Border Communities’ Needs in Federal Immigration Reform Legislation

While the ACLU is encouraged that there is renewed interest in immigration reform, we urge the Obama Administration to develop and champion proposals that are grounded in Americans’ fundamental values of equality and justice for all. One area of particular concern is the conventional wisdom in some circles about a purported need for additional resources dedicated to border enforcement. Those of us who live in border communities can attest that what is truly needed is more accountability by border enforcement agencies and reducing, not expanding, an already-bloated border enforcement system. This week, the ACLU of New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights submitted a letter to President Obama that makes this case based on values and empirical evidence.

Communities along the U.S.-Mexico border are enduring the massive intensification of border enforcement and personnel over the past decade. This increase has come with very few corresponding accountability and oversight mechanisms and has consequently led to an increase in civil and human rights violations, traumatic family separations in border communities, and racial profiling and harassment of Native Americans, Latinos, and other people of color – many of them  U.S. citizens and some who have lived in the region for generations. These stressed communities are a vital component of the half-trillion dollars in trade between the U.S. and Mexico, and the devastating effects of militarization on them must be addressed in serious reform.

The U.S.-Canada border has experienced an increase in border enforcement resources as well, with northern border residents often complaining about border patrol agents conducting roving patrols near schools and churches and asking passengers for their documents on trains and buses that are traveling far from border crossings.  The ACLU of Washington State brought a class action lawsuit to end the Border Patrol’s practice of stopping vehicles and interrogating occupants without legal justification.  One of the plaintiffs in the case is an African American corrections officer who was pulled over for no expressed reason and interrogated about his immigration status.  A local business owner said he’s “never seen anything like this.  Why don’t they do it to the white people, to see if they’re from Canada or something?”

The letter we sent to President Obama was endorsed by almost 150 organizations and individuals. Among the points the letter made are the following:

  • U.S. border cities are among the safest in the nation and are vital to the U.S. economy
  • There has been an unprecedented increase in Border Patrol size without demonstrable positive results, but with a noticeable increase in human and civil rights violations in the border regions
  • There has been a corresponding massive increase in taxpayers’ money spent at the border, including a 94% increase in Border Patrol funds in eight years.  House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers has cautioned that border security spending has become a “mini industrial complex."
  • This budget continues to grow, despite declining migrant apprehensions, which translates into a vastly increased cost per apprehension
  • There is a failure of meaningful accountability and oversight, even in cases of blatant human rights violations, such as 19 or more uses of “lethal force” by Border Patrol since January 2010

Border enforcement policy decisions should be pragmatic and reflect the perspectives of border communities.  Now is the time to halt further construction of costly yet ineffective border infrastructure or unproven technologies, and stopping the expensive, unnecessary prosecution of migrants through programs like Operation Streamline, a “zero tolerance” border enforcement program that orders federal criminal charges for every person who crosses the border illegally. This program overwhelms federal courthouses in the Southwestern border region and diverts judicial resources away from addressing serious crimes, such as arms trafficking. Operation Streamline has also led to unprecedented mass incarceration of Latinos, who in the last year of available statistics were the majority of those sent to federal prison, despite constituting only 16 percent of the population. This program serves as an extremely expensive and unnecessary addition to an already extensive civil, immigration enforcement system.

Border security must not be an exception to fiscal responsibility. The vital conversation we are collectively engaged in about creating a roadmap to citizenship for aspiring citizens currently contributing to the United States must not be compromised by unsupported rhetoric about border enforcement needs. Border communities are safe, and rather than continuing years of profligate and wasteful spending, the Administration must begin holding border enforcement agencies accountable for their bloated budgets, flawed policies, and abuses of human and civil rights.

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