THE BORDER PATROL CALLS ITSELF A HUMANITARIAN ORGANIZATION. A NEW REPORT SAYS THAT’S A LIE.
(Feb. 3, 2021) FOR MORE THAN two decades, the U.S. Border Patrol has told a story about the role it plays in the Southwest. Confronted with the fact that thousands of migrants have died crossing the border during those years, the agency has produced dramatic videos of agents conducting rescues, invited reporters to demonstrations showcasing its lifesaving skills, and pointed to the existence of its specialized search and rescue unit. The efforts are used to drive home a talking point common among Border Patrol officials, one in which the most militarized component of the nation’s largest police agency is also the border’s “largest humanitarian organization.”
A new report from two of the border’s leading nongovernmental humanitarian organizations calls this narrative into question, arguing that a close examination of Border Patrol responses to migrants in distress proves that militarized law enforcement and the provision of humanitarian aid do not mix.
“Left to Die: Border Patrol, Search and Rescue, and the Crisis of Disappearance,” published Wednesday by No More Deaths, a faith-based organization based in Tucson, Arizona, and the Coalición de Derechos Humanos, an organization that has provided humanitarian aid on the border since the 1990s, analyzed hundreds of emergency cases recorded by a nongovernmental crisis line and more than 2,100 calls routed by Pima County Sheriff’s Department 911 dispatchers to the Border Patrol over a two-year period. Buttressed by further analysis of Border Patrol press releases and interviews, the 122-page report documented evidence of inaction, indifference, and obstruction to reports of missing migrants. The Border Patrol “has monopolized emergency services for undocumented people in the borderlands,” the report said, crowding out other sources of humanitarian aid while failing to provide those services on its own. In the face of a humanitarian catastrophe that’s taken a minimum of nearly 10,000 lives, the report concluded that the Border Patrol’s “systematic negligence toward emergency reports of undocumented people in distress constitutes a state crime of historic proportions.”
“The conflict of interest between Border Patrol’s enforcement mission and its directive to search for and rescue those in distress on U.S. soil is precisely why international governing bodies mandate the strict separation of humanitarian and military activities during human rights emergencies,” the report said. “Border Patrol as an agency, and Border Patrol agents in the field, cannot reasonably advance both humanitarian and political/military objectives simultaneously.”
Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, has spent years studying the culture of the Border Patrol and the consequences of its operations. He agreed that the Border Patrol’s core identity and mission made it impossible for the agency to ever be considered a properly functioning humanitarian organization. Ever since the post-9/11 creation of Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, a debate has raged in policy circles about how the federal government’s immigration agencies should balance enforcement versus the provision of services, Heyman noted. Among those agencies, he said, “Border Patrol is the most purely enforcement minded.”
From 2015 through 2016, Derechos Humanos received thousands of calls on a hotline established for migrants in distress; 456 of those calls were deemed emergencies, and 89 involved a call to the Border Patrol requesting that the agency conduct a search. The report found that the Border Patrol took no confirmed action in 60 percent of the cases where a search was requested. In 40 percent of those cases, the “Border Patrol directly stated to families and/or humanitarian responders that the agency would not conduct any search or rescue response for a known distressed person,” the report said. “In 16 of these instances, Border Patrol’s direct refusal to respond to a reported emergency resulted in the distressed person’s death or disappearance.”
In a quarter of the emergency cases fielded by Derechos Humanos, the report found that the Border Patrol “obstructed” the process through a variety of means. Examples included agents directing families and humanitarian groups to nonworking phone numbers or providing them with false information, such as telling family members that their loved ones had been found alive when that was not true. In one case, aid volunteers sought assistance from the Border Patrol’s “elite” search and rescue team. According to the report, an agent told the volunteers it was “too hot” for the government team to operate. In another case, a volunteer called to report a missing teenager last seen in a dangerous area roughly 15 miles north of the border. According to the “Left to Die” report, “Border Patrol told the responding Crisis Line volunteer that the agency would not activate a search for the unaccompanied minor because they ‘didn’t work that far south.’”
The report found that when the Border Patrol did activate searches, the operations tended to last “less than a day, and in some cases, less than an hour.” The report classified nearly a third of those cases as a “disappearance”: “meaning that the missing person was never rescued, nor were their remains located, recovered, or identified.” This stands in stark contrast to government-led search and rescue efforts in the borderlands involving U.S. citizens, the organizations noted. “The Pima County Sheriff’s Department has a near 100% success rate for lost citizens,” the report said, adding that “government agencies searching for distressed US citizens very rarely call off their efforts without locating the subject.” The authors argued that the Border Patrol’s failure rate was “a clear indication of systemic and deadly discrimination.”
Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest police agency, told The Intercept in a statement that it “remains committed to humanely securing the southern border of the United States and devotes the totality of its force to finding lost or injured individuals while also balancing the border security mission with which they are charged.”
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s report, CBP published a feature-length article in Frontline, the agency’s in-house magazine, touting the Border Patrol’s humanitarian efforts. The article noted how extraordinarily deadly the summer of 2020 was for migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border; as The Intercept reported in January, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office closed out 2020 having nearly broken its 10-year record for most migrant remains received in a single year (over the weekend, the Guardian reported that the state’s record was officially broken). The article noted that CBP personnel “saved more than 5,000 people and conducted 1,400 search and rescue operations in fiscal year 2020.” The figures were accompanied by a 2,400-word profile of the agency’s Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue team — “better known as BORSTAR” — while casting all blame for deaths on the border on smugglers and showing how the federal government is responding.
It was precisely the kind of public framing targeted in the No More Deaths/Derechos Humanos report. “What those measures are ultimately aimed at is legitimizing the agency that’s actually causing the crisis and sort of positioning them as somehow the saviors,” Max Granger, a longtime humanitarian aid volunteer and co-author of the report, told The Intercept. The evidence shows that the Border Patrol’s sought-after legitimacy is wholly unwarranted, he argued: “What we found in the report is that Border Patrol as an agency is twice as likely to cause a person to become lost and in distress in the desert than they are to rescue anyone.”
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