Border Mirage: The Decades-Long Illusion of Peril

Aria Cataño | Daily Trojan

The fence stretches as far as the eye can see. It twists along the edges of the desert rocks, unnaturally clinging to the mountains that rise in the horizon like a bristling spine.

These are the dusty, southern border deserts that I’ll be studying for the next months as I move through Mexico to research migration. And while I never doubted the harshness of these borders, there was something more sinister about the physical presence of the iron bars that loomed over me. Already, I’d encountered what the media could never sufficiently communicate: how intensely America asserts its dominance and recklessly divides the haves and have-nots.

It’s this divide that has shaped the deserts of which four presidential administrations have vehemently warned for decades. The deserts that Bill Clinton “secured” by means of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, that George W. Bush fortified with the Secure Fence Act in 2006 to “protect the American people” and that Barack Obama bolstered with nearly $20 billion worth of immigration enforcement spending in 2016. With years of tightening immigration policies that have been justified by the need to keep American citizens safe, an implicit message has been sent to the public: The United States-Mexico border is becoming increasingly dangerous.

It’s easy to be swept up in this narrative of peril. One simply has to look at the media’s presentation of statistics regarding assault and crime along the border in order to conjure up images of the cartels and gangs that President Donald Trump so fervently tweets about. Similarly, government organizations that we’ve been taught to trust warn against unimaginable crimes that seem to be bleeding across territorial lines into the United States. A recent video disseminated by the FBI called “Crime on the Southwest Border” opens with the following claim:

“The U.S. border with Mexico extends nearly 2,000 miles. And it’s along this expansive stretch of territory that drug cartels and their street gang enforcers play a dangerous and costly trade.

Drug trafficking. Human smuggling. Extortion. Murder. Corrupt public officials. All these crimes represent a multi-billion dollar industry and they pose a threat not only to communities on both sides of the border, but to our national security as well.”

Aria Cataño | Daily Trojan

Fear and trepidation about the border, based on government-issued messages like these, would therefore be justified. And if one looks to assault rates presented by the Department of Homeland Security, the national narrative is upheld: After hitting a low in fiscal year 2013 at 373 assaults, the number has steadily climbed to a high of 847 assaults in fiscal year 2017. If not a direct consequence of the purported violence on the border, what else could explain this increase?

And yet, the reality behind these growing numbers is rather anticlimactic in comparison to what the media and federal agencies would lead the public to believe. What counts as an “assault” is broadly defined by Customs and Border Protection. If a person throws a non-lethal object, such as a rock, at a Border Patrol Agent, that is recorded as an assault. If three people are throwing two types of non-lethal items at two Border Patrol Agents, the counts of assault multiply. In one minor incident, 12 counts of assault can be recorded following this model.

A recent report from the Office of the Inspector General found that 50 percent of assaults recorded between FY 2010 to FY 2017 were from a “Projectile (Rock and Other).” Taking this into consideration, the number of assaults that are lethal in nature drastically declines, portraying a very different image of border safety than the original statistics did.

The disconnect between the commonly accepted image of danger and the comparatively tranquil reality is captured by Chris Montoya, a former Border Patrol Agent who now works to dismantle misconceptions regarding border safety.

“The Border Patrol is trapped between myth and reality,” he told me. “By this I mean that there are two competing ideas about border enforcement. On the one hand there are state actors who offer rhetoric that gives the impression that Border Patrol agents are constantly being attacked by criminal migrants. On the other hand, my experience and enforcement data suggest the opposite: that the job of immigration enforcement on the border is one of the safest law enforcement professions that currently exists.”

Montoya uses data to compare state and local agency assault rates to those of the Border Patrol to illustrate his point. When contrasting total assaults, he said: “Border Patrol Agents are about four times less likely to be assaulted when compared to local and state agencies. However, when one excludes projectiles, agents are about seven times less likely to suffer a direct, personal attack than police officers, deputy sheriff’s, and state troopers.”

The border, then, may not be the bloody and lawless place that the current narrative would lead us to believe. The vast majority of people crossing through patrolled areas are simply looking for a better future and to be reunited with family, according to research by the International Migration Review published earlier this year. Not murderers, not drug traffickers, not extortionists. Just people, like the rest of us, hoping to live stable lives with their loved ones in a way that would not threaten American communities or American federal agents.

As the proposed Border Patrol budget for 2019 increases to $46 billion for the Department of Homeland Security and $16.7 billion for CBP, we must ask what that money is really going toward. If Border Patrol Agents are not constantly struggling against violence, like the administration has stated in order to justify even more funding, what is there to fear? Why is this potential threat prioritized over evidenced threats to American society, such as unaffordable healthcare and a lack of access to clean water, amongst other ailments? And lastly, what is it that drives America’s need to throw dollars toward increasing border militarization –– of which a need has not been proven –– when the majority of people detained will be migrants who carry hope, not drugs?

It’s time to lift the mirage that has been created to cloak racism and bias toward our southern neighbors. We can’t continue to accept the excuse of danger near the borders as reason to enable their militarization, and as a result, allow documented abuse committed against migrants by Border Patrol, as reported this year by the ACLU, to be overlooked.

If we look at real, objective evidence, who are the most vulnerable players in this situation? The Border Patrol Agents and American citizens, who have full protection under the law, or the undocumented migrants, who live under the shadow of deportation threats should they choose to speak out against any injustice?

Maybe the border is dangerous — just not to those we’re made to believe.