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Stop Securing the Border and Start Valuing Migrants’ Lives

Border enforcement isn’t just a counterproductive waste of taxpayers’ money. It’s also lethal.

A helicopter patrols the US-Mexico border near Campo, California, May 17, 2007. (Photo: Qbac07)

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US billionaire and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is not the only politician intent on barricading the southwestern border of the United States. Calls for “regaining control of our border” are commonplace in US political discourse, routinely repeated by both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. The most recent proposal for “comprehensive immigration reform” is a good example. The bill, which passed the Senate in June 2013 but was blocked by House Republicans as “dangerously liberal,” included provisions for doubling the current number of Border Patrol agents and adding $30 billion to the border enforcement budget over the next ten years.

Border enforcement was actually a major cause of the very phenomenon it was supposed to prevent.

The general public overwhelmingly backs these calls for more enforcement. While a survey the Pew Research Center conducted in May found respondents generally supportive of immigrants – 72 percent said undocumented people now living here should be allowed to stay – 80 percent thought “a lot” or “more” could be done to reduce unauthorized immigration at the borders.

This support continues despite a complete lack of evidence that an increase is necessary or that it would be effective – or even that there’s an actual “crisis” of people crossing the border. What the facts show, on the contrary, is that the current policy is expensive and counterproductive and needs to be rolled back.

The Buildup on the Border

The US government began stepping up border enforcement in the mid-1980s. There were a total of 2,268 Border Patrol agents in 1980; by 2012 the Border Patrol had funding for 21,370 agents, nearly 10 times as many as 20 years earlier. The Border Patrol’s annual budget was $263 million in 1990; by 2014 it had jumped thirteen-fold to $3.6 billion. The Border Patrol is only one part of Customs and Border Protection, the agency that handles border enforcement; Customs and Border Protection’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2015 was $13.1 billion, nearly twice what it was just a decade earlier.

When politicians demand a border wall, they fail to note that the US had already built 651 miles of fencing as of February 2012; the estimated cost of the fence’s construction and its maintenance over the next 20 years is $6.5 billion. When they demand a “crackdown” on border crossing, the politicians don’t mention that the government has been imposing criminal sentences on border crossers since 2005; the program, code-named “Operation Streamline,” had processed 208,939 people by the end of 2012. While it’s hard to estimate the total bill for Streamline, it could be costing us as much as $300 million a year just through the increase it has created in the federal prison population.

It seems fair to ask what this massive border build-up has accomplished. In fact, for most of the time that border enforcement was being stepped up, the number of undocumented immigrants in the country was increasing dramatically; the unauthorized population tripled between 1990 and 2008, from 3.5 million to 11.9 million.

“Defense industries” – both US and Israeli – have been busily pitching weapons, vehicles, helicopters, drones and various science-fiction devices for the border.

Academic studies explain why this would happen. The University of California San Diego’s Center for Comparative Immigration Studies has found that border enforcement is a deterrent, but not a very strong one for people considering their first trip into the United States. Migrants and potential migrants surveyed in southern Mexico said they were aware of the harsher enforcement measures at the border but that this wasn’t an important influence on whether they decided to leave for the north.

On the other hand, while border enforcement doesn’t do much to keep undocumented immigrants out of the United States, the studies indicate that it has been very effective at keeping them in once they arrive.

Reasons for Decreased Migration

Before the increase in border security, the flow of migration from Mexico – the main source of unauthorized immigration – tended to be circular. Many migrants from Mexico would work in the United States a few months each year and then return home with extra cash. When border crossing became riskier and more expensive in the 1990s, migrants were more likely to settle down here, and they often sent for their families to join them. In other words, border enforcement was actually a major cause of the very phenomenon it was supposed to prevent.

But the trend has now reversed. The number of apprehensions on the border has fallen to its lowest level in 20 years and is continuing to fall: during the first half of this fiscal year (from October 2014 through March 2015) the rate was down 28 percent from the same period the year before.

Increased border enforcement also means increased incarceration for immigrants, and this means more business for the private prison industry.

Enforcement advocates claim this is chiefly because of their policies, but the statistics don’t support this. The state of the US economy is almost certainly a more important factor. The rate of border crossings over the past quarter century has regularly fluctuated, according to the employment rate in the United States, with dips during the 2001 recession and then a larger decline starting in 2007 as the housing boom collapsed and construction jobs disappeared. The job market has remained weak since then, despite a technical recovery from the 2007-2009 recession.

But the most important factor, according to a study in the International Migration Review in November 2014, has been the aging of Mexico’s population, the result of a dramatic decline in the country’s birth rate over the past 40 years. There’s less border crossing simply because there are fewer members of the younger demographic that has tended to fuel immigration in the past. The study’s authors concluded that the United States “spent $35 billion in constant dollars on border enforcement between 1970 and 2010 in a vain effort to bring about a decline in undocumented migration that was already built into Mexico’s demography.”

Corporate Investments in Increased Border Enforcement

If border enforcement has been such a colossal failure, why do US politicians constantly call for more of it?

One obvious reason is that border enforcement is quite profitable for powerful business interests. In September 2006, for example, the Boeing corporation won a contract worth an estimated $2.5 billion to set up the “Secure Border Initiative Network” (SBInet), a web of new surveillance technology and sensors with real-time communications systems. After spending $1 billion on this “virtual fence,” the government scrapped the project in January 2011, saying it “does not meet current standards for viability and cost effectiveness.”

The growing number of Border Patrol agents translates to more guns and other equipment, and the “defense industries” – both US and Israeli – have been busily pitching weapons, vehicles, helicopters, drones and various science-fiction devices for the border. This is especially important as the US military reduces its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. “So as the wars are winding down, we’re trying to find more applications for this technology here in the US,” a division manager from the Applied Research Associates firm explained to the Huffington Post in April.

Increased border enforcement also means increased incarceration for immigrants – Operation Streamline is one example – and this means more business for the private prison industry. In the decade leading up to 2013, just three of these companies poured out some $45 million in various lobbying efforts. Recipients of funds from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the country’s largest private prison company, include such rabidly anti-immigrant Republicans as Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin.

Amped-up border anxiety has political uses as well. As Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey, an expert on immigration patterns, remarked to Truthout in an email, “Politicians find the symbolic trope of an ‘invasion of illegal aliens’ too useful to give up.” Xenophobic and irrational fears of invasion, violation and disease from foreign and dark-skinned people have historically provided a good tool for distracting the US population from the real failures of the political system.

Sometimes this exploitation of border fears turns farcical. In August 2014, Georgia Republican Phil Gingrey, then a member of the House of Representatives, suggested that Central American minors might be carrying the Ebola virus. Gingrey, formerly a practicing physician, apparently didn’t know that no Ebola cases had ever been reported in Latin America. But there’s nothing funny about claims from people like Donald Trump and right-wing columnist Ann Coulter that immigrants are rapists. These slanders appeal to the same part of the national psyche as white racists’ fraudulent rape charges against African Americans, the rationalization for thousands of lynchings in the 19th and 20th centuries and, most recently, for Dylann Roofs murder of nine worshippers at an historic African-American church in June.

The Real Border Crisis

Can anything be done to counter the widespread acceptance of the “securing our border” narrative?

“Someone – a prominent politician or journalist – has to say that the ’emperor has no clothes,'” Prof. Massey suggests. “[I]llegal migration from Mexico is over and will not be coming back.” But activists can do a lot on their own, both by informing the general public and by putting pressure on politicians and reporters, in the same way that LGBT activists have turned public opinion around in ways few people thought possible even a decade ago.

One important step would be for immigrant rights activists to stop viewing border enforcement as a bargaining chip that can be exchanged for broader legalization of undocumented immigrants, as has happened in mainstream immigration reform proposals like the 2013 bill. “You have to inoculate the broader movement against trading away the border,” Bob Libal, executive director of the nonprofit organization Grassroots Leadership, said in a phone interview.

Border enforcement isn’t just a counterproductive waste of taxpayers’ money; it’s also lethal.

Above all, we need to remember that border enforcement isn’t just a counterproductive waste of taxpayers’ money; it’s also lethal. A quarter century’s buildup on the border has forced would-be crossers to take more dangerous routes through the Southwest’s deserts and mountains. At least 5,607 people died while attempting to enter the country between 1994 and 2008, mostly along these new, riskier routes. University of California, San Diego professor Wayne Cornelius has noted that the death toll at the border just in the decade from 1993 to 2003 was more than 10 times as high as the number of people killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall in its 28-year history. The deaths have continued even as the rate of border crossings fell: an average of 360 people died this way each year in 2010 and 2011.

This is the real border crisis, and we shouldn’t be able to sleep comfortably at night as long as we know that an irrational enforcement policy is killing hundreds of human beings each year for the supposed crime of wanting to get a job or to reunite with friends and family.

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