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Soldier's Home: Militarization Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

Martha Bohrt wrote “Soldier's Home: Militarization Along the U.S.-Mexico Border” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship


The night of October 10, 2012, a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agent shot and struck 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez ten times along the Nogales portion of the Arizona-Mexico border. The studious Mexican teenager wanted to become a soldier to fight the “bad guys” spreading violence in his hometown. His body was found on a sidewalk in Mexico not far from the border fence. (1)

The CBP agent who shot José Antonio was part of a group of law enforcement officers responding to a 911 call about potential drug smuggling through the fence. According to witnesses, José Antonio was on the Mexican side of the border, walking home from a basketball game, when people started throwing rocks at the officers. CBP argues that José Antonio was one of those individuals throwing rocks and that the shooting that killed him was simply a response from the officers. (2) CBP considers stones to be deadly weapons, which allows agents to use lethal force against rock throwers.

The death of José Antonio was not accidental. This tragedy was the result of border control policies that use increased security to deter migrants from entering the United States. This systematic intensification of the border's security system, which transforms international borders into zones of "permanent vigilance, enforcement, and violence," is known as border militarization. (3)


Military Metaphysics


In his book The New American Militarism (2005), Andrew Bacevich talks about “‘military metaphysics’— a tendency to see international problems as military problems and to discount the likelihood of finding a solution except through military means.” (4) The militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border is an example of “military metaphysics” as it prevents policymakers from addressing the issues causing increased arrivals of undocumented migrants to U.S. soil. However, border militarization has been the policy for the U.S.-Mexico border since the 90s.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton launched “Operation Gatekeeper,” a project whose stated aim was to “restore integrity and safety to the nation’s busiest border,” the San Diego-Tijuana border. (5) The policy increased the budget for the U.S. Border Patrol and doubled the amount of fencing along the border. In 2006, George W. Bush allocated funds for 700 miles of fencing and surveillance technology along the U.S.-Mexico border through the Secure Fence Act (SFA), including cameras, unmanned aircraft, sensors, and lighting, among others. (6) Under the Obama administration, resources for border security are at their highest level and the border fence has doubled. As indicated on official White House documents, “Taken as a whole, the additional boots on the ground, technology, and resources provided in the last six years represent the most serious and sustained effort to secure our border in our nation’s history, cutting illegal border crossings by more than half.” (7)

The increasing allocation of funds for border security on the U.S.-Mexico border is likely to continue to grow, as politicians continue to mobilize the threat of criminal activity and terrorism toward this end. Not surprisingly, border security is a key issue on the agendas of the 2016 U.S. presidential candidates. The commitment to border security appears inescapable in an era in which border militarization has become the dominant approach to regulating movement across the U.S. border. 

Additionally, border militarization enforcers often disregard international human rights. A review of the history of border militarization in the U.S.-Mexico border provides insights into the flaws of such policies at a time when more countries around the world seek to adopt them.


Deterrence Policy: A Justification for Militarization


In the last twenty years, and especially following the 9/11 attacks, the United States has implemented a "deterrence policy" against illegal entry at the U.S.-Mexico border that has involved strong militarization. This expensive policy has turned out to be most costly in human terms. This approach forces thousands of migrants each year to avoid urban areas and to instead cross the border by foot through the most inhospitable and dangerous places along the border, like the Sonoran Desert, an area in which geographic conditions and isolation make it impossible to build a fence or to have law enforcement officials present. The Sonoran Desert is a high transit area for undocumented migrants where over 2,100 people have died in a little over ten years. (8) The most common cause of death for people crossing the desert is exposure to the extreme heat. Temperatures in the desert can stay at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day for weeks. After extended exposure to these temperatures, body temperature hits 106 to107 degrees, at which point blood vessels begin to burst.

Those who survive physical and natural barriers could then face CBP. There is extensive documentation of CBP agents utilizing deadly force against border crossers, including excessive use of armed force. In fact, as shown by José Antonio Elena Rodriguez’s case, throwing rocks (or the mere accusation of throwing rocks) at agents officially justifies the use of lethal force. Despite numerous reports by the media, border communities, and non-governmental organizations on the killings of migrants by CBP agents, the U.S. government does not disclose figures of migrants killed by its agents at the border. Similarly, no independent investigatory entity has been established to shed light on these cases and to hold perpetrators of such violence accountable for their actions.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported that the number of deaths of unauthorized border crossers resulting from border militarization policies surpassed 5,600 in the ten-year period ending in 2012. (9) These deaths are the direct result of an excessive use of force or shootings by CBP agents. These civil and human rights violations go unpunished very often due to the fact that the victims’ families are in countries other than the United States, and therefore, are unable to denounce these instances, in the few cases in which the victims’ families even find out.

Despite the high risks faced by those attempting to cross into the United States without documents, border militarization as a deterrence technique has shown no effect in decreasing the number of people trying to enter the country without documents through the U.S.-Mexico border.


Culture of Fear: Its Consequences


The causes for immigration are complex, vary by country, and range from economic, to social, to safety risks, among others. Nonetheless, increasing the number of CBP agents and surveillance equipment at the border does nothing to address any of the root causes for immigration, whatever they may be. Despite the flawed logic to increase border security as a way to deter immigration, border militarization policies are easily sold to the public as efforts to aid the war on drugs and the war on terror. Both of these wars have served to create a negative, misinformed image of migrants around the country.  

In 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) were enacted in part to "deter terrorism." (10) IIRIRA, in one of its most controversial components, expanded the categories of criminal activity for which both documented and undocumented immigrants could be deported. Under this law, minor offenses, such as shoplifting, justify deportation of individuals after they served their sentence, even when they are U.S. residents, married to American citizens, have American children, or have almost never lived in their country of origin. “This practice is in violation of all international human rights standards on the right to family life, the rights of the child, and the prohibition of double jeopardy.” (11)

The United States Code define crossing the U.S. border without documents as a civil penalty, not as a criminal offense. (12) Nonetheless, border militarization contributes to the creation of a culture of fear that criminalizes immigrants.


Finding Solutions


On August 7, 2014, the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) submitted his report on the promotion and protection of human rights to the General Assembly, which included ways and means to promote the human rights of migrants. One of the items highlighted in this report was human rights at international borders. The report advocated for the treatment of migrants, first and foremost, as human beings. Additionally and somewhat ironically, the report pointed to the prevalence of a different value at international borders around the world today: seeing migrants as a security threat first. (13)

The U.S.-Mexico border operates on the “safety first, human rights second” situation described by the report to the General Assembly. Political rhetoric, including the discourse of fear supported by deterrence policies, and investment of financial resources in increasing border militarization in the United States make the priorities clear. In 2014, as thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America were arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, the federal government increased the number of law enforcement officials monitoring the area.

Immigration is a pressing topic on the agendas of the 2016 U.S. presidential candidates. When speaking about deterring undocumented migrants from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the candidates defer to border militarization. Some candidates, like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, speak of increasing the number of law enforcement officials monitoring the border. Others, like Donald Trump and Ben Carson, propose expanding the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. While the candidates differ in approaches, they all have one thing in common: their proposals ignore the downsides of border militarization.

Although the U.S.-Mexico border is one of the most prominent areas to study border militarization, it must be noted that it is not the only case in which migrants are seen as security threats first and as humans second. At the same time, this border shares such similarities (everything from the political rhetoric, the range on public opinions, and the involvement in creating the situations currently pushing people out of their home countries) with other international borders around the world that it could be used as a case study to orient countries considering border militarization.

First and foremost, however, countries should ensure international human rights obligations are being met regardless of the volume of inflow being received. With that in mind, tackling the many issues happening at these borders will require policies that reevaluate the operations, physical infrastructure, and accountability systems under which international borders currently operate.




Currently, border enforcement operates under two assumptions: 1) mechanisms implemented at the borders can play a role in decreasing immigration and 2) migrants pose a threat (whether to safety, job security, or else). Current border enforcement operations have failed to stop people from migrating and are unable to affect what happens beyond the borderlands in terms of physical, economic or cultural safety. Therefore, government agencies should re-evaluate these assumptions and focus on operating under the current mandates established by human rights conventions. As such, border enforcement agencies should develop clear guidelines on the application of lethal and non-lethal force, and operate under the assumption that the type and level of non-lethal force should be commensurate with the type of law involved and the characteristics of the enforcement situation. These guidelines are the first step in changing the culture of fear that permeates all ranks of border enforcement in actuality.


Physical Barriers


The purpose of physical barriers align with the operational assumptions of border enforcement- what happens at the border can actually decrease or even eliminate immigration. Nonetheless, the presence of fences or even increased border enforcement personnel at international borders has only pushed migrants to more dangerous areas of the sea and land borders they want to cross. Therefore, the construction and deployment of physical barriers should be immediately stopped and its usefulness evaluated. The physical barriers that have already been constructed and implemented should be evaluated in terms of meeting their goals—if the goal is to deter migrants from crossing, an evaluation of all other policies aiming to reduce immigration should also be conducted. For future projects, cost effectiveness and cost-benefit analyses should be performed prior to deciding whether to realize them or not. These analyses should take into consideration human, social, environmental and financial costs of the projects and consult with the communities along the borders to ensure all factors are taken into consideration.


Accountability Systems


Revamping operations and evaluating physical barriers will not be meaningful changes unless there are systems of accountability for border enforcement agents, officials, and processes in place. As a first step to ensure the proper and fair evaluation of border enforcement, local and untrained law enforcement should be prohibited from participating in the enforcement of immigration law. This is the only way to ensure that government border enforcement agencies are held accountable for the quality of their processes. Additionally, government border enforcement agencies should design, implement, and promote accessible and transparent complaint processes. Such processes would place responsibility on individuals as well as on the agency.

These recommendations offer both small and large changes to the way in which border enforcement is practiced around the world. Nonetheless, it is up to agency and political leaders to determine how necessary these changes are.




An old Chinese proverb says, “When the wind rises, some people build walls. Others build windmills.” As we watch an increased interest in restricting the movement of people through militarization of borders, this proverb resonates.

Border militarization is a complex, multidimensional issue. Like all topics relating to migration and immigration, solutions around it are also complex and multidimensional. However, the current state of border zones as areas of permanent vigilance, enforcement, and violence is in direct violation of international human rights. As political leaders seeks to ensure safety for all, it is important to pay close attention to the borderlands and ensure human rights obligations are being met there too. It is time to build windmills and not walls. 


About the Author


Martha Bohrt is a graduate student at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. She received a degree in Business Administration from the University of North Texas in 2008. After working in the private sector for a few years, she served as a legislative aide in the Texas State Senate Committee on Natural Resources. Prior to enrolling in graduate school, Martha supported non-profit organizations that focus on education reform at different capacities. Her academic interests include transboundary water policy and municipal governance.



1.     Planas, Roque. "Border Patrol Shot Mexican Teen Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez 8 Times: Autopsy." The Huffington Post. February 8, 2013.

2.     Yuhas, Alan. “Justice for Jose? Border shooting of Mexican teen raises constitutional issue.” The Guardian. May 31, 2015.

3.     National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, “Border Militarization Policy.” 2014.

4.     Bacevich, Andrew J. 2005. “The new American militarism: how Americans are seduced by war.” New York: Oxford University Press.

5.     National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “Border Militarization Policy.” 2014.

6.     Ibid.

7.     The White House. “Continuing to Strengthen Border Security.” November 20, 2014.

8.     Siegal McIntyre, Erin. "Death in the Desert: The Dangerous Trek between Mexico and Arizona." Aljazeera America. March 11, 2014.

9.     American Civil Liberties Union. “Statement on: Human Rights Violations on the United States-Mexico border.” October 25, 2012.

10.    International Federation for Human Rights. “United States-Mexico: Walls, Abuses, and Deaths at the Borders- Flagrant Violations of the Rights of Undocumented Migrants on their Way to the United States.” March, 2008.

11.    Ibid.

12.    8 U.S. Code § 1325.

13.    United Nations, General Assembly, “Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Including Ways and Means to Promote the Human Rights of Migrants.” A/69/227 (7 August 2014).

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