Q&A: Borders, not war zones
Pedro Rios explains how the militarization of borders is ineffective, costly, and dangerous.
Demilitarizing the U.S.-Mexico border is a policy priority for AFSC. But what does it mean that the border is “militarized”?
The “militarization” of the border refers to the use of military-style enforcement tactics, equipment, and strategies to “control” the border as if it were a war zone. It has included an unprecedented increase in armed border agents along the U.S.-Mexico border (now at over 21,000 agents for just one agency—the U.S. Border Patrol—up from 11,684 in 2003); the use of drone planes, military helicopters, and occasional deployment of National Guard troops; and the coordination of local law enforcement with federal forces and dangerous vigilante groups.
These developments are raising concerns about the loss of protections to civil liberties and increasing cases of human rights violations. This has taken place throughout the U.S.-Mexico borderlands for decades, and that’s our main focus, but we’ve been hearing similar concerns from residents along the U.S.-Canada border in the past several years.
What’s the connection between these policies and violent incidents along the border?
Because policymakers treat the border like a war zone, border policies do not factor in human rights concerns, and Border Patrol agents are rarely held accountable for civil and human rights violations. The result is a culture that encourages Border Patrol agents to see violence as an appropriate tool for enforcing immigration laws.
Human rights organizations have documented thousands of cases of violence perpetrated by border agents—denial of food and water, verbal and physical abuse, and torture. One small, but welcome, step is that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General confirmed it will investigate cases of brutality by the Border Patrol.
How does militarization impact immigrants, border communities, and enforcement agencies?
Border and immigrant communities bear the brunt of brutal policies. The death toll from unsuccessful border crossings is over 6,500 since October 1994. In just the past two years, more than 19 people have been killed by Border Patrol agents. These include U.S. citizens and Mexican nationals shot while still in Mexico.
A recent case of “friendly fire” resulted in the shooting death of one Border Patrol agent by two other agents responding to the same alert.
How does AFSC support families directly affected by the violence?
For years, we have supported and accompanied family members who have lost loved ones as a result of Border Patrol violence, working with them to organize press conferences, plan community actions, and meet with local and federal officials. Recently, we worked with the families of Munique Tachiquin, who was shot nine times by a Border Patrol agent in 2012, and Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a San Diego resident of over 26 years who was brutally beaten and attacked with a stun gun by border agents in 2010.
What is AFSC doing to stop the violence and demilitarize the border?
We work with a border-wide coalition to bring accountability and oversight to federal border agencies. The coalition has met with high-ranking Border Patrol officials, White House staff, and congressional representatives to urge changes and transparency. Over a dozen members of Congress support these efforts. We also work with border and migrant community members locally to challenge the militarization of the border. We’ve seen how disenfranchised community members can help lead social change when given the opportunity to share ideas and propose solutions. In San Diego, grassroots leaders have created a human rights network where members support each other’s projects and collaborate to create greater political impact.
How can Congress and the Obama administration end the militarization of the border?
The Obama administration and Congress must recognize, as dozens of civil society organizations have, that current border enforcement strategies are ineffective, costly, and deadly. They can begin demilitarization by ensuring accountability and oversight in how armed border agents do their jobs. And they must begin examining the root causes that force people to migrate in the first place.
Editor's note: An error appears in the print version of this article. Pedro is misquoted as saying that the Office of Inspector General that promised to investigate cases of brutality is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. It is in fact part of the Department of Homeland Security.