March-April 2013

The ongoing struggle for just and humane immigration reform in the U.S. will probably stretch out all spring; it is unlikely that legislation will be available for a vote until mid- or late May, so advocates still have time to contact members of Congress and urge support for laws that provide paths for citizenship for undocumented people in the U.S., preserve family unity, and address root causes of migration, such as persecution and economic disparity in countries of origin. A great frustration for many who work on these issues is the tendency to use "border security," i.e. increased militarization along the U.S.-Mexico border, as a trading card for other humane immigration improvements. But what does "border security" mean? The following analysis is taken from the Latin America Working Group, of which the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns is a member.

Photo of gravesite of unidentified migrant, buried in cemetery in Holtville CA

President Obama, Congress, and a growing majority of U.S. voters agree that this country’s immigration system is broken and must be fixed. However, more than a month into the president’s second term and an unending national debate, the question remains: will anything actually happen on immigration reform? Recent events, including the February 13 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" provided us with an inkling of what we might have in store. Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) echoed President Obama saying, "Now is the time" for immigration reform. Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) saw "overconfidence on this [immigration reform] bill" and asserted that he and others will continue to fight it over issues of earned legalization, enforcement, and border security. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), one of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators working on their own comprehensive immigration framework, indicated support for making reform happen, he also noted that any discussions thus far include "triggers that need to be tripped in terms of border security..."

On Feb. 26, the House Committee on Homeland Security continued the immigration discussion with a hearing entitled "What does a secure border look like?" That title question cuts closer to the substantive disagreements over border security, but can it possibly be answered in such a polarized political atmosphere? Certainly no one, including border communities themselves, would propose an "insecure" or "unsafe" border, but on Capitol Hill, consensus regarding the definition of "secure" is elusive, as Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano acknowledged during the recent Senate hearing.

What do people mean when they talk about "border security"? Typically, it refers to "boots on the ground (i.e. the number of border agents) and border fencing. In past legislative proposals, Congress laid out border triggers that had to be met before other aspects of immigration reform could move forward. However, recent studies have shown that these triggers have been either met or exceeded, including those laid out by Senate Bill S. 1348, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007.

When asked by Congress, Secretary Napolitano has said, "Our borders have in fact never been stronger." Plenty of numbers and statistics float around regarding the massive number of enforcement agents and infrastructure deployed at the border, but here are a few widely corroborated figures evidencing that the previously proposed border triggers have already been met, and then some.

  • The U.S. government spending on border enforcement, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), surpassed $17.9 billion, more than that of all other principle criminal federal law enforcement agencies combined.
  • As of February 2012, the Border Patrol had 21,370 agents, exceeding the 2007 goal; and the combined staff of ICE, CBP and US-VISIT numbers 81,000 to date.
  • About 651 miles of fence have been constructed along the U.S.-Mexican border, one mile short of the Secure Fence Act mandate.
  • There are nine drones for air surveillance and 333 video surveillance systems on the southern border.
  • Fewer and fewer non-citizens are apprehended at the border despite better surveillance—down to 365,000 in FY 2012.

These numbers should indicate that the current border trigger debate is misdirected. The focus keeps returning to personnel and unmanned aerial vehicles when these requirements have been met. The focus of a secure border should shift toward real security and safety for all involved.

In a letter sent in February to President Obama, border groups and allies, representing faith, labor, immigrant rights, and human and civil rights groups around the nation, called for a shift in U.S. border policy and a re-envisioning of the term "border security." The groups underscored the "senselessness of continuing to build a border enforcement regime," citing that at least 22 people have been killed or seriously injured by CBP officials since January 2010. Such incidents of excessive use of force which continue to rise aren’t going unnoticed. PBS’s "Need to Know" uncovered footage in which CBP agents beat and tased Anastasio Hernandez, who died shortly thereafter. The Mexican government, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have all urged the authorities to investigate these abuses, including incidents of excessive use of lethal force, and take steps to ensure that they do not happen again. "As employees of the nation’s largest law enforcement agency," reads the letter, "CBP officials should be trained and held to the highest professional law enforcement standards." We agree. Human rights, for non-U.S. citizens as well as citizens, should not be the casualty of border security triggers.

The bipartisan Senate framework commendably includes the promise to "strengthen prohibitions against racial profiling and inappropriate use of force, enhance the training of border patrol agents, increase oversight, and create a mechanism to ensure meaningful opportunity for border communities to share input, including critiques." No question, members of border communities should be invited to testify in congressional hearings and express their concerns -- concerns which seem to be less about the number of drones and more about the lack of resources dedicated to ports of entry and how the lack of accountability over abusive enforcement officials and operations harms families and communities.

Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights summed up the misconception of the physical border security buildup: "We are living under the massive buildup of enforcement from the last several years on the border. And while these politicians want to talk border security, they seem unwilling and unable to talk about the consequences of it. These consequences include civil and human rights violations in our communities, migrant deaths and families torn apart."

As long as any members of Congress continue to equate more boots-on-the-ground or fence as border security, the effects will continue to be harmful to border communities and environments, migrants themselves, and the progress of effective legislation to create a pathway to citizenship and shape the future of immigration in the United States. They should not allow immigration reform to be held hostage by ill-conceived, outdated triggers.

Documented failures: Consequences of immigration policy on U.S.-Mexico border

In February, the Jesuit Conference of the United States, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and the Kino Border Initiative published a report regarding abuses and other issues of concern related to the issue of migration along the U.S./Mexico border. The report was prepared by Michael Danielson, American University.

The executive summary of the report notes five common problems experienced by Mexican and Central American migrants before and during migration and upon apprehension, detention and deportation by U.S. migration authorities: 1. The separation of migrants from family members they were traveling with when apprehended and deported by the U.S. Border Patrol; 2. Family separation as a driver of migration and a continuing complication for families of mixed-legal status; 3. Violence as a cause of migration and abuses and physical security threats experienced by migrants during northward journeys, border crossing, and after deportation from the United States; 4. Abuses and misconduct committed by the U.S. Border Patrol and other U.S. migration authorities; and 5. Abuses and misconduct committed by local police in Mexico.

The report shares some staggering statistics about the violence and depravations suffered by migrants (specifically in the Nogales region), and details a number of specific suggestions for both U.S. and Mexican authorities. Find the entire report (44 pages) and its executive summary (four pages) at the Kino Border Initiative website.