The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Border enforcement has been deadly by design

The Biden administration’s expanded use of Title 42 to expel asylum seekers will take a toll

Oscar Andrade prays at the Ironwood Forest National Monument near Marana, Ariz., before searching for a missing Honduran migrant, in September. The pastor heads a group, Desert Chaplains, that provides recovery efforts for families of missing migrants. He has received over 400 calls from families in Mexico and Central America whose relatives - sick, injured or exhausted - were left behind by smugglers in the borderlands. (Giovanna Dell'orto/AP)

The Biden administration has announced an expansion of its use of Title 42, the pandemic measure the Trump administration initially implemented, to immediately expel to Mexico asylum seekers from a list of specified countries.

While in doing so the Biden administration has created a few new avenues for facilitating the arrival of asylum seekers from certain countries, it and the vast majority of news media have failed to acknowledge how deadly such border restrictions have been — and will continue to be — as people in desperate situations confront policies designed to block them at the border.

The funneling of migrants through inhospitable terrain is primarily responsible for deaths at the border. As U.S. authorities have increased enforcement near border crossings in urban, populated communities, they have pushed people into dangerous remote areas. This is intentional. They use such terrain as a natural “wall.” Within the Southwest’s unforgiving mountains and deserts, thousands of people seeking safety in the United States have succumbed to snake bites, animal attacks, heat stroke, dehydration and hyperthermia.

These mass deaths can be traced to border policies adopted in the early 1990s, ones that help us understand where we find ourselves today.

One of the architects of these policies was Silvestre Reyes. Reyes was raised in an El Paso-area farming community near the New Mexico state line as the grandchild of Mexican refugees who fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). On his family farm, he served as a lookout for Border Patrol agents and warned undocumented farmworkers to hide or run.

After being drafted into the Vietnam War, he took various civil service exams, and the Border Patrol was the first federal agency to respond. He moved to Del Rio in southwest Texas to join the Border Patrol in 1969. Reyes rose through the ranks and became the Border Patrol’s first Hispanic sector chief in 1984, when he was appointed to head the McAllen Border Patrol sector, which runs along the Lower Rio Grande Valley to the Gulf of Mexico.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Mexican agricultural workers often headed north for work, to flee economic volatility in Mexico. The U.S. immigration system foreclosed opportunities for legal migration, and many came without authorization. During these decades apprehension rates of Mexican migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border increased as migration ebbed and flowed.

From his station in Texas, Reyes told reporters that by the mid-1980s he began noticing that a growing number of the people being apprehended originally came from Central America. They included Guatemalans fleeing anti-Indigenous genocide, Salvadorans fleeing right-wing death squads and Nicaraguans fleeing guerrillas known as Contras.

During the Central American conflicts, the United States often backed oppressive right-wing regimes and offered official and unofficial support to other groups as part of its Cold War-era objectives. Over 1 million displaced Central Americans fled violent government regimes and guerrillas during the 1980s. The Reagan administration pursued policies denying their asylum claims and deported thousands of people who never had the opportunity to seek legal counsel.

Having come overland through Mexico, Central Americans were deported by costly flights. Reyes began planning what he saw as a cheaper strategy: one that would keep Central American refugees in Mexico. He began planning a blockade that would, as he stated, “back up the aliens on the Mexican side and start causing them problems over there.”

In 1993, Reyes became the El Paso Border Patrol sector chief. He implemented his plans through Operation Blockade, renamed Operation Hold the Line to avoid connotations with the Berlin Blockade, along the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez border. He stationed at least 400 Border Patrol agents and their vehicles directly on the Rio Grande’s banks.

Going against official procedure that had partly centered on patrolling city streets, Reyes created a wall of agents and vehicles between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, greatly curtailing the number of migrants crossing into El Paso’s urban core.

But Reyes did not simply intend to stop unauthorized border crossings. He also wanted to improve the Border Patrol’s relations with El Paso residents.

El Paso’s Mexican American community had long complained about the Border Patrol’s racial profiling and harassment, which included such incidents as a border patrol agent stopping a high school football coach and then putting a gun to his head when the coach was driving players to a game. In 1992 the coach, five students and a school secretary filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Border Patrol for racial profiling and harassment. In a preliminary injunction, a federal district judge found that the Border Patrol had “stopped, questioned, detained, frisked, arrested, searched, and physically and verbally abused” school staff and students for the “mere appearance of being from Hispanic descent.”

As one remediation, Reyes implemented the operation he had begun conceptualizing while leading the McAllen sector. He moved his agents away from the streets of El Paso and to the physical border, which helped reduce residents’ complaints against the Border Patrol. In 1994, under Reyes’s leadership, the El Paso sector Border Patrol settled the federal lawsuit by agreeing to stop detaining people for simply appearing to be Hispanic.

Despite some initial concerns — such as the State Department’s worry that it would impact diplomatic relations with Mexico and the possibility that it would increase personnel costs — Reyes’s Operation Hold the Line received broad praise. The Clinton administration supported a tougher stance on unauthorized immigration, and soon similar operations extended across other urban sections of the U.S.-Mexico border. At the San Diego-Tijuana border, the Clinton administration launched Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, which expanded enforcement on the urban borderline, driving migrants toward rural and wilderness areas east of the city. The Border Patrol also instituted checkpoints within the United States, began building border walls and expanded their technological infrastructure — pushing migrants away from highways, roads and populated areas far beyond the border.

After implementing Operation Hold the Line and having it lauded by the highest centers of power in D.C., Reyes ran for Congress as a Democrat with a tough-on-immigration record. In 1996 he was elected as the first Hispanic to represent the Hispanic-majority congressional district in El Paso. The Hispanic-majority electorate sent him to Congress eight more times. In 2001, Reyes was selected by his peers to chair the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, where he backed broadened border enforcement.

With few detractors in D.C. or the Border Patrol, the model Reyes innovated in El Paso became the guiding idea behind border enforcement more broadly. Operation Hold the Line and Operation Gatekeeper molded into various “prevention through deterrence” policies that sought to make it more difficult to cross into the United States.

Both Republican and Democratic policymakers believed that if the urban border was solidified and if migrants could only cross through dangerous remote terrain, they would not attempt to enter the United States. That belief did not hold against the reality of human desperation and the promise of a better life in the United States.

Since the 2006 passage of the Secure Fence Act, the Border Patrol has increasingly supplemented their operations with monumental border walls, surveillance towers, radar, high-definition and infrared cameras, thermographic heat sensors and drones. Such measures have pushed migrants even deeper into dangerous terrain while cartels primarily hide drugs (going northward) and guns (going southward) inside vehicles crossing border checkpoints.

As a result, between 1994 and 2000, 1,700 migrants died while traversing remote desert terrain. Border Patrol data reveals that over 9,000 migrants have died since 1998 — with the last two years being the deadliest. These are all surely undercounts that do not include full statistics from local and state governments or those who will never be found in remote locations.

Today President Biden equates criticisms from humanitarian groups and immigration hard-liners. He has asserted that both “extremes are wrong,” and that what’s needed is a “middle proposition.”

While the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has a history of supporting violent border policies, today’s leadership has diverged from those stances. Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif. and chair of the CHC) noted her concerns about the expansion of Title 42 and the denial of due process for asylum seekers. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas and former CHC chair) went further, stating that the Biden administration’s extension of Title 42 would “exacerbate chaos and irregular migration at the Southern border.” But they could go further in highlighting the death toll that will result from such a “middle proposition.”

Recent history teaches us that migrants with few choices will risk their lives in trudging through the Southwest. Not unlike Reyes’s grandparents, hunger, destitution, persecution and violence in their countries of origin and on the streets of Mexico will drive people to risk their lives in search of the American Dream. Like previous administrations, the Biden administration’s plans will cause further suffering and the death of innumerable people seeking refuge on American soil.

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