Reading Between the Lines: Need to Know’s “Crossing the Line” Suggests a Reexamination of the Border Patrol’s Culture – Rachel Stonecipher
In 2012, a series of PBS investigations into Border Patrol abuses corroborated years of humanitarian volunteers’ reports, finding that the agency’s institutional culture cultivates a climate of medical neglect – and sometimes outright harm – toward migrant detainees. In July 2012, the PBS show Need to Know aired the second installment of its U.S.-Mexico border series “Crossing the Line,” an investigation into abuses of migrants in Border Patrol custody. The program reported that agents in the Tucson Sector, the busiest of nine regional divisions of the Border Patrol on the U.S.-Mexico border, have been accused of thousands of physical, verbal, and sexual abuses against migrants who are usually deported before they can report the crimes. “Crossing the Line, part 2” focused on the problem of poor treatment during detention, while Part I addressed agents’ excessive use of force. In light of my own research with humanitarian volunteers, the two programs prove the frequency and injuriousness of abuse. Although PBS stops short of claiming that the Border Patrol’s “war on illegal immigration” actually promotes harm against migrants, to some volunteers’ dismay (including my own), “Crossing the Line” effectively conveys that abuse is an institutional problem that takes direct and indirect forms – including impunity.
Since 2004, the humanitarian organization No More Deaths’ (NMD) desert aid project has maintained a camp in Arivaca, Arizona, where volunteers provide water, food, and medical care to migrants and hike to “drop” points to leave the same. For over five years its volunteers have also recorded Border Patrol abuses against deportees, summarized in the 2011 report “A Culture of Cruelty.” For “Crossing the Line, part 2,” NMD contributed footage of a lesser known issue: for years, agents have been slashing the water bottles that volunteers leave on trails for migrants’ use.
In May 2012, a No More Deaths hidden camera captured an agent kicking water bottles from a drop down a hill, destroying them. The previous March, NMD had complained about slashing to the Tucson Sector’s community liaison, who responded that she would prepare a memo telling agents to “leave water alone.” Regardless, volunteers later that spring found empty bottles with the word suerte (“luck”) – which they write in permanent marker to signal that the water was left by friends – deliberately cut out, and the water dumped.
“Crossing the Line, part 2” also includes footage from 2009 of Border Patrol agent David Kermes who, referring to migrants’ dehydration, yells into a volunteer’s phone camera, “I don’t care!” At a water drop, he pours out water, drinks some, and pretends to offer it to another agent’s horse. Kermes says that humanitarians are “aiding and abetting felons” (despite the fact that entering the country once illegally is not a felony, and putting out water is legal). Later, Need to Know visits his Facebook page, which reads “Run you little bastards!” under a photo of migrants. NMD volunteers encounter Kermes regularly; according to a second-hand report of an incident from July 2012, Kermes refused to let a volunteer give water to migrants in his custody because “they might be allergic.”
Destroying or denying water has potentially fatal consequences. The Pima County Forensic Science Center attributed 28 percent of migrants’ deaths in southern Arizona in 2011 to “environmental exposure to extremes in heat or cold combined with dehydration”; however, a full 62 percent of causes of death were undetermined due to the condition of the remains. Calendar year 2011 brought 184 deaths of migrants in the region. Deaths peak from June to August, when water is scarcest and the temperature highest. Over eight years, No More Deaths has heard hundreds of stories from people who say they reached their water when they needed it badly.
Although snapshots like Kermes’ Facebook page might mislead viewers into thinking that slashing is an individual problem, PBS holds the Border Patrol culpable for its lack – and occasional complete negation – of discipline. The agency has ignored even internal complaints about detention conditions. Need to Know interviews a former agent, Ephraim Cruz, who was pressured to resign in 2007 for exposing intentional overcrowding in detention cells, denials of food and water, and physical abuse of detainees by fellow agents.
Physical abuse outside of detention, where there is even less oversight, rarely brings disciplinary consequences. According to the Southern Border Communities Coalition, “excessive force” against migrants has played a part in 19 deaths, including 16 shootings, since 2010. In eight of the 16 shooting cases, agents claimed that the victims were throwing heavy rocks at them. Although no agents have ever been killed by rocks, agents are authorized to use lethal force if they feel their lives are threatened by rock throwing. In January 2011, when I visited the Tucson Sector’s Nogales, Arizona, office with a group from Southern Methodist University, we received a presentation on the dangers of rock throwing that defended agents’ prerogative to decide how much force is necessary.
The DHS Office of Inspector General is currently investigating the use of excessive force among Customs and Border Protection agents, particularly the lethal force policy. However, activists maintain that Border Patrol mechanisms of oversight and discipline, even in the event of tragedy, are deeply flawed. When shootings happen, for example, families (especially in Mexico) are often left without any assurance of an investigation. In summer 2011 I attended a vigil for Carlos Lamadrid, a 19-year-old resident of Douglas, Arizona, who was shot in the back in May 2011 by Border Patrol agents who said he was throwing rocks at them. The vigil occurred at the border wall in Douglas, where visitors attended on both sides of the fence.
Human rights organization Coalición de Derechos Humanos called upon Tucson’s U.S. House representatives to pressure for a federal investigation into Lamadrid’s death, without success. As a manned Border Patrol vehicle monitored us from about 150 yards away, activists attending the vigil discussed the responsible agent’s apparent legal immunity. The conditions that legally justify lethal force are unclear, but the Border Patrol has staked out its agents’ right to decide.
Through its own complaint procedures, the Border Patrol effectively circumscribes abuse reports. Volunteers are routed through the sector’s community liaison, who communicates almost entirely by phone. There is no “complaint form,” although activists have created their own. (A research contact of mine simply wrote a multi-page report and sent it to the sector office and me.) For U.S.-based volunteers to document second-hand abuse reports requires prolonged contact with the liaison, often on behalf of a deportee from whom proof of abuse, physical or otherwise, is not accessible.
Thus, while the DHS investigation into excessive force is welcome news, “Crossing the Line, part 2” proves that the intention to harm is widespread during apprehension and detention and at water drops. Though the DHS Civil Rights and Civil Liberties division has opened 40 investigations within Customs and Border Protection for 2013, most of these cases address clear rights violations. DHS continues to turn a blind eye to implicitly harmful acts like water slashing, which indicate that many agents, whose official goal is to aid migrants in danger, actually hurt them (or are unaware of the health consequences).
As Agent Kermes’ position on slashing indicates, some agents view the destruction of humanitarian aid as depleting the “enemy’s” supplies. Does the Border Patrol endorse conflating migrant workers with dangerous criminals? If not, it should say so. Every volunteer hiking through the desert knows that rattlesnakes threaten far more violence than the hundreds of civilians passing through. The Border Patrol’s protection of abusive behavior reinforces the sense, among agents, of a just war against everyone crossing the desert – with devastating results. Need to Know’s two chapters of “Crossing the Line” provide an instructive entry point for students, scholars, and activists interested in mapping the structural supports of this culture of impunity.
 In summer 2011 I studied a variety of migrant advocacy organizations in southern Arizona, chiefly through interviews and participant observation. In summer 2012 I spent two weeks as a humanitarian volunteer and researcher with No More Deaths in Arivaca, and another two weeks studying NMD from Tucson.
 Border Patrol agents who meet special requirements can apply to become members of the Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue unit (BORSTAR), which was created to prevent migrant deaths, but which also takes migrants into custody.