The Border: A Killing Zone

Publisher’s Corner  
Marcelino Jose

 

“Let the Dog Die” was the response to pleas for help from the Border Patrol agent as Juan Pablo Perez Santillan, 30, expired after being shot at least five times through the crosshairs of a scope as he attempted to cross the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas in 2012. He was executed, not deported, for trying to enter the U.S. He was a perceived threat to national security just for being where he was and who he was. 

In 2012 an agent on the Arizona side of the border shot and killed a 16-year-old boy who was walking home from a baseball game in Nogales, Mexico. It’s still unclear what possible threat he could have posed to U.S. sovereignty.

These are just two of the 67 shooting incidents since 2010, in which 19 people died, absolved by internal investigations in all but three cases still pending review, where Mexican men were killed from the U.S. side of the border. Even while being investigated, the officers involved continue their patrols.

From January 2009 to January 2012, only 13 of the 809 abuse complaints sent to Customs and Border Protection’s office internal affairs led to disciplinary action, according to the L.A. Times.

And not until May 2015 did the Customs and Border Protection make it possible for people to file written complaints against officers in Spanish.

The 21,000-member Border Patrol releases almost no information about shootings or the outcome of investigations. Transparency and accountability are in short supply. An independent review by law enforcement experts found a pattern of deadly force used against rocks being thrown from across the border and of officers stepping in front of vehicles to justify shooting at drivers.

So why is the border such a hellhole of illegal activity and apparently legally sanctioned killings? The U.S. official line is that we must protect our country. Yet our guns arm the cartels and our booming drug addiction fuels their operations. As the cartels grow more powerful and violent, more people flee for their lives, and if we can survive the heat, dehydration and coyote betrayal, we face not just Border Patrol agents who, rather than send us back, seem more than willing to use deadly force.

And should we not be shot but caught, we’re herded like cattle into Border Patrol stations like the ones in Arizona where we’re denied basic sanitation, food, water and adequate medical care, according to a class-action lawsuit filed by an immigrant-rights organization and reported in the L.A. Times by Brian Bennett, who has done extensive investigative work on the Border Patrol.

A recent Homeland Security report has pointed out the need for more criminal investigators to examine the use of unnecessary and excessive force against migrants and commended the efforts of newly named Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, R. Gil Kerlikowske, who has established new guidelines for interaction with migrants.

The issue seems to be how to interdict the criminal activity at the border without criminalizing and even killing those of us desperate to escape violence, poverty and corruption. We are no different from other species that migrate to survive. But we must be seen as human beings, not enemy combatants, not fodder for target practice.

Issuing new rules of engagement will not instantly erase a siege mentality of a paramilitary force. The new commissioner will have to find a way for his agents to do their jobs without dehumanizing and stereotyping everyone they encounter and that will take not just his efforts, but the mindful discussion of all who reach a national audience and those of us who work in our local communities for acceptance.  

But many influential leaders hurl epithets as facts and make outlandish claims that only divide our country. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump kicked off his campaign with a highly charged diatribe against immigrants, particularly Mexicans:  “They are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime, and they’re rapists.”

Trump may have lost business partners but he has soared in Republican polls. And fellow Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, whose wife is Mexican, took two weeks to respond with the blandest of recriminations saying he took Trump’s remarks personally and thought they were outside the mainstream of Republican thought -- not exactly moral indignation.

Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King seems to have a math problem but no ethical qualms when he says: “For every one who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that, they weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert. Those people would be legalized with the same act."

Those people are us – the ones Emma Lazarus forever welcomed with her poem that graces the Status of Liberty.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

 

Should the last line now read: “I shoulder my rifle to ensure you come no more.”?

Though we may not be expecting to be welcomed, we would certainly like to survive the journey where we have risked everything, where we’ve left our home and often our families because we felt we had no choice. We’d like a chance to make our case, to work hard, to prove ourselves and to be respected as human beings, not die like dogs.