U.S.-Mexico border control raises human rights concerns

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In a New York Times article from February 21, journalist James C. McKinley Jr. detailed the current efforts of the U.S. Border Patrol and their supposedly courageous battle along the United States-Mexico border. Adding to the current highly biased debate over how to handle illegal immigration in the United States, McKinley’s article perpetuates the stereotype that American patriotism is defined solely by camouflage desert gear and a determination to exterminate the rats contaminating our economy. In this sense, if we want to call ourselves patriotic Americans, it seems like we must support the Border Patrol and their overzealous, un-thought-out tactics.

At first glance, the bias in the border immigration debate appears to be based in an us-versus-them mentality. That is, we do not want undocumented migrants in our country because they are not Americans; they are different from us. In this sense, what place do they have taking part unequally in our prosperous American economy?

But what about real American history? The intrinsic instability of the U.S.-Mexico border region is centuries old. The region is plagued by cultural paradoxes and contradictions perpetuated by the ambiguous nature of the border itself. The melding of Mexican and American cultures is as much a part of the arid landscape as the rusted barbed wire fence slicing through the barren stretch of territory. The culture along the border is one that is highly complex, defined by years of migration and overlap in language, customs, and politics. Contradiction, while itself a vague concept, is wholly part of this cultural landscape.

Because of the fluid, inconsistent nature of the border region, the hidden bias in the argument over illegal immigration in the U.S. is one of human rights: We tend to see ourselves as civilized and the migrants as animalistic and savage, when we should just be protecting everyone’s human rights to life and freedom. Shouldn’t American patriotism be defined by support and defense of the freedom of every individual, regardless of his or her race or cultural origin? If these illegal immigrants are entering the U.S. by means of crawling across a dusty desert and through sewage tunnels, seemingly reduced to animals, why can’t our government see that they are in desperate need of economic stability and humanitarian protection?

Instead of thinking about the real reason why these people are crossing — to save their families, to find economic stability, to find cultural or political independence, not to intentionally undermine the American economy — the Border Patrol is stepping up measures to keep them out and then celebrating doing so. In McKinley’s article, he writes about the most recent projects imposed on the region by the Border Patrol, stressing its supposed success in the border territory.

“In the last four months, the number [of migrants caught] has dropped 27 percent compared with the same period last year,” according to the Times article. Perhaps coincidentally, the Border Patrol has also received increased funding for putting more officers on constant patrol along rivers and monitoring surveillance cameras, placing stadium lights to highlight individuals, and erecting secondary fences. Mexicans are trapped unknowingly, only to be promptly removed by the patrol force.

Instead of trying to completely reverse the border’s innate qualities of fluidity and instability, why isn’t the U.S. government spending money on problems within our own country, or at least on protecting — not harming — these hard-pressed migrants? Constantly stepping up the Border Patrol’s technology has proved expensive and futile in the past — there are plenty of undocumented migrants living and working in the U.S. today.

Tony Payan, in his 2006 book titled Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars: Drugs, Immigration, and Homeland Security, presents the facts on the Border Patrol’s budget. According to Payan’s research, between 1986 and 2000, the budget increased from $200 million to over $1 billion, and its personnel increased from 2000 to 12,000. The 2007 budget calls for the deployment of another 1500 agents.

A common misperception perpetuated in McKinley’s article is that funding and personnel increases actually work. The article stated that “there are signs that the measures the Border Patrol and other federal agencies have taken over the last year … are beginning to slow the flow of illegal immigrants.” While McKinley does acknowledge that this presumption is weakly supported, based solely on the measurement of how many migrants are actually caught, the Border Patrol and Homeland Security do not seem to want to acknowledge the fact that migrants will continue to find other, more dangerous means of penetrating the border. “We are comfortable that this actually reflects a change in momentum,” Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff declared in an interview in February.

Moreover, the Times article described a particularly horrific example of what American patriotism has come to be identified as. In a trial of 78 migrants (represented by a single lawyer) who had been caught after attempting to cross the border into the U.S., a 51-year-old man trying to work in San Antonio to pay for his son’s college tuition was sent to jail for entering the country and trying to find stable work. “But he acknowledged that the stint in jail had persuaded him not to try again, even if his son must drop out. ‘No way,’ he said, shaking his head.” Congratulations, Border Control: you just made the economic situation in Mexico, which we should be trying to help stabilize, that much worse.

The question of undocumented migrants living and working in the U.S. should not be a game of cat and mouse, but instead, one of preserving the dignity of Latin American and U.S. citizens by recognizing and supporting the rights to life, freedom, and protection innate to all individuals.