This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
John Carlos FreyBack to OpinionJohn Carlos Frey

The human cost of securing the border

Photo: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

The U.S. Mexico border region is unlike any other place in the United States.  The dividing line between the two countries stretches for nearly two thousand miles from San Diego, California to Brownsville, Texas.  Although much of the geography is unique, it is not the physical terrain that makes the area so distinct.  The border region has come to represent an area within the boundaries of the United States where civil liberties are diminished and human rights are violated on a daily basis.

For the past ten years I have been documenting and reporting on U.S. -Mexico border.  I have been face to face with the head of a major drug cartel and even crossed the border with a group of undocumented immigrants as they journeyed to America in search of jobs.  I have encountered poverty, broken dreams, dead bodies and violence.  Most Americans believe the border region to be a dangerous place.  Most Americans believe the Southwest is being overrun with drug runners, bandits and human traffickers.   The fact is the border region has some of the “safest communities in America.”

I do not pretend that organized crime has not infiltrated migration or that illicit drugs are not coming across the border but what is under-reported and rarely discussed are the acts of violence and violations of inalienable rights perpetrated by our own Federal officers. Over the past ten years, I have seen a steep decline in the protection of civil liberties along the border region and a sharp rise in abuse of human rights by Customs and Border Protection officers (CBP). The ACLU has also followed this problem closely, reporting just today on The Truth about the Current State of Immigration Enforcement.

In addition to the violation of civil rights, Border Patrol Agents have been increasingly involved in fatal confrontations along the border.  In the past two years, through my reporting, I have counted nineteen people have died at the hands of U.S. Border Patrol. Many of the incidents are currently under investigation with many unanswered questions. The rise in fatal shootings has caught the attention of the The Department of Homeland Security that has begun an investigation into the Border Patrol’s use of force protocol.

It is not surprising that a rush to secure the border has resulted in a violent and mismanaged police force.  In 2007, Congress mandated doubling the size of the U.S. Border Patrol.  Hiring standards were lowered, training times cut and supervision thinned.  According to U.S. Border Patrol, hiring criteria during this acceleration meant you did not even need a high school diploma to become an agent.  In addition, background checks and standard lie detector tests were omitted in order to reach the hiring quota. Doubling the size of the U.S. Border Patrol in a short period of time has resulted in a police force where at least half of its’ agents now have just a few years experience. “Many veteran Border Patrol officials expressed concern about the quality of today’s recruits”, reported the Houston Chronicle.

Today, CBP officials number over 60,000 and is the largest police force in the country.  They are equipped like an army with standard weapons, off-road vehicles, night and heat sensors, motion detectors, black hawk helicopters and unmanned drones.  Their primary goal is not to keep undocumented immigrants from crossing the border instead their mission is to “prevent terrorists and terrorists’ weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, from entering the United States.” Their mission statement reads like U.S. goals in Iraq or Afghanistan.  CBPs’ heavy-handed approach to securing the border is not without serious human consequence. The border officials activities, protocols, internal investigations and reprimand system are not available to the public and therefore not available for public scrutiny.  If there is wrongdoing within the ranks, CBP investigates itself and reprimands itself.  It is a perfect system of impunity.

It appears as if Customs and Border Protection officials have become a new branch of the military except in many cases the enemy they are fighting are not terrorists but poor people in search of a job and as in war, civil liberties are surrendered and many times the unintended target, civilians and citizens, become casualties.  If immigration reform is predicated on “securing the border,” it may be prudent to assess the high cost to the residents of the region first.

John Carlos Frey  is a documentary filmmaker and investigative reporter. He has produced six full-length documentary films on the subject of migration and the U.S. Mexico Border. His work was featured on the 60 Minutes episode entitled, The All American Canal, which garnered the CBS News program a recent Emmy Award nomination.