On Tuesday, January 12, 2016, we started the day by heading out of Tucson, Arizona to Nogales and Border Patrol. We ended up being at Border Patrol for four and a half hours. We were met by four Border Patrol agents, Agents Ortega, Queriapa, Robbs, and Blanco. All four are part of the Border Patrol’s PR detail right now. Our tour started at 10am with an intense question-and-answer while we waited for our background checks to finish (Border Patrol had not registered our visit and run our backgrounds before our arrival). During the question-and-answer, we learned a bit about the history of Border Patrol, from the time it was called Mountain Watchmen and was not an official part of the government (much like the minute men today) until 1924 when it became the more familiar Border Patrol. Border Patrol had almost become a reality in the United States five years earlier, but the Patrol was denied. During the brief history lesson, Agents Robbs and Queriapa went through some of the notable “line of duty” deaths of agents, including a Russian immigrant Border Patrol agent who was shot in the face by a drug smuggler in 1998. Agent Robbs used his police baton as a pointer during this presentation.
After our group was vetted by Border Patrol, the agents led us into a room for a presentation about the work that Border Patrol does. One of the first slides of the presentation was a table about the number of arrests, pounds of marijuana, and agents in the Tucson sector from 2000 to 2014. They agents point out the drop in arrests between 2000 and 2014 (616,000 arrests to 87,915) and connect it to the increase of agents (1,550 to 4,052) rather than (as other groups have and would throughout the week) to an increase in deaths. The agents spoke extensively about the consequence delivery system, which criminalizes immigration more and more and punishes people in harsher and harsher ways. Additionally, Border Patrol talked about deporting people through different ports of entry, into wildly different parts of Mexico. They called this “self-regulating” anti-immigration tactics. Border Patrol used terms like “alien” and “OTM” (“Other Than Mexican) throughout the presentation and did not consider them dehumanizing terms. When asked about refuge and asylum, Agent Robbs said that people know to ask for asylum. At the same time, Agent Blanco said that no, people did not know to ask for asylum.
Moving on to violence, Border Patrol spoke about the less-than-lethal force to which they have access, including pepper ball guns that shoot compacted balls of different ground peppers. Not meant to cause internal damage, these balls explode into powder, causing disorientation, temporary blindness, and coughing. The balls sometimes break skin and can be fatal if shot into the eyes or other soft tissue. As such, agents are trained to shoot the middle of the body—it is both the largest target and the least likely to be fatal. Border Patrol does not know the effects the compact balls of pepper could have on pregnant women or fetal development. Discussions of less-than-lethal force led to the José Antonio case in which a teenager was shot through the fence in Nogales, Sonora. He was shot upwards of 10 times, mostly or all in the back. The facts of the case are unclear and Border Patrol did not want to talk too much about alternative methods of subduing a child throwing rocks. After being asked if there was a lack of resources—not all agents are equipped with things like the pepper ball gun—Agent Ortega said that Border Patrol did not want for resources—they have access to Tasers, firearms, batons, pepperspray, rubber bullets, rifles, shotguns, pepper guns, and grenades.
Border Patrol moved on from the José Antonio case to discuss their good relationship with the Mexican government and then onto ways to “track migrants.” This part felt very much like a lesson on tracking and hunting game. They talked about sign cutting (looking for prints) and tracking (following prints). They showed us carpet booties (used by travelers to hide distinct footprints) and Ghillie suits (worn by travelers to blend in with the dry grasses of the Sonoran Desert). Border Patrol said that once these techniques may have worked, but with the powerful surveillance tools at their command, Border Patrol had no problem catching such travelers. Including motion detecting cameras, infrared video, mobile surveillance capability units, ground sensors, remote video surveillance systems, robotics, the radio room, planes, drones, and trucks, the $3billion budget of Border Patrol covers enough technology to, theoretically, bar migrants from the United States. There is special training for those working in the radio room—which is filled with enough screens showing video feed to cover a large wall and four tables—and after 9-11 there was an increase in funding as immigration became an issue of “national security.” When challenged on the grounds that the terrorists involved with the attacks on September 11, 2001 entered the United States with visas on an airplane, Border Patrol was more that willing to talk about how everyone locks their doors at night because of the 10-20% of people who might break in and that the United States must be the same way. Our group asked if they had ever actually caught someone intent on committing acts of terror at the US-Mexico border, the agents responded that if they see someone who looks like they are from a “Middle Eastern country” they will put them through secondary inspection to determine if they are a “special interest alien” or from a “special interest country.” Such cases are then out of Border Patrol’s hands and, therefore, they had no statistics on such cases.
We moved on to the militarization of the border, a phrase Agent Ortega dismissed as blatantly incorrect. When pressed on the issue, Agent Ortega repeatedly said that Border Patrol is not the military. Agent Robbs jumped in, saying that they might look like the military since their suits are made for rough terrain, as are their boots, but that they, unlike the military, were not allowed to wear cammo. They do, however, have armored trucks, intense surveillance techniques, and access to lots of firepower, just like the military. We discussed the difference between the fence between the United States and Mexico and the fence between Palestinian land and Israel. Agent Robbs was very excited to discuss this. He talked about how the fence in Israel and its guards are meant to kill travelers, including shooting people on sight, exploding tunnels, and a fence built to keep people out, whereas Border Patrol tries to apprehend travelers, fill tunnels with cement, and slow people down enough to catch them. The non-discussion of militarization moved on and we began discussion Border Patrol’s effect on local communities. The agents listed their efforts to build connections to local communities, including increased safety, working with humanitarian aid groups, and BORSTAR, which is the Border Patrol’s Search, Trauma, and Rescue unit.
We touched on the Forward Operating Camps, which are camps that can be relocated quickly based on current patterns of migrant activity before moving onto the use of force model. The model simply matched up actions on behalf of a traveler and the response allowed by an agent, all determined by ability, opportunity, and intent:
Passive Resistance–Contact Control
Active Resistance–Compliance Techniques
Physical Assault–Defensive Tactics
Threat of Serious Injury or Death–Deadly Force
The agents talked about the fact that about half the agents patrol, are Latinx, and/or have college degrees. They said that transparency of the Patrol was getting better, racial profiling has not changed, and community outreach is getting better. We talked about their role in Operation Streamline, the creation of their “Alien Transfer Exit Program”, the fact that there is no abuse of power over or abuse of detainees.
After four hours, we went outside to see one of the transfer trucks used to move travelers in Border Patrol custody. The truck seat eight detainees, through the agents admitted that sometimes more will be put in the truck until someone else can meet up with the driver. They pointed out that the cab of the truck is heated to the same temperature as the back so claims of inhumane temperatures could not be true. Caged cars, like police cars, do exist and are used for smaller numbers.
After four and a half hours at Border Patrol, we piled back into the van and drove to Nogales, Sonora in Mexico. Driving through the border took almost no time, though the towns on either side of the border were worlds apart. We arrived at the Kino Border Initiative and were met by Joanna, a year-long volunteer.
Joanna went through some of the history of KBI once we were all settled. In the 1990’s, the number of deportations to Nogales grew by leaps and bounds. The Sisters of the Eucherist, who run the comedor, founded the precursor to KBI. In 2008, Jesuits came to Nogales to do a study on the deportations and find out what they could do to make a difference. In 2009, the Jesuits founded KBI, named after Father Kino, to further the work of the Sisters. KBI includes a women and children’s shelter, a men’s shelter, housing that is made available upon demand to trans* individuals, medical aid, clothing and shoes, information about traveling home, and meals.
KBI aims to be a “humanizing presence” on the border and works towards “humane migration policies.” KBI uses the word “humane” to draw attention to the human dignity that every person has and that is consistently ignored in the United States’ immigration policies. KBI works on education both local communities and visiting groups like ours. They are a binational organization that, in addition to their work with migrants, work to end violence (especially physical violence in Mexico and lack of protection/food in the United States), promote T-Visas and other anti-trafficking work, engage with Border Patrol in action rather than just discussion, and advocating for migrant rights and safety. KBI serves between 70 and 100 people each day during most of the year; during the winter, numbers usually drop to 50-60, though with the recent raids in the United States, numbers have reached as high as 120 people in a day during the past weeks.
When people come to learn and volunteer at KBI, three goals are laid out: Humanize, Accompany, and Complicate. By humanize, Joanna explained, KBI hoped that each person would leave with a name and story for at least one face in the room. Accompany meant that we should make the journey with the person for however brief a time we are with them, and complicate meant to take what we had heard (especially earlier that day at Border Patrol) and view it in relation with or opposition to the stories we were learning.
After singing to see which table would do dishes, our serving dinner, and everyone’s cleaning up, we left Kino Border Initiative and headed to HEPAC (Hogar de Eperanza y Paz), where we would be sleeping for the duration of our time in Mexico. We had dinner before heading up to the dorms and going to bed.