The Shelving Units of Border PolicyPosted: September 23, 2014
“All illegal aliens are migrants, but not all migrants are illegal aliens…” A Border Patrol agent of the Nogales Sector of Tucson, giddily paused, and with a sharp glint in his eye, asked, “did you get that?” assured that none of us would. This was his example of questions asked for the Border Patrol logic test, an exam that removes 20% of the candidates for the job, according to the agent. This attempt to stump us and impress us with the intellect required for his job left me feeling more unsettled than anything else. All I could think was, “they have duds in charge of people’s lives.”
The agent was overjoyed to have us visit. He felt that after speaking with him, we would understand the hard facts about Border Patrol, and would serve as agents to discredit any and all rumors regarding the operation. “We get blamed for a lot of stuff we don’t do. Usually, it wasn’t us, it was Customs, the guys who are dressed in blue when you cross the ports of entries. We’re in the same family, but they are not Border Patrol, they just operate under the same policies that we do.” Twice, our host agent asked me if my perception of Border Patrol changed after visiting, to which I respectfully said, “no.”
After explaining to us the intensive vetting process Border Patrol agents undertake, I asked the agent if potential agents are questioned regarding their stance on immigration. A sharp, “No, what does that have to do with anything?” was his response. Later, when he told me the greatest misconception people have of him as a Border Patrol agent is that he hates Mexicans, I asked again if he thinks it should be a part of the vetting process for agents to state their stances on immigration. The agent couldn’t wrap his head around the intersection between immigration policy and the individuals he dealt with on the job, almost as if the interactions he had with migrants were merely manifestations of directions in a textbook. Perhaps the agent could separate his perspective on immigration from the job, but he is one of thousands of agents whose personal feelings could obstruct their objectivity on the border.
But was there ever objectivity to begin with? As we walked through the halls of the Border Patrol facility, we were surrounded by posters glorifying agents, accompanied by inspirational quotes. One poster truly grabbed my attention, asking agents, “They worked out today, did you?” This I found unsettling because ‘they’ referred to a picture of prisoners in orange jumpsuits doing pull ups, blatantly criminalizing the migrants that agents encounter on the job. Not only that, but in the facility filled with posters of white Border Patrol Agents and run by a mostly white taskforce, this poster exclusively portrayed non-white inmates, pushing the lines of criminalization and ‘otherness’ to match a clearly imposed racial hierarchy.
Let’s talk a bit about criminalization. Our host agent took the time to show us a picture montage of agents wounded by rocks thrown over the border wall, attempting to convince us that these rocks constituted ‘deadly force,’ backing his story up with a tale about a man killed by a deluge of oranges in South Africa. The Border Patrol receives billions of dollars in technology and weaponry (you can find the budget here), and they focus on thrown rocks? I’m sure they could have created a montage of gory pictures after officers tripped over their own feet or accidentally shot themselves; would clumsiness constitute deadly force along with oranges?
Our host agent also explained to us about something called a ‘Consequence Delivery System’, where migrants experience jail time and where multiple crossings over the border constitute a felony. Migrants could be sent to jail for up to 20 years and face bonds of $10,000. From my experience taking missing migrant calls at the organization Coalición de Derechos Humanos, I know that family members often call in missing migrants who are not lost in the desert, but lost in this Consequence Delivery System, locked away in some unknown detention center for an unknown period of time.
Before facing their punishments, migrants are held in a holding cell at Border Patrol for up to 24 hours, where many have claimed human rights abuses occurred as a result of their treatment by immigration officials. When we visited this holding cell, the agent assured us that the migrants are properly fed and taken care of. I looked around to find several officers in plainclothes, which he said is to provide a less intimidating presence for the migrants. However, contrary to our host’s assurances, the Tucson organization of No More Deaths published the report “A Culture of Cruelty,” (you can find at this link the culture of cruelty) documenting the abuses by the hands of Border Patrol against migrants. This holding cell did not assure me of the humanity of Border Patrol, but rather struck such deep fear in me that not only did human rights abuses transpire, but such abuses occur under the watch of several agents. Border Patrol, with its numerous cameras and officers, must on many levels approve of migrant abuses for them to happen.
The agent talked a bit about the Central American child migrants who came through, explaining how heart wrenching it was for him, but then, like the other migrants, he put them “on their shelf” in his mind so that he could sleep at night. He said once he was so aggravated by the flow of migrants that he went on a rant about the “damn illegals,” to which his boss yelled at him, “They’re human, Agent” He said it was a good reminder, but laughed and declared that it was better for them to be on a mental shelf regardless.
In the process of migration, there’s dehumanization on so many levels on both sides of the border. After visiting Border Patrol, we went to the site of Repatriación Humana in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico for deported Mexican migrants. I asked an officer there about how his perception on Mexico has changed through his work. His response was that many of his friends and family don’t understand why he would want to work for “those smelly migrants,” but that through his work, he learns about where they come from, about the aspects of his own country that more financially stable Mexicans don’t care to know. The dehumanization of Central American migrants in the eyes of Mexicans is even worse, so much so that Mexico initiated a ban of Central Americans on their trains.
With the number of migrants passing through Mexico, stopping in Altar, Sonora and continuing on to Nogales, Sonora, it is hard to think of these individuals as more than numbers. It is hard to not put these individuals on mental shelves in order to sleep better at night. Even with my own work on locating missing migrants at Derechos Humanos, I often have to remove myself from the sting of knowing that each failed call to a detention center could mean a death in the desert or a person lost in the delivery of consequences. Migrants are human, they have families, escape horrific conditions, and are thrust into a state of limbo. These individuals deserve to be considered as humans, and nothing less. As I write this blog, I find myself falling into the ‘us/them’ mentality, viewing migrants’ situations as something removed from my own reality. But I pay taxes for the skewed system that controls migrants’ lives. I vote for the government that criminalizes and dehumanizes so many. And am I myself dehumanizing migrants through viewing them as heart wrenching stories and abuses; does this in essence keep me from viewing migrants as equal to myself? Could the humanistic, ‘savior’ mentality be just as damaging as anything else?
In Altar, to wrap up our trip, we stayed at a migrant shelter, the safe haven for those looking to escape the realities of a town owned by drug cartels, where those who enter and leave are closely monitored, and people are treated as commodities, not as humans. Many of the migrants with whom we dined had family in the US, some looked less than 15 years old, and all were lovely, lovely people. We heard stories of economic displacement, civil wars, and gang violence. Hanging on the walls were posters warning about the treacherous journey, and a cross made from clippings from an Excel spreadsheet of migrant deaths. In a room of 50 migrants, only two were women, perhaps the bravest of them all. 80% of women are raped on their journey through Mexico, and even the nuns at the shelter spoke of the need for contraceptives to prevent pregnancy while crossing. I was floored by these individuals’ faith and commitment to their families. When I asked if they were afraid, not one said yes. As one migrant put it, you either cross because the conditions are so dire where you live or because the needs of your loved ones are so strong. Either way, he said, there is no room for fear, only faith.
These were not the felons depicted in the Border Patrol posters. These were not the smelly, good-for-nothing individuals the family of the Repatriation officer described. These were not people to put on a mental shelf to make the day a bit easier. As we drove the two hours back to Nogales, I cringed at the fact that the migrants we met would walk through the same harsh terrain with the burdens of their dehumanizing past and future weighing on their back, and their fate determined by officers like the Agent we spoke with. As I got further and further from Altar, I struggled to tear down the new “Altar” shelf appearing in my mind.