by Ashleigh Bugg
I counted the number of military vehicles and police cars as my sister and I drove through the dry desert hills near Del Rio, Texas. The area is a diverse ecological region at the conjunction of the Chihuahuan Desert, the Texas Hill Country, and the Tamaulipan Brushlands of northern Mexico.
I lost count after 20, a number that included MRAPs–Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected–a type of vehicle with lightweight composite armor, usually reserved to protect against landmines and roadside bombs. We passed through our fourth Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint of the day, careful not to speed, while reading the sign on the back of a parked RV that advertised CBP’s Instagram and Twitter accounts. We assured a pair of armed agents that we were US citizens and were headed a few miles down the road to camp at Devils River State Natural Area. The agents didn’t ask us for identification but waved us through, one with apparent boredom, the other with friendly nonchalance.
I remembered my parents’ stories of childhood trips across the border to Ciudad Acuña—Del Rio’s sister city—where my mother once bought a pair of tennis shoes with zippers that she loved and still remembers to this day. Now, the same boundary that families once crossed with relative ease is policed by roughly 20,000 border patrol agents with a budget of over $4.8 billion in 2021 alone.
This militarization of the border began with policies in the early 1990s and has increased exponentially in recent years, alongside political debates about migration and border security.
“The border has become an imagined war zone…an area where the U.S. constitution has little to no value, a post-constitutional territory that expands across the country,” writes the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Today, the US government seems faced with a momentous task: pass comprehensive immigration reform that makes it possible to safely and legally migrate, no matter your nationality.
Past governments across the last few decades have been unable to create an efficient or stable path to residency or citizenship. Clinton-era policies led to detrimental funding and resources. The Bush administration created a government agency that has been under investigation for sexual assault and forced sterilization of migrants. Obama was nicknamed the “Deporter-in-Chief” and expelled millions of immigrants during his time in office. During the more openly racist rhetoric of the Trump administration, border communities were devastated as largely ineffective “walls” were built over wildlife refuges and private property, in a continuation of the 2006 Secure Fence Act.
To understand the acceleration of border militarization, it’s important to first examine the conception of the US–Mexico border, the birth of Border Patrol, and the formation of border control strategy. Many today may also be unaware of the connection between the current immigration crisis and the aftermath of September 11, 2001, which led to the creation of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, more commonly known as ICE.
The concept of the US–Mexico border
From the conception of the US-Mexico border in the early 1800s, migrant workers have traveled back and forth, daily or seasonally, to work in the United States. In fact, many families have long histories of traveling between the neighboring nations. When you talk with lifelong Texans, they recall family trips to Mexican cities like Matamoros with fondness and nostalgia.
But despite a long history of movement, the US-Mexico border has had some form of patrol from its inception. Violence has also occurred throughout the border’s history, with patrols forcibly removing Indigenous peoples from their native lands, capturing escaped or freed persons under the Fugitive Slave Acts, and targeting Indigenous Mexicans and Mexican Americans to deter Mexican immigration to the US in the 1910s. However, although tension has existed since its beginnings, the border was not always located nor regulated as it is today.
“Before World War I, we had virtually open borders,” said historian and professor Mae Ngai in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “You didn’t need a passport. You didn’t need a visa. There was no such thing as a green card.”
Before 1924, an estimated one million immigrants arrived in the United States annually, contributing to a rapidly expanding labor force. However, this changed with the National Origins Act of 1924, which led to new protocols for immigrant relations. The legislation created visa requirements and a quota of just 150,000 admissions per year, adding to existing policies that were aimed at limiting Asian immigrants.
In the same year, the US government created the federal Border Patrol force. Border Patrol has evolved over the decades, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that a more formal border control strategy was born.
The ineffectiveness of NAFTA and the Clinton administration
To combat unrest and fear following a recession in the early 1990s, along with gaining support for the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, President Bill Clinton promised that, through NAFTA, there would be “less illegal immigration because more Mexicans will be able to support their children by staying home.”
The effort was supposed to bring economic prosperity, eventually create millions of jobs in the United States, and help Mexico become “equal trading partners” in the process. But NAFTA had the opposite effect for the region, as one million Mexican workers lost their jobs in the agreement’s first year alone, and many were forced to cross the border to look for work.
With the signing of NAFTA, came the first formal border control strategy. These initiatives claimed to diminish unlawful entry “by deploying many more agents at the border, installing electronic surveillance… and erecting border infrastructure, such as fences and stadium lighting,” according to the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
However, the strategy only succeeded in forcing people to take more dangerous pathways across unforgiving terrain. It did not reduce the number of people escaping violence, economic hardship, or political persecution. Rather than preventing people from entering perilous situations, it created a demand for human smugglers and an increase in deaths of those seeking refuge and asylum, many of whom today come from Central American, Caribbean, and African countries.
Post-9/11 and the invention of ICE
US Customs and Border Protection, or Border Control, is not the only entity that contributes to the militarization of the US–Mexico border. In recent years, ICE has become a staple of news reports and heated political debates. But the agency is actually relatively new, and was created after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“It’s important to remember that ICE has really only been around since 2003,” explained assistant professor of history Dr. Brianna Nofil in a webinar on viewing the immigration crisis through a historical lens.
The beginnings of the agency that we now call ICE was formed in the bureaucratic restructuring that led to the creation of the US Department of Homeland Security and the passing of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. A response to 9/11, the legislation’s purpose was to “ensure a homeland that is safe, secure and resilient against terrorism and other hazards,” according to the DHS website.
ICE’s mission consists of an ill-defined but expansive set of agency powers that, according to their website, focuses on protecting “America from the cross-border crime and illegal immigration that threaten national security and public safety.” This ambiguity in the language is partially by design; a lack of clarity in ICE’s protocol and priorities makes the agency extremely flexible and able to be used by various political agendas of both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Nofil says it’s challenging to explain ICE’s protocols because their work isn’t only carried out by ICE agents. Local law enforcement, an array of federal contractors, private prison companies, and private prison employees who number in the tens of thousands all have vested economic interests in aiding ICE and CBP in their work.
After criminal justice reforms reduced the amount of people held in private prisons, private prison corporations needed a new source of income, which they found in detained immigrants. Private companies like GEO Group and CoreCivic stand to generate millions in annualized revenues from government contracts, contributing to prison design, custody and confinement, and tracking and monitoring people after they are freed.
Transport and tech companies also gain millions from lucrative government deals. In 2012, IT company Unisys received a $132 million contract to build the first pedestrian border crossing in El Paso, Texas. Since 2004, ICE has awarded over 250 contracts that include Microsoft services, totaling billions of dollars and often handled by intermediary company, Dell.
Border militarization has steadily expanded in cost, intensity, and force. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the US spends more on federal immigration enforcement than “on all other principal federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined.” The majority of government funding for border securitization flows to private security and technology corporations including Boeing Company, Raytheon, and Elbit Systems, many of whom contribute financially to local politicians and government officials.
Without clearly defined standards, the US government continues to pour money and resources into the various agencies and for-profit companies that militarize the border. It’s estimated that the government spent $100 billion on border “enforcement” in the first decade after 9/11 alone.
Has militarization kept border communities safe from criminal activity?
The main argument for border militarization is that it will deter criminal activity and keep US cities safe. However, whether this goal has been or will be achieved is yet to be confirmed. Although ICE’s initiatives were originally created to identify and apprehend dangerous criminals, its policies and partnerships with CBP and local law enforcement have essentially morphed into indiscriminate aggression against immigrants in general.
The agency has come under investigation in recent years for inhumane conditions in its for-profit detention centers; sexual assaults, abuses, and deaths of detainees including children; and forced sterilizations of women held in detention. Detention centers are also being investigated for holding children down for “forcible injections” of “powerful antipsychotics and sedatives,” according to news source KTLA. The centers have been criticized for unsanitary conditions that have exacerbated the spread of the coronavirus, leading to multiple detainee deaths.
Pumping money, weapons, and personnel into border policy doesn’t seem to have the desired effect of contributing to the apprehensions of dangerous criminals or deterring gang activity. It also does not stop people from seeking asylum or better opportunities for their families. According to a systematic analysis by researchers from Princeton and the University of Guadalajara, “the unprecedented militarization of the Mexico-US border not only failed in its attempt to reduce undocumented migration but backfired by increasing the rate of undocumented population growth.” The analysis concludes with the argument that “more border enforcement and a denial of social and economic rights to those currently out of status, makes absolutely no sense in practical or moral terms.”
The future of surveillance, immigration, and border policy
Today, many liberal-leaning groups are relieved that Trump and openly anti-immigrant staff members like Stephen Miller have been removed from office. However, immigration activists, lawyers, and residents who remember the ongoing escalation and surveillance of past Democratic and Republican administrations remain skeptical. And the Biden administration’s continuation of Trump-era policies well into his presidency, including Title 42, which suspends the US-recognized right to seek asylum and expels migrants without due process, have human rights groups calling for urgent and drastic change.
According to the Migrant Justice Platform, the Biden administration should address border policy in several tangible ways, including decoupling all federal immigration enforcement from local law enforcement. Biden ran for president on the promise of ending for-profit immigrant detention, and activist groups insist he must work to stop family detention and end all federal detention contracts with municipalities, private detention, and tech companies.
The government should also stop testing and investing in dystopian military equipment including so-called “robot dogs”—the autonomous ground drones that look like something out of an episode of Black Mirror—currently being deployed at the southern border.
Finally, groups are calling on the government to create an intergovernmental task force to review or dismantle existing DHS agencies, beginning with ICE. They should demilitarize and restructure CBP, enact a stand-alone border demilitarization bill, and establish a Truth, Reunification, and Reconciliation Commission to address family separation, migrant deaths, and white supremacist violence in border communities.
New bills have been introduced for immigration reform, and a possible path to citizenship for certain immigrant communities was included in a recent budget reconciliation bill that was never realized. However, what most legislative measures don’t fully address—and what they may even exacerbate—are the policies of past administrations that have led to the detention, deportation, and even deaths of millions.
As soon as my sister and I left the CBP checkpoints and re-entered the Texas Hill Country, the number of police and military personnel also decreased. It was a peaceful moment. We were able to take in the sheer beauty of the desert we were leaving, while looking forward to returning to the part of our country without a mass of agents and armored vehicles.
Rather than spending billions of taxpayer dollars on patrolling this “imagined war zone,” the government should work toward rebuilding and reconciliation with the communities who have been creating, coexisting, and collaborating in these borderlands for centuries.
Ashleigh Bugg is a writer, editor, and linguist. She is particularly interested in migration issues, the revitalization of endangered languages, and making travel equitable for all. You can find her work and say hello at Travel Bugg.