Photo credit: Mike Blake/Reuters
The U.S. and Mexican border is 1,954 miles long. As of last year the U.S. only had enough border patrol agents to securely patrol half the border. In 2004, then President George W. Bush, signed into law the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (I.R.T.P.A.) which authorized an increase in funding of $90 billion to reinforce the U.S. and Mexican border. This included new equipment such as drones, assault rifles, Black Hawk helicopters, and increasing the number of patrol agents over a period of 10 years from the then 10,000 to the 2015 number of 21,000.
In 2006, President Bush signed another act, this time the Secure Fence Act, which saw the construction of a nearly 700 mile long, varying in places from 18 to 30 feet high, steel-reinforced fence (pictured above). On January 25, 2017, current President Donald Trump signed an executive order requesting the immediate construction of a wall 1,000 miles long and an increase in border patrol agents to 26,000. According to Trump’s administration, his proposed wall will cost between $12 and $15 billion. According to internal memos collected from the Department of Homeland Security, the actual cost will be more than $20 billion.
So how big is the problem of illegal immigration? How many people illegally cross the U.S. and Mexican border each year? How do they cross and where? Why do they cross and what countries are they from? Who is in charge of overseeing the U.S. border agents, are our current methods working at all, what happens to the immigrants when they’re caught? I will answer all of these questions and more. I have spent months collecting data and because of the extensive research and time required to write this essay, I’ve actually been avoiding it and putting it off. It has been a stressful and daunting task. However, I believe this information needs to be made public, the people need to know, regardless of their political affiliations. Opinions are for liars, the truth is always in the evidence.
As of 2015, illegally crossing the border has become the number one most prosecuted federal crime. According to data produced by the U.S. Border Patrol, some 300,000 people crossed the border illegally in 2015. From 2012 to 2015, some 170,000 illegal immigrants were children. In 2014, a record 47,000 unaccompanied children (under the age of 18) crossed the border illegally, meaning they had no parent and no legal guardian escorting them. On average, 430 people have died each year crossing the border illegally since records were kept, starting in the year 2000.
Specially designated Federal prisons have been established to handle the influx of illegal immigrants crossing into the United States. In the year 2000, eleven federally funded private immigration prisons were contracted by the U.S. government. The U.S. Department of Justice announced in 2016 that it would shut down all federally funded private prisons, which adds up to 13 prisons in 8 states. The detention centers in the U.S. that house most of the countries inmates are actually state funded.
The U.S. Border Patrol has existed for 92 years. From 2004 to 2015, the number of border patrol agents doubled, as outlined in the 2004 I.R.T.P. Act. With a demand for increased border patrol agents, the process by which these men and woman are screened had become soft. Consistent review of conduct and background checks fell out of practice, even though regulations required reviews to occur every 5 years. The situation got so bad that in 2011 congress demanded hearings to evaluate the conduct of border patrol agents and government officials overseeing the department.
Data released by the Customs and Border Protection (C.B.P.) Agency through the Freedom of Information Act, reflects that from 2004 to 2011, at least 127 cases of criminal activity have been brought against C.B.P. agents. As of 2015, 170 have been accused of engaging in illegal activity. This illegal activity includes border patrol agents smuggling drugs, illegal immigrants, and weapons, accounting for millions of dollars in illegal profits. Many of these agents have been those who have otherwise served honorably for years, many with prior military service and a previously clean record.
Why have border patrol agents been involved in illegal activities, the very activities they have been charged with preventing? The most common reasons given are low moral, low pay, and gang affiliation. Why would border patrol agents be affiliated with gangs? Gangs such as the famed Gulf Cartel based in Tomalepas, Mexico, has encouraged new initiates without prior records and their family members to join the border patrol in order to use it as a means to smuggle goods and people for profit.
One of the most controversial actions committed by a border patrol agent involved the shooting of an unarmed 15 year old Mexican teenager on June 7, 2010, Sergio Adrian Hernandez Huereca from Ciudad, Juarez, during a skirmish between U.S. border agents and two men who were suspected of attempting to sell drugs after crossing the fence into the U.S. near the Paso del Norte port of entry.
Sergio, along with other teenagers were playing a game in the dry concrete river bed of the Rio Grande, which separates Mexico from the United States when the skirmish between the illegal crossers and the border agents occurred. Reported by the agents, Sergio and the other teenagers began throwing rocks in the canal from Mexico’s side at the agents. One agent, Jesus Mesa Jr., alleged that he was surrounded by rock throwers and fired in self defense. Allegedly the agents previously issued commands to stop, but the teenagers continued to throw rocks at the agents as they arrested the men who illegally crossed into the U.S.
Video footage from cell phones show that the border agent’s story was not true, that in fact the teenagers were fleeing the area as Mesa Jr. chased after them, tackling one. Sergio can be seen in the video peeking around a pillar supporting the bridge that crosses the canal, when he is shot in the head by agent Mesa Jr.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation got involved with the case, as local Mexican government officials demanded answers. Despite lying about what happened, none of the agents were charged with a crime. This case is one of 35 involving agents and government officials fabricating information and creating false evidence to cover up instances under investigation for excessive force. It’s also one of seven involving rock throwers being shot and killed by border agents along the U.S. and Mexican border and is one of 46 deaths that resulted in no disciplinary actions towards border agents. From 2005 to 2012 there were 144 cases of corruption being investigated within the Customs and Border Protection Agency.
In 2013, the Customs and Border Protection Agency changed their policies, requiring agents to leave situations where no non-lethal option is available against rock throwers. As of October 2016, the family of Sergio has filed a civil case against the U.S. for wrongful death which was on hold in the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2014 the Department of Homeland Security issued the C.B.P. the authority to investigate its own agent misconduct. This new unit within the agency, now called the C.B.P. Internal Affairs unit, is tasked with the responsibilities that were previously charged to a ladder of other agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of Inspector General, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.), and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.). These new Internal Affairs officers were doubled as part of the C.B.P.’s attempt to implement reforms that also included the creation of augmented force training for field agents.
Another similar case involved the death of 16 year old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, which occurred on October 10, 2012. Again, the situation involved rock throwers and border patrol agents using deadly force, but no one saw José actually throw anything. You can read a thorough and excellent article about this case in a New York Times article by Mark Binelli, published March 3, 2016. On January 11, 2017, Lonnie Swartz, the border patrol agent who shot José ten times in the back, was indicted for second-degree murder.
Though these young men did not cross the border and were not attempting to cross the border, there are many who have that intention. But why do so many people cross the U.S. and Mexican border and where do they come from?
Those who cross illegally come from many different countries from throughout Central and South America. Some of the most common countries from which illegal immigrants hale are Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Panama, and many others. The country of Panama itself has become something of a revolving door for illegal immigrants hoping to make their way into the United States. Panama has gained a reputation for being hospitable towards immigrants. Colombia on the other hand, has earned a reputation for being dangerous due to the high level of activity with gang and anti-government groups such as the FARC rebels, particularly in an area known as the Darien Gap, a notoriously dangerous route along the Colombian and Panama border often traveled by illegal immigrants and gangs alike for smuggling goods and people.
Many of the people traveling from countries such as Guatemala and Honduras are fleeing gang related violence. In these two countries alone, some of the most dangerous gangs in the world have sprung up, gangs like MS-13. These gangs infiltrate cities and villages, taking them over and forcing young men and even boys, to join up or face retaliation. These threats of violence are seldom just threats. From mass killings of family members, to the acquisition of family homes and lands, these gangs will take everything from those who do not comply with their demands. Local governments and police are either powerless to stop these gangs or are inducted into them, leaving civilians vulnerable to sexual abuse, assaults, money and property theft, kidnapping, among other crimes.
In an attempt to escape these harsh environments, whole families or even just children within those families, will flee those countries. To do this is not easy. Most of these people are extremely poor, those lucky enough to actually own land must sell it in order to afford travel through Central America and into the U.S. In some cases, these families will use the gangs themselves to get out of the country, selling them their land and possessions to afford “safe” travel through gang controlled areas. In these countries, education and employment are rare or even non-existent, one of the many reasons gangs have grown to such proportions and influence in Honduras and Guatemala.
Once an illegal immigrant has made contact with someone, usually gang affiliated, who can get them out of the country, they must pay them whatever amount is demanded. These people are typically called “coyotes” or guides. For a hefty price, often all the money a family has, they will escort them from their home country to the U.S.-Mexican border, at which point a smuggler will get them across the border via several ways. Due to fences, many illegal immigrants cross via creeks, rivers and canals. This often involves stripping naked and wading through the water with their personal belongings held over their heads and above the water. More experienced coyotes will have rafts or inter-tubes prepared and waiting for them at the location.
If the right person is involved in the smuggling, a border patrol agent can be paid to look the other way or even assist in bringing the illegal immigrants into the U.S. via checkpoints. Once into the U.S., illegal immigrants will stay near the border in towns with designated safe houses, where others will acquire personal transportation or bus tickets on their behalf.
While I make it sound easy, the actual journey from homeland to the U.S. is a long and arduous journey, one that sometimes sees the immigrant die before they reach their destination. While exact numbers are impossible to know, we do know from illegal immigrants who are caught that some of those they travel here with, perish along the way. In 2015, Tuscon, Arizona reported hundreds of illegal immigrants died attempting to cross the Sonoran Desert, there were 14 bodies found in one outing by agents along a path known as Bluebird Pass. In 2012, a reported total of 129 bodies of illegal immigrants were found in Brooks County, Texas.
Due to the expansive nature of the U.S. and Mexican border, the Customs and Border Protection Agency says that many of those who die attempting to cross the border, are simply never found. Those that are, often have no identification. In places where agents do not patrol, it is left up to local law enforcement to take over the cases without federal funding. In some areas, such as Brooks County, Texas, officers available for retrieving these unidentified deceased immigrants are few in number. With a reported force in 2013 of only four officers, the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office was out-manned, under-funded, and ill-prepared for the more than one hundred bodies they find each year. These bodies are taken by local morgues who are supposed to collect DNA samples for future identification, perform autopsies in case of foul play, and prepare the bodies for proper burial.
Instead of this, in May of 2013, it was discovered that these funeral homes were actually dumping the bodies in unmarked graves, sometimes more than one body in each grave, some of the bodies were in milk crates, others in garbage bags, others were buried without any cover at all. This story broke in 2014 and the firestorm that followed caused public outrage at the inhumane treatment of these deceased immigrants, some of which were children. From the investigation, it was determined that this practice had occurred from 2005 to at least 2009. As of 2014, 162 unidentified bodies have been exhumed from the mass graves. The process of exhuming and DNA testing the bodies was taken over by a joint team of forensic anthropologists from the University of Indianapolis and Baylor University.
Despite dumping bodies unethically in unmarked graves for years, even while receiving local government funding to bury the bodies properly, the funeral homes involved were never charged. Local officials said that because of their location, they do not receive federal funding to deal with the situation of so many illegal immigrants crossing in the area and dying due to the harsh environment.
Why do so many illegal immigrants die while making the trek to and across the U.S. border? Conditions. Most of the 1,954 miles of border are dry, hot, arid stretches of uninhabited land, where few, if any people travel. Meaning that many of the illegal immigrants who find themselves unprepared for the harshness of the desert land have no chance of being rescued.
In the early 2000’s, illegal border crossing spiked to numbers never seen before, along a stretch of land in the Sonoran Desert known as “The Devil’s Highway,” in the state of Arizona’s Pima County. Along this trail of desert, temperatures often reach above 100 degrees. For immigrants who have fled tropical countries like Guatemala and Honduras, this type of environment is a death trap, conditions they have never faced in their entire lives and had no prior knowledge of or preparation for when they departed.
Eventually, the deaths got so bad that Border Patrol agents pooled their own personal money together to finance the construction of emergency towers with panic phones along the border near Yuma, Arizona. These panic phones work 24/7, requiring an immigrant to merely press a button and a patrol agent station will receive the call and be able to speak to the immigrant in either English or Spanish. This resulted in a dramatic decrease in deaths, reporting only 9 deaths in 2015, compared to Tuscon who reported hundreds.
What about the children, those unaccompanied illegal immigrant children under the age of 18, what happens to them? Their story is a difficult one to tell. Due to the system setup to deal with them, at any one time it is difficult to say how many there are currently on U.S. soil under the custody of the Federal government.
Before I get into the kids, let’s look at the numbers collectively. In 2015, some 70,000 illegal immigrants were prosecuted by the Federal government for immigration crimes. As of 2016, more than 20,000 illegal immigrants were being detained within the U.S. in federally funded detention centers. Forty percent of those were being held for only crossing the border. This is part of the Federal government’s “Prevention Through Deterrence” campaign, the belief that if illegal immigrants are held in prison for crossing over, they will be less likely to attempt to cross a second, third, or fourth time and will advise others to also not cross due to the legal consequences.
First time crossers are held for eight days, at which point they go before a judge and are deported. Their information is added to a database of those who have crossed illegally. Because illegally crossing is a federal crime, attaining a visa or green card after being caught becomes insurmountably difficult, only a U.S. issued waiver could grant them access after being caught the first time. There are many other circumstances that would make legal immigration into the U.S. difficult or impossible, all outlined in Section 212(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
While applying for a visa is easier than attaining a green card, it still requires a waiting period, money, and only grants temporary access into the U.S. The difference between a visa and a green card is how long it allows a traveler to stay in the U.S. A visa allows for a temporary stay, whether that be for visiting family, working a temporary job, or as a student. A green card allows an immigrant to remain in the U.S. permanently and is more difficult to get than a visa because it requires a sponsor (someone who is already a U.S. citizen).
For those who cross the border illegally a second time, they will face up to four months in federal prison and then be deported. If they are caught a third time, the sentence is increased up to two years before deportation. Nonviolent offenders are seen in groups up to 100 in immigration court before a Federal judge, for prosecution and deportation. This process is called “Operation Streamline” and is another part of the U.S. government’s campaign to deal with the influx of illegal immigrants. Despite these new measures, as of 2016 more than 450,000 cases remain open in immigration courts across the United States, accounting for some of the known 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S.
In 2014, a record 47,000 children crossed over the border without a parent or legal guardian. There are several scenarios that will occur when an underage child crosses over into the U.S. without being accompanied by a legal adult. Either they will be deported back to their homeland (if this can be identified), or they will be detained for an unknown amount of time, or they will be released to an adult relative living in the U.S. while their case for asylum is sent through immigration court. The children who are deported are taken by bus if their country of origin borders the U.S., if not then they are flown back.
Over the past four and a half years, some 20,000 unaccompanied children have been detained in detention centers by the U.S. government after being caught crossing the border. Of those, anywhere between 500 to 700 are held each year without a date of deportation and without ever being charged with a crime. Some of these kids remain in detention centers for up to 2 years. These children are housed in special detention centers often referred to as “shelters” and are under the authority of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (O.R.R.) which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
In order for child immigrants to be given asylum they must meet specific criteria, which includes having a sponsor or relative living in the U.S. legally. In some cases, sponsors are appointed to the child through the government. These sponsors are people who volunteer for the position, acting as advocates for the child’s case for asylum. The process by which these volunteers are vetted or screened is not known. What is known is that there have been cases in which child immigrants end up being unintentionally surrendered to pedophiles or to child traffickers who in turn sell them into child labor and prostitution.
Most of the illegal immigrant children without a relative or sponsor, spend a few weeks up to two months in an O.R.R. detention center before their case is heard in immigration court. In some situations, their cases are not heard for years, which means they remain detained by the U.S. without being charged with a crime. Children can also be transferred between these detention centers during their time in custody of the O.R.R. Half of the children living in these detention centers do not have a lawyer or public defender. In cases where a lawyer or public defender has taken on a child’s case, the O.R.R. does not permit these legal counsels to attend meetings called “Internal Hearings” that determine the child’s location or release date.
Though some law centers, including university law schools, have voluntarily attempted to take on these children’s cases, the constant shuffling of their place of detention prevents any case from progressing through the local immigration court. In this way, the O.R.R. acts as both jailer and judge, systematically establishing a closed-door process.
For children seeking asylum, those who can prove they have only one parent supporting them or who are orphans can receive special immigration status, making their case for asylum be resolved much quicker and in the case of orphans, their stay in detention centers much shorter.
Through this essay I hoped to achieve a couple things. First, I have intended to educate the general populace about an issue so many people have an opinion about, but so few have any real knowledge on or information about. Opinions have no value when they are not based on real evidence. Education about a topic is how we make legitimate and informed decisions, choices that can positively effect our lives and situations we face daily. The world and its problems are also our problems, we cannot simply segregate ourselves from issues that we convince ourselves don’t involve us. If you live in this world, then the problems the world faces also impact you.
Secondly, I hoped to achieve a more apparent point that indeed there is something that needs to be done with the immigration crisis. Not just the one involving illegal immigrants crossing over the U.S. and Mexican border, but the immigration crisis in the Middle East and Europe. What to do and how to do it are no simple questions to answer. Often times our solutions are actually not solutions, but instead are additional problems. Sometimes only time can tell us if we’ve made the right choice.