Opinion

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.
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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

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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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