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Both Parties Have Turned the Border Wall Into a Death Trap

Decades of bipartisan policies have turned the border into an ugly and dangerous laceration.

A member of the Texas National Guard watches over the border wall between Mexico and the United States, on December 23, 2023.

Both Parties Have Turned the Border Wall Into a Death Trap

Decades of bipartisan policies have turned the border into an ugly and dangerous laceration.

A member of the Texas National Guard watches over the border wall between Mexico and the United States, on December 23, 2023.

This January, U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson and around 60 Republican legislators held a press conference in Eagle Pass, Texas, accusing President Joe Biden of creating a security crisis along the border. Lambasting Biden’s policies on immigration, Johnson asserted without evidence that the president has allowed extremists to cross the Rio Grande and “set up terrorism cells.”

By contrast, he praised the “deterrence efforts” of Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas), who installed a floating wall in Eagle Pass on the Rio Grande. The formidable network of buoys and serrated metal plates now snakes along the river dividing the U.S. and Mexico. A military contractor, Cochrane Global, built the wall, and authorities have found corpses lodged around the barrier.

Both Johnson’s press conference and the floating ramparts are political gestures in an increasingly acrimonious debate. Yet an unspoken consensus underlies the partisan rhetoric. In Fiscal Year 2023, the Biden administration deported over 142,000 immigrants. And federal authorities continue to partner with Mexico and local law enforcement to apprehend migrants — including police departments with a consistent pattern of racial profiling and civil rights violations.

In reality, both Republicans and Democrats have promoted the militarization of the U.S. Southwest for decades, framing immigration as a security issue, while enlisting foreign allies and military contractors in an ongoing offensive against migrants. These policies fuel unimaginable levels of violence, turning the border into an ugly and dangerous laceration.

Defending the Color Line

Racist violence has always distinguished the immigration bureaucracy and its deterrence strategies. Founded in 1933, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) helped engineer the deportation of 2 million people of Mexican descent— including many U.S. citizens — in response to the Great Depression. At the time, elite powerbrokers demonized migrants to divide the working class and thwart pressure for reform. During World War II, the INS even swept 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps, dramatizing the racist logic driving immigration policy. In a decision with inescapable symbolism, the INS recycled wire from one internment camp to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border in 1945.

Throughout the Cold War, the agency lacked the bureaucratic heft and financial resources to formally remove undocumented immigrants. Instead, policy makers relied on securing “voluntary departures,” intimidating migrants into leaving through detainment and mass propaganda — including Operation Wetback in 1954, a heavily publicized deportation drive that frightened tens of thousands into exiting the country.

The historian Adam Goodman reveals that officials favored deterrence policies that made deportation a uniquely wrenching experience. For years, the INS packed immigrants into squalid and overcrowded boats headed for southern Mexico, in order to make the trip as long and traumatic as possible. An official investigation in 1956 justified the inhumane conditions, claiming that Mexicans lived “in general not much better than animals.” Ship deportations ended after passengers on the Mercurio mutinied that year, igniting a public scandal for both countries.

Undocumented crossings peaked after the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 established quotas on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. The INS depicted Mexicans as the quintessential “illegal aliens,” a racist stigma reflected in its two categories for apprehension statistics: “Mexicans” and “Other Than Mexicans.”

While declaring an “immigration crisis,” the bureaucracy remained notoriously corrupt and incompetent. Goodman writes that Border Patrol officers beat and shot migrants, separated children from parents, raped women in custody and even pushed civilians off cliffs before portraying their deaths as accidental. “It’s so bad I don’t know how corrupt it is,” a Department of Justice official confided. “What we’re frightened about … is what we don’t know.”

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter nominated the first Latino INS commissioner, Leonel Castillo, to clean up the agency and give it a humane face. But his promotion attracted the racist invective of colleagues, who met reforms with resistance. Reports described agents “openly rebelling” against Castillo, calling him “that wetback we have for a commissioner.”

War on Refugees

The immigration debacle peaked in the 1980s, as President Ronald Reagan deported refugees from civil wars in Central America that his administration escalated with military aid. Federal authorities cracked down on human rights advocates, church leaders, and other members of the Sanctuary movement offering safe haven to migrants. The journalist Ross Gelbspan concluded that the FBI kept files on over 100,000 critics of Reagan’s policy, while breaking into churches and activists’ homes. FBI Executive Assistant Director Buck Revell called their illegal tactics “a plumbers’ operation,” comparing them to the Watergate scandal.

The Reagan administration even tolerated the presence of death squads in the United States, including the vigilantes who kidnapped the Salvadoran activist Yanira Corea in 1987. Assailants forced Corea into a car in Los Angeles at knifepoint. They then raped and tortured her.

In such cases, U.S. investigators routinely dragged their heels, while maintaining ties to death squad leaders. The FBI also helped Salvadoran authorities locate government critics. As a result, many refugees suffered the same fate as Corea. The American Civil Liberties Union studied the cases of 154 Salvadoran deportees, concluding that 52 were killed, 47 disappeared, seven arrested and five detained as political prisoners upon return.

Meanwhile, the United States turned El Salvador into the third largest recipient of military aid. In one interrogation manual, U.S. instructors notably encouraged Central American soldiers to target “religious workers, labor organizers, student groups, and others in sympathy with the cause of the poor.”

In many ways, Reagan-era interventionism reflected the contradictions of immigration policy. The border was always a color line that determined the racial composition of the country, excluding people of color or reducing them to undocumented and expendable labor. Yet at the height of the Cold War, U.S. officials were deporting civilians their policies had already displaced from Central America. Rather than a defensive barrier, the border wall was a weapon in a war against refugees.

Reluctant Allies

Ultimately, the refugee crisis inspired a wave of restrictive legislation. In 1994, the United States under the Clinton administration not only inaugurated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico, but launched Operation Gatekeeper, turning the steel from Vietnam War-era helicopter pads into fencing along the San Diego border. The INS monitored the region with night vision equipment, flood lights, electronic sensors, and other cutting-edge hardware. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 cemented this punitive approach by undermining due process for migrants and boosting funding for law enforcement. By 2000, Border Patrol had more officers licensed to carry weapons than any other federal agency besides the military.

Following the 9/11 attacks, officials used the “global war on terror” to frame immigration as a security issue, while turning the INS’s successor, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), into one of the largest government agencies. In particular, policy makers promoted “externalization,” outsourcing the work and costs of immigration control to other countries. Between 1997 and 2001, U.S. authorities trained 45,000 foreign officials across the globe to stanch undocumented migrant flows.

Yet Mexico and Central America remained the focus of attention. Ironically, NAFTA spurred record levels of immigration. Again, policy backfired, as the influx of U.S. agriculture displaced farmers, and rural communities lost residents to the pull of the United States economy. By the mid-2000s, 96 percent of Mexican municipalities registered international migration patterns.

Under U.S. pressure, local officials turned Mexico into the “vertical border” of the United States. Beginning with Plan South in 2001, Washington subsidized local security initiatives, while casting the military as a bulwark against immigration. Above all, U.S. policy makers helped beef up Mexico’s border with Guatemala, arguing that national defense “begins 1,500 miles south” of the Rio Grande. Over the past decade, the Mexican Navy established 12 bases and three security cordons in the region. And the results are striking: Since 2015, Mexico has deported more Central Americans than the United States. The International Crisis Group calls it “an operating arm of U.S. immigration control.”

In 2019, the Trump administration compelled President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to further curb border crossings by threatening to freeze trade and throttle the Mexican economy. That January, the United States launched “Remain in Mexico,” which allows DHS to send asylum seekers to Mexico while processing their applications. The policy places refugees in a country with staggeringly high rates of violent crime. A 2022 report by Amnesty International counted over 109,000 disappearances in Mexico since 1964, and Human Rights Watch has documented over 800 attacks against asylum seekers. Massacres against migrants are commonplace: Investigators famously found 268 corpses in mass graves in San Fernando, and later, discovered 49 abandoned torsos in Cadereyta.

Despite his stirring leftist rhetoric, President López Obrador has mobilized tens of thousands of military personnel along Mexico’s borders. Between September 2020 and June 2021, soldiers participated in 82 percent of migrant apprehensions. CNN footage captured National Guard members plowing through immigrants with plastic shields. Likewise, Biden expanded “Remain in Mexico” to apply to all asylum seekers from the Western Hemisphere, while prioritizing cooperation with Mexican law enforcement. In essence, the United States outsources the dirty work of immigration control to Mexico, using the country as one big wall, while projecting its sovereignty far beyond the Rio Grande.

Walls as Weapons

Besides foreign partners, the United States relies on the military-industrial complex to fortify its frontier. Increasingly, arms makers manufacture both border walls and the wars that advance them. Lockheed Martin exports defense technology to immigration agencies around the world, and its sibling Leidos calls border patrol a “really strong area for us.” Ghost Robotics produces robotic dogs that can police the U.S.-Mexico border. Its latest model carries a remote-controlled sniper rifle on its back.

Yet Israel’s biggest arms maker, Elbit Systems, best illustrates how walls function as weapons. Elbit participated in the infamous Secure Border Initiative Network, which DHS canceled in 2011 due to cost overruns. The Government Accountability Office found 1,300 defects in the security system, which cost nearly $1 billion dollars yet covered only 53 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border.

Elbit then won a $145 million contract in 2014 to build a 55-tower network along the same stretch of land. The project sliced through Tohono O’odham territory, desecrating Native burial grounds. Residents assert that they now live under “apartheid.” Wielding Israeli technology, Border Patrol agents have assaulted locals, deployed pepper spray, entered homes without warrants and shot two Native civilians. In response, Indigenous activists have visited the Middle East to study the effects of Elbit towers on Palestinian land, uniting the struggle against colonialism in both countries.

And the connection could not be clearer. Israeli corporations such as Elbit and Magal Security advertise their products as “field-proven” on Palestinians. “Anybody can give you a very nice PowerPoint,” Magal Security emphasizes, “but few can show you such a complex project as Gaza that is constantly battle-tested.” In 2017, Elbit became the lead contractor for a subterranean wall around the strip that stretches 40 meters underground, making escape from the besieged territory virtually impossible.

Like the United States, Israel uses walls as lethal weapons. The overwhelming majority run across occupied territory annexing Palestinian land, including a 708-kilometer barrier that the International Court of Justice deems illegal. After Israel attacked Gaza this October, Elbit celebrated a “considerable increased demand” for its products. In recent months, over 25,000 Palestinians have died behind Israel’s moving walls.

Beyond arms makers, DHS hires defense consulting firms to devise policy. One leading contractor, McKinsey, encouraged the department to “cut or reduce standards” to save money.

Its advice is disturbing because the heavily militarized immigration bureaucracy already has a record of rampant abuse. The Kino Border Initiative has reviewed 78 migrant complaints against DHS officers, finding that 95 percent concluded without a proper investigation. In an affidavit, a former senior official admitted that Customs and Border Protection leadership was “reluctant to hold agents … accountable,” even “if they were involved in criminal activity.” DHS records reveal that officers have forged the signatures of immigrants to expedite deportations, assaulted civilians, solicited sex from detainees and molested children in custody.

In one case, an agent threatened to send an Honduran asylum seeker “to a jail where they were going to rape him,” unless he signed paperwork. The report’s conclusion is terse: “This applicant was in fact raped.”

Nonetheless, conservatives argue that authorities should return to the hardline rhetoric and policies of Trump, who believes that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.” On January 5, Gov. Greg Abbott underscored that he was doing everything except “shooting people who come across the border, because of course, the Biden administration would charge us with murder.” Two weeks later, a woman and two children drowned in Eagle Pass — where his floating wall divides the Rio Grande — after Texas blocked federal access to the area.

Yet Democratic mayors are also cracking down on migrants. Liberal cities such as Chicago are suing bus companies that transport them, while housing arrivals in frigid and unsanitary shelters. A 5-year-old boy, Jean Carlos Martinez, died this winter after staying at a migrant center in the Pilsen neighborhood with visibly sick children and a leaky roof. He suffered from a high fever and diarrhea for days before receiving medical attention.

As the humanitarian crisis worsens, both parties blame each other for the policy impasse, while caving to nativist pressure. Gearing up for the 2024 elections, Republican and Democratic governors have even sent National Guard units to the border to appear tough on immigration.

Despite claims of humanitarian intent, the wall they are expanding is a weapon. It is also a monument to amnesia, keeping out refugees that U.S. interventionism and global capitalism displace: a mirror that flatters builders by concealing the damage they inflict on the other side.

The author would like to thank Sarah Priscilla Lee of the Learning Sciences Program at Northwestern University for reviewing this article.

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