Late Friday night, Defense Secretary James Mattis approved the deployment of up to 4,000 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. The order, which came after President Donald Trump called for an increase in troops in response to a caravan of refugees making their way north to seek asylum, is not the first time the National Guard has been sent to the border (President George W. Bush sent 6,000 troops in 2006 and President Barack Obama sent 1,200 in 2011). However, many people living in the borderlands believe the action escalates an already-weaponized war zone, and at a time when the United States is seeing the lowest border crossing numbers since 1971.
The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) defines border militarization as “the systematic intensification of the border’s security apparatus, transforming the area from a transnational frontier to a zone of permanent vigilance, enforcement, and violence.”
The NNIRR further states that “the outcome of border militarization has not been to deter migration, but instead to create more vulnerability.”
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Sixty miles south of my home in Tucson, at the U.S.-Mexico border, a crude steel wall cleaves the town of Nogales in half. Once a single town, relatives now stretch their arms through slits in the wall to hold hands. North of the border, Interstate 19 runs through a scrubby desert, past dusty Arizona ranch towns and gated retirement communities, paralleling the green line that marks the Santa Cruz River. The desert stretches out as far as you can see: thousands of acres of rocky mountain ranges, remote wilderness areas, First Nations land, and cattle ranches.
In 1994, the U.S. Border Patrol began a new strategy called Prevention Through Deterrence. Urban areas from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California, were outfitted with more Border Patrol agents and military-style equipment, including cameras and walls. As a result, it was no longer possible for migrants to cross the border in urban areas. They now had to traverse remote stretches of desert by foot.
In the Sonoran Desert, summer temperatures can climb up to 120 degrees near some of the most commonly used crossing routes. Monsoon storms turn bone-dry arroyos into dangerous flash floods. In winter, below-freezing nighttime temperatures can induce hypothermia. There is little shade and the only water might be found inside the belly of a cactus, or an algae-filled cattle tank. There are rocks to turn ankles, rattlesnakes, and miles upon miles of spiny cacti.
In the last two decades, more than 7,000 bodies of migrants have been found in the Arizona desert, most having died of exposure or dehydration. Thousands more men, women, and children have disappeared. In 2015 alone, more than 1,200 missing persons cases were opened by the human rights organization La Coalición de Derechos Humanos, in response to people looking for loved ones who went missing on the journey through the desert.
A report co-authored by La Coalición de Derechos Humanos and humanitarian group No More Deaths reads, “The region has been transformed into a vast graveyard of the missing.”
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In the late 1990s, southern Arizona communities began to witness the effects of increased border militarization. Human remains were found in the desert. The Medical Examiner’s morgues continued to fill up throughout the early 2000s, as missing persons reports and phone calls increased from frantic family members. Border Patrol checkpoints appeared along rural roads and highways. Reports of racial profiling in urban areas increased, as did raids in neighborhoods and workplaces.
A widespread citizen response began—one that, full disclosure, I joined as a volunteer for La Coalición de Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths when I moved to Tucson in 2005. Several groups were formed to provide legal support, missing migrant searches, public education, and direct humanitarian aid. Others continued the work they’d been doing to support border crossers since the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. Local volunteers—including retirees, pastors, nurses, and youth activists—drove desert roads and hiked into remote areas to leave gallons of water along migrant trails, hoping it would save lives. “¡Hola, hermanos! Somos amigos de la iglesia. Tenemos comida y agua,” they called as they walk through the desert brush. Hello, brothers! We’re friends from the church. We have food and water.
In the last two decades, more than 7,000 bodies of migrants have been found in the Arizona desert
Over a three year period between 2012 and 2015, No More Deaths tracked approximately 31,000 gallons of water they placed in an 800-square-mile radius. Eighty-six percent of the water was used, demonstrating high need. But over that same period of years, water jugs were vandalized by humans at an average of twice per week. “Although it is likely that multiple actors are responsible for the destruction of humanitarian aid at our water-drop sites, the results of our [geographic] data analysis indicate that US Border Patrol agents likely are the most consistent actors,” states the report.
A series of videos taken by wildlife cameras and personal cameras clearly show Border Patrol agents destroying water jugs and other humanitarian aid supplies. In one video, a female agent kicks a line of water jugs one by one, smashing the plastic containers against the rocks. In another, a male agent looks into the camera and sneers at the unseen videographer. “You’re gonna’ get a good shot. Just picking up this trash somebody left on the trail,” he says. “It’s not yours, is it? All you have to do is tell me that it’s yours.” He pours out water from the jugs as he talks, his forehead glistening with sweat.
On January 17, 2018, just hours after the above video footage was released, eight No More Deaths volunteers were apprehended by Border Patrol. All are being charged with federal misdemeanors, except for Scott Warren, a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a longtime No More Deaths volunteer, who is being charged with a felony for harboring migrants after agents witnessed him providing two people with water and food. If convicted, he could face five years in prison. In Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge—where the volunteers had been looking for distressed migrants and leaving humanitarian aid supplies—No More Deaths volunteers discovered 32 sets of human remains in 2017.
This is not the first time that the federal government has brought charges against No More Deaths volunteers. In 2005, Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss were arrested while transporting three severely dehydrated migrants to a medical facility, and charged with smuggling and conspiracy felonies. They each faced a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. After over a year of legal proceedings and a widespread grassroots campaign in support of humanitarian aid, the charges against them were dropped. In 2008, Walt Staton, then a seminary student, was cited for littering after U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers found him leaving water containers on trails in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Several months before Staton’s citation, Dan Millis was cited for littering, also by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers, for leaving water containers in the wildlife refuge.
For Millis, the citation came just two days after he and three other No More Deaths volunteers found the lifeless body of a 14-year-old Salvadoran girl in a nearby remote area. Josseline Hernandez and her 10-year-old brother had been traveling with a group of other border crossers when Josseline became ill and was left behind. The siblings were on their way to California to meet their mother. Millis spent months in court fighting the littering charges, arguing—as Sellz and Strauss did—that “humanitarian aid is never a crime,” and that water containers left in the desert with the intent to save lives is not litter. He won the case in an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court, which ruled that the water containers were not garbage.
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Todd Miller, a journalist and the author of two books about the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, says the Trump Administration’s decision to send the National Guard troops to the border “reinforces, supports, and frees up the U.S. Border Patrol, a self-described paramilitary agency.”
Since 1993, the U.S. Border Patrol’s annual budget has increased more than ten-fold, from $363 million to over $3.8 billion, and the number of agents increased from 4,000 to 21,000. The combined budgets for Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017 was $19 billion—more than the FBI, DEA, and U.S. Marshals Service combined.
“The Border Patrol not only operates on the international boundary line, but also in 100-mile jurisdictions, and they do it with extraconstitutional powers above and beyond what normal law enforcement can do,” says Miller. “They can put up checkpoints, pull people over in roving patrols, and essentially violate the 4th amendment—the right to not be searched or seized. This is why the ACLU calls the borderlands a ‘constitution-free zone.’”
The effects of militarization also spill into courtrooms in communities along the border. In 2005, under President George W. Bush, Operation Streamline began, a daily assembly-line courtroom processing of undocumented migrants found crossing the border. During the Obama presidency, Operation Streamline increased dramatically. In just two hours, up to 70 people can be tried and sentenced.
Miller has spent the last eight years researching the private military companies that also want to cash in on border militarization. He describes attending border security conventions with “vendors and companies adamantly discussing their desire to break into the border security market.” In the early 2010s, as U.S. military operations were winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Miller says many of those companies expressed that they were in search of new markets. “One vendor, who had before sold his company’s products to the U.S. military, told me ‘we are now bringing the battlefield to the border.’”
In the years since Prevention Through Deterrence began, poverty and violence have continued to force those fleeing for their lives to head north. And so they come—exhausted from the journey, some with babies in their arms, seeking work, seeking a good safe life—and when they reach the border, they are inhumanely squeezed into the gauntlet of the desert, where, as Miller says, “death has become one of many deterrents.”
“When you consider human security, such as the right for a person to have shelter, food, health, education, a future, you see quickly that the billions of dollars put into border militarization are drastically misplaced,” Miller says, joining the many border residents who say that the U.S. government should address the socioeconomic and political reasons driving migration in the first place.
But instead of tackling those root causes of migration, Miller says the U.S. government has focused on putting up walls and bringing the military to the border. In an April 5 interview with Democracy Now, he said, “There will be more agents. There will be more walls. There will be more technologies. There will be more checkpoints. There will be more drone surveillance. There will be more expansion of this apparatus into these 100-mile jurisdictions. And I think that’s the intention.”