Home > Recent Post > The U.S. Border Patrol’s “Low-Intensity War”: Ill-Conceived and Inhumane – Rachel Stonecipher

The U.S. Border Patrol’s “Low-Intensity War”: Ill-Conceived and Inhumane – Rachel Stonecipher

Rachel Stonecipher

In a previous AccessDenied post, I considered how the institutional culture of the U.S. Border Patrol often neglects the medical needs of migrants. Despite policies calling for “humane treatment,” agents regularly destroy humanitarian water bottles in the desert, allow overcrowding in detention, deny medications, and commit acts of physical violence. Moreover, as Seth Holmes writes in a recent post, the Border Patrol’s stated policy of “prevention through deterrence,” which aims to deter future migration by making the journey north as difficult as possible, is inhumane.

As the agency predicted, and as Holmes notes, the increase in Border Patrol personnel and surveillance since 1994 has forced migration routes into the remote desert, increasing suffering. Since many migrants attempt to cross repeatedly until they are successful, “deterrence” policies only expose them to the same series of threats multiple times. Now that Congress is back in business, now is a good time to ask what the doctrine of prevention is worth.

Why, according to the Border Patrol, is it acceptable to sacrifice migrants’ well-being in the name of deterrence? Interviews with agents clearly reveal a language of war. For instance, agents at the Nogales, Arizona, processing center for apprehended migrants and its headquarters, the Tucson Sector office, have described the Border Patrol as the frontline in the “War on Terror.” In the July 20 and November 30 episodes of PBS’ Need to Know last year, former Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection W. Ralph Basham compared the border to a conflict zone: “You’ve got people coming at you that you don’t know, you don’t know what they represent. It could be that day worker, or it could be a terrorist, or it could be a cartel smuggling drugs or people.”

In fact, counter-terrorism is the Border Patrol’s first mandate. According to its website, the agency’s “priority mission” is “preventing terrorists and terrorists’ weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, from entering the United States.” This aligns with the federal response to 9/11, which in 2003 reorganized the Border Patrol under the Department of Homeland Security. Apprehending undocumented migrants and seizing contraband constitute secondary priorities. Although the latter goal consumes the vast majority of their time, the former appears to consume agents’ perceptions, perhaps because their superiors encourage a hyper-defensive stance. The fact that 28.8 percent of U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees are military veterans, most from Iraq and Afghanistan, seems to be no coincidence.

Last year, I volunteered with aid workers from the NGO No More Deaths at their camp near the border outside Arivaca, Arizona, and witnessed the confusion among the Border Patrol’s multiple mandates. Despite an attitude of vigilance on terrorism, agents say they rarely suspect terrorist activity during desert apprehensions. When directly questioned, several have disclosed that they are unaware of any apprehensions of individuals with terrorist ties. (I heard this while on a human rights group tour in January 2011, then again from fellow volunteers who met with agents in spring 2012.) There have been reports of possible “terrorists” apprehended on the Texas-Mexico border, but former DHS head Janet Napolitano was determinedly oblique regarding the counter-terrorism success of border enforcement.

Yet stories about detention suggest that the identity of individuals apprehended does not much affect their treatment. In Border Patrol custody, unarmed migrant workers[1] may find themselves treated like suspected terrorists (not that those treatment standards pass human rights review for “suspected terrorists,” either). In one shelter for deported migrants in Nogales, Sonora, PBS journalists heard from Mexican deportees that agents employed “disciplinary” methods similar to techniques used in the “War on Terror,” such as forcing detainees to kneel on bottle caps or squat in stress positions until they could no longer stand.

Humanitarian workers I have interviewed recognize that dangerous people do travel in the border desert. Nonetheless, they remain troubled by their firsthand observations of how the U.S. government has misdirected what they term a “low-intensity war” to target innocent civilians. By and large, volunteers view Border Patrol agents as the armed wing of an enforcement strategy whose violence is purposefully aimed at economic migrants, rather than at terrorists as the U.S. government claims. Many believe this strategy was deliberately designed to maximize guest workers’ physical and economic vulnerability in order to control this low-cost workforce. Although their only “crime” is an immigration violation – failing to cross the border through an official port of entry – they bear the brunt of the Border Patrol’s force and intimidation.

Congress’  preoccupation with “border security” suggests one of two possibilities: either that such a vicious economic strategy is, in fact, in place, or that politicians are woefully, inexcusably ignorant of the humanitarian crisis created by border militarization. According to Andrew Lehren of the New York Times, quoted by Need to Know on May 17, 2013, crossing the border is currently the deadliest it has ever been. This year, for instance, deaths rose sharply in Brooks County, Texas, near a Border Patrol checkpoint, indicating increasing harm caused by deterrence strategies. Yet those hoping to enter or return to America will find no relief in a congressional overhaul. The immigration bill that passed the Senate, S.744, put a hold on citizenship for undocumented persons until the completion of a $46.3 billion “border security” plan. Even this did not satisfy Republican representatives in the House, who vowed to prioritize “border security” in the first of several bills meant to supplant holistic reform and deny any “special” path to citizenship for the undocumented.

Although a decade of No More Deaths’ work has passed without violence, volunteers sense that Border Patrol agents fear the region. A volunteer I interviewed paraphrased the typical warning to NMD workers: “Be careful around here. It’s very dangerous. Aren’t you afraid?” I was present multiple times to hear agents extend this advice, and eventually I, like other volunteers, tired of their misplaced concern. The people whose lives are most at risk in the desert are not American volunteers, but migrants like the four young men who wandered into our camp one night sorely in need of water. Like everyone  I met at camp, these four men exchanged stories and jokes with us, thanked us profusely for blister care and rest, and left northward a few days later, apprehensive about rattlesnakes. One longtime volunteer said that over multiple summers, she had never felt afraid of anyone she had encountered – with the exception of the Border Patrol agent who once pointed a gun at her feet, demanding to see her “sign” (the soles of her shoes) to compare with nearby footprints.[2]

According to No More Deaths, the harsh intersection among politics, policy, and human tragedy is the true threat to human security. Because U.S. law construes some acts of kindness as “aiding and abetting” or “harboring aliens,” volunteers are legally barred from assisting seriously hurt people in the optimal ways, for instance by providing car rides and phone calls. Yet since Border Patrol agents apprehend migrants every day, they know better than anyone else that most border crossers are civilians – and by corollary, that the vast majority of the 6,000-plus deaths in the desert are civilian deaths caused by “prevention through deterrence” strategies. Despite its adversarial narrative, the “border war” is disastrously one-sided.

The Border Patrol’s insecurity in the field is both a symptom and a cause of the “global pattern of classificatory and moral ‘unruliness’”[3] surrounding the identities and rights of border crossers, which allows nationalist anxiety to cloud the reality of human suffering. Yet rather than seeking information, politicians mime toughness in the most superficial ways. Before the government shutdown, House Republicans appeared eager to let comprehensive reform die unless border security should receive even greater attention in the future.

Nevertheless, the anticipated tabling of immigration reform until 2014 leaves room for debate. Now that Congress is back at work, students, scholars, and friends of migrants have a chance to steer the discussion away from a militarized focus on “keeping people out” and toward U.S. responsibilities as a host country. Advocates must pressure Congress to realize that “deterring” guest workers has been both brutal and ineffective, not to mention contrary to the aims of U.S. agribusiness. Admitting such workers through ports of entry would clarify the Border Patrol’s mission while reframing migrants not as criminals, but as the economic assets they are. Contrary to the Senate’s claims, one cannot give lip service to a “guest worker policy” while supporting those workers’ subjugation at the border.

Rachel Stonecipher graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, with degrees in Anthropology and Film & Media Arts. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Media Studies, focusing on virtual embodiment and subjectivity. Stonecipher recently completed a two-year research project on the practice and experience of migrant advocacy work on the U.S.-Mexico border and is currently involved in two research projects at SMU, one focused on food insecurity in North Texas and the other on child sex trafficking among tribal communities in northern New Mexico.

Cite this: Stonecipher, Rachel. 2013. “Immigration Bills Threaten to Strengthen U.S. Border Patrol’s ‘Low-Intensity War’.” Accessed [date] at http://wp.me/pIK8x-BG.

[1] Unarmed individuals coming to the U.S. for work or other economic reasons comprise the majority of apprehended border crossers. See: Green, Linda. 2011. The Nobodies: Neoliberalism, Violence, and Migration. Medical Anthropology 30(4): 366-385.

[2] “Sign cutting” is one of the Border Patrol’s most common methods for human tracking. The process begins by dragging a patterned surface, such as a chain of tires, behind a truck so as to create a boundary in the dirt. This cuts off a certain block of terrain so that agents can follow “sign,” usually footprints, within the designated area.

[3] Willen, Sarah S. 2010. Darfur through a Shoah Lens: Sudanese Asylum Seekers, Unruly Biopolitical Dramas, and the Politics of Humanitarian Compassion in Israel. In A Reader in Medical Anthropology: Theoretical Trajectories, Emergent Realities, edited by B.J. Good, M. Fischer, S.S. Willen and M.-J. DelVecchio Good. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. 518.

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