The Common Good
June 2013

Bordering on the Truth

by Maryada Vallet | June 2013

Where the U.S. meets Mexico, rhetoric often gets in the way of the facts.

DURING CONGRESS’ current debate about immigration reform, the realities faced by immigrants and border communities are all too often misunderstood and misrepresented. What are the facts about border issues?

Myth #1: Border walls are effective for keeping out unauthorized border crossers.
Reality: History teaches us that walls don’t work when economic opportunity is on the other side—but walls that are higher and longer do cause more injuries and death when people are forced to go over, under, and around.

The most recent era of migration across the southern U.S. border was caused primarily by economic factors, as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) caused millions of Mexican farmers to lose their livelihoods. The current border strategy, enacted hand in hand with NAFTA, envisioned deterring economic refugees by intentionally funneling migration to dangerous desert areas. The danger and death happened; the deterrence didn’t. It was the U.S. economic downturn, much more than the wall, that has caused the current net-zero immigration rate.

Myth #2: The border is safer today because the Border Patrol has doubled in number in less than a decade.
Reality: Since 2005, 144 Customs and Border Protection employees have been arrested or indicted on corruption charges, including smuggling people or drugs. A federally funded analysis correlates the problem with the surge in agents and a weak internal disciplinary system. Excessive use of force by Border Patrol agents is of increasing concern. Last October, an agent at the border wall fired into the streets of Nogales, Mexico, killing 16-year-old Jose Elena Rodriguez, the second Mexican teenager killed by Border Patrol fire into the city in less than two years. The autopsy reported that Elena Rodriguez was shot at least seven times from behind.

Myth #3: The current U.S. border strategy is focused on detecting real criminals and terrorists.
Reality: False on two counts. First, there has been no evidence of terrorists crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Second, the current U.S. border strategy, designed to deter economic refugees and initiated in the mid-’90s well before terrorism was a perceived threat, has not changed; it’s simply been ramped up since 9/11 with terrorism as the justification.

Victims of crime and trafficking at the border, such as the estimated 20,000 enslaved children and women trafficked across the U.S.-Mexico border each year, face more obstacles than protection. With the main focus of border and immigration agents on deterrence and deportation, it has proved impracticable for them to also identify or protect victims of trafficking, according to research by the Institute for Policy Studies.

Myth #4: The current U.S. border policy is ethically justifiable.
Reality: While border apprehensions are the lowest in four decades, the death rate has worsened in this low-grade war zone as migrants are pushed to ever-more-remote crossing locations. Identified migrant deaths increased by 27 percent in 2012 to 477 people, bringing the total to nearly 6,000 since 1998. The people who have crossed in recent years—despite the economic downturn and the higher risk of death—are largely the people who have been the subjects of the Obama administration’s record-setting “interior deportations,” where people are released in the interior of Mexico, far from the border. They have often lived many years in the U.S. and are desperate to cross back to rejoin their U.S.-citizen children or spouses.

Myth #5: After immigration reform, the border issue will be resolved.
Reality: This would only be true if immigration reform addressed the root causes of migration, included immigrants with previous deportations and strong ties to the U.S., and demilitarized the border. Border security can indeed be achieved, but not through more agents, walls, abusive power, deportations, and deaths in the desert. True security arises when communities have jobs, access to health care and education, unified families, compassionate places of worship—and an awareness of global justice and multiculturalism that connects us to people throughout the Americas and the world.

Maryada Vallet stays busy as a humanitarian, health professional, and evangelical agitator on the border. For more on U.S.-Mexico border faith-based humanitarian work, visit www.nomoredeaths.org.

Image: Razor wire, ross-edward cairney / Shutterstock.com

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