On the Border Between Two Americas

Border-patrol surge brings enforcement without accountability, putting politics ahead of people.

Fernando Garcia is the executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights based in El Paso, TX.
National Journal
Fernando Garcia
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Fernando Garcia
March 26, 2014, 5:41 a.m.

When Amer­ic­ans think about our south­ern bor­der with Mex­ico, the first thing that comes to mind for many is, sadly, a law­less, desert re­gion filled with drug run­ners and smug­glers. This ca­ri­ca­ture of the bor­der per­vades the minds of many who live far from the re­gion and cer­tainly the polit­ic­al dia­logue that ex­ists in Wash­ing­ton today.

The real­ity is that our bor­der com­munit­ies are quint­es­sen­tial Amer­ic­an com­munit­ies. They are among the safest cit­ies in the coun­try. We are di­verse in our pop­u­la­tions and in­nov­at­ive in our ap­proach to eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment and en­tre­pren­eur­ship; in many ways, we provide an in­sight in­to the fu­ture of the United States. In a re­port my or­gan­iz­a­tion re­cently re­leased, “The New El­lis Is­land: Vis­ions From the Bor­der for the Fu­ture of Amer­ica,” loc­al law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials af­firm that “the crime rate in bor­der counties is lower than in non-bor­der counties and crime levels have been de­creas­ing for years.”

Still, politi­cians con­tin­ue to per­petu­ate the im­age of a law­less bor­der re­gion to jus­ti­fy a con­stant in­crease in bor­der en­force­ment. They have suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing the largest law-en­force­ment agency in the United States. In ad­di­tion to re­cord num­bers of bor­der agents, re­cent en­force­ment surges have fun­ded bor­der-se­cur­ity strategies that lack fo­cus on the real threats to our na­tion, while fail­ing to de­liv­er much-needed re­sources to our ports of entry. Even as bor­der cross­ings dropped drastic­ally dur­ing and after the re­ces­sion, we’ve seen a massive in­crease of “boots on the ground” with in­suf­fi­cient train­ing and very little ac­count­ab­il­ity. As a res­ult, bor­der com­munit­ies have seen in­creases in ex­cess­ive “use of force” and civil-rights vi­ol­a­tions in­volving res­id­ents and mi­grants alike.

At the end of Feb­ru­ary, a re­port com­mis­sioned by U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion to re­view its “use of force” policy and prac­tices was leaked to the press. The re­port, writ­ten by the Po­lice Ex­ec­ut­ive Re­search For­um, con­cluded that CBP agents reg­u­larly pro­voke in­cid­ents that res­ult in the deadly use of force. It also noted there is a “lack of di­li­gence” in the in­vest­ig­a­tions after use-of-force in­cid­ents oc­cur.

For those of us who live in bor­der towns and cit­ies, these rev­el­a­tions about the bor­der patrol come as no sur­prise. We star­ted or­gan­iz­ing ourselves 15 years ago to make sure that our voices are heard by those in Wash­ing­ton who set these policies. The polit­ic­al con­ver­sa­tion can’t seem to get away from “how much” bor­der patrol. We’d like to start talk­ing about “what kind of” bor­der patrol this coun­try needs.

But we haven’t waited for Con­gress to take ac­tion. Bor­der Net­work for Hu­man Rights has cre­ated a “Mod­el of En­gage­ment with Law En­force­ment” that has en­abled our loc­al bor­der-patrol sec­tor — which stretches from West Texas and in­cludes all of New Mex­ico — to make some of these changes ad­min­is­trat­ively.

This com­munity ca­pa­city is not the case in every bor­der-patrol sec­tor. What needs to hap­pen to make bor­der patrol more ac­count­able? We’ve held com­munity meet­ings and talked with bor­der res­id­ents across many states. We’ve learned what’s work­ing and what’s not.

Here’s what we found. First, bor­der of­ficer train­ing must em­phas­ize “use of force” com­men­sur­ate with the situ­ation. And agents must be cer­ti­fied in the use of less-than-leth­al weapons. This could save lives on the bor­der each year. Next, bor­der-agent train­ing must em­phas­ize de-es­cal­a­tion tech­niques, so that in­cid­ents like rock throw­ing, which of­ten res­ult in the use of leth­al force, can be man­aged more hu­manely. Fi­nally, there must be more in­tern­al su­per­vi­sion and ac­count­ab­il­ity for agents who vi­ol­ate these policies.

These sug­ges­tions won’t trans­form the bor­der re­gion over night, but they are an im­port­ant place to start in restor­ing ba­sic due pro­cess. For­tu­nately, there is grow­ing bi­par­tis­an sup­port for these types of changes. Two mem­bers of Con­gress from bor­der dis­tricts re­cently an­nounced that they are work­ing to­geth­er to ad­dress the is­sues re­vealed in the leaked PERF re­port. Reps. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., and Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, are in the fi­nal stages of craft­ing a bi­par­tis­an bill that in­cludes many of the solu­tions we’ve ad­voc­ated for and as­pires to cre­ate a bor­der en­force­ment sys­tem that val­ues ac­count­ab­il­ity and over­sight. The bill will be in­tro­duced this week.

As we pre­pare the fight to get it passed in Wash­ing­ton, those of us who live and work at the bor­der will con­tin­ue to chal­lenge the bor­der ste­reo­types and to de­vel­op clear solu­tions to the prob­lems that oc­cur when bor­der-patrol ex­cesses go un­checked.

In the mean­time, we hope these ad­vances will not only make bor­der com­munit­ies even safer but also strengthen the ba­sic pro­tec­tions we all value as Amer­ic­ans.

Fernando Gar­cia is the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Bor­der Net­work for Hu­man Rights based in El Paso, Texas. Fol­low BNHR on Twit­ter at @bnhr


The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial ef­fects of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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