John B. Carnett / Popular Science/Getty Images

The creeping expansion of the Border Patrol

Militarized immigration enforcement has made it to the U.S. interior

May 7, 2014 1:30AM ET

A couple of years ago, a chatty Border Patrol Agent in Texas told me about a recent experience he had near El Paso, a West Texas city near the U.S.-Mexico border. While he was visiting a particular stretch of the border fence that was normally outside his area of operation, he said, a potential threat to homeland security was detected by colleagues on surveillance duty. Attack helicopters were summoned.

The cause for alarm turned out to be a goatherd on the Mexican side of the fence wielding a stick that had been mistaken for a weapon. The helicopters were sent back. As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Created in 1924 to secure the borders of the United States, the Border Patrol is now part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency. It currently boasts more than 21,000 agents, up from 8,500 in 2001. (If certain members of Congress have their way, that number will continue to multiply.)

Its “priority mission,” according to the department’s website, is “preventing terrorists and terrorists [sic] weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, from entering the United States.” But its “primary mission” is “to detect and prevent the illegal entry of aliens” into the country. In fiscal year 2012, 364,000 such aliens were reported to have been arrested (though not a single international terrorist).

How have these missions come to be viewed as overlapping? Do migrants — economic refugees displaced from their livelihoods by U.S.-sponsored free trade agreements — require the same serious level of attention as terrorists?

As the border security industry has ratcheted up its efforts — with massive expenditures on weaponry, frontier fortifications, personnel and surveillance equipment — a much bigger chunk of the country has come under its supervision. The notion of the border, in other words, has expanded in accordance with the industry’s needs.

Redefining borders

In the tale recounted by my Border Patrol interlocutor, the Mexican goatherd avoided the hammer. But others have not been so fortunate. This February, The Los Angeles Times exposed a report by law enforcement experts on the use of deadly force by Border Patrol agents. Though CBP commissioned the review, the agency has attempted to disappear its findings.

The reason for this is obvious. According to the Times, the review found a “lack of diligence” in investigating Border Patrol agents who engaged in disciplinable behavior, such as firing at people who threw rocks from the Mexican side of the fence. In 2013, for example, 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez was fatally shot near Nogales, Mexico, apparently receiving eight bullets to the back.

CBP’s internal response to the review, also obtained by the Times, reportedly rejected the review’s two major recommendations: “barring border agents from shooting at vehicles unless its occupants are trying to kill them, and barring agents from shooting people who throw things that can’t cause serious physical injury.”

The climate of impunity that appears to surround Border Patrol personnel — ostensibly in the name of safeguarding the nation — has become chillier as what we call the border has expanded to encompass terrain far beyond the geographic demarcation. Officially, the Border Patrol’s jurisdiction extends 100 miles inward from the U.S. border; this demarcation alone means it envelops a majority of the nation’s population centers. But in reality, its reach is even more extensive.

The drawing of borders between people depends on an individual internalization of an us-vs.-them mentality that justifies continued state repression.

Todd Miller, the author of a new book, “Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security,” uses the example of the 2010 Super Bowl at Sun Life Stadium in Miami to illustrate the evolving contours of the border. The event, which relied on the services of the Border Patrol as well as other security outfits, showed how the agency “can mobilize international boundaries,” Miller writes, “to any part of the homeland for any given reason.” Among the evening’s Super Bowl-securing feats: the arrest in neighboring Fort Lauderdale of an undocumented Nicaraguan woman attempting to travel by Greyhound bus. (Miller quotes a Border Patrol supervisor who dubs Greyhound an “all-threats environment.” Amtrak, apparently, is too.)

Miller’s arguments echo those made by the journalist Christian Parenti in his authoritative study “Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis,” published in 1999 and updated in 2008. Parenti details how “militarized immigration enforcement … has been repatriated, piece by piece, to the U.S. interior.” The result? Combined police–Border Patrol anti-immigrant sweeps often “involv[ing] heavily armed tactical raiding parties backed up by helicopters and dogs.”

In expanding its frontier, the United States has drawn on its extensive experience in violating the frontiers of others. For example, Miller, attending a border security expo in 2012, is introduced to a mobile surveillance system called Freedom on-the-Move, based on a system developed for use by the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, opportunities for corporate profit abound. In fiscal year 2012, the government reportedly spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement — a field day, in other words, for government contracting firms. Last year Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., remarked that a proposal to expedite government spending on border security “reads like a Christmas wish list for Halliburton.” 

Dividing lines

But beyond profit, what motivates a system that calls in attack helicopters on goatherds?

Make no mistake about it: Militarized border surveillance functions as a means of social control. Parenti argues that racialized law enforcement tendencies (for example, the harassment of anyone who looks Latino) have helped impose a system of “apartheid by other means,” a “de facto criminalization and political marginalization of documented and undocumented immigrants alike.” Miller, too, describes how mass surveillance and intimidation amount to a “process of self-segregation” that results in a white monopoly on public space.

But it’s not only the rights of immigrants that are up for grabs. In fact, as the Border Patrol’s authority gains steam, supporters of the anti-immigrant crackdown may notice their own rights being curtailed as well. The Washington Post reported in January that law enforcement agencies were “increasingly borrowing border-patrol drones for domestic surveillance operations,” creating “novel privacy challenges.”

The insertion of drones into everyday existence is no surprise. Parenti refers to the work of sociologist David Lyon, who found that “the introduction of new social-control-and-surveillance technologies always starts by targeting society’s weakest and most marginalized groups.” From the margins, like the Border Patrol itself, these technologies move inward.

The drawing of borders between people — in any state, city or neighborhood — depends on an individual internalization of an us-vs.-them mentality that justifies continued state repression and the perpetuation of political and corporate power structures. Whether it’s gunning down rock throwers on Mexico’s side of the border or racially profiling residents of Arizona, you don’t need a video-equipped drone to see that the Border Patrol is overstepping its bounds.

Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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