Thursday, March 31, 2011

Immigration Enforcement, Border Security, and Reform

Parking lot at Reeves County Detention Center
in Pecos, Texas operated by GEO/Tom Barry

1. (One of the recommendations from a draft CIP policy report on border security.)

President Obama and congressional leaders should set forth a new vision of immigration reform.
As an administrative reform, the Obama administration could – and should -- end enforcement that targets immigrants who have integrated into U.S. society and workforce. The administration should make a commitment to regularize their immigration status and work with Congress to ensure immigration reform.

The new framework for immigration must also include a transparent process for issuing visas for new immigrants -- based primarily on the verified demand for their skilled and unskilled labor. This review process should be safeguarded from the lobbying pressure of business interests and should ensure that new immigration will result in job losses for current residents. ICE should focus its attention on enforcing visa expiration dates and on apprehending human smugglers and traffickers.

Also essential is the enforcement of workplace safety and wage regulations, thereby precluding the now-routine exploitation of an immigrant workforce and thereby mitigating the downward pressure on national working conditions and wages.

To boost their credibility and effectiveness, liberal immigration reformers must come to the bargaining table – once the crackdown has been halted – ready to accept widespread employment verification (to dissuade new illegal immigrant flows), stricter limits on family reunification (especially for illegal immigrants who are granted a change of immigration status), and the feasibility of temporary worker programs. 

Political refugees facing grave human rights abuses should be granted priority status in any assessment of the number of immigrants the nation can successfully absorb into society and economy. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Inside the Drug War (Sort of)

To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War
John Gibler
City Lights Books, 2011

U.S. progressive analysts come to the Mexican drug wars with an instinctive skepticism and deep distrust of the military, drug policy, and U.S. foreign operations. Early progressive criticism of Felipe Calderon’s drug war and of American aid for the military-led campaign proved prescient.

Human rights abuses by the military have surged, the illegal drugs continue flowing to markets, and organized crime organizations evolve and expand their reach.
But it is time – after more than four years of deepening violence in Mexico -- for the left to offer more than its standard repertoire of criticism.

John Gibler’s To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War is the latest of a series of recent books on the drug war in Mexico. 

These dispatches from Mexico are welcome given the difficulties and dangers – especially for Mexican journalists -- of providing first-hand coverage of the forces and figures driving the drug war. But this short book compares unfavorably with other English-language book-length accounts, including Howard Campbell’s Drug War Zone, Charles Bowden’s Murder City, Ed Vulliamy’s Amexica, and George Grayson’s Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?

It benefits neither from Campbell’s penetrating analysis of drug trafficking, Bowden’s excellent impressionistic writing and years of experience on the border, the engaging journalistic inquiry and synthesis offered by Vulliamy, or the political history and wealth of data provided by Grayson.

None of the above books is the single-best source on the drug war. But each offers valuable insights and information. Given how murkiness of the picture of what’s happening in Mexico, this new contribution is welcome, especially for its reporting from Sinaloa and elsewhere in Mexico.

But there are no revelations here. The interviews, while fascinating, don’t provide a foundation for Gibler’s blunt and all-too-predictable analysis (given his politics – on full display in his previous book Mexico Unconquered.

If you can endure his simplistic left-bound analysis of current events in Mexico, his interviews with grassroots activists, drug -treatment workers, editors, and reporters (including the always interesting Julian Cardona) are well worth the read.

To Die in Mexico will surely be received favorably by U.S. readers who tend to conspiracy theories, materialist structural analysis, and to blame America for most of Mexico’s problems:

Explaining what he describes as the “theatrics” the drug war, Gibler writes:

“High level federal officials in the United States government know all of this and go along with the theatrics because, among other reasons, the U.S. economy is also buoyed by the influx of drug money, the defense industries profit handsomely from arms sales to armies, police, and drug gangs themselves, the police are addicted to asset forfeiture laws, prison guard unions are addicted to budget increases, and the criminalization of drugs has proven a durable excuse to lock people of color in prison in a country still shackled by racism.”

Gibler dismissively labels the RAND Drug Policy Research Center as “rightwing” without offering any evidence or definition of what is rightwing. But nuance is not a strong suit of this book.

Exaggeration, rooted in his own politics, undermines Gibler’s commitment to delve deeper than headline reporting of the drug war. He writes: “But banks also need drug lords. In 2008, drug money saved the major global banks from collapse and thus,, stretching just a bit, saved capitalism from a devastating internal crisis when the speculative capital markets imploded.” Stretching, indeed.

For Gibler, the drug war and drug prohibition are not utter failures of conservative social politics in the United States. The international campaign against drugs the U.S. has criminalized is an instrument of other U.S. processes and objectives. In the book’s concluding paragraph, Gibler writes: “The drug war is a proxy war for racism, militarization, social control, and access to the truckloads of cash that illegality makes possible.”

Elements of truth, of course, can be found in such analytical summations. But such analysis does little to help readers understand the existential threat that Mexico faces from organized crime.

Yes, drug prohibition must end as should militarized campaigns against the drug trade. But that doesn’t mean, as Gibler implies, that grassroots-led social movement or revolution against the ills of capitalism, is the war we should be joining. Gibler attempts to rally us to the cause: “And this is what should be fought: a future of hunger, forced migration, and thinly disguised slave labor.”

Gibler concludes his dispatches from the drug war with these final lines: “The drug war itself is a rehearsal of our future. To stand by and watch it rage is to step inside the silence that hangs over every anonymous death, blow our heads, and wait our turn.”

Such Bowdenesque prose frustrates and confuses. Unlike the evocative portrayals of border life by Bowden, little is communicated – except a vaguely leftist call to action and solidarity.

But read To Die in Mexico, not for Gibler’s own interpretation but for the views of the Mexicans that shared their own valuable observations. 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Border Patrol Strategy Origins and Lack of Strategic Focus

Sierra Blanca Checkpoint/Tom Barry

The Border Patrol’s 1994 "Prevention Through Deterrence" strategy -- the agency's first strategy statement in its 70-year history -- was not wholly an agency formulation. 

In January 1989 the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an immigration restrictionist policy institute, published a white paper titled “Ten Steps to Securing America’s Borders.” The FAIR paper advocated vastly increased border control infrastructure, including barriers and fences, enhanced electronic surveillance and highway checkpoints, as well as an expanded Border Patrol presence directly on the line.

Most influential, though, in influencing Border Patrol strategy was the January 1993 release of a Sandia Laboratories report that the White House’s Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) had commissioned in 1991.

The ONDCP report, titled “Systematic Analysis of the Southwest Border,” recommended the urgent adoption of a “prevention strategy” for border control and called for major increases in funding for multiple-layered fences, highway checkpoints and intense border surveillance. (1)

While the FAIR’s recommendations for a fortified border was the product of its concerns about rising illegal immigration flows, the Sandia/ONDCP report was the product of ONDCP’s deepening concern about the cocaine smuggling corridor through Mexico, which had opened up as a result of increasingly effective interdiction efforts in the Caribbean Basin region, including in Florida.

Also noteworthy was the undifferentiated character of the prevention strategies outlined in the early 1990s in both the Border Patrol strategy statement and the two outside reports. Little distinction is made, or prioritization given, between the two illegal border flows, immigrants and drugs. The strategies to stop immigrants and drugs were the same.

Today’s border security strategy is similarly undifferentiated with respect to terrorists, criminal aliens, drug smugglers, or immigrants crossing to seek work and reunite with their families – even though the policies that respond to these different pressures on the border must be different. In the name of securing the homeland and deterring immigrants, the federal government has merged the criminal justice and immigration regulation systems with tragic results, as illegal immigrants are routinely shackled and imprisoned before being deported. (2)

DHS conveniently – but hardly strategically – lumps together illegal immigrants, violent immigrant criminals, and drug lords into its category of “dangerous people.”  Less convenient but more constructive would be homeland security programs that focus on real security threats, drug programs that aim to disassociate criminality and drug use, criminal policies that target those who endanger public safety, and immigration policies that just, pragmatic and enforceable.

In retrospect, it also worth noting that in those less politically charged times the Border Patrol referred to immigration flows less as threat and more as a product of social and economic forces. As its 1994 strategy statement observed:

“The forces that cause legal and migration are powerful. Without positive, long-term changes in the root causes that prompt illegal migration such as improvements in the Mexican economy, NAFTA, effective employer sanctions restrictions, or closing the loopholes that allow illegal aliens to gain equities in the United States, the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors will remain strong.”

Whether framed as “border control” or as “border security,” U.S. border policy cannot stand alone.

If other U.S. policies are creating the constant pressure on the integrity of our borders, then those policies should be reconsidered.

Border policy would, for example, would likely be effective and more highly regarded if U.S. policymakers were more mindful of the adverse consequences of other nonborder policies. U.S. trade, drug, and foreign policies contribute to crossborder smuggling and to emigration pressures in the major sending countries of Central America and Mexico.

(Third of a three-part series on strategic formation of the Border Patrol.)

1 U.S. General Accounting Office, “Border Control: Revised Strategy is Showing Some Positive Results,” December 12, 1994.
2 Tom Barry, Immigrant Crackdown Joins Failed Wars on Drug and Crime, International Policy Report, Center for International Policy, April 2009, at:

Friday, March 25, 2011

Border Patrol History: Origins of "Prevention Through Deterrence" Strategy

(Second of three-part series on Border Patrol history before onset of border security framework of border control.)

In the political context of the early 1990s, the Border Patrol felt compelled -- for the first time in its 70 years -- to formulate a strategy of border control. As the outcry about illegal immigration intensified, Border Patrol sector chiefs, particularly those in large urban areas like El Paso and San Diego, began to overhaul traditional enforcement practices – ones that were widely acknowledged as being half-hearted, ineffective, and nonstrategic.

Despite Border Patrol sloganeering, “Hold the Line” has never been agency practice. Instead, the common practice was to attempt to apprehend illegal border crossers once inside the country, usually near roads that immigrants would cross or travel on their way north, or within neighborhoods adjacent to the border. This type of border patrolling didn’t catch all the illegal traffic between the ports-of-entry. 

But the Border Patrol’s presence – while not resulting in border control or border security – did nonetheless serve various objectives, including:

-      * Forestalling a massive influx of illegal immigrants,

-      *  Keeping illegal immigrant workers vulnerable to apprehension by the government and immigrant exploitation by business of wage/working conditions, and

-      * Providing a useful display of government authority and a commitment to national sovereignty.

As immigration flows increased, particularly through well-traveled “corridors,” such as those that passed through El Paso and the San Diego area, the Border Patrol in the early 1990s faced intensifying pressure to alter its traditional border-management practices.

Border Patrol at Eagle Pass on Rio Grande/Tom Barry

In 1994 the Border Patrol issued a national strategy to control illegal border crossing.  That strategy, called “Prevention through Deterrence,” drew on the direct experiences in 1993-94 of Operation Hold the Line (initially called Operation Blockade) in El Paso and of Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego sector. 

This deterrence strategy -- which aimed to achieve greatly stepped-up patrol deployment and barrier construction on the most frequently crossed stretches of the border line -- remains core to Border Patrol strategy today, although now set in a national security context.

Any evaluation of current border security policy must consider the lasting consequences of The Border Patrol Strategic Plan: 1994 and Beyond (August 1994) and its “Prevention through Deterrence” strategy. 

As it explained in the strategy statement, the Border Patrol stated that it intended to “increase the number of agents on the line and make effective use of technology, raising the risk of apprehension high enough to be an effective deterrent.” According to the new strategy, the Border Patrol aimed to hold the border line by deploying many more agents at the border, installing electronic surveillance at the border, and erecting border infrastructure, such as fences and stadium lighting, to deter illegal entry.

The strategy set forth four phases of prevention through deterrence starting with the El Paso and San Diego sectors, followed by increased concentration on the South Texas and Tucson sectors, and succeeded by a third phase by which time the entire southwestern border would be effectively controlled.  The planned fourth phased included all areas outside the Southwest border.

The authors of the strategy statement envisioned a time when U.S. borders would be so tightly controlled by new prevention strategy practices that “special interests” and other pull factors would create irresistible pressure to “revert back to traditional ways of operating, which may result in loosening control.”

The Border Patrol strategy statement also acknowledged the possibility that “changed conditions such as reduction in the cheap labor force may create unrest and resistance.” At a time when controlling the border has been reframed as border security, such critical thinking is nowhere to be found in agency assessments of the immigration policy challenge.

According to the statement: “The prediction is that with traditional entry and smuggling routes disrupted, illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.”

That prediction proved all too true.

The underlying Border Patrol’s assumption that immigrant flows would be mostly deterred or stopped by hostile terrain was badly mistaken, as the later surge of immigrants through the deserts and mountains of Arizona revealed. Tragically, neither the hostile terrain nor the escalating deaths of illegal border crossers from the harsh conditions deterred immigrants and marijuana smugglers from charting dangerous new corridors into the United States.

The prevention-through-deterrence strategy succeeded in obstructing easy passage along the usual corridors. Yet alternate corridors for immigrants and drugs, such as Arizona’s Cochise County, began opening.

In parts of the U.S. borderland, where earlier trickles of immigrants and drugs turned into steady streams, border residents grew resentful not only of the illegal border crossers but also of the federal government for unwittingly turning their communities, ranches, and backyards into border-crossing corridors. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"Border Control" Before "Border Security"

(First in three-part series on Border Patrol  prior to adopting the "border security" framework.)

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Border Patrol adapted their rhetoric to reflect its newly acquired homeland security mission. 

In the past, the Border Patrol only occasionally referred to its mission as “securing the border.” But the use of the term “border security” has gained prevalence over the past decade and now commonly substitutes for “border control.” References to border security – and border insecurity -- shape current discourse not only about the border but also about immigration, drug policy, U.S.-Mexico relations, and homeland security.
Border Patrol at Douglas/Agua Prieta/ Tom Barry

Border control operations and Border Patrol strategy prior to 9/11 facilitated the transition to the new border security framework, while also presaging the failures of this new paradigm of border management.

The Border Patrol has long been a backwater agency -- one with little prestige or influence and populated by ex-military with little professional or academic training. It is an agency drawn to a plethora of multitude of military-like “operations” and less inclined to embrace intelligence operations, strategic thinking, and inter-agency collaboration.

With its military-style management, the Border Patrol comes to the border security challenge with brawn and bluster but with little strategic focus. The Border Patrol carries a chip on its shoulder with respect to other more prestigious DHS and DOJ agencies, particularly with ICE.

Tension between the Greens and the Blues (referring to the green-uniformed Border Patrol and the blue-outfitted ICE agents) is palpable along the border. Evaluation and self-criticism are rare, while tradition and routine are favored over strategy, intelligence and policy analysis.

Origin as Labor Patrol

The Border Patrol, formed as a Labor Department agency in 1924, was preceded by irregular squads based in El Paso and by Texas Rangers who were routinely contracted by the National Immigration Service. The apprehension of Chinese laborers who were in violation of the Chinese Exclusion Act occupied these patrols.(1)

Since its official founding at the start of the Prohibition Era (1919-1933), the Border Patrol has been tasked to prevent the entry of illegal alcohol and drugs across the southwest border.

Yet, given the immensity of the border, the federal government never expected that the Border Patrol would seal the border against the routine flow of unauthorized immigrant workers and prohibited substances. In tacit agreements with ranchers, farmers, and agribusiness, the Border Patrol did not enforce immigration laws against their immigrant workforces.

For most of the last century the Border Patrol often fumbled along without a clear mandate or strategy. In 1940 the Border Patrol, following the agency’s transfer to the Justice Department (along with the entire immigration and customs service), became more clearly defined as a federal law-enforcement agency. The U.S. wartime government was concerned less about unauthorized immigration from Mexico than about the possible penetration of the border by enemy agents.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 created a path to legalization and citizenship for 2.6 unauthorized immigrants then living in the country, while also authorizing major increases in the Border Patrol staffing and the enforcement of sanctions against employers who hired immigrants without proper papers.

Yet this immigration reform legislation -- despite the authorization for an additional 2,000 Border Patrol officers -- failed to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, while the stipulated employer sanctions were not enforced.

Liberal immigration reformers had lent their support for employer sanctions as part of the amnesty deal. But once amnesty became law they didn’t support the enforcement of these sanctions – thereby further angering immigration restrictionists and hardening their resolve to oppose any future immigration-reform compromise.

What is more, the amnesty precipitated new illegal and legal immigration flows, as millions of relatives and neighbors in the past couple decades sought to join the newly legalized residents. An exodus from Central America – roiled by escalating repression, counterinsurgency wars, and U.S. intervention – created a new northbound stream of immigrants.

By the late 1980s, the local and national backlash forces against immigration began to gather new strength and national resonance.

(1) Sources for Border Patrol history include: Kelly Lytle Hern├índez, Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (University of California Press, 2010); Peter Andreas, Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide (Cornell University Press, 2010); Timothy J. Dunn, The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border 1978-1992 (CMAS Books, University of Texas, 1996); Dunn, Blockading the Border and Human Rights (University of Texas Press, 2009).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Securing Arizona -- Model State or Failed State?

(Excerpted concluding paragraphs from my cover article in new Boston Review, at:

There are no easy fixes, but a bit of leadership from Washington on the immigration issue might go some way toward generating a problem-solving sensibility. Arizonans, like many Americans, are right to be anxious about the federal government’s largely ineffective and immensely expensive policies of border control and immigration enforcement. The surge of illegal immigration over the past two decades has in many ways enriched our economy and communities. But—occurring outside the law and in the absence of a shared national plan of sustainable economic growth—illegal immigration contributed to the erosion of our society’s sense of community.
In this context Arizona’s institution of SB 1070 may be understandable. But clearly its go-it-alone approach to a common problem only further divides Arizonans and the nation. The Obama administration is right to challenge the law; however, its own avid enforcement of immigration laws—resulting in record-breaking levels of prosecution, incarceration, and deportation of immigrants—is, in any honest assessment, more shameful than Arizona’s as-yet unenforced immigration-crackdown.
Immigration control is a federal responsibility, and it is the duty of the Obama administration and federal lawmakers (including the Arizona congressional delegation, led by John McCain) to outline for Americans a vision of sustainable immigration and to pass a just and enforceable immigration-reform package. Similarly, the federal government is responsible for drug policy, and its support for drug prohibition at home and drug wars abroad is a central cause of cross-border smuggling, mass incarceration, and horrific gang-related violence across Arizona’s border with Mexico—as well as being a major source of the rising political influence of border- security hawks.
In the wake of the Tucson massacre, border-security and anti-immigration rhetoric has been toned down a notch or two. And the enormity of the budget crisis may yet create new political space in Phoenix for realistic, less ideological debate over budget priorities.
Whether Arizona can steady itself remains to be seen. But there is little reason for optimism. America’s new model state may already be a failed state.