Death as ‘Deterrence’: the Desert as a Weapon

by Gabe Shivone

A graph detailing the number and locations of immigrant deaths along the Arizona border between 1999 and 2011

A March 2010 Congressional Research Service report entitled “Border Security: the Role of the Border Patrol” candidly details government policy goals and strategies in recent history. In 1994, the report explains, the U.S. adopted a “new policy” of militarizing urban border areas in order to reroute and steer anticipated human migration into “geographically harsher,” “more remote and hazardous border regions” (mostly through the Arizona desert), as a way of “deterring” migrants from crossing.

The new “vision” of the deterrence strategy to bring the border “under control” is outlined in a July 1994 Border Patrol planning document entitled “Border Patrol Strategic Plan: 1994 and Beyond”. The perception of the border environment is explicitly used to demonstrate that migrants “crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger.” The document bases the strategy on the “prediction” that migrant “traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.”

Forgoing any subtly, “enforcement,” in this instance, is a euphemism for “mortal danger” as a premeditated method of death by example to deter human beings from crossing unauthorized into the US.

The strategic use of the “hazardous” border environment is not obscured by government officials. Six years after the strategic plan appeared, former Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Doris Meissner, admitted that “we did believe that geography would be an ally to us. It was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.”

On the policy’s fifteenth anniversary, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote in its landmark Oct. 2009 report, “Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the U.S.-Mexico Desert,” that at least 6000 people have died in the desert as a “predictable and inhumane” consequence of these so-called “deterrence” strategies, eliciting a continental humanitarian crisis. The month following the release of the ACLU report, the American Public Health Association (APHA) released its own report, “Border Crossing Deaths: A Public Health Crisis Along the U.S.-Mexico Border.” The APHA likewise concluded that the Border Patrol’s policy of “prevention through deterrence” has “resulted in the purposeful displacement and diversion of migrants into more treacherous and dangerous zones to cross…” The APHA echoed the total number of desert deaths cited by the ACLU in its report the previous month, but added that “[t]hese statistics are merely the number of known deaths, and do not include those border crossers who have never been found or were reported missing, thereby underestimating the actual number of migrants who have died attempting to cross the border.”

The darkly euphemistic language of “controlling” (in contrast to stopping) unauthorized immigration is crucial in understanding the enforcement management system of death as a measure of deterrence capacity. A “key assumption” of the 1994 Strategic Plan was that migrant apprehensions “will decrease as Border Patrol increases control of the border.” Having observed the actual consequences of anticipated effects of blunt “control” efforts, the APHA report cited above notes that “despite a nearly 50 percent drop in Border Patrol apprehensions”—as coolly predicted by Border Patrol in 1994—and despite “the recent economic downturn, and a decrease in border crossings, migrant deaths along the border continue to increase” (my emphasis).

This morbid trend over the past two decades is acutely evident. According to state medical examiners and human rights groups 14 deaths in the year of the strategy’s fateful onset, 1994, jumped to 90 deaths in 2000, to 145 deaths in 2001, to 163 deaths in 2002. The next year, in one of those rare moments of candor that occasionally crop up from retired government officials, former Tucson Border Patrol sector chief, Ron Sanders, was quoted an article in The Nation magazine on U.S. border militarization policy: “By every measure, the strategy is a failure. All it’s accomplished is killing people….If you had airplanes crashing in this country with the same numbers [of deaths], you’d have everybody after the FAA. But since these people [dying] are Mexicans, no one seems to care.”

Hundreds of deaths, year after year, have followed. Some 178 human remains were recovered for the 2012 fiscal year ending in September, 2012, with eight more tolled remains recovered in October.

Trade Inequities Driving the Tides of Out-Migration

But what creates this mass human migration in the first place? What is driving people northward? One of the conclusions of a study released in 2010 by specialists in part from the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars’ Mexico Institute suggests the answer that has long been obvious. The effects of U.S.-imposed trade policies like NAFTA (implemented in 1994) reflect a veritable golden age for U.S. Agribusiness elites.

At other end of lucrative economic policies the human consequences tell a different story. U.S.-imposed, NAFTA product-dumping on Mexico (where exports including numerous staple meats and crops were forced on the Mexican market below the production costs of Mexican farmers) destroyed the Mexican farming sector, which in turn overwhelmed the urban sector with farmers who were newly out-of-work and growing desperate. Meanwhile U.S. industrial jobs disappeared when firms relocated (i.e. outsourced) to Mexico.

The predictable result was an economic depression of U.S. workers and Mexican farmers, who suffered the annihilation of roughly 3 million jobs on both sides of the border. Those harshest affected, throughout deep rural Mexico, began migrating to the U.S. mainly to try and provide for their families back home after their local economies were devastated by U.S. policies, with the collaboration of the Mexican government.

The APHA report cited above explains further:

Border enforcement activities also do not address the root causes of migration, which include the growing socioeconomic disparities in sending countries, coupled by the demand for low-skilled, low-wage workers in the United States. Although some unauthorized migrants enter the United States to seek asylum, most enter for economic reasons. Per capita incomes in the United States are 5 to 7 times higher than those of Mexico and most Central and South American countries. Various studies also suggest that the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the related intensified liberalization of the Mexican economy resulted in strengthening migratory pressures. Combined with the resulting intensifying social and infrastructural links between the 2 countries, the research suggests that the rural exodus leads to an increase in migration from Mexico to the United States, a development of which the Clinton Administration was very much aware. In terms of farm labor, for example, a NAFTA-related trade deficit (in favor of the United States) contributed significantly to the loss of an estimated 1.3 million jobs in Mexico’s agricultural sector between 1994 and 2002. Because opportunities for legal entry into the United States to seek employment are limited, people resort to unauthorized attempts to gain entry. Deaths among unauthorized migrants are emerging as a major public health issue that is intertwined with social, economic, and political factors.

Often the human effects of a system of oppression are observed most keenly not only by the victims and the violated but by the system’s agents who directly carry out policy on the ground. In an interview with a Border Patrol agent in 1978—around the beginning of the modern build-up of US border enforcement militarization—the effects of trade policies like NAFTA were articulated at their most basic level, long before such policies reached record extremes in the coming decades: “If you look at the human aspects [of Border Patrol work], we are stopping starving people from coming in to work, [and] it is not pretty to look at.” Another agent remarked in 2007, “We’re fortunate enough to live in a country where there are lots of opportunities. And most of the people who we run into out here want to make that dream happen. Unfortunately, it’s our job to stop that dream. That’s what we do on an everyday basis.”

So rolls a vicious cycle: economic violence first shakes to the bone Mexican and other Global Southern communities and sends people migrating for their lives across the relatively rich borders of the U.S. At this time a second wave of political violence is inflicted on them in which the “mortal danger” of “geographically remote,” “harsh” and “hazardous” conditions of the AZ-Sonora desert are predictably turned into deadly weapons of U.S. border enforcement policy. To top it off, undocumented people face a social death among U.S. civil society and the violence of an incarceration system, to which we now turn.

An Industry of Incarceration and Misery Profiteering

The rolling cycle of profit over people doesn’t end with forced migration and mass desert death. A violent industry of incarceration and abuse absorbs especially undocumented people who may survive a weaponized desert—or lie low in communities throughout the U.S., many in which they’ve lived nearly their whole lives—but not escape the clutches of a predatory immigration enforcement system, now on fire with the increasing anti-immigrant sentiment of the AZ variety. In its March 2009 report, Jailed Without Justice, Amnesty International (AI) focused on the “human rights violations associated with the dramatic increase in the use of detention by the United States as an immigration enforcement mechanism.” AI reported that U.S. immigration detention had tripled in just over a decade, noting a likely increase “at the expense of the United States’ human rights obligations.” Amnesty observed that “Tens of thousands of people sit locked up in a broken and cruel system of detention with no right to even a hearing to determine if their detention is warranted.”

Not surprising, such a system doesn’t fail to produce policy-practice rationales eerily reminiscent of the national police force of a totalitarian state. AI quotes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s Former Executive director of the ICE Office of State and Local Coordination: “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we [ICE] can make him disappear.”

The “dramatic increase” in detention to accommodate the tripling number of human beings disappeared by the state called for the contracting of 350 state and county jails across the U.S., Amnesty reported. Sixty-seven percent of detainees were held in these facilities, AI wrote, while the remaining people were held in immigration detention facilities and private prisons.

With the explosion of anti-immigrant legislation searing Arizona and the nation, the important difference in the years following Amnesty’s ominous report is that its findings are now likely relegated to the realm of understatement. In October 2010, National Public Radio (NPR) issued a whistleblower report on the incarceration industry riding the wave of detention increases reported by Amnesty in 2009. Corporate reports of private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) demonstrated the belief held by executives that “immigrant detention is their next big market,” according to NPR, which reviewed the reports. In 2009, CCA “wrote that they expect to bring in ‘a significant portion of our revenues’” from the results of ICE apprehensions.

NPR noted having spent several months analyzing hundreds of pages of legislative campaign finance reports, lobbying documents and corporate records. They revealed an industrial partnership of state-corporate representatives behind the drafting of anti-immigrant legislation—in particular notorious SB 1070, or the “Show Me Your Papers” law signed in April 2010, which criminalized undocumented people in the State of Arizona.

These conditions are only cemented further after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2012 upholding of SB 1070’s provision requiring local police officers to carry out immigration law through enacting “reasonable suspicion”.

The NPR report quotes Wayne Calabrese, President of another major private prison corporation, the GEO Group: “I can only believe the opportunities at the federal level are going to continue apace as a result of what’s happening. Those people coming across the border and getting caught are going to have to be detained and that for me…[means]…there’s going to be enhanced opportunities for what we do.”

Of course, there are other kinds of violence involving illegal drugs and gang warfare in border regions as well. Take, for instance, the U.S. teens who were murdered in Juarez in February when they were inadvertently caught in the crossfire of a gang war. While the event was widely reported nationally, nowhere mentioned was the fact that most of the guns that enable and are a part of this sort of violence are provided by Arizona and the U.S.—a fact even readily admitted by the Obama administration. Or that the principal demand for illegal drugs originates here in the states as a multi-billion-dollar industry. But instead of dealing with the problem of illegal drugs by decriminalization and dealing with drug addiction by increasing social programs of education, prevention and treatment, the Obama Administration continues to apply increased enforcement measures in the so-called “war on drugs,” which only make these huge problems dangerously worse. Leading border scholar, Timothy Dunn, calls this sort of violence—of the drug, immigration, and terror wars all converging—“a perfect storm”. Because now each of these ideologically charged topics are joined and used as an excuse by state and federal authorities to aggrandize enforcement resources, largely benefiting big business, and exacerbate issues that should rather be dealt with in economic and social terms.