A Climate of Hate: How Border Militarization Is Getting Deadlier

Crosses that represent those who die trying to cross the US / Mexico border are displayed in a memorial on the border fence separating the United States and Mexico. (Photo: Daniel Lobo)Crosses that represent those who die trying to cross the US-Mexico border are displayed in a memorial on the border fence separating the United States and Mexico. (Photo: Daniel Lobo)

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The impact of President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies is already being felt far and wide. His presidency raises acute concerns for US-Mexico border communities, communities that have been experiencing what sociologist Timothy Dunn has described as a “low-intensity conflict” since the late 1970s.

Those who would be among the most affected by President Trump’s proposed border wall are the people who live, work, go to school and build families and community along the 2,000-mile-long stretch. We must remember that the border is not just a site of passage but also a place of residence. These are communities that have already witnessed the growing technologies and weaponry, border agents and buildup of the last 20 years — realities that impact their everyday lives.

Two Decades of Increasing State Violence

In what may be the biggest contradiction of the global market, just as capital and goods were able to freely cross national borders with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, migrant bodies became increasingly policed under the Clinton administration’s “Operation Gatekeeper” along the San Diego/Tijuana corridor and “Operation Hold the Line” in Texas.

In 2010, border agents at the San Ysidro Port of Entry beat and discharged a Taser multiple times on Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a long-time San Diego resident, which led to his untimely death. In 2012, a border agent standing behind the border fence in Nogales, Arizona, shot and killed 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, who was walking along a sidewalk in Nogales, Sonora. The agent claims he acted in self-defense against rock throwers on the other side. When Trump supporters chant “Build the wall, build the wall,” are they imagining the heightened tensions that will affect the lives of border dwellers?

While politicians and bureaucrats in Washington attempt to draw up support for the $25 billion wall and further militarization of the border with Mexico, researchers have shown that since the Great Recession, more Mexicans are leaving the US than arriving.

From a human rights perspective, the border wall and the actions of the US government surrounding its construction have been criticized for violating several international norms, including the rights of Indigenous peoples, the right to private property and the right to non-discrimination. Moreover, the wall has serious long-term environmental effects that were neither investigated nor addressed properly by the US government. In 2008 alone, 36 federal laws were waived thanks to the REAL ID Act of 2005, “to ensure the expeditious construction” of border barriers and roads. Of course, the public does not hear about this in the national or international mainstream media, nor does it recognize the wall itself as illegal due to these violations.

Furthermore, the “unintended” consequences of border militarization along previously heavily trafficked areas in Southern California and Texas have funneled migrants into the deadly Sonoran Desert. This has led to an increase in deaths, with statistics showing that migrant deaths have doubled in the last 20 years. In fact, advocates accuse the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) of using the desert as a weapon against migrants, as well as sabotaging humanitarian aid efforts and discriminating against migrants during emergency responses.

Border Policing Is Becoming Even More Militarized Under Trump

The CBP is already one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world — and the current administration’s pledge to gut social services and other domestic programs in order to fund another massive infusion of money into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other law enforcement agencies. This has set off red flags for advocates worried about an increase in the well-documented human rights abuses committed by agents. DHS Secretary John F. Kelly is doing little to temper fears with his ill-conceived plan to separate children from their parents in order to deter would-be migrants and asylum seekers.

It is clear that the CBP is already being rewarded for its early endorsement of a presidential candidate who made national headlines for his anti-Mexican rhetoric after he described Mexican immigrants as rapists “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime.” The remark was just one of many examples of the toxic rhetoric he used during the campaign to garner support, spread misinformation and paint himself as the only man capable of “saving” the US from the perceived invasion of Brown bodies swarming across allegedly porous borders.

Since becoming president, Trump has not only orchestrated financial concessions to CBP, but also has paid the agency back by giving agents greater leeway in determining priority for deportation. They have done so, in part, by broadening the definition of “criminal aliens” to include those whose sole transgression is their immigration status. During the first five years of the Obama administration, immigration agents were given similarly low bars to clear in determining priority, but that eventually changed thanks to the immense pressure put on the administration by youth activists and their allies.

The story of Guadalupe García de Rayos, the Phoenix-area mother of two US citizen children who had lived in the US for 22 years, was one of the first signs of what immigration enforcement will look like under the new administration. García de Rayos was detained and deported in February, torn from her family and community, because President Trump’s executive order on immigration made her into “the worst of the worst” due to a conviction for using a fake Social Security number in order to gain employment nine years ago.

Not even President Trump’s supposed “soft-spot” for DREAMers has kept recipients of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals from being detained — like Daniela Vargas, Josué Romero and Daniel Ramirez Medina. Although Vargas’ release from detention on March 10 was welcomed news, Vargas remains in legal limbo in what researchers call the “nightmare of abjectivity.” The immigration raids terrorizing immigrant communities across the country remind us of the fear and terror of the repatriation of the 1930s and “Operation Wetback” — moments of a not so distant past.

The Tohono O’odham Nation has vowed to resist President Trump’s border wall. Artists, activists and faith-based communities throughout the country have similarly declared resistance by creating spaces of love, humanity and defiance by welcoming those persecuted by President Trump’s policies and rhetoric. The question remains: How will people of good conscience continue to support and grow the resistance to the fear-mongering and unrelenting attacks on immigrant, refugee and Indigenous communities? How will we respond with urgency to these attacks, but also strategize for the long haul and in ways that make connections among the many communities under attack by the current administration and the growing climate of hate in the United States?