Senate’s Border ‘Surge’ Plays Political Games With Border Lives

The Gang of Eight has agreed to a massive new border build up to buy Republican support for the bill. But those living and working on the border say that investment will lead to more people perishing in the desert, not a safer country.

By Seth Freed Wessler Jun 21, 2013

The bi-partisan group of Senators leading the immigration reform push in Washington have agreed on a border security deal that Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham called "a border surge," likening it to a war zone. "We have practically militarized the border," Graham told Politico.

The deal, seen as a means of pulling more Republicans into the immigration reform fold before an expected vote on the legislation before July 4th, would send an additional 20,000 border guards to the Southwestern US, doubling the current number of armed agents. It would also buy even more new drones and complete 700 miles of wall between the US and Mexico. Republican Senators John Hoeven, N.D, and Bob Corker, Tenn, introduced the amendment to the bill. It has the support of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Gang of Eight who drafted the bill.

For years, Republicans have demanded vast investment in border security as a prerequisite to immigration reform. Yet even as the Democratic and Republican administrations built up border controls to historic levels in recent years, Republicans continued to say it was not enough. Now, it appears Senate Democrats and Republicans have agreed to something that might be enough. "If this amendment holds together and it passes as currently constructed, border security will have been achieved at a level that nobody would have thought possible a month ago," said Graham.

Politically, the amendment will likely gain Republican support. And Democrats will get behind it because it does not create a hard and fast border trigger that must be met before undocumented immigrants can move toward citizenship. Democrats and the White House have said that an enforcement trigger could stall the path to citizenship indefinitely, leaving millions in a nearly permanent legal limbo. Yesterday, as part of the deal, the Senate killed a trigger amendment from Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and instead agreed to new investments in the wall and border agents.

But here’s the thing: the existing border infrastructure is already dangerously out of control. The new investments will make that worse. Though the total number of people crossing the border has plummeted to lows not seen since the 1970’s, the number of migrants who perish in the desert while attempting to enter the US has remained steady. In other words, those trying to cross the US-Mexico border are now more likely to die. Most die of heat, others of brutal violence.

Robin Reineke coordinates the Missing Migrant Project at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner.  She’s one of the people in charge of examining and documenting these deaths.

"We’ve seen that every time there’s a border enforcement build up, more people die," Reineke says. "In 1994 when we had the last expansion of this size, more people crossing were pushed into the desert. I see this as another nail in the coffin in creating an inhumane border. This was not a war zone until policy made it one."

Pushing people into more dangerous parts of the desert is not the only way the border patrol build up has killed people. We’ve learned recently from reporter John Carlos Frey that border patrol guards have shot and killed at least six people inside Mexico in the last five years. They’ve been shooting over the border and killing Mexican citizens. We know from the Government Accountability Office that the Department of Homeland Security has so rapidly deployed border patrol guards to the California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas border region that the agency hasn’t been able to adequately train them all. Indeed, border patrol agents are so plentiful that they’ve been shooting each other.  

20,000 more guards portend more of the same.  

The border expansion amendment may help get this immigration passed out of the Senate with significant Republican support.  That may generate more GOP backing for the bill in the House, where Republicans are more entrenched about their border security demands. As a purely political trade, it may make sense.  But let’s be very clear about what’s being traded: people’s lives.