A Policy of Brutality

A picture for policy of brutality Patrolling a fortified border, photo from the Associated Press

By Duncan Riley



The recent death of 7-year old Guatemalan migrant Jakelin Ameí Rosmery Caal Maquin in Border Patrol custody has ignited further public outcry over the conduct of the Border Patrol and the Trump administration’s immigration policies. After eight hours in custody, Caal and her father were not provided with water, and provided only with cookies for food. Further, after the death of his daughter, Jakelin’s father, who does not speak English, was asked to sign English-language only voluntary departure forms.[1] All of this has brought to the public’s attention what former Border Patrol agent Francisco Cantú calls an “institutional culture of the Border Patrol” that “regularly dismisses even the most basic needs of detained migrants.” Detained migrants, after walking through the desert heat for days, are often denied water, as agents are taught to see migrants as “aliens” and “illegals,” rather than as humans. As Cantú says, what happened to Caal “is not an aberration.”[2]

However, what has received less attention is how the culture of cruelty that pervades the Border Patrol is only one aspect of a larger culture of cruelty that pervades US immigration and border policy, and the institutions that enforce it. It is no accident, nor a freely made choice, that causes thousands of migrants each year to make the dangerous crossing of the Sonoran, Arizonan, and New Mexican deserts. During the 1990s, the Clinton administration initiated a new “Prevention through Deterrence” policy on the southern border, modeled on the Pentagon’s doctrines for suppressing guerilla war. Urban and natural crossing points were heavily fortified and guarded, while desert regions were left more sparsely protected, under the assumption that the environment would provide a natural deterrent. In reality, this policy has not served to deter migration, but has made it far more dangerous, by forcing migrants to make desert crossings.[3]

Making the long journey across the desert, under threat of detention by the Border Patrol, forces migrants to make difficult choices. Migrants are generally unable to carry enough water to sustain them over the long journey. After they run out of water, they are faced with the prospect of dehydration, or drinking bacteria-contaminated water that ranchers keep for livestock.[4] Migrants also generally wear dark clothing, and paint their possessions black, in the hope it will camouflage them from the Border Patrol. However, since black clothing absorbs more heat, it exponentially raises the risk of hyperthermia and dehydration.[5] All of these dangerous health impacts are ultimately the result of the sustained policy of militarization at the US-Mexico border, that successive presidential administrations have maintained.

It is no surprise then, that over the preceding years, the death toll has continued to rise. After the first ten years of the “Prevention through Deterrence” policy, border-crossing deaths doubled.[6] To this day, the situation has not improved significantly. In the first seven months of the last year, 232 people died while crossing the desert, a 17% increase from 2016. The situation has been aggravated by border officials increasing refusal to even hear asylum claims from migrants, forcing them to make desert crossings. The UN agency that produced the findings said it was likely an underestimate.[7]

Faced with a mounting death toll and the failure of their policies, the responses of the Department of Homeland Security and the border patrol have often smacked of the tragically absurd. For some years now, the Department of Homeland Security has funded the creation and distribution of corridos, Mexican folk ballads, that tell the story of the dangers and violence of the journey to the United States. Originally, these corridos were distributed in Mexico, but the recent increase in immigration from Central America has caused the government to expand the program.[8] Only four years ago, the Border Patrol, in a creative collaboration with a US advertising agency, created and distributed “La Bestia,” a hit song across Central America, describing the deadly journey north. Those listening to the song, of course, were not informed that it was produced by the US government.[9] This program, collectively referred to as “migras corridos,” does nothing to alleviate the plight of migrants, but serves to make plain the violence inherent in US policy.

Yet, in the face of the danger, migrants continue to risk everything to travel to the United States. Many migrants making desert crossings are deported long-time residents of the US, determined to return to their families and homes north of the Río Bravo.[10] Others are Guatemalans and Salvadorans, fleeing the violence and economic instability that have plagued the region as a result of the civil wars between leftist rebels and US-backed dictatorships in the 20th century. Hondurans in particular have been fleeing in large numbers to the United States. Since the US backed coups in 2009 and 2017, political opponents of the right-wing government have faced persecution and violence, and the economic and social situations have deteriorated rapidly. US border policy thus layers cruelty upon cruelty, as migrants and refugees fleeing violence and persecution that US foreign policy helped create are subjected to further violence and persecution at the border.

Despite the manifest humanitarian and practical failure of its border policy, the present US government, and the leadership of both major political parties, seems committed to continuing it. Minnesota Democratic Party Senator and presidential hopeful, Amy Klobuchar, recently expressed she would be willing to fund Trump’s wall in exchange for a promise of immigration reform.[11] As of today, a bill passed by the House yesterday that would provide funding for the wall in order to prevent a government shutdown seems slated to pass or fail by a slim margin in the Senate.[12] Such a compromise, whether pushed by Democrats or Republicans, continues to endanger the lives of the thousands of migrants that cross each year, in return for a vague promise of a moderate reform that will not balance the scales of justice. It equally, by supporting the construction of a physical barrier between the United States and its Latin American sister republics, serves to further weaken the bonds of sorority wherein lie the best hope for a better, and more equal hemisphere. Whether North American, Mexican, Honduran, or Argentinian, we are all Americans – the physical or political obstructions constructed between us are not organic, but artificial and imperial in nature. The only reform that will bring true justice is the reversal of the United States government’s sanguinary policies at the border, and the end of the present political situation in the United States. For, if the present forces that dominate the US government persist in power, we can be assured that there will be more Jakelin Ameí Rosmery Caal Maquins.



[1] Moore, Robert, and Nick Miroff. “Attorneys for Father of Deceased Migrant Girl Say Border Agents Did Not Provide Water.” Washington Post, December 19, 2018. Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/border-officials-issue-new-prompt-notification-policy-after-migrant-childs-death-went-undisclosed/2018/12/19/70ff43ba-0399-11e9-8186-4ec26a485713_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ad5e188b2f18.

[2] Cantú, Francisco. “7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin Died at the Border. What Happened to Her Is Not an Aberration.” Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2018. Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-cantu-border-patrol-cruelty-20181218-story.html.

[3] León, Jason De. ““Better to Be Hot than Caught”: Excavating the Conflicting Roles of Migrant Material Culture.” American Anthropologist114, no. 3 (2012): 479-480. Accessed December 21, 2018. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1433.2012.01447.x.

[4] Ibid., 486.

[5] Ibid., 489.

[6] USA. Government Accountability Office. Border-Crossing Deaths Have Doubled Since 1995; Border Patrol’s Efforts to Prevent Deaths Have Not Been Fully Evaluated. Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2006. Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.gao.gov/new.items/d06770.pdf.

[7] Holpuch, Amanda. “Migrant Deaths at US-Mexico Border Increase 17% This Year, UN Figures Show.” The Guardian, August 5, 2017. Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/05/migrants-us-mexico-border-deaths-figures.

[8] Herrera-Sobek, María. “The Border Patrol and Their Migra Corridos: Propaganda, Genre Adaptation, and Mexican Immigration.” American Studies Journal, May 11, 2012. Accessed December 21, 2018. http://www.asjournal.org/57-2012/the-border-patrol-and-their-migra-corridos/.

[9] Barkham, Patrick. “La Bestia: The Hit Song the US Border Agency Made to Scare off Immigrants.” The Guardian, July 16, 2014. Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2014/jul/16/la-bestia-song-commissioned-us-border-control-stop-immigration.

[10] Jason De León. ““Better to Be Hot than Caught”: Excavating the Conflicting Roles of Migrant Material Culture,” 482.

[11] Scanlan, Quinn. “Dem Senator Expresses Willingness to Negotiate Funding for Border Wall.” ABC News. November 25, 2018. Accessed December 21, 2018. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/dem-senator-expresses-willingness-negotiate-funding-border-wall/story?id=59394042.

[12] Shabad, Rebecca. “Bill to Fund Border Wall Teeters on Edge in Senate.” NBCNews.com. December 21, 2018. Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/bill-fund-border-wall-teeters-edge-senate-n950831.

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