A Culture of Separation: Border Patrol

Alien: A creature from another galaxy. Something different. Not human. An unknown.

Alien: A term used by Border Patrol for people without papers from other countries that shows the disconnect from humanity, accountability, and context that often exists in Border Patrol and among its agents.

Separation is the word that sticks with me the most after visiting the Border Patrol station in Nogales. Both of the agents we talked to as well as Border Patrol policy convey that people crossing the border are other than human; calling people aliens and illegals reinforces this state of mind. Calling someone illegal implies that one type of person is the wrong type of person while another is the right type of person. Border Patrol literally values US citizen lives over migrant lives. For example, when we visited Border Patrol and asked about expenditures the agents replied using a hypothetical situation of a dirty bomb killing a US citizen; “wouldn’t you spend six million dollars to save a life? Isn’t any amount of money worth saving a life?” Yet this logic applied only to the lives of US citizens. Millions of dollars a year are spent funneling people without papers into the most dangerous parts of the desert. The same millions spent to save the life of an American citizen are also spent to kill non-US citizens in the desert. Prevention Through Deterrence, a border strategy, increased border spending, heightened surveillance, and closed down urban areas of crossing, making people cross through the most dangerous parts of the desert. This relies on the mortal danger of the desert, high death rates, and tales of gruesome death to de-incentivize people from crossing.

Border Patrol’s refusal to remember migrants who have died further illustrate their failure to recognize migrant’s basic humanity and their devaluing of migrant peoples lives. A plaque of Border Patrol agents who died in the line of duty, or more commonly driving to and from work, is the first thing you see walking into the Border Patrol station. Since Border Patrol’s founding in 1924, roughly a hundred agents have died nationally. In Border Patrol school, each agent in training has to learn the story of someone who died. Juxtapose this with hundreds of people who die in the desert each year as a result of Border Patrol policy and action. These people’s stories aren’t learned. Their faces aren’t displayed. They are simply numbers that fit into categories like illegal, alien, and Other Than Mexican- words that agents use to describe the people they apprehend. Border Patrol policy and mentality addresses non-U.S. citizens as people whose lives don’t have value or narratives.

This theme of separation and devaluing life is magnified in the lack of agents accountability for their actions. Appropriate action in a given situation is “all based on the officer’s perception.” Thus, if a person doesn’t respond to an agent’s vocal commands because they don’t understand English, the officer is authorized to use whatever force they deem necessary. If a person grabs a rock, the situation has escalated enough for an agent to use deadly force. When we questioned these policies, we were told “that’s above my pay grade.” Agents follow orders. A daily separation between thought, action, and effect is the normal function of Border Patrol. Officers are conditioned not to question; they are taught the policy governing their actions is not their business.

Causes of migration seemed irrelevant to the daily operations of Border Patrol although they are incredibly interconnected; action is void of a larger context. When asked what dialogue existed at Border Patrol about root causes of migration, the agents giving us the tour responded “that’s not in my pay grade.” Yet, there are direct correlations between US involvement in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala with immigration/refugee rates. The United States has supported and supports violent pro-US regimes that force people to flee for their lives. Examples include Rios Montt in Guatemala, Manuel Noriega in Panama, and the current Honduran government. United States’ free trade agreements such as NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement passed in 1994) and CAFTA-DR (the Dominican Republic Central American Free Trade Agreement) prioritize US corporate investment and production while undoing subsidies and tariffs that protect small businesses in foreign nations. These agreements prioritize big US businesses over everything else. This makes it very difficult for subsistence farmers and local business to survive consequently promoting people to search for livelihood elsewhere. Both NAFTA and CAFTA-DR have provisions where companies can sue host governments for interfering with profits. US international policy plays a large role in promoting immigration; if the goal is to actually slow immigration, US foreign policy needs to be addressed.

Border Patrol policy on the border itself and in the US is also void of reality. As the border is increasingly militarized, crossing becomes more difficult necessitating people to use cartel infrastructure. A militarized border means that billions of dollars worth of military equipment and technology is used on the border, and the Border Patrol prides themselves on functioning similarly to the military. Consequently cartels are the ones that have the resources to smuggle humans across the border. Thus US Border Policy stimulates the very cartels the US government says they want to fight. Furthermore, the rationale of protecting US jobs and livelihood is not backed by fact. Numerous studies (for example: http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/high-school/top-10-myths-about-immigration) have shown that immigrants contribute to the economies they live in through purchasing power. Most immigrants pay into Social Security, but do not receive Social Security benefits.

At Border Patrol I witnessed a very real border between action and reality. Root causes, context for migration, and humanity are not viewed as pertinent to daily border policy. By defining migrants as illegals and aliens, border policy, and consequently the agents enforcing policy, separate people crossing the border from humans thus legitimating inhumane treatment.

-Caela B.


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