November 2008, Washington, D.C.
A new policy report by three U.S. border human rights groups in collaboration with the Washington, DC-based National Immigration Forum is full of important concerns and good intentions, but falls woefully short as a policy document.
Those who support a liberal immigration policy that includes legalization and ends the terrorizing raids on communities and workplaces badly need expert analysis and policy recommendations based on grounded perspectives of what’s happening at the border.
This report, however, is driven more by a set of progressive politics and dogmas than by timely, informed analysis.
What’s truly stunning about the report, which purports to convey the view of borderlands residents about the “dynamic” border, is its one-sidedness. You wouldn’t know from reading the report that on the other side of these interconnected borderlands is complete mayhem.
Despite noting the important cross-border ties that exist, it’s as if the problems of “security,” issues of “responsibility,” and abuses of “human rights” – the report’s three focus areas -- stop at the line.
The report warns, for example, about the dangers of the “militarization” of U.S. border control. Yet on the other side of the border militarization isn’t an exaggeration. It's all too real as the Mexican military, drug cartels, armed street bandits wage what verges on civil war.
Effective Border Policy: Security, Responsibility, and Human Rights at the U.S.-Mexico Border, publicly released at a DC press conference on Nov. 19, is best appreciated as an expression of concern about the federal government’s programs to control the border and about human rights violations by U.S. law enforcement officials, particularly the U.S. Border Patrol.
“By failing to recognize and affirm fundamental civil and human rights,” states the report, “U.S. immigration policies and efforts to ‘secure’ the southern border have had dire human consequences, from the ever-increasing tally of migrant deaths on the border to the systemic violation of the civil and human rights of border crossers and those living in border communities.”
Certainly, there are human rights issues involved in the Department of Homeland Security’s “Secure Border Initiative,” and the human rights perspective on border policy is to be expected given the human rights focus of the involved borderlands organizations -- Border Network for Human Rights, Border Action Network, and the U.S.-Mexico Border and Immigration Task Force – and the immigrant-rights advocacy center National Immigration Forum. Unfortunately, the credibility of their human rights claims suffers from exaggerations and errors.
The high death count of border crossers is a tragedy that merits far greater attention by U.S. and Mexican authorities. But it is just not the case that there is “an ever-increasing tally of migrant deaths.” Border deaths did start steadily increasing in the mid-1990s, but along with apprehensions the number of immigrants dying has decreased over the past three years, as the result of decreased immigrant flows.
It’s certainly true that there are major concerns about human rights violations in the borderlands. But the report hardly makes the case that there has been a “systemic” violation of the rights of border crossers by the Border Patrol or any other entity, such as the National Guard. Instead, it offers vague assertions, such as: “The [border] fence is one part of the securitization that has occurred in the U.S. It also represents a violation of migrants’ human rights as outlined in the U.S. Constitution and several international conventions.”
Nor does the report offer any evidence to support the claim that there has been a “systemic violation of the civil and human rights of those living in border communities.” If that were the case, there would be a widespread outcry by the millions of borderlands residents at the increased security presence along the border.
The stated scope of the policy report extends far beyond human rights to “effective border policy.” The policy recommendations focus mainly on immigration and security issues.
The report’s executive summary states:
“Our conclusions and policy recommendations start with the premise that the “border” is a dynamic concept, that border communities have important ties to both the United States and Mexico, and that these ties create a unique set of opportunities and challenges that affect both the border areas and the broader national interest."
“Recognizing that millions live and work in U.S. border communities, border and immigration policies must be formulated and implemented in a way that respects the
rights of these community members and the needs of their hometowns and cities. When properly carried out, these policies can substantially improve security and safety in the border region and in the nation as a whole.”
Central to a more effective border policy is comprehensive immigration reform. As the report states: “We [must] shift away from an enforcement-only mentality to one that recognizes that smart immigration reforms.”
Along with “common sense” reform, “smart immigration reform” is a term that has become part of the new advocacy rhetoric used by Washington, DC immigrant-rights groups. We can all agree that any reform shouldn’t be stupid, but what exactly is a “smart” immigration reform? Nowhere in the report’s 38 pages is this desired immigration reform, smart or otherwise, spelled out.
The best we get in terms of what of the kind of immigration reform they would recommend come in the form of highly dubious assurances and assertions, such as the following:
* “To remove the pressure on the U.S.-Mexico border, Congress should pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation that provides for the orderly, legal entry of migrants and that offers a path to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants already in the United States.”
* “The goal of these guidelines [which do not address immigration policy other than enforcement initiatives], then, is to move the United States in the direction of a coherent enforcement policy consistent with comprehensive immigration reform—a new approach that will point border-region enforcement toward the fundamental goal of enhancing the public safety and security of border and interior communities while upholding constitutional and human rights.”
It’s no wonder, given this utter failure to address the hard issues of immigration reform, that anti-immigration forces have been so successful in labeling immigration advocates as the “open borders lobby.” Progressive immigration reform, apparently, means giving visas for all those who want to come and legalizing all those already here.
According to Effective Border Policy, “With adequate and effective mechanisms of legal migration, danger-creating border-control ‘operations’ become unnecessary.” Furthermore, “We need to stop treating the immigrant as the greatest threat, focusing instead on dangerous criminals, traffickers, and exploiters in border and immigrant communities.”
The argument, apparently, is this: Without fences and other “securitization” measures, border crossers wouldn’t need to pay “coyotes” or “polleros” to cross, and therefore there would be fewer immigrants dying. In fact, immigrants wouldn’t even need to cross illegally, they could walk right in with their visas.
This progressive utopian view mirrors the free-market position of immigration advocates at the Wall Street Journal, who contend that immigration flows are cross-border labor flows and should be regulated by supply and demand not a restrictive immigration policy.
The report, which includes “security” in its title, does not address the role of border control in national security. Rather, it stresses that “community security is an integral part of national and border security.” In its view, the nation’s preoccupation with national security and border security has led to the violation of the rights of borderlands residents and undermined community security.
It is certainly true that the proliferation of border patrol agents and the build-up of an elaborate border security infrastructure have too often caught legal residents and citizens, especially Latinos, in their net. But there is little evidence offered that “community security” has suffered.The report does recommend the termination of the 287(g) program under which local law enforcement officials collaborate with immigration agencies to enforce immigration law. Critics of this and other efforts to increase local-federal collaboration in immigration affairs contend that these programs undermine the trust of immigrant communities in the police, thereby decreasing crime reporting by these communities.
But this is not typically a borderlands issue. Most of the 287(g) programs are in the country’s interior, particularly in the South. Here, again, the credibility of the report comes into question.
According to Effective Border Security, “Local law-enforcement agencies should not be forced to assume the role of federal immigration enforcement.” The authors don’t bother to explain how local law enforcement officials are being forced to collaborate. It would be a difficult argument to make given that there are at least three dozen local governments waiting in line to receive immigration-enforcement training from ICE.
The report rightly criticizes the criminalization of immigrants. “Historically, immigration has been considered and treated as a matter of civil law and an administrative issue,” states the report. “However, in recent years the trend has shifted toward treating immigration and immigrants as a criminal issue.” The arrest, shackling, and imprisonment of immigrants, who have only violated immigration law, is now a common practice.
But the report doesn’t acknowledge that ICE has won increased local support and cooperation because of programs that target immigrants who have committed crimes and are in local and state custody. There is widespread public support, in and out of the borderlands, for the arrest and deportation of illegal immigrants who have been arrested and jailed. Nearly 30% of the immigrants deported this year had criminal records other than immigration violations.
The day before the border groups and the National Immigration Reform released their report, the Department of Homeland Security announced the official launch of its “Secure Communities” program. The program, which has been in a pilot phase for some time, facilitates local and state jails to cross check prisoners with the DHS database to determine if they citizens or legal residents. Despite the report's emphasis on "community security," there is no mention of the government's own interpretation of what communites need to feel secure.
The report’s recommended solutions to community security concerns are generally the same recommendations they make for other issues of effective border policy.
The report repeatedly says that “community security” should be the priority, contending that the build-up in immigration enforcement and border control erodes community security.
No doubt that the increased presence of border patrol agents, the fencing, and the high-tech surveillance along parts of the border contribute to sense that the border is an embattled region, creating resentment and concern that the federal government is infringing on local law enforcement.
But do borderlands residents see ICE, Border Patrol, and National Guard (who have largely been redeployed) officials as the principal threat to “community security”? Perhaps some do, but there is widespread concern in the U.S. borderlands about the violence and on the other side and how it has spread across the border.
The report, while claiming to represent the “border community,” makes no mention of the rising concerns of borderlands residents and officials about the adverse impact of immigration flows on transit communities, rampant drug-related violence in Mexican border cities, the increasingly deadly presence of armed human smuggling operations, and the general lawlessness taking hold of Mexican border communities.
The report was issued just as the former head of the Mexican government’s Special Organization to Combat Organized Crime (UEDO) and a current special adviser to the UN on drugs and corruptions asserted that Mexican border towns were suffering from the “failed state” symptoms.
While the upsurge of killings in Juárez, Tijuana, and Nogales this year has largely been restricted to the Mexican side, over the past ten years drug flows and immigration flows into the United States have become increasingly associated with violence. In the past, U.S. borderlands residents generally accepted immigrant flows. But this has changed as the drug trade and immigrant flows have become increasingly connected, and as human and drug smugglers have armed themselves.
Another rising concern of border communities is the environmental destruction caused by the illegal flows, as immigrants and smugglers pass through previously pristine deserts and mountainous areas. But the only environmental concern expressed in the report is impact of the fencing on the border environment.
Two years ago, these type of concerns led border governors Bill Richardson (NM) and Napolitano (AZ), both liberal Democrats, to deploy National Guard units to the New Mexico and Arizona borders with Mexico. Yet the report asserts this type of “militarization” was imposed from Washington against the wishes of border residents. These deployments did result in decreased immigration and drug flows in the target areas, and were therefore generally supported by border communities.
There is little doubt that the border control measures that have been implemented since the early 1990s have “undermined the essential interdependence between cross-border communities.” The fundamental problem with the Effective Border Policy report is that its institutional authors seem to regard the problems of illegal immigration flows, drug flows, and the increasingly violence associated with illegal crossborder trade as exclusively a U.S. government problem.
Typical of this one-sided, politically shaped perspective are statements like these:
The border community certainly needs an effective border policy, but this report is more about political vindication than effective policy.
- Tom Barry, November 19, 2008
For more information:
Border Network for Human Rights
1011 E. Yandell St.
El Paso, TX 79902
Border Action Network
P.O. Box 384
Tucson, AZ 85702
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