Immigration may be a deeply divisive political discussion, but there’s one point upon which everybody from Barack Obama to Jan Brewer seem to agree: America’s southern border is a lawless, violent land. The guns have followed the premise. Obama has beefed up border cops, sent in National Guard troops and launched unmanned drones–all that’s missing are the Marines, for now.
Increased violence has predictably followed the increased militarization. Two border patrol encounters in the past two weeks have ended in the deaths of unarmed civilians, sparking outrage from Mexican authorities and immigrant rights groups who say that Border Patrol officers routinely use excessive force.
On June 7, a 15-year-old boy named Sergio Adrian Hernandez Huereca from Juarez, Mexico, was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent at Puente Negro, an international bridge that joins El Paso, Texas, and Juarez. On May 26, a Border Patrol officer at the San Ysidro, California-Tijuana border shot a 32-year-old man named Anastacio Hernandez with a stun gun. The San Diego County coroner has ruled his death a homicide.
Attorney General Eric Holder called the deaths "extremely regrettable," and the FBI formally initiated a civil rights investigation on Friday into the teen’s death in Jaurez. Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar told The Hill newspaper that his subcommittee may investigate as well, but also conceded, "As you have more presence of Border Patrol and other federal officials on the border, you’re going to probably run into more types of incidents like that."
Largely quiet on the "incidents like that," however, are the elected officials who have spent the year drumming up reports of border violence to create political space for anti-immigrant policy.
When Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB1070 into state law in April, she described the border as a lawless, violent war zone. "Our international border creeps its way north," she warned. "We cannot sacrifice our safety to the murderous greed of drug cartels." Last week, a Louisiana sheriff–St. Bernard Parish’s Jack Stephens–justified harassing immigrant oil spill workers by asserting that "illegal aliens" were posing as workers to set up gangs in the area.
National Democrats and Republicans alike have echoed the local officials. President Obama implicitly acknowledged the supposed dangers of life at the border when he announced in May plans to send 1,200 National Guard troops and an extra $500 million to the border. That’s not nearly enough for electioneering Sen. John McCain, who has wedged funding for 6,000 more border troops into the Senate’s pending defense authorization bill.
The same week Obama announced his troop increase, Texas Sen. John Cornyn–who wants to redirect $2.2 billion from the stimulus for border security–wrote in an op-ed: "Our porous border endangers every American, yet Washington refuses to make border security a priority." When reporters pressed Cornyn in a phone conference about the violence he so feared, the senator got stuck. "As far as the Texas border is concerned, to my knowledge, we have not had spillover violence, per se," he told reporters. It was actually "the threat of potential spill over violence," he later clarified.
More accurately, it’s the perception of that violence. Because the realities simply do not support the rhetoric about public safety in border states. As ColorLines’ graphic illustrates, crime in key cities near the U.S.-Mexico border is on the decline–just like it is all over the country.
The murder rate in San Diego, Calif., dropped by 25 percent last year. Phoenix’s decreased by 27 percent. El Paso saw a 29 percent drop in murders, bested by Tucson, Ariz., which saw a 46 percent decline in murders. The national murder rate went down just 10 percent from 2008 to 2009.
When it comes to violent crime more generally, all four of these border cities hover around four to six violent crimes per capita, just under the national average of 6.6.
"[Politicians] are creating the artificial reality that the border is out of control, that it spills over. None of that is true," says Fernando Garcia, the executive director of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights. "We have a very sustainable sense of security in the community, good relations with local law enforcement."
"There is a perception of the border that whatever ails the U.S. as a country has to come from the outside rather from looking internally," adds Maria Jimenez, an immigrant rights organizer who works with America Para Todos in Houston. The expectation that more militarization will make the border safer is "unfair to Border Patrol and Customs people, too," Jimenez says.
The national debate around border security is a classic case study in the ways that a twisted narrative can consume the less dramatic picture of reality. And in so doing, allow politicians to move policy that does not help the communities it’s supposed to protect.
Indeed, under Obama’s watch, the country now has a record number of Customs and Border Protection officers. Immigration eenforcement spending has skyrocketed from $8 billion in 2008 to $11 billion in 2010.
"How come we need the National Guard?" asked Garcia. "We look around, it’s not true. However, it seems that the president and McCain, they have this macho pro-law enforcement attitude. It is really unfortunate, how they are playing with our communities."