This summer, as discussions have advanced around a comprehensive immigration reform bill, I traveled to Arizona to film some people who have a unique perspective on border security. I followed Dr. Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, who has worked to identify the remains of some 2,200 people found dead in the Arizona desert since 1990 — undocumented migrants who attempted to cross illicitly from Central America and Mexico into the United States. And I followed Robin Reineke, a University of Arizona doctoral student in anthropology who founded the Missing Migrant Project, a nongovernmental organization that helps families look for their missing relatives.
My goal was to better understand the impact that President Obama’s and Congress’s proposed security measures might have on migrant deaths along the border. I’ve been exploring this issue for the last four years while making a feature-length documentary, “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” (That film follows the discovery, identification and repatriation of a migrant found dead under a cicada tree 20 minutes south of Tucson.)
There has been a dramatic increase in such deaths since 2000. Over that time, particularly after Sept. 11, 2001, the government has added thousands of guards and constructed fences along the border. This policy has had a grim consequence: since most remaining gaps in the border are in remote and harsh terrain, migrants now attempt increasingly dangerous routes into the United States.
Some may argue that the latest proposals for tighter border security could save lives — by flooding the border with guards, cameras and drones that could spot and help intercept migrants in dangerous areas. Yet recent history shows that even when border security is tightened, people will still find a way to cross — as long as there is a demand for low-wage jobs. Even as fewer people are believed to be crossing the border illegally, the number of migrant deaths has remained high (the remains of at least 116 people have been found this year in Arizona), and a greater proportion is likely dying.
As a British filmmaker, I don’t perceive this as a uniquely American issue, even if the politics are local. Similar migrant deaths have recently resulted from capsized boats in the Mediterranean Sea, filled with migrants from Africa and the Middle East, and in the seas north of Australia. Around the globe, it’s clear that economic disparity, political instability and harsh immigration policies are a combustible mix — one that plays out tragically along national borders.
Marc Silver is a documentary filmmaker based in London. His first feature-length film, “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” made its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Cinematography Award for World Cinema (Documentary). War on the Border
Published: August 17, 2013 THREE generations of Loews have worked the family’s 63 acres in Amado, Ariz. In the last 20 years, the Loew family harvested thousands of pounds of onions, garlic and pumpkins without incident. So Stewart Loew, 44, who was born and raised on the farm, was surprised when he went to irrigate his fields one night and found himself surrounded by federal agents.
Pointing to the fires about 200 feet away that Mr. Loew lit to keep warm while he irrigated his fields, one of the agents slogged out of the ankle deep water in the irrigation ditch and asked Mr. Loew what he was doing.
“I’m irrigating, dude,” said Mr. Loew, who was in his pajamas. “What are you doing?”
“Don’t ‘dude’ me, I’m a federal officer,” the Border Patrol agent said, and demanded Mr. Loew’s identification.
Since Mr. Loew did not carry his wallet in his pajama pocket, the agents followed him into his house; a local police officer, who knew the Loew family, had already arrived, vouched for Mr. Loew’s identity and assured the federal agents that Mr. Loew posed no threat to the homeland or national security, and the agents left without comment or apology.
This kind of brush with law enforcement would have been unthinkable to previous generations of farmers here. But these run-ins have become increasingly common in the rugged, hilly desert stretch along the southern borderlands where, in the post-9/11 world, everyone — even farmers in pajamas — is a potential threat.
The United States-Mexico border has become a war zone. It is also a transfer station for sophisticated American military technology and weapons. As our country’s foreign wars have begun to wind down, defense contractors look here, on the southern border, to make money.
Lately it has become entirely normal to look up into the Arizona sky and to see Blackhawk helicopters and fixed-wing jets flying by. On a clear day, you can sometimes hear Predator B drones buzzing over the Sonoran border. These drones are equipped with the same kind of “man-hunting” Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar (Vader) that flew over the Dashti Margo desert region in Afghanistan.
The Border Patrol is part of Customs and Border Protection, now the federal government’s largest law-enforcement agency. Its presence is a constant factor not only in the lives of Stewart Loew and his neighbors, but also in the lives of those who live in places like San Diego, El Paso, Brownsville, Tex., and other big cities along the southern border that have sizable Latino populations.
The Border Patrol, however, concerns itself far less with counterterrorism than with the agency’s traditional tasks of immigration and drug enforcement. This creates an uneasy mixture of missions. And it results in the deployment of an expensive military apparatus to police and capture immigrants who cross the border in the hopes of finding jobs as maids, janitors or day laborers.
In 2012, a majority of the more than 364,000 people arrested by Border Patrol agents nationwide were migrant workers crossing the border. Agents did not capture or arrest a single international terrorist.
But they have disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of people like Stewart Loew who live and work near the border. There’s a point on Interstate 19, two miles from the Loews’ farm, that buzzes with what borderland residents call the “men in green,” who stop and interrogate everyone who drives past. Border Patrol vehicles scan the off-road areas smugglers and migrants use to circumvent official checkpoints. A mobile control tower with a sophisticated surveillance system mounted on its cabin is visible near the Loews’ farm.
The Department of Homeland Security, which includes Customs and Border Protection, plans to invest billions more in borderland surveillance towers, drones and helicopters if the House adopts the immigration reform bill that the Senate passed in June. Even if it doesn’t pass, there is more than $1 billion in the federal budget for surveillance towers that will likely be clustered around the Arizona desert lands, near Mr. Loew’s farm, where most undocumented migrants cross the border.
The Republican senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota added a proposal to the immigration bill that would provide about $40 billion in financing for extra agents and 700 miles of fencing along the United States’ southern boundary, which Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, noted would become “the most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall.” Indeed, if the Senate’s bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, passes in the House, the Border Patrol will swell to 40,000 agents, making it the size of a small army.
In recent years, we have built up our boundary and immigration policing apparatus with great speed. Founded in 1924, the Border Patrol deployed just over 4,000 agents in 1993. In only 20 years the agency’s ranks have more than quintupled, and if the reform passes it will increase its size tenfold.
The Border Patrol buildup in the aftermath of 9/11 was unparalleled. In the 10-year period following 9/11, the United States spent a staggering $90 billion on border enforcement.
In 2012, the Migration Policy Institute reported that immigration and border enforcement spending totaled almost $18 billion. That is 24 percent more than the $14.4 billion combined budgets in the last fiscal year of the F.B.I., the Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Add the billions anticipated in the Senate bill, and you have what the trade publication Homeland Security Today calls a “treasure trove” for contractors in the border security industry.
Projected as an approximately $19 billion industry in 2013, defense contractors seem, in the words of one representative from a small surveillance technology company hoping to jump into the border security market, to be “bringing the battlefield to the border.”
In 1999, the anthropologist Josiah Heyman wrote that the Southwest was becoming a “militarized border society, where more and more people either work for the watchers, or are watched by the state.”
There is nowhere else in the country with such extensive and concentrated surveillance technology; nor is there any part of the United States in which people are as clearly divided between the police and the policed.
And the militarized security zone has begun to creep beyond the southern border and to affect those who live near the northern border in places like Spokane, Wash., Detroit and Erie, Pa., where the Border Patrol has significantly increased its ranks.
IN the border zone — 100 miles from the boundary into the interior — the Border Patrol’s authority extends beyond that of other law enforcement agencies. For example, agents have the authority to conduct routine searches at the border even in the absence of reasonable suspicion, probable cause or a warrant.
“The problem with giving the largest federal law enforcement agency, and one that operates with few if any accountability mechanisms, is that it is a recipe for civil liberties abuses, and seriously risks further erosion of Fourth Amendment rights,” says James Duff Lyall, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. Mr. Lyall notes that the areas involved constitute a sizable portion of the country; if you consider land and coastal borders, this 100-mile zone encompasses approximately two-thirds of the United States population.
Agents that operate in the 100-mile zone now regularly board buses and trains and ask passengers for identification. They have — and use — the authority to further question anyone who raises suspicions, especially people who appear to be from another country.
In 2007, for example, a Border Patrol agent in Syracuse, N.Y., asked Silvio Torres-Saillant, a professor of English at Syracuse University, to produce his documents. When Mr. Torres-Saillant, a United States citizen of Hispanic descent, gave the agent his university identification, the agent demanded additional documents. At the Border Patrol’s Rochester, N.Y., station, 2,743 people were arrested on buses, trains and in stations from 2006 to 2009.
Border Patrol agents record the skin complexion of the people they arrest, and most of those arrested were of “medium” complexion and from Latin America, according to a 2011report, “Justice Derailed: What Raids on New York’s Trains and Buses Reveal About Border Patrol’s Interior Enforcement Practices,” by the New York University School of Law and the New York Civil Liberties Union.
In a much-publicized incident, Border Patrol agents stopped Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, 125 miles south of the border, in New York. When Mr. Leahy asked what authority the agent had to detain him, the agent pointed to his gun and said, “That’s all the authority I need.”
The Immigration and Nationality Act gives Border Patrol agents even greater authority when they operate within 25 miles of the international border. Here agents “have access to private lands, but not dwellings, for the purpose of patrolling the border to prevent the illegal entry of aliens into the United States.”
Mr. Loew says agents don’t always comply with the 25-mile exemptions; he points out that his farm in Amado is 30 miles from the border, and that that did not stop agents from entering his property or from surrounding him while he prepared to irrigate his fields.
Three years after Mr. Loew’s brush with federal agents, Border Patrol agents held his 16-year-old son at gunpoint after they mistook the minivan he was driving for another one. Mr. Loew says he wonders if the agents were veterans, since so many Border Patrol recruits seem to be ex-military men; in fact, almost one-third of all agents have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s no wonder that more and more people in the 100-mile zone from across the political spectrum view the Border Patrol as an occupying army.
If immigration reform passes, it will mark another milestone in a transformation that has already resulted in the creation of a war-zone-like area in which agents enjoy special powers to chase down, question and detain people.
Two oversight offices within the Department of Homeland Security have already received hundreds of complaints of rights violations, including beatings and Taser shootings, at the border. In the last three years, Border Patrol agents have killed at least 15 people along the Southwest border. Whether or not the immigration bill passes, the militarization of the border and the disturbance it causes people like Stewart Loew suggest it is time to look seriously into how we might better police the agencies that police the border.
Todd Miller is the author of the forthcoming book “Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security.”