was happy to continue to employ workers who overstayed the expiration of their work permits.

Frey argues that the current military enforcement of the U.S.-Mexico border can be traced to Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, under which employers of undocumented workers were fined and border security was tightened to lessen immigration flows. Unlike today’s approach, however, pathways to citizenship were left flexible. Reagan stated, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”

The blueprint for a militarized approach, one that caused massive death, began in earnest under the administration of a Democrat, Bill Clinton.Such support for a path to legal permanent residency was not wildly popular among other politicians. Many focused on “lawbreakers” among immigrants and exploited nativist fears of “illegal aliens.” In his 1995 bid for reelection, California’s governor Pete Wilson turned around a losing campaign by playing on paranoia about undocumented brown people overrunning California. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton also gained political capital by sounding like a hardline Republican on immigration. While Frey notes that after the September 11, 2001 attacks George W. Bush oversaw a near doubling of the size of the Border Patrol, he writes, “The blueprint for a militarized approach, one that caused massive death, began in earnest under the administration of a Democrat, Bill Clinton.” Frey meticulously lays out a case that, in its messaging, the Clinton Administration “perpetuated a negative, anti-immigrant stereotype that remains in the political lexicon today.”

U.S. trade policies in the 1990s only exacerbated economic insecurity in Mexico, which in turn increased the influx of migrants from our Southern neighbor. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), U.S. corn flooded into Mexico, driving rural farmers from their traditional livelihoods. This and other aspects of NAFTA’s pro-business economics helped increase Mexico’s extreme poverty rate from 21 percent in 1994 to 37 percent in 1997. [2]

As more Mexicans decided to leave their homeland in the wake of NAFTA, the Clinton Administration responded with a policy called “prevention through deterrence,” which increased Border Patrol enforcement in and near El Paso, San Diego, and other urban areas. The result: Migrants began crossing in remote rural areas, and more and more died of exposure in the desert.

As part of the “War on Drugs,” George H.W. Bush committed to using the U.S. military to stop drug smuggling at the southern border. Frey notes that though 97 percent of cocaine and close to 100 percent of heroin and methamphetamine entered the U.S. by land or sea vehicles, inspections of such vehicles did not increase. Instead, as the 1990s went on, the military worked in tandem with the Border Patrol to target migrants on foot.

“War on Terror” alarmism after September 11, 2001 replaced the drug interdiction rationale for border crackdowns. Suddenly the specter of terrorist attacks from the south became a talking point for fear-mongering nativists. Congressman Silvestre Reyes, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told Frey, “There was no terrorist threat coming from Mexico and there never has been…Politicians have used Mexicans and immigrants as scapegoats for so long that they believe there is a real threat so it’s not too far to go to turn them into real terrorists.” The George W. Bush Administration’s Department of Homeland Security oversaw the new agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a billion-dollar bludgeon to be wielded against undocumented immigrants. In 2003, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was created as a sister agency to ICE. CBP, in effect the largest police force in the United States, with a budget of $13.5 billion, oversees the Border Patrol.

To quickly increase the size of the Border Patrol, the Bush administration lowered hiring standards with less thorough vetting of recruits and less training.A Border Patrol agent told Frey, “After 9/11, the gloves came off, and we were trained to see the migrants as possible terrorists.” Abuse of migrants became commonplace. To quickly increase the size of the Border Patrol, the Bush administration lowered hiring standards with less thorough vetting of recruits and less training. Frey has reported on incidents of Border Patrol agents firing at and killing Mexican nationals across the border. He has spent years investigating Border Patrol killings of migrants and, after repeated information requests, received no useful feedback on those killings from the U.S. government. But despite government stonewalling, the Southern Border Communities Coalition has documented 80 cases of immigrants killed by Border Patrol agents with no guilty verdicts for agents who were responsible.

Though Barack Obama has the reputation of being more humane than his predecessor, Frey notes: “Obama continued the legacy of all U.S. presidents and administrations since Ronald Reagan, making life more difficult for immigrants.” In his time in office, Obama deported more than 5 million people. Obama’s presidential campaigns received large contributions from defense contractors who profited greatly from border spending: Boeing, which received a billion-dollar contract for a “virtual fence” that failed on all counts, gave Obama around $191,000 in 2012. Lockheed Martin also gave generously.

Frey cultivated sources inside government agencies and doggedly peppered elected officials with questions mainstream media outlets tend to avoid. He also did more than spending time talking with people attempting to make it across the border: After making contact with a high-ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel who oversees a large number of highly profitable illegal crossings, Frey participated in a trek of migrants across the border. After walking all day in the blazing sun, Frey woke up with blisters on his feet, a parched throat, and little remaining water. He soon told the cartel’s guide that he couldn’t go on. But unlike others attempting the journey, Frey had a satellite phone to call for help. As an air conditioned vehicle took him away, Frey reflected that if he had stayed in the desert, the smugglers would have left him to die.

Nobody cares about dead immigrants. They’re invisible when they’re alive, and they’re even more invisible when they’re dead.A forensic anthropologist told Frey, “Nobody cares about dead immigrants. They’re invisible when they’re alive, and they’re even more invisible when they’re dead.” No one knows how many thousands have perished while attempting to enter the US through desert terrain, and the U.S. government has little to no interest in tracking such deaths. And after members of the faith-based coalition No More Deaths placed gallon jugs of water in areas of migrant passage, Border Patrol agents were caught on camera kicking such jugs over, increasing the likelihood of yet more deaths from dehydration.

Such acts of wanton cruelty have been emblematic of the Trump presidency. His administration has systematically instituted “zero tolerance” policies under which young children are separated from parents without bothering to track them, children and adults die in detention camps, and asylum appeals are denied en masse.

Frey also spent time traveling with one of the Central American caravans that Trump demonized relentlessly. The large group offered safety in numbers to travelers who in isolation routinely face extortion, robbery, kidnapping, and rape while attempting to pass through Mexico. Many of the people Frey spoke to discussed leaving home because of gang violence and the grueling poverty that is endemic throughout Central America. But he also heard a climate cause rarely mentioned in U.S. media: The land itself was no longer hospitable to these poor people. A prolonged drought in the “dry corridor” of Central America—which includes parts of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua—had resulted in almost complete crop failure in many areas.

Journalist Todd Miller, who has been writing about U.S. border issues for more than two decades, including in his previous books Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security (2017) and Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security(2014), expands on the connections between climate change and illegal immigration. His most recent book, Empire of Borders, focuses on border enforcement and climate-related refugees. He opens by quoting a climate scientist who describes Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador as “ground zero” for climate change in the Americas, then looks at Washington’s world-wide heavily militarized border security apparatus.

In Storming the Wall, Miller echoes Frey when he discusses the severity of the climate crisis in Central America. Citing a 2016 report, he writes, “from 1995 to 2014 Honduras was indeed ground zero, the country most impacted by severe weather. During those 19 years, Honduras endured 73 extreme weather events and an average of 302 climate-related deaths per year.” But reflecting on his time talking to activists and agricultural workers in Honduras, Miller writes, “From the perspective of the border enforcement regime, it’s immaterial whether or not there is a drought, whether or not there is a harvest, or whether or not there is sufficient food. Droughts do not matter. Persistent storms do not matter. To the on-the-ground immigration authorities, when it comes to interdiction, incarceration, and deportation, it means nothing that a new era of climate instability has begun. All that matters is whether or not a person has the proper documents.”

Though the current occupant of the White House claims to not believe in climate change, the U.S. military has for years been making contingency plans for its future effects on immigration.Though the current occupant of the White House claims to not believe in climate change, the U.S. military has for years been making contingency plans for its future effects on immigration. In 2015, a U.S. Brigadier General told Miller, “As it gets hotter, as the catastrophic events become more frequent, it’s having an impact on how they grow their agriculture in the Latin American countries, and employment is becoming a problem, and it’s driving people up north.” U.S. military planning for wide-scale flight from climate changes includes the equivalent of war games. This is a continuation of policy leanings going back more than 20 years: In 1994, Secretary of State Madeline Albright said, “We believe that environmental degradation is not simply an irritation but a real threat to our national security.” This “threat” involves an enormous amount of people who will need new places to live: the numbers who will be fleeing extreme weather in their home countries is staggering, with estimates that go as high as one billion by 2050.

In Empire of Borders, Miller encounters soldiers familiar with BORTAC, the little-known special forces and tactical unit of the U.S. Border Patrol, at the border between Guatemala and Honduras. BORTAC, which Miller describes as Border Patrol robocops, has had a global presence in the Americas and the Caribbean, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ukraine, Kosovo, and Tajikistan. The U.S. influence on global border construction and enforcement is staggering. Miller writes, “Close your eyes and point to any land mass on a world map, and your finger will probably find a country that is building up its borders in some way with Washington’s assistance.”

Miller’s analysis of the history of punitive measures on the U.S.-Mexico border dovetails with Frey’s. Clearly Donald Trump’s brutally sadistic policies built on and worsened already existing policies from Obama’s presidency. Miller cites a 2011 report that details the permanent separation of 5,100 children from their families. He makes a convincing case that the roots of such racist policies go back to the creation of the U.S.-Mexico border—the result of a bloody war of conquest in which the U.S. seized land that today makes up much of Southern California and the southwestern states.

But it is not just at Mexico’s northern border that the United States maintains a heavily militarized presence. The American Civil Liberties Union calls the 100-mile zones around both the southern and northern borders “Constitution-free zone(s).” Miller spoke to a CBP official who pointed out that the Fourth Amendment does not apply to the Department of Homeland Security, which CBP is part of. CBP and DHS are also exempt from restrictions on racial profiling that apply to other branches of the U.S. government.

Miller’s travels to global hot spots where CBP has a profound influence leads him to quote a journalist who calls the organization “global capitalism’s bouncers.” He also cites anthropologist Jeff Halper, who argues that global border enforcement promotes “a certain social order while also ensuring the smooth flow of capital.”

Miller talks to activists from different countries who argue for military-free open borders. Despite the global siege mentality, he documents so effectively in Empire of Borders, Miller sees the possibility of radically more humane arrangements than the current state of affairs. Miller notes, “Leaders talk of border security as if it were as natural and timeless as a mountain or a river. It is not. The hardened militarized borders insisted upon by politicians are a recent phenomenon, as are political boundaries between nation-states, as are nation-states themselves.”

Against this backdrop, I found Miller’s optimism about the possibilities of a shift toward global solidarity and empathy beyond the confines of nation state provincialism the least convincing part of Empire of Borders. The lack of compassion for others in the right-wing, anti-immigrant regimes now in power in the United States and elsewhere don’t seem likely to make a leftward shift toward open borders any time soon. As Miller notes elsewhere in this excellent book, “In the climate era, coexisting worlds of luxury living and impoverished desperation will only be magnified and compounded.”

The reality of millions driven from their homes is not some dystopian future scenario: The UN High Commissioner on Refugees reported in 2015 that their were more than 65 million forcibly displaced people in the world. That number does not include migrants forced to move by global poverty.

Although the powerful countries most responsible for our climate crisis show little interest in becoming more welcoming to climate refugees, the more positive possibilities that Miller points to are worth fighting for. To mangle a riff from the great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, no matter how much pessimism dominates our intellects, optimism of the will still has a chance to prevail.