Commentary
By Edward Matthews 8-09-2018

Border security and human rights should not be binary, but in the current political climate, they are. Unfortunately, evangelicals often align with the former without recognizing the impact on the latter. It’s time we took account.

Border Security has proven a powerful rhetorical tool for politicians on the left and on the right. According to this rhetoric, the border is porous, vetting is broken, and undocumented immigrants are cheating the legitimate process of legal immigration.

The answer put forward? More funding, more agents, and better technology to protect American taxpayers.

President Bill Clinton helped lay the foundation for the current rhetoric defining immigration in his 1994 State of the Union address, three weeks after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect.

The increase in commerce brought more undocumented immigration and calls for enhanced border security increased, California Governor Pete Wilson among them.

To address these concerns, the Clinton administration responded with Operation Gatekeeper, launched in the San Diego Sector on Oct. 1994. The goal was prevention through deterrence, as stated in the Border Patrol Strategic Plan. The idea was to make the “risk of apprehension high enough so as to become an effective deterrent,” a proposition that is still being negotiated.

A few years later, in Nov. 2002, the Homeland Security Act, dissolved the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and reorganized its components within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), forming three organizations: Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

While the INS’s mission was primarily to maintain control of the border and monitor immigration, the CBP’s mission aims to “safeguard America's borders thereby protecting the public from dangerous people”. The shift in mission from INS to CBP reflects an emphasis on anti-terrorism rather than immigration management.

This change was not altogether unwarranted. In a Feb. 2005 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security James Loy was quoted saying that al-Qa’ida had considered illegal entry through the southwest border. In the same testimony, Loy favored “introducing technology along that border that’ll substitute for what has historically been a very human-intensive effort.”

The month after the hearing, Admiral Loy left the DHS, and five months later, joined the Board of Directors at Lockheed Martin. The following year, it announced a $16 million investment to build a Border Enforcement Solutions Center as part of DHS’s movement to secure the border. The threat is identified, the call for security is made, the funding follows. And the cycle continues.

Since 1992, U.S. Border Patrol staff has quintupled, from 4,139 to 19,437 in 2017, and budget has increased tenfold — from $326 million in 1992 to $3.8 billion in 2017.

And how was this money used other than staffing? One answer is new tech.

Every year there is a Border Security Expo, where private companies and government officials meet, the former showing off their newest technology. It’s a place where weapons manufacturer GLOCK, INC is three stands down from the Border Patrol Foundation.

The 2018 Border Security Expo featured a keynote speech from the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, as well as a panel on procurement moderated by the Former Acting Commissioner of CBP. Government officials and respected industry elites talk, and contractors listen, anticipating the financial implications.

What did this exponential increase in funding and staffing do to stop the flow of immigration? It shifted it to from the accessible urban entries to less habitable parts of the border along southern Arizona and Texas, where 6,023 migrants died from 2000 – 2016.

While it could be successfully argued that more funding would be appropriate to heighten security against suspected terrorists, the greater proportion of groups this surveillance has affected are families, often seeking asylum, such as the surge from Central America in 2014 caused by an extreme escalation in gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and especially El Salvador.

An infrastructure for efficiently and ethically handling undocumented immigrants is not in place. This leads to a state of limbo in detention centers operated by for-profit corrections corporations. In one instance, three women in T. Don Hutto Detention Center (operated by CoreCivic, formerly CCA) claimed to be sexually abused by guards.

Lobbying by these corrections institutions is another revenue stream feeding the border security industry. CoreCivic contributed over $1 million in 2016, including campaign donations to more than 60 candidates, most of which were Republican.

The problem is that CoreCivic has breached contracts in the past, as was found in the DOJ’s report on CoreCivic’s Leavenworth Detention Center in 2017.

When it comes to immigration reform, border security is described with strategy and detail, both in the rhetoric and the bills themselves, with human rights provisions left vague, as is shown in prominent immigration Congressman John Culberson’s statement on Border Security and Immigration.

These concerns are indicative of a reactive atmosphere surrounding immigration, one that violates international human rights, such as separating parents from their children, in favor of efficient detainment and/or deportation, in the hopes of seeking that elusive “effective deterrent”.

Security and undocumented immigration today are reduced to a binary proposition rather than offering comprehensive immigration reform that encompasses both security and human rights protection.

To break this binary, evangelical Christians should foster dialogue between advocates, CBP, border constituencies, and lawmakers. Why not be the ones who create the space where this happens?

Edward Matthews is a Ph.D. in Creative Writing candidate at Swansea University who writes stories about how borders change the identities of those who encounter them. You can find him on Twitter @eddiematthews22. 

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