Visiting many of the organizations that work on border issues, it was made evident that after 9/11 policies and views on immigration changed. And in my opinion, for the worse. We made tighter security, higher penalties, more intensive means to keep people out including “prevention by deterrence” (build a wall and make them go into dangerous territory which acts like its own wall). Also billions of dollars to keep all this up Multi-billion dollar dirt road anyone? We must add on to that amount the high tech cameras, heat sensors, increased personnel, and price to incarcerate and deport.
Furthermore, the language surrounding immigration and our southern neighbors is negative and hurtful, we hear and say things like ‘Stealing jobs,’ ‘illegal alien/entrant,’ ‘wetbacks.’
It wasn’t always so negative and rejected; there are so many factors that shape our discussions of immigration. Take a look at what it used to be like with Reagan and Bush back in the 80s. I can’t imagine a debate about immigration sounding like that today.
We had the opportunity to tour the Douglas sector’s Border Patrol Station, led by a very kind woman named Kary.* She probably knew by our group’s affiliation we would be a tough humanitarian type group. We did ask many questions, stemming from bias based on our lived experiences in MX as well as documentaries and books we’ve read, but we were respectful and appreciative of the time and patience she gave us.
Kary is one of 18 females in the 600 person border patrol station. She lives in Douglas, loves her son, and belongs to generations of border patrol agents and military. You could say it runs in her blood. She had a nervous energy about her but was genuine with us and we appreciated that.
During her presentation and the station tour we learned about what the BP station highlights as its main purpose: keep drugs out. There were statistics showing this area of the border is known for its marijuana smuggling, and that this station is responsible for stopping many attempts at smuggling drugs into the US, or 747,000 pounds of marijuana in 2015. It’s their goal, their mentality.
However, we asked of all the arrests made, how many people are drug mules? How many arrests are related to narco-trafficking? Her response, we were told no to quote her on, was about 5%. Of course it makes sense that they push the idea of saving the the US from drugs (though we buy them, we’re addicted to them, we create the demand and we punish those who supply us). That gets people revved up and in support.
Kary told stories of the good works agents do in the field. They save lives of dehydrated migrants, migrants in labor, and lost migrants who will be on the verge of dying soon. These are important stories to balance the ones of migrants shot in the back and killed by a BP agent (who claimed he was scared for his life… as the migrant was fleeing him), of BP agents shooting up and thus destroying water tanks (which is illegal now) or when agents bring in helicopters to create dust to scatter groups migrants in hope of catching a few. The rest, lost and disoriented, are handed over to the fate of the desert.
Legally, the Department of Homeland Security is not allowed to be militarized because the military and army “are trained to kill people.” The border is not a war zone, it’s part of civil society. Migrants, the large majority, come with little to nothing and are non threatening. However, seeing the quazi-militarization of the BP station and the amount of firearms the agents carry seem to contradict that.
The above photos show a patrol truck with spaces to bring back arrested migrants, the photo on the right is an agent arresting a group of migrants (also in the hallway of the station). Migrants are only allowed to be detained in the station for 72 hours. They are kept in cold holding cells– answers for why ranged from “our air conditioning in this building is wacky” (though this is true nationally, poor answer) to reasons for disease and odor control. There have been advances in the blankets given, from aluminum blankets to cloth ones. We were not able to see the holding cells because a group of migrants had been arrested the night before (when we were in the same desert). They have stopped showing held migrants because it present a zoo-like situation.
In the past, border patrol agents in border towns were part of the community. They would give rides to people they saw crawling through the fence, pick them up to bring them home after their family engagements. There are stories of convivencia, coexisting and living together that warm my heart. Volleyball games over the fence. Days where they took the fence down and had a festival with both towns together. These are all memories of the mayor in Douglas, who grew up there.
Now, tensions are high. BP agents are paid more to live outside the community, taking away large economic support. Agents’ language requirements to become fluent are inadequate, leading to miscommunication that almost always end badly for the misunderstood who are not in a position of power. BP agents are treated with disdain by bitter community members, just as BP agents treat the community members with disdain. The barriers in relationship are palpable and destructive. For more humanity to be shown in BP agent and community/migrant interactions, realizing both are loving, hurting, scared, and otherwise emotional human beings is crucial. Throwing up walls and stories of evils done only serves to break up what has been and could be a beautiful thing– international community.
I believe the tour was good for me because I now truly believe there are good BP agents out there, moral ones and ones who don’t act like they are military and are not racist against the people they deal with daily. I want to thank Kary for that. But it was also important for me because it showed me that the system and laws that are put in place from far off people in Washington DC who likely have never spent much time on the border or in border towns. The disconnect is real. I don’t have the answers, but I did see that what is happening now is not a good solution.
No matter how many border patrol agents we send out, no matter how many walls we build, or how much technology we install in the desert, people are still crossing. There has been no prevention or decrease in those numbers (from MX yes, but including Central Americans, no). It’s just that now the danger and mistreatment is higher.