War In The Borderlands

September 25, 2007

On June 12, border patrol agents spoted three Mexican nationals in a remote canyon about a quarter of a mile north of the U.S.-Mexico border near Nogales, Arizona.[1] Suspecting that the men were scouts for cocaine smugglers, the agents opened fire without warning; one of the three undocumented immigrants was shot twice in the back. The agent allegedly responsible for shooting 26-year-old Dario Miranda Valenzuela attempted to drag Miranda’s body down an arroyo with the apparent intention of later burying it on the Mexican side of the border. The agent’s partner decided to report the incident to his superiors 15 hours later. After an investigation by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department, the four-year veteran of the Border Patrol was charged with first-degree murder; the coroner’s report indicated that Miranda may have lived up to 30 minutes after being shot, and might have survived if he had been given quick medical help.[2] Family members said that Miranda frequently migrated to Tucson, Arizona to find work in the drywall business and then returned to his wife and children in Nogales, Sonora. “From what little we know,” said his brother, “he was gunned down for no reason and left to die. They shoot him and then let him spend the next 15 minutes dying before they go back and look.”[3]

This incident stands in sharp contrast to the fanfare promoting the freeflow of trade and investment across the U.S.-Mexico border. It highlights the hostility and callousness with which law enforcement agents, policymakers and the general public view the movement of people across that same line in the U.S. Southwest. The region is called a “war zone,” border guards “the embattled troops,” and immigrants “the enemy.” Transgressions of the civil rights of border residents and the human rights of migrants are considered “collateral damage,” regrettable but necessary if the nation is to protect its territory and its sovereign power to define who “belongs.”

As many as nine million immigrants came to the United States in the 1980s; an additional 200,000 to one million entered illegally each year, 55% of whom are thought to be Mexican nationals.[4] The U.S. census calculated that Mexican immigration quintupled between 1970 and 1988.[5] According to preliminary data from the 1990 census, the total Mexican-origin population tripled in the 1980s to reach 13 million; 45% of that growth was due to immigration.[6]

The situation grew more complex as people escaping civil strife and war in Central America––primarily from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras––crossed the border in greater numbers. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) apprehensions of Central Americans peaked in 1989 at about 50,000. The Central American refugee population in the United States reached two million in 1990.[7] People from at least 72 nations streamed across the U.S.-Mexico border. By 1986 it was not uncommon to hear about “terrorists” from Libya or Iraq clandestinely penetrating the porous southern border.

Immigrants are only a small part of the sizable flow of humanity––1.5 million daily–that moves in either direction at the 24 crossing points along the 1,951-mile border.[8] Social and familial interdependence and booming trade overload international bridges with people and vehicles. Transmigration of border residents is an everyday occurrence. Yet, as early as the mid-1970s, even the movements of those traditionally engaged in contraband trade on the border became confused with immigration in public sentiment and government policy. Little distinction was made among fruit vendors crossing to sell prohibited agricultural products, drug smugglers and illegal aliens. Criminal activity became synonymous with migration and immigrants.

Faced with growing public outrage over a border “out of control,” the United States moved to militarize the border region. INS constructed detention facilities, subcontracted over 900 county jails, increased check-points and expanded the use of canine units for immigration enforcement.[9] In 1989, the Border Patrol, which is the uniformed branch of the INS, issued M-16 automatic rifles, created counterinsurgency units and trained its agents in riot control.[10] The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) provided funds to increase the number of Border Patrol agents from 2,500 to about 4,800.[11]

By the time the “War on Drugs” was formally declared in 1996, the southern border had become the object of intense multi-agency activity to stanch the flow of drugs, weapons, immigrants, currency and other contraband across the border. The most important was Operation Alliance, coordinated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Customs Service, the Coast Guard and the Border Patrol. The technology employed in combined agency operations has come to include data links, computer systems, seismic, magnetic and infrared sensors, low-light television systems, airplanes and helicopters.[12]

Initially, the Department of Defense was to play a support role in interdiction and drug law enforcement. But in May 1986, the Justice Department and the INS determined that the military could also be used to combat the flow of undocumented immigrants, particularly in “emergency situations.”[13] The Defense Department’s primary role consisted of aerial surveillance, equipment loans and joint training exercises.[14]

In 1989 a military unit known as Joint Task Force Six at Fort Bliss in El Paso was established to coordinate military participation in support of law enforcement operations.[15] Defense Department appropriations for drug interdiction grew from $450 million in 1990 to $1.1 billion in 1991.[16] In addition, National Guard units stationed at various crossing points from California to Texas acted as customs inspectors to conduct searches of private and commercial vehicles for contraband. Joint Border Patrol-National Guard task forces patrolled in remote, lightly populated areas like the Big Bend in Texas in 1988 and 1989.[17] In December 1989, 100 army and Marine Corps troops began patrolling the Arizona-Califomia border. In early 1990, a Marine drone was deployed to the Laredo Sector of the Border Patrol to aid in the interdiction of drugs and undocumented immigrants.[18] Finally in 1991, Marines erected a barrier of corrugated steel plates along 12 miles of the California border.[19]

The historical separation of police and military authority on the border ended in 1981 with several amendments to the Posse Comitatus Act. These amendments relaxed proscriptions against using military equipment and personnel for civilian law enforcement.[20] Since then, the extensive use of cross-designation, and the transfer of authority mandated by statutes from one agency to another, have expanded police powers and diminished differences between law enforcement agencies at all levels. Cross-designation permits warrantless searches and arrests for suspected violations of federal, state and local laws alike.The Immigration Act of 1990 for the first time authorized the INS to make arrests for any violation of federal law.[21]

Fanned by drung and xenophobic hySteria, the borderlands have become, in effect, a “deconstitutionalized” zone. The constant unabridged exercise of police authority has come to be viewed as necessary for effective law enforcement and national security. Existing judicial interpretations construe constitutional standards and protections narrowly; when government interest in law enforcement is weighed against the rights of border residents––citizens, immigrants and refugees––the scales come down heavily on the government’s side.

The civilian population of this geographical area, unlike any other in the nation, is subjected regularly to surveillance, check-point stops, routine questioning, searches, arrests and detention. This routine presence of various police, paramilitary and military forces increases the likelihood that the rights of border residents will be infringed; many already have come to accept improper law-enforcement actions as an ordinary part of life.[22]

This intense scrutiny is not new to the borderlands. The present contours of the border dividing Mexico and the United States were drawn as a consequence of wars and conquest in the mid-1840s.[23] Wanton acts of violence left a legacy of hatred between the two peoples. Mexicans engaged in armed uprisings against Anglo society. The Anglo-American political system legitimated police repression and gave law enforcement bodies like the Texas Rangers license to kill Mexicans. The stationing of armed troops and federal authorities to subdue the Mexican population in border areas was common practice well into the twentieth century.

The Immigration Act of 1924 created the Border Patrol to control the entry of people and vehicles along U.S. land borders; 400 agents, many of them ex-Texas Rangers, were placed on the southern border to detect, apprehend and deter members of excluded nationalities, such as the Chinese.[24] In 1929, illegal entry became a misdemeanor violation of federal immigration laws.[25] As the volume of Mexican immigrants increased in response to the expanding labor market, immigration agencies concentrated personnel and resources on the southern border.

Today, 94% of Border Patrol apprehensions take place in communities along the border between the United States and Mexico. Ninety percent of those apprehended are Mexican nationals. The communities most affected are San Diego (42% of arrests), El Paso (20.3%), Laredo (10%), and McAllen, in the Rio Grande Valley (7%).[26] Within these areas, the INS patrols primarily Mexican-American neighborhoods. In their search for undocumented people, Border Patrol officers come in contact with millions of citizens and legal residents. Not surprisingly, of the approximately 18.5 million people the Border Patrol questioned in 1987, they arrested only about 1.2 million for immigration violations.[27]

The climate of persecution is heightened by the grave risks that migrants run. Bodies of the drowned are frequently recovered from the Rio Grande and Tijuana River.[28] Migrants run the risk of serious injury and accidental death as they attempt to board moving trains, cross busy interstates, walk through unknown deserts or barren lands, or hide in suffocating vehicle compartments. Private individuals also take advantage of undocumented immigrants. Migrants along the border are frequent victims of theft and physical assault.[29]

More serious is the threat possed by individuals driven by an ideology of racial superiority. In a note to a human rights activist, a skinhead group calling itself the Warboys wrote: “We don’t want any more greaseballs coming up here illegally... the whiteman is going to act determined to stop you in your tracks.”[30] In San Diego County, gangs of white supremacists have, since 1988, regularly beaten, attacked, robbed, and with paint-bullets, shot Mexican immigrants. Since then, at least four, Mexicans––including 12-year-old Emilio Bejínez Jiménez––have been shot to death by racist vigilantes in the San Diego area alone. In one incident, two middle-class white teenagers who “didn’t like Mexicans” shot and killed two farmworkers in Del Mar, California with a semiautomatic rifle; both victims were legal residents.[31] As late as April, 1990, U.S. immigration authorities denied that these groups existed even though a Fox TV show, “The Reporters,” on two different occasions in February, 1990 filmed Border Patrol agents stopping groups of teenagers engaged in war games, and cautioning them about “chasing beaners.”[32]

The Immigration Law Enforcement Project of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has over the last five years documented hundreds of incidents of abuse of authority and violation of rights, due to improper field enforcement practices by the agencies engaged in immigration policing in five targeted areas: San Diego, Tucson, El Paso, the Rio Grande Valley and Southern Florida.[33] In AFSC’s most recent bulletin, 392 individuals reported suffering 1,274 abuses during a two-year period; that is, individuals suffered an average of 3.2 abuses per incident. Incidents ranged from verbal abuse resulting in emotional stress to unjustified shootings resulting in death.

The largest number, 28% of reported abuses, were psychological or verbal; in these cases, immigration authorities used racial or ethnic insults, rude or abusive language, threats or coercion, or engaged in prolonged or aggressive interrogation techniques when confronting people they believed had violated immigration laws. An extreme example involved two Guatemalan men who alleged that during an interrogation at the Falfurrias check-point in South Texas, Border Patrol agents forced one of them to sign a statement admitting to smuggling after the agents repeatedly threatened to harm them will a flashlight and cattle prod. (The Guatemalans sued to damages.) According to a former Border Patrol agent these techniques are used to dehumanize border crosser: in the same manner “the enemy” is dehumanized in time of war. “It is easier to shoot them if they are gooks,” he said. “You do it for psychological protection.”[34]

Incidents of physical abuse, some of which ended in death, were the second most common type of abuse accounting for 22% of those reported. Particularly alarming is the increasing use of deadly force in immigration policing. In 1990, 90 shooting incidents were reported by the INS; 78% tookplace on the southern border.[35] In these incidents, five civilians were killed and six were wounded only two agents were wounded during these violent confrontations. The use of deadly force, however, is not limited to firearms. Vehicles are often used to pursue an run down suspects onfoot. A dramatic case was that of 14-year-old Luis Eduardo Hernández, killed on August 20, 1989 when he was struck by a Border Patrol four-wheel-drive vehicle west of the San Ysidro port of entry in California. His family was recently awarded $50,000 by a court unconvinced by the agency’s allegation that the vehicle was traveling at 15 miles per hour.[36]

Others reported the use of excessive physical force during arrest and detention, including sexual assaults, kicking victims during pat searches, striking victims with a variety of instruments and pushing them against a series of objects.

Significantly, of the abuses reported by victims 17 years old or under, 36.5% resulted in serious bodily injury, including death 15% higher than the average for all victims.[37] Undocumented Mexican male teens are most likely to experience this violence. Juveniles accounted for three of the seven deaths. Besides causing physical and verbal abuse, immigration agents often transgressed a guaranteed legal right. About 16% of the 1,274 reported abuses were illegal or inappropriate searches (including questioning based solely on ethnic appearance, entry without search warrant or consent, strip searches without proper motive and illegal law-enforcement raids). Fourteen percent were violations of due process (failure to advise of legal rights or eligibility for statutory benefit, denial of counsel, or fabrication of evidence). Eleven percent were illegal or inappropriate seizures of people (unlawful temporary detention, false arrest or illegal deportation). Four percent were unlawful seizures or destruction of property such as immigration documents or passenger vehicles. Three percent were violations of the rights of Native Americans allowed by treaty to cross the border freely.

These incidents of exclusion, unlawful arrest and illegal deportation of residents of the southern border––including arrests of U.S. citizens whose language, culture and skin color make them appear “foreign”––are evidence of the high social cost of border control. Immigration law is enforced selectively and discriminates overwhelmingly against Latinos. Of the 367 victims identified by the AFSC whose ethnicity is known, Latinos comprised 91.3%. In addition, a disproportionate number of victims (50.6%) were legal residents. Moreover border policing is focused on the Mexican-origin population (70.3% of victims), including U.S. citizens of Mexican descent (13.6%). This ethnic group bears the brunt of the encroachment of human and civil rights. All those who died as a direct result of improper enforcement of immigration law during this period were Mexican citizens.[38]

These incidents have led to tensions in U.S.-Mexico relations. During 1990, two joint committees of the Mexican Congress––Bordcr Affairs and Human Rights––held separate hearings on the status of human rights of Mexican migrant workers in the United States. Violence by U.S. immigration authorities at the border was a topic of primary concern. Officials of the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs testified that over 75 diplomatic notes to the U.S. State Department protesting these types of incidents had gone unanswered.[39]

The November 1990 shooting of a 15-year-old boy by a Border Patrol agent in Calexico, California caused public outrage in Mexico. The Mexican government sought to extradite the Border Patrol agent for trial in Mexico, citing the U.S. policy of immunity toward Border Patrol agents regardless of evidence of wrongful conduct.[40] At a meeting between Presidents Bush and Salinas in Monterrey, Mexico that same month, the Mexican government placed the issue of unjustified shootings of Mexican nationals by the Border Patrol on the agenda for discussion. Both heads of state issued an order to create a bi-national ad hoc committee to begin exploring remedies. Continuing incidents of border violence prompted the Mexican Chamber of Deputies to pass a resolution in May condemning the United States for the mistreatment of Mexican nationals. Since then, the ad hoc committee has met twice in Washington, D.C.[41]

The persistence of human rights violations by immigration law enforcement agents is partly due to the lack of an adequate system of officer accountability.[42] For the most part, however, the problem is rooted in the inequitable power relations between solitary undocumented immigrants or refugees and authorities who act abusively with the support of both the government and public opinion.

Policy-makers opted to deal with the complex socioeconomic problems of international migration and the illicit drug industry as issues of law enforcement. “Casting such massive social and political problems [in this light],” say AFSC staff members, “is a recipe for disaster and is grossly unfair to immigration officials...”[43] Respect for the dignity and integrity of all people on the U.S.-Mexico border is unlikely to be achieved until relations among nations evolve to the point where the freedom to cross international boundaries is recognized as a fundamental human right.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR María Jiménez works at the Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project of the American Friends Service Committee in Houston.

NOTES 1. Nogales International Brendan Fitzsimmons, “Border Agent Held in Fatal Shooting,” June 17, 1992. 2. Arizona Daily Star, Laura Brooks and Leon Lazaroff, “Border Agent Denied Bond in Fatal Shooting,” June 20,1992. 3. Fitzsimmons, “Border Agent Held.” 4. Mark Gibney. “United States Immigration Policy and the ‘Huddled Masses’ Myth,” Georgetown Immigration Law Journal, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Fall 1989). 5. Vernez & Ronfelt, “The Current Situation in Mexican Immigration”, Science, Vol. 251 (1991), pp. 1189, 1990. 6. National Council de la Raza. ‘The Hispanic Population 1990; a Chartbook Snapshot,” (July 199 1), Washington, D.C. 7. With the exception of Nicaraguans, U.S. authorities viewed most Central Americans as not having valid asylum claims; many were thus expelled for unauthoriized entry. United States Bureau of the Census, “Current Population Survey,” 1991. 8. Southwest Voter Research Institute, Information Packet: Conference on the North American Free Trade Agreement (Tucson, Arizona: April 4, 1991). 9. Timothy Dunn,”The Militarization of the U.S. Mexico Border, 1978-1990: Low Intensity Conflict Doctrine Comes Home,” (Master’s Thesis, University of Texas at Austin, November 1990). 10. Houston Chronicle, “Arsenal of Weapons Used in War on Drugs,” December 4, 1988. 11. Dunn, “The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border.” 12. Ibid. 13. Ibid. 14. In 1990, the Defense Department provided Border Patrol agents with “training pertaining to small-unit tactics, patrolling, map reading, land navigation and other areas of expertise.” Ibid. 15. Miriam Davidson, “‘Can Soldiers Stop Drugs?’ Militarizing the Mexican Border,” The Nation (April 1991). 16. Ibid. 17. Dunn. “The Militarization of the U.S. Mexico Border.” 18. Ibid. 19. San Diego Union, Ernesto Portillo, “Border ‘metal wall’ stirs anger in Mexico,” Sept. 2, 1991. 20. U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, The Border War on Drugs: A Report (1987). 21. U.S. Congress, Immigration Act of 1990, Public Law 101-649. 22. For documentation of instances of improper law enforcement actions see American Friends Service Committee, Sealing Our Borders: The Human Toll (February 1992). 23. Roldofo Acuna, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, Second edition (New York: Harper and Row, 1981). 24. Edwin Harwood, In Liberty’s Shadow (Stanford, California: Hoover Institute Press, 1986). 25. Ibid. 26. Report of Chief Patrol Agent, San Diego Border Patrol Sector (San Ysidro, California 1986). 27. “Principal Activities and Accomplishments of the Border Patrol, Fiscal Year 1981-1987,” 1987 Statistical Yearbook of the INS. 28. Data from Centro de Estudios Fronterizos y de Promoción de los Derechos Humanos, A.C. Reynosa Tamaulipas (July 1991). 29. A study of 23,406 undocumented Mexican immigrants found that 3,208 or 13.7% had been assaulted upon crossing into the United States; almost a third of the assaults occurred in the TijunaSan Diego area. Ironically, sometimes bi-national law enforcement task forces formed with the intent of protecting people from bandits have also engaged in violent behavior. The Border Crime Prevention Unit in San Diego, for example, was dissolved in 1989 amidst allegations of unjustified shooting deaths of at least 18 Mexican undocumented immigrants during a five-year period, National Commission for Human Rights, Report on Human Rights Violations of Mexican Migratory Workers on route to the Northern Border, crossing the Border and upon entering The Southern United States Strip (Mexico City: 1991). 30. Miriam Davidson, “Immigrant Bashing: The Mexican Border War,” The Nation (November 1990). 31. Ibid. 32. Ibid. 33. American Friends Service Committee, First, second and third reports of the Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project. May 1988, March 1990, February 1992. 34. American Friends Service Committee, Sealing Our Borders. 35. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, “INS Firearms Policy: Audit Report,” Sept. 1991. 36. American Friends Service Committee, Sealing Our Borders. 37. American Friends Service Committee Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project, “The Littlest Catch: A Special Report,” November 1991. 38. American Friends Service Committee, Sealing Our Borders. 39. Edward Cody, “Violence Rises Against Illegals,” The Washington Post, December 11, 1990. 40. Ibid 41. Document of Conclusion of the II High Level Meeting on Border Violence Issues, Washington D.C., May 27, 1991. 42. Several government reports in the last three years have attempted to highlight different aspects of the problem within the INS, U.S. Custums and the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General. See Semi-annual Report to Congress, Office of Inspector, General Department of Justice, April to September 30, 1991; U.S. General Accounting Office, Immigration Service; INS Resources and Service in the Miami District, Washington, D.C., September 1990; “Immigration Management: Strong Leadership and Management Reforms Needed to Address Serious Problems,” Washington, D.C., January 1991; “Border Patrol: Southwest Border Affected by Mission Expansion and Budget,” Washington, D.C., March 1991; General Accounting Office Report, GAO/GGD-89-43, “Internal Investigations Customs Service Needs Better Service”; U.S. Senate General Services Sub-Committee on Government Operations Study on Deficiencies of Inspector General Systems, September 1990. 43. Testimony of AFSC staff members María Jiménez and Roberto Martínez, “Allegations of Violence Along the United States-Mexico Border,” Hearing before the Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Reparesentatives, April 18, 1991.

Tags: US immigration, Border Patrol, war on drugs, US-Mexico Border, border violence

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