Action Alert:

A History of Institutional Violence at the U.S. Border

MAPA Newsletter October 2020

by Dévora González and Azadeh Shahshahani

Originally published in the CEC Journal of the Bartos Institute for the Constructive Engagement of Conflict.

When it comes to the U.S. government, no one should confuse agency size for the likelihood of accountability. For example, U.S. Border Patrol is the Department of Homeland Security’s largest federal law enforcement agency, yet has operated with little oversight and almost complete impunity. Nearly a century old, Border Patrol was created under the Department of Labor in 1924 to enforce xenophobic laws. Rooted in systemic oppression, the agency has fostered a culture of brutality amongst its agents since its inception. It needs to be abolished.

History of Border Patrol

Border Patrol was created as a way to calm white supremacist fears and essentially became an agency that functioned as a “frontline instrument of race vigilantism.”  Early agents were members of the Ku Klux Klan, Texas Rangers, or from border town police departments. It was also created in response to migration to the United States, which was controlled through a quota system that privileged Western European countries, while explicitly barring others, such as people from Asia. Where exceptions were made for non-white migrants, they were done in service of capitalist interests. This includes Mexican migrants, who were excluded from the quota system so that Southwest businesses could continue to profit from their cheap labor. With the creation of the agency, and in order to control migration from the South, ports of entry became required for entrance into the United States. To legitimize ports of entry, crossing from anywhere beside one was criminalized, thus creating the concept of “illegal” immigration to the United States. This primarily impacted Mexican people, who were the source of cheap labor.

Violence in the name of “border protection” has been modus operandi for Border Patrol. People crossing over for work from Mexico were subjected to literacy tests, entrance fees, and degrading hygienic inspections to “prevent” the spread of disease. Furthermore, Border Patrol Agents were known to “beat, [shoot], and [hang] migrants with regularity.” From 1974-1989, in the California/Baja California border alone, 44 people were injured or killed by Border Patrol or by the Border Patrol/San Diego Police Department collaboration called Border Crime Prevention Unit.

By the 1980’s, migration from the South was not for obtaining employment, but instead because of the urgency of fleeing from conditions created by U.S. foreign policy and intervention. Central Americans were significantly impacted by ongoing violence and economic hardships in their countries — the majority of which was exacerbated by U.S. intervention in the form of military training and financial backing for repressive regimes. In fact, human rights violations and genocide were perpetrated by U.S.-trained dictators. High profile priests, entire communities, and anyone challenging the state were brutally murdered and disappeared by U.S.-trained militias. Those who survived were displaced, only to become refugees in the United States. As numerous countries were engaged in protracted conflict, migration to the U.S., rather than being temporary, became more permanent. Unfortunately, non-white immigrants — such as Central Americans — entered and continue to exist in a political climate that remained highly unwelcoming to migrants.

Intentionally ignoring the consequences of U.S. intervention, Border Patrol continued and continues to operate in a political vacuum that deems ongoing presence in the borderlands and the development of for-profit detention centers justifiable and —most problematically— necessary. CoreCivic (formally known as Corrections Corporation of America – CCA) was founded in 1983 and entered its first contract with Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) in Houston to run the first private detention center that same year. The culture of cruelty in which Border Patrol has existed has expanded to for-profit detention centers, migration policies, and militarization of the borderlands. Border Patrol is rooted in xenophobic policies and continues to dehumanize people while profiting off of those with the need to travel North for economic or political reasons.

Prevention Through Deterrence

In 1994, Border Patrol implemented its Prevention Through Deterrence strategy in an attempt to control migration from unauthorized points of entry. To do so, it created mortal danger so that people would be deterred from crossing. For example, this strategy drastically increased the number of Border Patrol agents in addition to creating checkpoints, towers, and walls to weaponize natural landscapes. Moreover, this strategy has worked alongside inhumane detention conditions, enhanced the corporate industrial complex, and led to the enactment of policies such as Operation Streamline, which increased the criminalization of migration with no regard to the conditions causing people to flee. In 2003, Border Patrol became part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), taking on a counter-terrorism mission as it was reorganized into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), never addressing the culture of brutality from which it stems, but instead thriving on it.

The tactics implemented by Border Patrol as a result of the Prevention Through Deterrence strategy result in deaths and disappearances. No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid organization in the Sonoran Desert, recorded footage from 2010-2017 of Border Patrol slashing, dumping, and destroying gallons of water left for those crossing. The leading cause of death for bodies found in the Sonoran Desert is exposure to the elements. Unfortunately, tracking the cause of death also reveals a depressing reality — namely that the only evidence of migrants’ journeys to the U.S. are skeletal remains. While there are sometimes clues as to how an individual died, for many the cause of death remains undetermined. As a result, the true number of those who have disappeared crossing the U.S.-Mexico border will never truly be known.

Since 2010, 102 people have died at the hands of Border Patrol and thousands have disappeared, and yet no Border Patrol agent has ever been held accountable for murder, even when these cases violate the sovereignty of another nation-state. Sergio Adrián Hernández Güereca and José Antonio Elena Rodríguez are two of six people killed on Mexican soil by agents located on the US side of the border, establishing a disturbing precedent for agents to act of their own accord by taking the lives of whomever they want with impunity. Sergio Adrián Hernández Güereca was killed on June 7, 2010 while in Ciudad Juárez by Border Patrol Agent Jesus Mesa Jr. in El Paso, Texas. There have not been any criminal charges filed against Agent Mesa. Furthermore, earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Hernández Güereca family does not have a right to press civil charges as “Hernández did not have constitutional protection against unreasonable use of deadly force under the Fourth Amendment, as well as due process rights under the Fifth Amendment, because he was not in the USA.”

One of the most emblematic killings is that of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, who was fatally shot in the back 10 times through the border wall by Agent Lonnie Swartz on October 10, 2012 while in his hometown of Nogales, Sonora. Swartz claimed that he was acting in self-defense, and yet had the opportunity to reload his weapon to continue shooting at the teenager who was already dead. Swartz faced trial twice in Tucson, AZ; during the first trial, he was found not guilty of second-degree murder and faced a hung jury on the charges of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. During the second trial, he was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter with a hung jury on voluntary manslaughter. The case did not go to trial a third time. Seven years after his murder, Elena Rodríguez’s mother Araceli Rodríguez and grandmother Taide Zojo continue to seek justice. They are hoping to present their case to the Supreme Court despite the alarming precedent set by the Hernández Güereca case.

The human rights abuses by Border Patrol stem from the expanded militarization of the borderlands and the increasing use of detention. Torturous conditions in short-term facilities such as malnutrition, lack of water, and lack of medical care, even imposed on pregnant women, are prevalent and have worsened under the Trump administration. From December 2018 to May 2019, five children have died in Border Patrol custody. Felipe Gómez Alonzo, an eight-year-old from Guatemala, died of Influenza type B on December 23, 2018 in Border Patrol custody. He was transported to a hospital in New Mexico where he was found to have a 103-degree fever. After being observed for 90 minutes, he went back to Border Patrol custody and by the evening, he was “vomiting, nauseous and lethargic and lost consciousness during transport back to the same hospital…. He was pronounced dead at 11:48 p.m.”

A few months later, on May 19, 2019, Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez, a 16-year-old who was also from Guatemala, died in South Texas at a Border Patrol station because he had the flu and was not given adequate medical attention even though his fever was at 103 degrees. A video from the detention facility shows that he was “writhing for at least 25 minutes on the floor and on a concrete bench. It shows him staggering to the toilet and collapsing on the floor, where he remained in the same position for the next four and a half hours.” Gómez Alonzo and Hernández Vásquez are examples of how the cruelty under which Border Patrol was created has never been dismantled. Instead it has grown and kills without remorse with its policies and tactics, directly and indirectly.

Border Patrol, COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter Protests

Border Patrol has made a practice of keeping people in inhumane conditions: water is unavailable, the food makes them sick, the cells are freezing and overcrowded, medical care is so insufficient that children die in its custody, and pregnant women are mistreated and do not get adequate care. Now that we are in an era of a global pandemic that requires social distancing, frequent handwashing, and use of masks in order to stay and keep others safe, Border Patrol has “implemented the kind of rapid-fire deportation system President Donald Trump has long extolled as his preferred approach to immigration enforcement.”  Before even being taken into a Border Patrol station and without any medical evaluation, migrants are expelled in an average of 96 minutes. Border Patrol deports about 85% of people it detains, and criminalizes those who have prior deportations.

The rhetoric of protecting borders from disease is once again part of Border Patrol’s public narrative, now even barring children from the protections they once received.
“‘The disease doesn’t know age,’ Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters. ‘When [minors] come across the border, they pose an absolute, concrete public health risk to this country and everybody they come in contact with.’”  New immigration rules implemented on March 21, 2020 under the guise of the global health pandemic have led to Border Patrol expelling and detaining over 10,000 Mexican and Central American asylum seekers without the ability to exercise their right to seek refuge and asylum. Under the Trump administration, decades of work to protect migrant and refugee rights have been undone as Border Patrol operates with unlimited and unchecked power, essentially functioning as a paramilitary organization continuously violating human and civil rights.

Amidst COVID-19 —which disproportionately impacts people of color— large scale Black Lives Matter protests have erupted in the United States and globally to end state-sanctioned murder of Black people. The coldblooded lynching of George Floyd by four Minneapolis Police officers on May 25, 2020, in addition to the murders of Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Lorenzo Dean, Atatiana Jefferson and so many others, have sparked righteous rage against state violence that serves to uphold white supremacy and capitalism again and again at the cost of Black life.

As protests gained strength and Minneapolis police retreated, Trump tweeted: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Later that day, a CBP Predator drone, frequently used for surveillance in the borderlands to create a “technological barrier made up of a patchwork of tools like drones and sensors to help surveil and identify unauthorized individuals,” flew over protesters in Minneapolis. According to a CBP spokesperson, the Predator drone was deployed “to provide live video to aid in situational awareness at the request of our federal law enforcement partners in Minneapolis”. Not only is Border Patrol culpable for the murder of thousands of individuals forced to flee their homelands and migrate North, it is also aiding in the repression and violent murder of Black people in this country.

On May 31st, Morgan announced via Twitter, “CBP is currently deploying officers, agents and aviation assets across the country at the request of our federal, state and local partners confronting the lawless actions of rioters. CBP carries out its mission nationwide, not just at the border, consistent with federal laws.” By June 1st, Border Patrol was also present in DC, Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, El Paso, Miami, and San Diego. American Civil Liberties Union’s senior legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani responded: “this rogue agency’s use of military technology to surveil protesters inside U.S. borders is deeply disturbing, especially given CBP’s lack of clear and strong policies to protect privacy and constitutional rights….This agency’s use of drones over the city should be halted immediately.”

Border Patrol continues to abuse its power without accountability. It continues to act in a way that dehumanizes and oppresses communities of color, and it stays true to its white supremacist roots. These are examples of why now, more than ever, it is time to dismantle the Border Patrol.

—Dévora González is with School of the Americas Watch and Azadeh Shahshahani is with Project South.