Cages Are Cruel. The Desert Is, Too.
By Francisco Cant
Mr. Cant was a Border Patrol agent from 2008 to 2012.
June 30, 2018 The New York Times
A marker over an immigrant’s grave in Holtville, Calif. Hundreds of immigrants, many of whom died while crossing the desert from Mexico into the United States, are buried in a cemetery there.CreditJohn Moore/Getty Images
TUCSON — During the three and a half years I worked for the United States Border Patrol, from 2008 to 2012, America’s immigration enforcement never made less sense to me than when I tried to explain it to those most affected by it.
Once, patrolling the border fence, I was flagged down by a woman on the other side. She asked for information about her son. She didn’t know where or how long ago he had crossed, or whether he had been detained or become lost somewhere along the way. She didn’t even know whether he was still alive.
I struggle to remember what I told her. It’s possible I explained that crossing often entailed walking for days or weeks through the desert. It’s possible I suggested filing a missing persons report. It’s possible I gave her the number of a hotline that could match her son’s name and birth date to a person deep within the immigration detention system — a person regarded as a criminal by the United States government, another body filling a bed in a private detention center, a person who, to the woman trembling at the fence, represented the entire world.
After a month of outrage at the cruelty of President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, last week we saw a stream of confounding and divergent statements on immigration: The president suggested depriving undocumented migrants of due process; Attorney General Jeff Sessions insisted that every adult who crossed illegally would be prosecuted; and the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection announced that families would once again be released together to await trial. Meanwhile, thousands of separated children and their parents remain trapped in a web of shelters and detention facilities run by nonprofit groups and private prison, security and defense companies.
It is important to understand that the crisis of separation manufactured by the Trump administration is only the most visibly abhorrent manifestation of a decades-long project to create a “state of exception” along our southern border.
This concept was used by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to describe the states of emergency declared by governments to suspend or diminish rights and protections. In April, when the president deployed National Guard troops to the border (an action also taken by his two predecessors), he declared that “the situation at the border has now reached a point of crisis.” In fact, despite recent upticks, border crossings remained at historic lows and the border was more secure than ever — though we might ask, secure for whoｍ？
For most Americans, what happens on the border remains out of sight and out of mind. But in the immigration enforcement community, the militarization of the border has given rise to a culture imbued with the language and tactics of war.
Border agents refer to migrants as “criminals,” “aliens,” “illegals,” “bodies” or “toncs” (possibly an acronym for “temporarily out of native country” or “territory of origin not known” — or a reference to the sound of a Maglite hitting a migrant’s skull). They are equipped with drones, helicopters, infrared cameras, radar, ground sensors and explosion-resistant vehicles. But their most deadly tool is geographic — the desert itself.
“Prevention Through Deterrence” came to define border enforcement in the 1990s, when the Border Patrol cracked down on migrant crossings in cities like El Paso. Walls were built, budgets ballooned and scores of new agents were hired to patrol border towns. Everywhere else, it was assumed, the hostile desert would do the dirty work of deterring crossers, away from the public eye.
Doris Meissner, the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000, told The Arizona Republic that the agency believed “that geography would be an ally to us” and that border crossings “would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.”
But even as it became obvious that large numbers were risking the desert crossing and a hundred or more were dying each year from exposure, the government did not change course. “The idea of abandoning any kind of strengthened border enforcement because of that consequence was not a point of serious discussion,” Ms. Meissner admitted. In other words, migrant deaths continued by design.
The Border Patrol often cites its search-and-rescue operations as evidence that its practices are somehow humane. But this is like firefighters asking to be thanked for putting out a blaze started by their own chief. Receiving training as an E.M.T. allowed me to cling to the idea that I was helping migrants by administering aid while ignoring the fact that I was participating in pushing them toward death.
Such defenses also gloss over the patrol’s casual brutality: I have witnessed agents scattering migrant groups in remote areas and destroying their water supplies, acts that have also been extensively documented by humanitarian groups.
The principle of deterrence is behind the current administration’s zero-tolerance policy. In an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News, Mr. Sessions, pressed on whether children were being separated from parents to deter crossers, conceded, “Yes, hopefully people will get the message.”
Administration officials have claimed that even this policy is “humanitarian,” in part because it may dissuade future migrants from bringing their children on the dangerous journey.
This ignores decades of proof that no matter what version of hell migrants are made to pass through at the border, they will endure it to escape far more tangible threats of violence in their home countries, to reunite with family or to secure some semblance of economic stability.
Policymakers also ignore that new enforcement measures almost always strengthen cartel-aligned human trafficking networks, giving them cause to increase their smuggling fees and push vulnerable migrants to make riskier crossings to avoid detection.
Jason De León, the director of the Undocumented Migration Project, argues that the government sees undocumented migrants as people “whose lives have no political or social value” and “whose deaths are of little consequence.”
This devaluation of migrant life is not just rhetorical: CNN recently revealed that the Border Patrol has been undercounting migrant deaths, failing to include more than 500 in its official tally of more than 6,000 deaths over 16 years — a literal erasure of lives.
The logic of deterrence is not unlike that of war: It has transformed the border into a state of exception where some of the most vulnerable people on earth face death and disappearance and where children are torn from their parents to send the message You are not safe here. In this sense, the situation at the border has reached a point of crisis — not one of criminality but of disregard for human life.
We cannot return to indifference. In the aftermath of our nation’s outcry against family separation, it is vital that we direct our outrage toward the violent policies that enabled it.
Francisco Cantú, a former Border Patrol agent, is the author of “The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border.”