The Impossible, Costly Dream: Border Security

In the wake of the passage of the Corker-Hoeven amendment in the U.S. Senate, last week's sentencing of the Villareal borthers, former Border Patrol agents, on corruption-related charges, is a vauable reminder of the elusive nature of so-called border security.

Joseph Nevins 6/26/2013

U.S. Border patrol agents in Nogales, Arizona. Credit: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty ImagesThere is joy in official Washington—at least in the quarters dedicated to what is called comprehensive immigration reform (CIR): on Monday, hours after President Barack Obama urged support, the U.S. Senate approved the so-called Corker-Hoeven amendment by a vote of 67-27, thus making CIR’s eventual passage significantly more likely.

Among other things, the amendment to the Senate’s version of CIR, the bill authored by the so-called Gang of Eight, requires an almost-doubling of the U.S. Border Patrol—to 40,000 agents; 38,405 of which are to be stationed in the U.S-Mexico borderlands. (In 1994, when Operation Gatekeeper was launched in southern California, there were about 4,200 agents nationally.) It also requires military-like surveillance, includi

In addition, the amendment obligates the federal government to complete 700 miles of what is euphemistically called fencing along the Mexico-U.S. divide—this less than one week after Obama gave a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and asserted that “it is citizens whose choose to be defined by a wall or to tear it down.”

The cost of all this: approximately $40 billion over the next decade or so. The goal: the ever-elusive dream of “border security.”

The sentencing of two brothers last week in a federal court in San Diego demonstrates both the poverty and impossibility of that dream.

On June 21, Fidel and Raul Villarreal received sentences of 30 and 35 years, respectively, for human smuggling, bribery, conspiracy, and money laundering. According to the federal government, the two of them helped to smuggle a large number of migrants from Mexico and Brazil into the United States while working as Border Patrol agents in the San Diego Sector.

Somehow alerted to the fact that the Department of Homeland Security was monitoring their activities, the two brothers quit the agency and fled in 2006 to Mexico. Eventually, they were discovered, arrested, and extradited to the United States. Until his retirement, Raúl served as the spokesperson for the Border Patrol in San Diego. He also frequently participated as an actor playing a smuggler in commercials for broadcast in Mexico warning would-be migrants of the dangers of trying to cross the boundary extralegally.

Since 2004, more than 150 border enforcement agents have been charged with corruption-related offenses in what the San Diego Union-Tribune calls “an epidemic of misconduct that has tarnished the agencies.”

Given the lucrative nature of cross-boundary smuggling, the frailty of human beings, the strong familial ties and romantic relationships that transcend the boundary, and the impossibility of fully reducing people to police and the policed, there will always be holes in the boundary control apparatus. In this regard, “security” of the type envisioned in the corridors of power will always remain elusive.

The passage of the Corker-Hoeven amendment is a stark reminder of the need to put an end to an insatiable boundary and immigration policing industrial complex, one whose feeding is strongly tied to the growing impoverishment of the state’s ability to provide for true human needs. In these dark times in which we find ourselves, it is more urgent than ever to resurrect old forms of security that rely on ties of social solidarity that transcend territorial boundaries, to imagine new ones, and to struggle to bring them to life.



Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Among his books are Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights/Open Media, 2008) and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2010). For more from the Border Wars blog, visit Now you can follow it on Twitter @NACLABorderWars.

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