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U.S.-Mexico Border Build-Up Found Excessive

U.S. soldiers training in Phoenix, Arizona for Mexican border duty. Credit: US Air Force/CC By 2.0

U.S. soldiers training in Phoenix, Arizona for Mexican border duty. Credit: US Air Force/CC By 2.0

WASHINGTON, Apr 19 2012 (IPS) - While Republican politicians and other “border hawks” call for ever-tougher measures to secure the U.S.-Mexican border against drug trafficking and illegal immigration, a one-year bi-national study released here Thursday suggests that current efforts may be excessive.

The study, a collaboration of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and Mexico’s College of the Northern Border (COLEF), concludes that additional steps, such as increasing the ranks of the Border Patrol, will almost certainly yield diminishing returns, particularly at a time of record federal deficits.

“In fact, a closer look at the border reveals that after a historic build-up of the U.S. security presence there, further increases in money, barriers and manpower are unnecessary,” according to the 60- page report, “Beyond the Border Buildup”, which calls for the U.S. to reassess its border strategies and invest more in the Office of Field Operations, the understaffed and overworked agency that mans the country’s ports of entry.

“The threats that actually exist don’t justify them, and the side effects – among them a severe humanitarian toll on migrants – are mounting,” the report said. “It is urgent that Washington view the border security buildup as a past policy, not a direction for the present or future.”

The report comes as both countries are engaged in presidential elections in which border and migration issues are expected to play an important role.

Throughout the primary season, Republican candidates, with the exception of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, have all supported stronger measures to better “control the border”, such as increasing the number of Border Patrol agents and completing construction of a fence along the entire 3,200-km land frontier.

One favourite of the far-right Tea Party faction, Herman Cain, even endorsed the idea of electrifying the fence before dropping out of the race for unrelated reasons.

Only 20 years ago, fewer than 4,000 Border Patrol personnel were deployed to the southwestern border. That number has more than quadrupled since, exceeding 18,000 last year.

Nor does it include thousands more personnel from an alphabet soup of federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), various other sub- agencies of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and inter- agency task forces that, according to the report, appear to be working without a clear overall strategy.

Even the Pentagon has become increasingly involved in enforcement, deploying troops to back up the Border Patrol, build roads, and collect intelligence, most recently by flying reconnaissance drones on both sides of the border.

Since 2006, hundreds of armed National Guard troops from states across the country have also been deployed at any one time, primarily for ground and air surveillance, although their numbers and the budget to support their deployment have recently been reduced.

The build-up, which gathered pace after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, has been fuelled by dire claims by prominent politicians and the media about the alleged threats of massive illegal immigration, drug trafficking, violence, and terrorism crossing into the U.S. from Mexico.

Of those four threats, however, “three have either never materialised or been reduced,” according to Adam Isacson, WOLA’s senior associate for regional security and one of the report’s lead authors.

While drug seizures have indeed increased markedly in recent years, the government has yet to report a single case of a terrorist crossing the border, Isacson said Thursday.

And while it is impossible to know how many undocumented migrants have tried to cross the border, virtually all sources agree that the number has been substantially reduced in recent years.

Indeed, the number of apprehensions by the Border Patrol itself has fallen by 61 percent since 2005, to levels not seen since the early 1970s. Last year, for every Border Patrol Agent, an average of only 20 migrants were apprehended – down from a 20-year high of 327 migrants in 1993 and from 102 migrants in 2006.

According to the report, the decline can be attributed to three main causes, of which the U.S. security build-up is only one, and perhaps not even the most important.

The impact of the 2008 financial crisis on the availability of jobs for migrants in the U.S. appears to be a major factor, the report noted.

A third key factor appears to be the increased risks faced by migrants travelling through Mexico to the U.S.

“The dangerous gauntlet of abuses at the hands of criminal organizations – and certain Mexican officials – through which migrants must pass on the way to Mexico’s northern border causes some to reconsider the journey,” according to the report.

Because the border is not heavily patrolled on the Mexican side, “migrants are increasingly targeted by criminal groups” that control key migration and drug-trafficking routes along the border, said Maureen Meyer, WOLA’s senior Mexico associate and another co-author.

She noted that approximately 20,000 migrants, mostly from Central America, are kidnapped every year and countless others are subject to extortion, sexual assault and other abuses, sometimes with the complicity of corrupt Mexican officials.

On the U.S. side, non-governmental organisations have also documented abuses by U.S. authorities whose use of “lateral repatriations” – repatriating migrants to cities far from where they were detained and which often lack basic social services for migrants – adds to the dangers they face, according to the report.

As to the fear that the drug-related violence that has wreaked so much havoc in Mexico would spill across the border, that, too, appears unfounded, according to the report.

It noted, for example, that El Paso, the U.S. border city across from violence-plagued Ciudad Juarez, had the lowest homicide rate of all U.S. cities with a population over 500,000. While El Paso may not be typical, the report cites a “general consensus in border communities” that very little of the violence crosses the frontier.

“It’s because narco-traffickers prefer it that way,” according to Isacson. “They don’t want to provoke anything that could close the border,” since their profits depend on getting their product to the consumers on the other side.

Meanwhile, the border-security build-up appears to have worsened the situation of those migrants who do try to cross, according to the report, which pointed to the increased control exercised by narco- traffickers on the Mexican side along smuggling routes. That control makes the trip both more costly and more hazardous.

The extension of the border fence and related measures have also resulted in migrants crossing in ever more inhospitable terrain, according to the report.

“Even as the overall number of migrants drops, the number of human remains found in the Arizona desert and elsewhere remains shockingly high,” according to the report. While 183 remains were found there last year – down from 253 in 2010 – the ratio of remains per apprehensions reached a record high.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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