For decades, the U.S. has militarized southern border communities. Here’s how some of those communities are pushing back.
By Ronna Bolante
President Donald Trump has famously called for the U.S. to build a nearly 2,000-mile long wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Since taking office, he has signed sweeping executive orders to target immigrants, triple the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, and call for immediate construction of this wall.
What many people don’t realize is that President Trump’s policies continue a trend that started long before this president took office, says Pedro Rios, director of AFSC’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program based in San Diego, California. Over the past four decades, policies under every presidential administration—regardless of political party—have systematically militarized southern border communities, criminalizing millions of immigrants and creating repressive conditions from California to Texas.
Many of these efforts have been couched in the language of war. The “war on drugs,” which began in the 1970s, escalated border enforcement and brought more agents and modern military technology to the borderlands. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration’s “war on crime” saw the passage of the draconian Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which contributed to mass detentions and deportations, as well as passage of California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187, which sought to deny public services to those “suspected” of being undocumented.
And after 9/11, George W. Bush’s “war on terror” led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which included reconfiguring three federal immigration agencies—U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which includes Border Patrol; Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); and Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“All of these policies have compounded to create the situation we have today,” says Pedro.
And what is that situation?
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which includes Border Patrol, is the largest law enforcement agency in the country,” Pedro says. “They use military-style enforcement tactics, equipment, and strategies to ‘control’ the border, including drone planes, military helicopters, and the coordination of local law enforcement and federal forces that embolden dangerous vigilante groups.
“When we talk about border militarization, it’s not an exaggeration—there are real, palpable aspects of enforcement that are militaristic in nature. And they are often lobbied for by private corporations that profit from these policies.”
Media stories about Trump’s proposed wall rarely mention that nearly 700 miles of walls, fencing, and other barriers already stretch along much of the U.S. southern border. Since 1994, more than 7,500 migrants1—most of whom are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries—have died trying to cross over deadly terrain. The construction of more walls will only worsen the existing human rights catastrophe. This catastrophe has been exacerbated by the failure of the U.S. to hold CBP and border agents accountable for thousands of documented cases of violence, including at least 50 killings since 20102—among them U.S. citizens, minors, and Mexican nationals shot while still in Mexico.
CBP, which has the authority to operate within 100 miles of any U.S. border, also maintains permanent checkpoints along major highways in the county and frequently pulls over drivers and pedestrians as parts of its “roving patrols.” Not surprisingly, racial profiling runs rampant. Pedro—who grew up five miles north of the border in a town where his parents still live today—has been stopped by border agents in downtown San Diego.
The impacts of border militarization are deep and lasting—individuals deprived of their human and civil rights, families torn apart, loved ones deported back to dangerous situations. It’s no wonder that in San Diego county, where 20 percent of the 3.2 million residents are immigrants (170,000 of them undocumented)3, many community members have long viewed Border Patrol, ICE, and local law enforcement agencies as threats to their personal safety and survival.
“The shared community experience is one of state repression,” Pedro says.
Communities organize against border militarization
The good news is that many people have been resisting the militarization of their communities with support from AFSC’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program, which has worked in border communities for 40 years. Through acts big and small, community members have courageously stood up to anti-immigrant policies and reasserted their human rights and dignity.
“We’ve seen how disenfranchised community members can help lead social change when given the opportunity to share ideas and propose solutions,” Pedro says.
After the death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, for example—a father of five who in 2010 was brutally beaten to death by border agents at the San Ysidro Port-of-Entry in San Diego—AFSC and dozens of organizations advocated for justice through the media, through public actions, and through meetings with public officials. Earlier this year, Anastasio’s family settled a lawsuit against the U.S. government after nearly seven years of litigation. Because of his family’s persistence, CBP was compelled to make public its policies around its use of force and commit to additional studies.
Since 2002, AFSC has trained individuals and organizations to monitor law enforcement agencies and document abuses in border and immigrant communities. AFSC was instrumental in helping to establish human rights committees in towns throughout San Diego County and create a network where members support each other’s projects and collaborate for greater political impact. A partner in this effort, Alianza Comunitaria, organizes trainees and operates a free alert system through text messages and social media to notify community members about checkpoints and raids. Some of its messages have been shared over 200,000 times.
“Our greatest obstacle is fear—fear that paralyzes people from participating and from mobilizing,” Pedro says. “With our human rights training, not only are we providing people with resources to be much more active in local organizations, they’re developing their leadership skills so they’re able to navigate difficult waters of enforcement and the huge psychological impact it has. If people are able to find a way to say ‘I’m no longer fearful,’ that points to their agency.”
Lilian Serrano was a 19-year-old college student when she joined the human rights committee in Escondido about eight years ago, soon after moving to the city from Ventura—northwest of Los Angeles—to attend college.
“I had been hearing stories from my peers of being stopped by law enforcement, asked if they were citizens,” Lilian says. “I remember going to the city council meetings and having people there telling me to go back to Mexico, even though I’m a U.S. citizen. I come from a family of immigrants. For much of my life, my family was undocumented. Hearing that rhetoric from people in my city made me feel I needed to do something about it.”
After taking part in AFSC’s human rights training, Lilian became part of a team of volunteer human rights observers monitoring activities by Border Patrol, ICE, and local police. After verifying reports from community members, she and others help observe and document what goes on at checkpoints with a goal of deterring civil and human rights violations.
“I remember going to a checkpoint for the first time and looking at the amount of resources and the number of police officers, and it almost felt like they were setting up a trap for people who were coming home from work,” Lilian says. “Local police often say their checkpoints are for DUIs, but some of the roads they closed—and the days and times they set them up—seemed strategically placed to stop landscapers, house cleaners, really working-class immigrants just trying to get home to their families.”
About 30 community members like Lilian volunteer as human rights observers in several San Diego County cities, says Ricardo Favela, Alianza Comunitaria’s coordinator.
“Because of our reach, we’re not just providing information about checkpoints—we let people know when there are Know Your Rights workshops and share other information and opportunities around human rights that will benefit our communities,” Ricardo says. Recently, Alianza broadcast a live presentation from an immigration attorney, which has since been viewed thousands of times.
AFSC also conducts Know Your Rights trainings. In just the first three months of this year, AFSC’s San Diego program conducted 32 of them—up from just six in all of 2016. The trainings help immigrants understand the political context for border militarization and immigration enforcement, offer information about the different law enforcement agencies, and share how to prepare for and respond to raids and interactions with agents.
Organizing efforts have been successful in spurring state-level changes, as well. Last September, after two years of advocacy by AFSC and others, California’s governor signed the TRUTH Act, which strengthens protections for immigrants detained by law enforcement. The act brings transparency to the relationship between local jails and ICE and requires law enforcement agencies to explain to people in custody what their rights are. It also calls for legislative bodies to hold community forums on police-ICE collaboration and ensure that ICE-related records are part of the public record.
While the Trump administration continues to pursue militarized anti-immigrant policies, border communities also continue to organize to support one another and defend immigrants’ basic human rights.
Lilian speaks for many when she says, “This work is personal for me—these things are happening to people I love, and that’s what keeps me motivated. ... I grew up in the border region. This is home. And you defend your home.”
- Take action online to stop border militarization
- Read our report: "On the Borderline: Abuses at the U.S.-Mexico Border"
- Get our tip sheet “5 ways to support the rights and dignity of border communities”
1 Based on estimates from human rights organizations and U.S. Customs and Border Protection
2 Southern Border Communities Coalition
3 Pew Research Center