Last Friday, Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas announced his plans to introduce the Secure Our Borders First Act, which would heighten militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. This legislation is misguided but consistent with President Obama’s immigration executive decision to do the same thing. There is a strange inconsistency when these types of proposals go virtually unquestioned by Congress and the American public, all while we continue to debate the dangers of police militarization post-Ferguson. As this new Congress begins to govern, it is imperative that they recognize the myth of border security and the failure of militarization.
President Obama’s announcement for executive action on immigration and McCaul’s proposal play into a dangerously false narrative that the largest factor driving illegal immigration is a weak, unprotected border. This narrative is misleading for many reasons.
First, the border is far from unprotected. In reality, over 21,000 agentspatrol our border communities, more than double the number and almost triple the spending of ten years ago. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is now both the largest law enforcement agency in the country and holds the largest air force in the world. CBP has planes, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and sea vessels in their reserve. While officials insist that this equipment is necessary for law enforcement and border patrol to effectively ensure a secure economy and community, evidence suggests otherwise.
Second, the rising militarization has not effectively curbed undocumented immigration. Instead, it had the opposite effect - the accelerated rise in militarized enforcement came with an increase in the number of undocumented immigrants and a decrease in apprehensions. Workers that previously crossed between Mexico and the United States were forced to choose between their families and their work after the push to “secure” the border in the 1990s. Building walls and arming agents has drained taxpayer dollars with little result. Border security is not only draining our economy, it’s counterproductive to security.
Third, increased militarization enhances the potential for corruption and misconduct. Unprecedented expansion and years of unchecked policies have made the Border Patrol the largest and least accountable agency in the United States. The increasingly militarized border has produced an increase in deaths while crossing. An investigation found over a thousand instances of apparent excessive force by CBP. Between 2005 and 2012, nearly one CBP officer was arrested for misconduct every single day Since 2004, the CBP has had more fatal shootings than “perhaps any other agency,” and at least eight people were killed by border agents for throwing rocks alone. A 2013 review of the agency similarly revealed that border agents often stood or jumped in front of moving vehicles as a justification to open fire.
Much of the corruption and misconduct can be traced to the 1033 program, a federally funded program that allows local law enforcement agencies on the border and elsewhere to obtain surplus military equipment free of charge from the Department of Defense. Instances of waste, fraud and abuse across the nation, including along the border, are rampant within the program. Through 1033, border counties are eligible to receive weapons of war such as Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs), assault rifles, pistols, and helicopters. In El Paso County, local law enforcement has received more than 6,000 tactical items from the Pentagon since 1991. This is 1,500 times the amount Los Angeles received.
Lastly, a militarized border has dangerously reduced civil liberties. Approximately 170 checkpoints exist in what many call “the Constitution-free zone,” an area up to 100 miles inland of the border nationwide in which CBP officers have reduced standards for random searches. Two-thirds of Americans live within this 100-mile zone, and the checkpoints disproportionately affect citizens more than they dissuade people from residing in the United States without documentation. According to the ACLU, officials at these checkpoints are targeting ordinary Americans “on an everyday basis with absolutely no suspicion of wrongdoing,” as they commute to work or run errands “Roving patrols,” or the stopping and searching of vehicles with no warrant beyond the 100-mile zone, have reportedly searched individuals based on racial profiling.
The militarized border has dramatically disrupted border communities by instilling fear and intimidation through corruption and violence. The 114th Congress must not fall into the same tired patterns and instead must re-think what it means for a border to be “secure.” Rather than passing a bill that includes 20,000 more border agents, Congress should de-militarize law enforcement at the border and beyond. After so many failures, we should all know better.
Evans is the program assistant on domestic policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and O'Donnerll is the program assistant on militarism and civil liberties at the Committee.