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Paying for a militarized border

Justice for Anastasio rally
Anastasio Hernandez Rojas died in 2010 after Border Patrol agents brutally beat him. Learn more about his family's struggle for justice. Photo: AFSC

In 2013, the U.S. public was expecting humane and fair immigration reform—not increased border militarism and guaranteed profits for defense contractors.

Protecting families and human rights—while creating a clear path to legal status—topped the list of demands of immigrant rights activists, including the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), in early 2013, when both political parties ardently promised better immigration policies.

But S.744, the “immigration bill” passed by the Senate in June, fell far short of humane reform, with no pathway to citizenship for the majority of undocumented immigrants and with increased border security as its centerpiece.

“Security” on the ground

The realities of excessive Border Patrol force are impossible to ignore in San Diego, where the militarized U.S./Mexico border flanks the city.

An active immigrant-rights coalition keeps migrants and the border community informed of their rights and involved in changing local, regional, and national laws. As part of that work, AFSC’s Adriana Jasso accompanies people who have experienced Border Patrol violence, including some who have lost family members. (Since 2010, 28 people have died as a result of documented excessive force by Border Patrol officers—and there are very likely others that went undetected.)

When the Senate passed S.744, Adriana said that the astounding investments in the “border militarization industrial complex” would mean “billions for defense contractors and continuing crisis for people on both sides of the border.”

The bill was packed with references to specific manufacturers’ electronic surveillance equipment and aircraft and called for pumping $46 million more into such purchases.

Adriana expressed great concern that the Senate doubled down on border militarization, “despite hearing directly from [border] communities about the impacts of living in an area dominated by militarization.”

It was clear that Senators were responding to some voices lobbying for change—but not to the people most vulnerable to the violence.

Following the money

Looking at lobbyists’ activities as reported under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, AFSC zeroed in on the influence of cash-carrying corporations during Senate immigration debates.

“During the 91 most important dates in which S. 744 was being deliberated and during its actual passage in the Senate, three companies—Northrop Grumman, United Technologies, and EADS North America— spent a total of approximately $74,000 per day on lobbying activities,” says Lia Lindsey, policy impact coordinator with AFSC. “And there are other activities that aren’t required to be disclosed to the public.”

Conversation shifts

During those three months of intense corporate lobbying, the national conversation shifted. The emphasis on humane reform took a back seat to controlling the border, and community activists felt pressure to take whatever small improvements they could get.

“Often there’s a cycle in Washington of responding to what the pundits say has to happen in order to move something,” says Aura Kanegis, AFSC’s director of advocacy and public policy. “The boon in the immigration reform bill for private prison companies and for military contractors was billed as something that had to happen in order to get the measure passed in the House.”

Despite the compromises to increase border security proposals and reduce provisions providing relief to immigrants, the bill died in the House, and the U.S. public is still waiting for immigration policy reform.

AFSC’s approach is not to compromise on human rights for short-term measures. Instead, we create avenues for lawmakers and policy advisers to hear from people who are directly affected by the legislation.

AFSC-organized delegations from San Diego and Newark have visited Washington in recent months to lobby federal lawmakers—telling stories of detention, deportation, family separation, and the harmful impacts of increased border security. As the presidential primary campaigns get underway in Iowa and New Hampshire, AFSC is challenging candidates to take a stance on corporate influence on border policies.

The drive for profits generates time and money to influence public policy—but surely it’s not stronger than the moral imperative to protect human rights.