‘We’ve never seen so many attacks on our community’: Border Network Leader García Shares Responses to Violence at U.S.-Mexico Border

CUSLAR-LASP Public Issues Forum Lecture by Fernando García

Fernando García, founder and executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, gave a lecture titled “Border Communities, Racial Inequalities, and Human Rights” at Cornell University on October 1. The CUSLAR-LASP Public Issues Forum was hosted by the Cornell Latin American Studies Program and co-sponsored by the Latina/o Studies Program, Cornell Farmworker Program and Engaged Cornell. The following article is a transcript, edited for brevity and clarity.

Good afternoon and greetings from the U.S.-Mexico border. Today I’ll focus on two things: the development and evolution of border enforcement policies and strategies, and the narratives about the border and towards immigrants. Both are extremely important for us at the Border Network for Human Rights. 

You hear about the border all the time. It’s in the news. It’s part of the national discussion. You probably know that many of those narratives are distorted and have been used politically. 

I’m going to try to present our vision, and by “our” I mean people working with border communities. How do our families see the border? How do we see ourselves? 

You may have heard people say that there is an unprecedented attack against immigrants and border residents. Let me put that in context. In the 21 years that we have been organizing and doing advocacy as part of the Border Network, we’ve never seen so many attacks at the same time against our community. 

Creation of the U.S.-Mexico border

Let’s review our history, because history shapes who we are. The U.S.-Mexico border was essentially created in 1847, after the Mexican-American War. The war was used to implement Manifest Destiny, the expansionist doctrine that allowed for the conquest of the West. The U.S. government needed to create a pretext for war with Mexico to open up more land to the West, all the way to California. The current border was established shortly after.

Yet when we can truly start talking about a border is with the establishment of the Border Patrol in 1924. For almost a century up until then, there was virtually no border enforcement. The Border Patrol emerged from the experience of the Texas Rangers, whose function after the Mexican-American War was essentially to drive Mexicans and indigenous people out of Texas and take their lands, often killing them. That’s the precursor of the Border Patrol. 

At the time of the establishment of the Border Patrol, the concept toward the border was border control. That means we want to keep a record of who’s coming in and out. At that time, you didn’t need passports, you just needed some kind of identification to come through a port of entry. 

From border control to border security

Ronald Reagan’s decision to declare a War on Drugs in the early 1980s changed the concept of the border. That was the next philosophical approach to border, which went from “border control” — that is, to know who is coming in and out — to “border security.” That meant that every border crosser was defined as a potential drug dealer, a potential criminal. Based on the new concept of border security came the justification to reinforce the border. They also had to develop a new narrative. They had to change the mentality of the agencies and the general public, that we’re going to go after everybody, because everybody who crosses the border is a potential trafficker. So we saw from the 1980s to the ’90s what we could call a “massification” of enforcement.

Historically there were only a few hundred agents at the border, but by 1993, we had close to 10,000 Border Patrol agents. The new strategy was very clear: to seal the border at traditional crossing points in populated areas: El Paso-Juarez, San Diego-Tijuana, Brownsville-Matamoros, and others. The message being sent by the U.S. government was clear. There were going to be visible agents at the borderline, so people would see them and not cross there. People would be forced to cross in the desert, with more danger and no one to help them. And guess what? People started dying. 

This policy was called Prevention through Deterrence. They wanted to make it so difficult for immigrants to come to the United States that they pushed them into these very dangerous areas. The deterrence operations followed the policy: Operation Blockade and Operation Borderline in El Paso, Operation Río Grande in the Río Grande Valley, and Operation Guardian in San Diego, Tijuana and Arizona. 

Since 1993, we have an average of 500 migrants dying per year crossing the border. When I tell you this, it’s very personal. They could be my friends, my family members, my uncles and aunts, my cousins, my parents. This is not happening on Mars, even though they want to call us illegal aliens. It’s happening right here. 

Since Prevention through Deterrence started, we have a record of more than 10,000 migrants who have died at the U.S.-Mexico border due to our policies. This is a catastrophe! This is a human rights crisis. 

We have had more migrants die at our border than U.S. soldiers who have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. How can we allow that? Do people even know about it? 

‘A matter of national security’

In 2001 we saw another change in the conception of the border. After the September 11 attacks, the U.S.-Mexico border would not be only about border security. It would be a matter of national security. 

Now, according to the official narrative, everybody crossing the border is not only a potential drug trafficker — now they’re labeled as potential terrorists. This is the narrative that’s been built, probably without the public knowing what’s happening in these successive moments of what I call the expansion of the criminalization of immigrants. 

So immigrants were painted as drug dealers but also as potential terrorists. That narrative must be questioned, and the people telling those lies about us must be held accountable. When they call immigrants criminals, rapists, and animals — probably you have heard that in the last few months — it comes out of the construction of a narrative developed over many years. And some people have started believing it. 

So by the mid-2000s, we started seeing another element, another system superimposed on the border: the expansion of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. Border Patrol increased its actions as if it was a paramilitary unit, not a civilian enforcement agency.

Calling immigrants criminals was only one part of it. At the same time they were implementing a military strategy of containment. The border walls started in 2005 and 2006, not now. Both Democrat and Republican administrations were equally responsible for this narrative. 

Yet border walls were not enough. We needed to add more Border Patrol agents. So we went from funding for 10,000 Border Patrol agents deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border in 1993 to 23,000 today. The actual numbers don’t always reach those figures, because they have trouble hiring and keeping that many agents. There’s constant turnover at the agency because a lot of agents can’t handle the stress of being told they have to arrest children and families. 

And yet it was not enough to build walls or increase the Border Patrol. We were told we need to use technology as well. So we have eight different drone systems in the skies over the border. The same drones that are launching missiles in Afghanistan are the ones we have within a hundred miles of the border into the interior. These drone systems monitor the border all the way up to Disneyland in California. 

We also have sensors, night vision, everything that you can think of. But again, that was not enough. We were told we needed more border enforcement. The National Guard was deployed in 2005, 2006 and 2010: up to 5,000 guardsmen. 

Even that was not enough to contain the so-called “invasion.” So we did the unprecedented. When I say “we,” I mean it in terms of society. The Powers That Be did it — the administration did it. Trump declared a National Emergency for the border, saying there was an imminent threat.

I say this was unprecedented, but probably your professors can tell me if this has ever happened before. We deployed 5,900 active-duty soldiers — Marines — on American soil. I recall the deployment of the military in the past. I recall the Watts Rebellion in California in 1965. I recall the National Guard being deployed in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. But here we’re talking about battalions of Marines.

How many of you know about the Posse Comitatus Act? I know some of you do. It’s a very old provision that prohibits the deployment of the army on American soil for political purposes. It had to be an emergency. An emergency is an internal state of war or a massive catastrophe. None of that is happening at the border. 

We have Marines walking through our neighborhoods. Why is this bad? It’s violating what I believe are Constitutional standards. But it goes beyond that. It’s bad because it’s setting a precedent. Whatever happens at the border will happen elsewhere. The border always becomes the country. It always goes to the interior. The borders define the character of the nation. 

Because of this precedent, the next president could declare a State of Emergency and order Marines into the streets of Chicago or Los Angeles. That is very bad. 

The Border Network for Human Rights filed a lawsuit against the National Emergency declaration. We went to court, and we presented our case, the administration presented theirs and we’re waiting for the judge’s decision. What we observed is that the deployment of Marines has been politically motivated. Why do we say that? 

How many of you know of an incident where there were terrorists detained crossing the U.S.-Mexico border? None. Zero. 

How many potential terrorists have crossed the U.S.-Canadian border? Right after the September 11 attacks there was a guy who actually crossed the Canadian border with a truck full of explosives, and he was aiming for the Los Angeles airport. They caught him, thankfully. But he was known as the LA bomber. 

So why are we not doing the same at the Canadian border if the argument is national security? Why are we not putting walls, drones, border patrol agents in Washington State and Niagara Falls? I don’t want that to happen, but I want to put it in contrast, because national security is the argument. 

The Mexican border hasn’t seen an incident like that, and the Canadian border has. However, we’re not treating them equally. Why? We’ve got to talk about that. The U.S.-Mexico border is one of the most militarized borders in the world. Right after South Korea, Afghanistan and Israel, we have this border. 

Over $18 billion has been spent at this border. Eighteen billion dollars. What is the intention of that? It seems like you’re preparing for a war. So who is the enemy? Drug traffickers? If that’s the case, we lost that war. There are more drugs than ever in the country. It’s not about terrorists because we have not seen a pattern of terrorism. So what is this about? When we start analyzing and understanding, the enemy is the immigrant family. That child, that mother, who is fleeing persecution, oppression or poverty. 

Border enforcement policies are infused with ideology, specifically white supremacy. That’s why we’re not seeing this at the Canadian border. Last March we saw the arrival of armed militias at the border. Mostly white, with a very specific ideology. They were saying they were responding to the call to action by President Trump to stop the invasion. 

What invasion? Border crossings have reduced dramatically. In 2010, the average number of people arrested crossing the border was 1.5 million a year. In 2018, it was under 400,000. So that’s not an invasion. The “invasion” idea was picked up by people who felt empowered in their racism and xenophobia by the highest office in the nation. So these militias went down to El Paso with no authority, and they start detaining people. They became an unofficial expansion of Border Patrol. 

Then on August 3rd, somebody drove 600 miles from northern Texas to El Paso and went to the most Mexican Walmart. Why do I say Mexican Walmart? El Paso and Juarez are a binational community. This community can only be understood by the interdependence of the two cities. He went to the most Mexican Walmart and started shooting Mexicians. He was selecting them because they looked like Mexicans. The only white person who died there was because he was protecting his Latina wife. Twenty-two people died that day, from our community in El Paso. 

That shooting didn’t happen in a vacuum. It wasn’t circumstantial or random. The violence being carried out against our people is common and it appears to be government policy. 

This year, before the shooting, El Paso saw mothers being separated from their babies. Eighteen-month-old babies were in detention. Children were put in cages. I’m not overstating it: we’re there, we see it. 

The detentions are unbelievably inhumane. In one case fathers, mothers, kids and grandparents were detained and kept under a bridge on rocky ground. They had to sleep there for days, exposed to the elements. They were given no food, no water and no medication. A mother asked one of the agents if he could pass her a bottle of milk that was there, to give to her little girl. The agent grabbed the milk and threw it to the ground.

Thirty people from that makeshift detention center under the bridge were finally taken to an official detention center. They hadn’t been allowed a bath for seven days. The ICE agents put them in a cold outdoor courtyard, took a water hose and bathed them collectively with their clothes on. And then they were sent to hieleras, or very cold, cold rooms. 

Another thing is that six children have died during a period of six months in Border Patrol stations and ICE stations. Before that it had been years since we had heard about a child dying in a detention center. 

The effects of ‘zero tolerance’

Since 1996 until recently, if you were detained at the border, you’d be deported back to Mexico. But of course you want to go back to your family in the U.S. Border crossing is basically an issue of people wanting to be with their families. If they catch you crossing a second time, they send you to jail for three to four years. 

Last year that changed. Even if it’s the very first time you crossed the border, you will be criminally prosecuted. So the crime of seeking a better life is being punished. The crime of seeking the American Dream is being punished. That’s the zero tolerance approach. 

This administration stopped accepting asylum seekers trying to cross the border legally. This is how we’ve been told to do it, to show up and say, “I’m afraid something is going to happen to me or my family,” and you ask for a hearing for protection in the U.S. 

These people are not trying to sneak into the United States. They are turning themselves in massively because of violence and economic desperation in Central America. 

Granting asylum has been the international standard and the historic standard of the United States for those fleeing violence. Do you remember why the pilgrims came here? They were fleeing violence. Many generations have come to the United States fleeing violence. But now we’re told the country is not going to accept any more asylum seekers. This administration decided to just return them to Mexico, even if they’re not Mexican. So far there have been, I believe, at least five Central American migrants who have been returned and killed in Mexico. 

What we have is the evolution not only of a policy, but the evolution of a narrative. We’re very concerned about it because honestly this is not about immigrants. It is about what we are as a nation. What we are doing today represents the character of the nation. 

When you think of the Statue of Liberty at Ellis Island, what do you think of? “Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” Who are the huddled masses? Immigrants. Twelve million immigrants came through Ellis Island from Europe. The Statue of Liberty defined the character of the nation for many decades. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. 

That narrative defined America as a nation of immigrants, but we have a new narrative forming now. I believe the U.S.-Mexico border is the new Ellis Island. The immigrants coming right now, who are being deported, incarcerated or waiting in refugee camps in Juarez have the same hopes and aspirations as those European immigrants. They are no different. 

The only difference is that today we have immigrants of color coming from the south. So what we’re seeing today at the border, including all of these horrific things — what is really happening is a fight for the soul and character of this country. We are all going to be responsible, not just this administration, for wherever this country goes. 

Is this going to be a country that incarcerates children, persecutes immigrants, builds walls, deploys the Marines on American soil? Or is this going to be a country that accepts that we are diverse and resolves to be inclusive? This country will continue to be driven by immigration. We could consider immigrants an asset to our communities, as they have been seen in the past, instead of a national security threat. 

Transcription by Melanie Calderon, AnnaClaire Fernandez, Joshua Lam, Kevin Maldonado, Cassidy Vees.

Find the video of García’s lecture at: lasp.einaudi.cornell.edu.

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