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The U.S.-Mexico Border: Safer than Ever

Vicki B. Gaubeca,
Director of the ACLU of New Mexico’s Regional Center for Border Rights
Shawn Jain,
Media Strategist,
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February 21, 2013

Over the weekend, "NBC Nightly News" aired a segment on ranchers in rural Arizona concerned with border security. As is so often the case with media coverage of the border, this segment only included one side of the story – ranchers concerned about smugglers. Not included in this piece were the voices of many community members in the southwest—including ranchers – who are critical of the massive scale-up of border security, and the effect that it's had on their communities and ranches. For example, we have heard complaints from ranchers in the New Mexico boot heel region, who are concerned with Border Patrol agents "tearing up their land" or killing their cattle without paying them for their loss.

The Nightly News segment fails to contextualize the Arizona ranchers' concerns. There has been a massive intensification of border enforcement and personnel over the past decade – from FY2004 to FY2012, the budget for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) increased by 94 percent to $11.7 billion. At a time when migrant apprehensions are lower than at any time since the 1970s, wasteful spending by CBP must be reined in. As House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers' warned about wasteful border spending: "It is a sort of a mini industrial complex syndrome that has set in there. And we're going to have to guard against it every step of the way."

Also not mentioned in the piece is the fact that border communities are among the safest in the nation. As southwest border security is discussed in the context of immigration reform, what is truly needed is more accountability by border enforcement agencies, not an expansion of an already-bloated border enforcement system.

Overall, border enforcement policy decisions should be pragmatic and reflect the perspectives of border communities. This includes halting the unnecessary prosecution of migrants through programs like Operation Streamline, a southwest border prosecution initiative that unnecessarily treats unlawful border crossers as high-priority public safety threats. Subjecting migrants to the federal criminal justice system, instead of the existing civil immigration removal system, throws money away without resulting in proven deterrence. Operation Streamline has strained federal criminal courts and has diverted scarce law enforcement resources from more pressing criminal justice priorities. Critics of Operation Streamline include the Vatican, federal judges, and human rights experts. Representatives of these groups will brief congressional staff on the program during a visit to Washington, D.C. later this week.

Immigration reform must not come at the expense of border communities, who have endured years of border security "enhancements" including more agents, drones, military presence, and walls. It's time to look beyond reflexive conventional wisdom that the border isn't secure, and to make policy based on realities, not myths about border communities.

For more on our recommendations for border communities' needs, see the letter we submitted to President Obama last month.

As President Obama and Congress take up immigration reform, the ACLU has developed a framework and urges policymakers to promote its priorities in any proposals. The framework is available here.

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