How Many Migrants Die That Way in the Wilderness by Karie Luidens


If you’re not yet convinced, or you’d just like a more detailed audio tour of the Border Patrol’s “Prevention Through Deterrence” strategy, I recommend this three-part series from one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab.

Radiolab Presents: Border Trilogy

March - April 2018

While scouring the Sonoran Desert for objects left behind by migrants crossing into the United States, anthropologist Jason De León happened upon something he didn't expect to get left behind: a human arm, stripped of flesh.

This macabre discovery sent him reeling, needing to know what exactly happened to the body, and how many migrants die that way in the wilderness. In researching border-crosser deaths in the Arizona desert, he noticed something surprising. Sometime in the late-1990s, the number of migrant deaths shot up dramatically and have stayed high since. Jason traced this increase to a Border Patrol policy still in effect, called “Prevention Through Deterrence.”

Over three episodes, Radiolab will investigate this policy, its surprising origins, and the people whose lives were changed forever because of it.

What Happens When You Weaponize the Land by Karie Luidens

Glamis CA Gavin Spear Unsplash.jpg

The land is what it is, wherever you go.

In some places it’s soft grass, soft breezes. Others it’s fragrant forests, stark rock cliffs, or damp riverbanks.

There’s a reason the Border Patrol’s official strategy since 1994 has been to fence off and heavily guard the lengths of the U.S.-Mexico border that are softest, dampest, easiest to cross—densely populated San Diego on the California coast; bustling Nogales, Arizona with its abundant roads and restaurants; the flat bends of river around El Paso, Texas. That’s where most migration back and forth has taken place over the decades: places with the resources to keep you alive.

In contrast, endless expanses of Southwestern desert—the southern boundaries of California and Arizona and New Mexico—are utterly inhospitable to human life for miles on end. Try to walk there and you could freeze in the winter, burn in the summer, cut yourself up on stones or cacti, and starve or die of thirst in any season.

In the last twenty-five years, the Border Patrol has deliberately tightened and tightened their operations in safer areas to funnel migration routes further and further into that deadly region. Their leadership stated bluntly in the nineties that they figured after enough people died there, the word would get out back in Mexico and further south in Central America, and people would stop attempting to migrate there.

But that hasn’t been the case.

The desert has just seen more and more and more deaths.

That’s what happens when you fail to address the actual political, social, and economic factors that drive people to leave their homes and make the difficult journey to a distant country, a new life. That’s what happens when instead you just weaponize the land and wait to see what happens.

Weaponizing the Geography and Terrain of the Borderlands by Karie Luidens

Arizona Desert Robert Murray Unsplash.jpg

Border Patrol History: Origins of “Prevention Through Deterrence” Strategy

Tom Barry
TransBorder Project, Center for International Policy
Friday, March 25, 2011

In 1994 the Border Patrol issued a national strategy to control illegal border crossing.  That strategy, called “Prevention through Deterrence,” drew on the direct experiences in 1993-94 of Operation Hold the Line (initially called Operation Blockade) in El Paso and of Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego sector.

This deterrence strategy -- which aimed to achieve greatly stepped-up patrol deployment and barrier construction on the most frequently crossed stretches of the border line -- remains core to Border Patrol strategy today, although now set in a national security context.

Death as ‘Deterrence’: the Desert as a Weapon

By Gabe Shivone
Alliance for Global Justice

The perception of the border environment is explicitly used to demonstrate that migrants “crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger.” The document bases the strategy on the “prediction” that migrant “traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.”

Forgoing any subtly, “enforcement,” in this instance, is a euphemism for “mortal danger” as a premeditated method of death by example to deter human beings from crossing unauthorized into the US.

A Case for Dismantling the U.S. Border Patrol

The U.S. Border Patrol’s violent, racist, and ineffectual policies have come to a head under Trump. What can be done?

Geoffrey Alan Boyce
Border Wars

The logic governing this border strategy was simple and straightforward: by ratcheting up the hardship that unauthorized migrants endure along the journey north, they might be successfully “deterred” from crossing the border altogether. This outcome was to be accomplished by weaponizing the geography and terrain of the borderlands, and concentrating agents in urban areas to push migration routes into increasingly remote and treacherous areas. At the time, then-Immigration and Naturalization Services Director Doris Meissner said, “We did believe that geography would be an ally for us. It was our sense that the number of people crossing through the Arizona desert would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.”

Since 1994 at least 7,000 human beings have lost their lives attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, and thousands more have disappeared along the journey north. For example, the Pima County, Arizona Medical Examiner’s office counts 939 unidentified remains of border-crossers found between 2001 and 2016, while the Coalición de Derechos Humanos identifies more than 1,200 unresolved missing persons cases reported to the organization during 2015 alone. The harm inflicted by the death and disappearance of migrants extends to communities across the United States, Mexico, and Central America.

My Mind Had Become So Filled With Violence That I Could Barely Perceive Beauty by Karie Luidens

Francisco Cantú.jpg

Reading about the Border Patrol’s long history of violence reminded me of a book I finished last summer: The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, Francisco Cantú’s 2018 memoir about his years working as a Border Patrol agent.

Cantú joined the Border Patrol fresh out of college in his early twenties because he’d studied international relations and border politics, and wanted to experience the realities of it all firsthand. Although he writes in and about the many metaphors we apply to the borderlands, his driving desire in the book seems to be emphasizing the realness of the border. It is not just an academic or political subject. It is not an abstraction. It is violence. It is many things to him, but mostly it is violence:

He [my uncle] turned to me and smiled. How’s your job? he asked. I chewed an apple, thinking of how to reply. I wanted to tell him that I had reached a point at which I could barely sleep, a point at which my mind had become so filled with violence that I could barely perceive beauty in the landscape around me. I wanted to tell him that I feared there was nothing for him here, that he would find no peace in these borderland deserts. I breathed a deep breath and looked over at the water held back by the sagging dam. The job is good, I finally said. It’s nice to be out of the office, to have some work back in the field.

p 129

Another of Cantú’s major themes is dreams, especially dreams of teeth and wolves—symbols of violence—that go soft, crumble, fall out, pursue him only to press paws to his chest and lick him. The work of patrolling the border is a thing of violence; the desperation to make it right, to defang the situation and tame it, haunts him like a nightmare.

Cantú is American. He lives and works in the U.S. But because he’s descended from Mexican immigrants, he feels a bond with Mexico that brings him to work on a border he no longer feels he can cross. His memoir is about the cruelties intrinsic to American law enforcement and bureaucracy, but even more it’s about the violence south of our border and his aching empathy for those who struggle in and around the borderlands—those who migrate in search of safety and opportunity, and the many many more who don’t migrate and who continue to struggle south of the border to find work and avoid the predations of cartels and gangs. I thought this would be a book about the American systems, politics, and policies. Instead I found it to be a great cry of grief for his heritage and plea for the fate of his long-lost people: can we find healing? Can we break the cycles of violence and trauma? Is that possible with anything less than a miracle, like his namesake San Francisco making peace with the wolf?

Brutality Grew As the Number of Agents It Deployed Increased by Karie Luidens

BP Agent Nogales (public domain).jpg

I dedicated some time to researching the history of the Border Patrol going back to when it was founded in 1924.

After hours of reading, I found I was vibrating with anxiety.

Racism. Malice. Violence. Abuse. Rape. Murder. I couldn’t stomach another article.

If you’re interested in a day of burning moral outrage yourself, here’s just a few pieces to get you started, with some representative excerpts pulled as preview.


Greg Grandin
January 12 2019, 7:00 a.m.

Earlier, in the mid-1800s, the Mexican-American War had unleashed a broad, generalized racism against Mexicans throughout the nation. That racism slowly concentrated along an ever-more focused line: the border. While the 1924 immigration law spared Mexico a quota, a series of secondary laws — including one that made it a crime to enter the country outside official ports of entry — gave border and customs agents on-the-spot discretion to decide who could enter the country legally. They had the power to turn what had been a routine daily or seasonal event — crossing the border to go to work — into a ritual of abuse. Hygienic inspections became more widespread and even more degrading. Migrants had their heads shaved, and they were subjected to an increasingly arbitrary set of requirements and the discretion of patrollers, including literacy tests and entrance fees.

The patrol wasn’t a large agency at first — just a few hundred men during its early years — and its reach along a 2,000-mile line was limited. But over the years, its reported brutality grew as the number of agents it deployed increased. Border agents beat, shot, and hung migrants with regularity. Two patrollers, former Texas Rangers, tied the feet of one migrant and dragged him in and out of a river until he confessed to having entered the country illegally. Other patrollers were members of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, active in border towns from Texas to California. “Practically every other member” of El Paso’s National Guard “was in the Klan,” one military officer recalled, and many had joined the Border Patrol upon its establishment. […]

Starting in the 1970s, investigative journalists began to report on Border Patrol abuse. Such exposés were damning, but largely ignored. John Crewdson, for instance, won a Pulitzer in 1980 for a series of articles published in the New York Times […]

Patrollers, he reported, regularly engaged in beatings, murder, torture, and rape, including the rape of girls as young as 12. Some patrollers ran their own in-house “outlaw” vigilante groups. Others maintained ties with groups like the Klan. Border Patrol agents also used the children of migrants, either as bait or as a pressure tactic to force confessions. When coming upon a family, agents usually tried to apprehend the youngest member first, with the idea that relatives would give themselves up so as not to be separated. “It may sound cruel,” one patroller said, but it often worked.

Separating migrant families was not official government policy in the years Crewdson was reporting on abuses. But left to their own devices, Border Patrol agents regularly took children from parents, threatening that they would be separated “forever” unless one of them confessed that they had entered the country illegally. Mothers especially, an agent said, “would always break.” Once a confession was extracted, children might be placed in foster care or left to languish in federal jails. Others were released into Mexico alone, far from their homes — forced to survive, according to public defenders, by “garbage-can scrounging, living on rooftops and whatever.” […] Such cruelties weren’t one-offs, but part of a pattern, encouraged and committed by officers up the chain of command.

The Border Patrol Serial Killer Is Part of a Long, Troubled History

A rash of violent crimes by Border Patrol agents in the Laredo area is nothing new for the agency sometimes dubbed the "green monster."

by Gus Bova
Wed, Sep 19, 2018 at 2:56 pm CST

From 2005 to 2012, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents were arrested 2,170 times for misconduct, such as domestic violence and drunk driving, government inspectors found. CBP, which includes Border Patrol and customs agents, was also the target of 1,187 complaints of excessive force from 2007 to 2012. Since 2004, more than 200 agents have been arrested on corruption-related charges, including at least 13 under Trump. And a 2013 government-commissioned report found that Border Patrol agents regularly stepped in the paths of cars to justify firing at drivers, as well as shooting at rock-throwers, including teenagers on the Mexican side, with the intent to kill.

According to public statements from former high-level CBP employees, the mess stems largely from the agency’s explosive growth in the feverish years following 9/11. During his second term, George W. Bush doubled the size of Border Patrol. “From an integrity issue, you can’t grow a law enforcement agency that quickly,” Robert Bonner, Bush’s own CBP commissioner, told Politico in 2014. In a court filing, two ex-officials who led the agency’s Office of Internal Affairs wrote that “inadequate” screening had led the agency to hire actual cartel members. They also accused Border Patrol of behaving more like a military agency than a civil police force, as well as abusing its extra-constitutional powers within 100 miles of the border.

Fatal encounters: 97 deaths point to pattern of border agent violence across America

In the last 15 years, agents with Customs and Border Protection have used deadly force in states up to 160 miles from the border, from Maine to California

by Sarah Macaraeg
The Guardian
Wed 2 May 2018 01.00 EDT

The shootings are only part of a larger litany of Customs and Border Protection agency-related violence inside the US. Encounters have proven deadly for at least 97 people – citizens and non-citizens – since 2003, a count drawn from settlement payment data, court records, use of force logs, incident reports and news articles.

From Maine to Washington state and California to Florida, the deaths stem from all manner of CBP activity. Border agents manning land crossings and a checkpoint have used deadly force, as have agents conducting roving patrols – up to 160 miles inland from the border.

Pedestrians were run over by agents. Car chases culminated in crashes. Some have drowned, others died after they were pepper-sprayed, stunned with tasers or beaten.

But the majority of victims died from bullet wounds, including shots in the back. The bullets were fired not only by agents conducting border enforcement operations, but also those acting in a local law enforcement capacity and by agents off-duty, who’ve shot burglary suspects, intimate partners and friends.

Border patrol violence: US paid $60m to cover claims against the agency

Exclusive: analysis of more than a decade of official data reveals government paid settlements after deaths, alleged assaults and wrongful detention

Sarah Macaraeg
The Guardian
Tue 1 May 2018 09.19 EDT

The US government has paid out more than $60m in legal settlements where border agents were involved in deaths, driving injuries, alleged assaults and wrongful detention, an analysis of more than a decade of official data reveals.

Since taking office, Donald Trump has been pushing to expand the patrol force at the southern border, insisting recently on Twitter: “Border Patrol Agents are not allowed to properly do their job at the Border because of ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws.”

But while Trump has ordered national guard troops to be deployed to provide agents with extra support, the review of settlement data and details found in related court records raises concerns about the agency’s history of interactions with civilians, both native-born and immigrant.

Cases uncovered by examination of treasury payment records spanning October 2005 to July 2017, court documents and media reports reveal:

The federal government has settled at least 20 wrongful death claims on behalf of CBP, paying more than $9m to the families of people killed since 2003, in incidents including shooting, beating, use of Tasers and collisions with vehicles. […]

More than $650,000 was paid out in settlements in four cases where four people were shot by border agents and survived.

The data also reveals another $6m in settlements stemming from a range of other allegations involving non-deadly force and civil rights violations. Lawsuits were filed by men and women who say they were racially profiled, unreasonably searched, detained for hours on end and in some cases assaulted.

Some describe having guns held to their heads; others alleged they were beaten at checkpoints, land crossings, in the rural desert, at an airport, in front of their children, or, in one instance, in their own home.

The Guardian analysis comes after border agent Lonnie Swartz was last month cleared on a murder charge in connection with the death of 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez who died after Swartz fired 16 times across the border from Arizona into Mexico.

It’s Like Playing Hide-and-Go-Seek, But You’re Always ‘It’ by Karie Luidens

Border Patrol Arrest McAllen TX (BP Flickr).jpg

When migrants seeking a better life in the U.S. cross into the country, whether up against urban fencing or way out in the remote deserts of New Mexico or Arizona, they want to be apprehended by Border Patrol agents as quickly as possible. They want to begin the legal process of applying for asylum. They want to be rescued.

And who is it that’s responsible for all these rescues?

I keep thinking about the Border Patrol’s recruitment page with that heroic figure in the cowboy hat, patrolling the border for potential terrorists like a TSA officer who’s been transported into a Marlboro ad. The glamour of that image is obviously designed to attract would-be agents to the Border Patrol. But what sort of personality is that message going to attract, and is that personality well suited to the reality on the ground?

Here’s a glimpse of one agent’s personality and worldview in action on the riparian border of southern Texas (a few hundred miles removed from the remote rural stretches I’ve been discussing here in New Mexico).

‘Come On Down to the Rio Grande Valley. I’ll Show You Around.’

Would patrolling with the Border Patrol change your mind about the border?

By Mattathias Schwartz
The Intelligencer
JAN. 6, 2019

[Agent Chris Cabrera] had been out of the service for just over a year when he chanced across a Border Patrol recruiter while shopping in a mall. The appeal of the new job was self-evident. “It’s like playing hide-and-go-seek, but you’re always ‘it,’ ” Cabrera said. “When it’s muddy, you get to go four-wheeling. You get to go to the range and shoot fancy guns.” […]

As we drove, Cabrera presented the basics of current immigration policy through the Border Patrol’s eyes. The border crossers fall into two groups. There are the so-called regulars, who make a covert circuit from Mexico into the U.S. and back, either for under-the-table work or to smuggle contraband; the regulars tend to try to evade detection. Then there are what they call the “OTMs,” short for “Other Than Mexicans,” who cross the border only once, with the goal of being taken into U.S. custody, where they can apply for asylum. […]

By 2016, the “Other Than Mexicans” accounted for more than half of all arrivals on the southern border. Many came seeking sanctuary from murder, rape, and the organized-crime networks that have made many parts of their countries unlivable. […]

The majority of asylum seekers — those who express a credible fear of returning to their own country and do not have outstanding deportation orders — are given a court date for their asylum claim and are then released, sometimes with an ankle monitor. The Border Patrol calls the practice of conditional release, which dates back to the 1950s, “catch and release.” Trump repeatedly tried and failed to make good on his campaign promise to end the policy, which, from Cabrera’s perspective, makes the border dangerously permeable, since any person with a credible asylum claim can stay. “They know there’s certain things they got to say in order to make it through our system,” Cabrera said. “The prospect of a guaranteed short-term legal stay in the U.S. while a claim is being processed encourages more people to come.” Judd has called this state of affairs “the main magnet” that draws undocumented immigrants to the border.

The policy also undermines the role of the Border Patrol, as defined by its official mission statement and numerous strategic documents that talk about the need to deter and prevent illegal entries. “We’re the only union that’s begging for more work” is how Cabrera put it. The agents want to be the gunslinging border cops, but the influx of asylum claims has made them more like crossing guards.

When They Arrive at Our Border by Karie Luidens

Migrants in desert.jpg

Lately I’ve been studying up on the long history of exploitation, corruption, and violence in Central America, the root causes that have been driving so many thousands of people to migrate north in recent years and months.

I feel as if I’ve mentally traced people’s stories from their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, up that long, exhausting caravan route through Mexico.

Now I want to know more of what they experience when they arrive at our border.

To begin, here’s more from Valeria Luiselli’s 2017 book Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions—pages 20-21 this time.

[Their journey through Mexico] ends at the U.S.-Mexico border. And there begins another journey: one that is not as dangerous, objectively speaking, but is equally terrifying in the children’s eyes. Once [they’ve] reached the border, the coyotes’ job is usually done and the children are on their own. They try to turn themselves in to the migra, or Border Patrol, as soon as possible. They know their best bet is to be formally detained by Border Patrol officers: crossing the desert beyond the border alone is too dangerous, if not impossible. They also know that if they are not caught at this point, or if they do not surrender themselves to the law, it is unlikely that they will arrive at their final destination—the home of a relative in some city, usually far from the border. If the legal proceedings don’t begin now, their fate will be to remain undocumented, like many of their parents or adult relatives already in the United States. Life as an undocumented migrant is perhaps not worse than the life they are fleeing, but it is certainly not the life anyone wants. So, the children who cross the border, into the desert, try to stick to the busier roads and walk openly along highways, until someone—hopefully an officer and not a vigilante—sees them.

I remember a teenager who, during an interview in court, told me of his increasing desperation when, after hours of walking the arid plains of New Mexico, the Border Patrol hadn’t appeared. It was not until his second day of walking in the desert under the burning sun that a vehicle finally appeared on the far horizon. He stood in the middle of the road, waving his arms. And when the vehicle pulled over beside him, to his immense relief, two tall officers stepped out and detained him.

My mom always told me I was born under a lucky star, he said when he finished his story.

Tweeting “VETO” Moments After the Resolution Cleared Congress by Karie Luidens

2019-03-14 - VETO Tweet.png

Senate votes to block Trump’s border emergency declaration, in bipartisan rebuke teeing up veto

By Adam Shaw
Fox News

Senate Republicans joined their Democratic colleagues on Thursday in voting to block President Trump’s border emergency declaration -- a move that will prompt the president's first-ever veto.

The president made his intentions crystal clear, tweeting "VETO!" moments after the resolution cleared Congress. The White House said Trump likely would issue the veto Friday.

The measure passed 59-41 as a dozen Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the resolution, despite White House efforts to keep the GOP united on the issue of border security. Those GOP members who backed the resolution cited concerns about the expansion of presidential powers.

Distant Figures Versus Human Faces by Karie Luidens

2019-03-14 - ABQ Journal footage.png

Last night the White House sent yet another e-newsletter promoting the narrative of border crossers as dangerous. “THIS IS A NATIONAL EMERGENCY,” declares their video of the day. The screenshot links to the White House’s Twitter page, where they’ve uploaded the 14-second clip.

In it, people can be seen climbing through and over the short vehicle barrier that divides the United States from Mexico in New Mexico’s remote Bootheel region. Because the footage was taken at night, it has the otherworldly quality of all images that rely on heat signatures rather than light. The images are set to music straight out of a political thriller or action flick—a pounding beat accelerates into a scary screech.

The accompanying text in both the email and the Tweet states that the footage is from January 16, 2019: “247 illegal migrants rush the U.S. border in New Mexico.”

I am so tired of the overblown descriptions employed by Fox News, the White House, and everyone else who’s more interested in fearmongering than accurately depicting what’s going on at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The people in this night vision footage, like the hundreds of other families from Central America who have crossed in large groups over the last six months, are not “rushing the border.” They’re walking across in the cold of night with children in their arms and deliberately, peacefully turning themselves in to the nearest Border Patrol agents. They’re following agents’ instructions in order to begin the legal process of applying for asylum.

I mean “legal process” in both senses. It is a process that unfolds in our complex legal system. It is also a process which these people have a legal right to access.

So here’s my video of the day. Instead of blurry black-and-white shots of distant figures, whose ghostly forms take on the threatening character of predators in a horror movie… this footage from the Albuquerque Journal shows a similar group of border crossers for who they are: humans. Humans who are more frightened than frightening. Humans who don’t actually come with pulse-pounding background music. Humans who are huddled together, holding hands. They’re stressed, on edge, but hopeful that this moment when they’ve crossed into the U.S. could be a turning point in their difficult lives.

Families seeking asylum wait for U.S. Border Patrol agents at the United States border with Mexico on Monday, Feb 4, 2019.

Torres Small Says More Customs, Border Patrol Agents Needed by Karie Luidens

CBP Processing Children (BP Flickr).jpg

It makes sense that U.S. Customs & Border Protection is doing whatever it can to attract new agents. Just a few days ago, several of New Mexico’s newspapers reported that the Border Patrol currently has 1,993 unfilled positions. U.S. Representative Xochitl Torres Small, who represents the southern half of New Mexico, is sponsoring legislation designed to help CBP fill those positions.

Torres Small says more customs, border patrol agents needed for influx of asylum seekers

Scott Turner
Published 3:12 p.m. MT March 10, 2019

U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small says U.S. customs and border patrol are in desperate need of more agents to deal with the influx of asylum seekers crossing in to the U.S., and she is introducing legislation to bolster the number of agents.

"We don't have the manpower to process asylum seekers," Torres Small said in an interview with the Albuquerque Journal on Friday. "We don't have the manpower to stop the illegal activities coming across the border."

She is introducing the bipartisan U.S. Customs and Border Protection Rural and Remote Hiring and Retention Strategy Act with Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas. The legislation would require CBP to come up with a strategy to address recruiting and retention issues. […]

"In order to ensure that CBP can properly adapt to the changing circumstances along the remote sections of our southern border, we must ensure it has the resources to do so, and that starts with personnel," Torres Small said.

Keeping Your Country Safe From Dangerous People by Karie Luidens

2019-03-11 - Border Patrol website.png

Here’s where the Border Patrol’s recruitment ads led me:

…That is a glamorous landing page. I can’t deny it. CBP’s tagline may as well be “Come to where the flavor is.”

What the site actually says is this:

Find your calling. Protect your country. Apply now.

Working for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) means keeping your country safe from dangerous people and materials attempting to cross our border.

CBP relies on men and women with integrity to carry out our mission - to protect. The career opportunities are vast, from K-9 Inspection to Special Response Team to Horse Patrol, and more. And the benefits are rewarding, including competitive pay, paid time off, health and life insurance, and a generous retirement.

If you're interested in a career as a Border Patrol Agent, keep reading!

Border Patrol Agents prevent terrorists and terrorists' weapons from entering the United States by securing our land borders and coastal waters from between ports of entry. Here are some key facts:

Application Process

9 Steps in the process to employment.

Overtime Pay

Earn up to 25% of your salary and locality pay for time worked outside the 40 hour work week.

Duty Locations

All new agents will be stationed along the southwest border. Agents may have the opportunity to change duty locations after some period of time.

From Well-Dressed and Rested to Exhausted, Bedraggled and Extremely Fearful by Karie Luidens

2019-03-11 - ABQ Journal.png

When I visited the southern edge of the U.S. a few weeks ago, I just wanted to get a feel for the place. I drove parallel to the border, a couple miles north of Mexico, along New Mexico State Road 9 from El Paso to the state’s famously remote Bootheel. Once I made it to the Antelope Wells port of entry, I stopped long enough to feel the dusty wind and watch some cows grazing among the tumbleweeds. But I didn’t linger for hours beyond that. I didn’t stay past dusk to see anyone cross into the country and interact with Border Patrol.

Happily for me, there are professional journalists doing just that, and I highly recommend their recent reporting. This Albuquerque Journal article gives a sense of the variety of people who are traveling north from Latin America to turn themselves in at the border.

8 hours on the border

Sunday, March 10th, 2019 at 12:05am

From late afternoon into Monday night, Romero will encounter more than 60 such migrants, with the vast majority asking for asylum. They are all ages, including infants and toddlers in the arms of their parents. They also cover the gamut from well-dressed and rested to exhausted, bedraggled and extremely fearful.

Romero will also run into four heavily armed militia members who have camped out to keep watch. And he will spot a man wearing sunglasses and a cap seated across the border in Mexico taking notes, clearly a lookout for the human smugglers, the agent says. […]

Some agents spend their shifts shuttling migrants to the processing center while other agents are dedicated to filling out paperwork for hundreds of parents and children seeking asylum. Other agents are assigned “hospital watch” and accompany migrants sent for medical care.

If those sound like responsibilities you’d like to take on as your full-time job, please note that the Border Patrol is hiring. The body of the article describes how their resources are stretched thin and they’ve got positions open in the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico’s borderlands.

On top of that, the Border Patrol is actually running ads to recruit new agents—two of them appeared on my screen between paragraphs while I scrolled.

“CONTINUE YOUR SERVICE AS A BORDER PATROL AGENT,” the first one reads. “PROTECTION. PRIDE, POSITIONS AVAILABLE.” Both little squares were the same olive green as agents’ uniforms, with a bright blue button inviting readers to JOIN US.

I can’t fathom actually joining their ranks, but of course I had to click and see where the ads took me.

After Spending Two Nights Sleeping by the Fence by Karie Luidens

2019-03-09 - El Paso fence.png

Interesting! In all the years-long clamor about whether or not the U.S. should build a border wall, here’s an argument I’ve never heard: since most stretches of barrier must necessarily be slightly within U.S. territory, anyone who approaches it will already have set foot on U.S. soil. And that has significant ramifications according to both international and national law.

On U.S. border, fence meant as barrier becomes lure for migrants

Andrew Hay, Lucy Nicholson, Jane Ross
MARCH 8, 2019

EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - Huddled against a border fence on a bitterly cold morning in El Paso, Texas, a group of 60 Guatemalan migrants, around half toddlers and children, shouted for help: “We’re cold, we’re hungry, we need shelter.”

The group was trying to surrender to U.S. Border Patrol agents and claim asylum, but the agents were too busy herding other groups along the fence that stands about 100 yards (91 m) inside U.S. territory.

The 18-foot-high (5.5 meters) steel barrier is meant to deter illegal immigration. But its position inside the border has turned it into a destination for human smugglers trafficking large groups of asylum seekers fleeing poverty and violence.

The smugglers in recent weeks have shifted routes to El Paso from the remote Antelope Wells area of New Mexico, Border Patrol supervisory agent Joe Romero said.

Once undocumented migrants are on U.S. soil, the Border Patrol is obliged to arrest them for entering illegally. But migrants can claim fear of returning to their countries, allowing them to remain in the United States legally until an asylum hearing, which can take months or years.

The smugglers’ strategy exploits a weakness in the very border wall President Donald Trump has touted as a means to protect the United States from undocumented immigrants and illicit drugs. […]

El Paso sector Border Patrol stations reached capacity on Wednesday, and the group of 60 was finally picked up at 5 a.m. Thursday, after spending two nights sleeping by the fence, according to Dylan Corbett, who helps run a migrant shelter operated by El Paso’s Roman Catholic diocese.

Crossings Fall in Rural New Mexico, Increase in Urban El Paso by Karie Luidens


Migrant crossings fall in rural New Mexico, increase in urban El Paso areas

By: Brianna Chavez
KVIA News El Paso
Posted: Mar 07, 2019 05:43 PM MST

EL PASO, Texas - As the number of migrants entering the Antelope Well Port of Entry in rural New Mexico has decreased [between January and March], larger groups of migrants are coming to urban areas of El Paso, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.

"From October until about January that was the hot spot for seeing large groups of people," said Border Patrol Agent Joe Romero. […]

According to Romero, the groups of migrants are coming to gates all across the urban area of El Paso randomly. Romero stated that the groups of migrants are being moved strategically by cartel groups to draw Border Patrol agents.

Romero also said that the fence built in El Paso as a part of the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was built to slow illegal crossings, typically by adult males, and buy agents more time.

"As we move on to what we're seeing now, the influx of people and family units and children...(the fence) also provides us a secondary ability to contain people in a certain area and not have those gaps and security, while it allows our agents to respond to other threats," Romero said.

Border at ‘Breaking Point,’ New York Times Reports by Karie Luidens

2019-03-06 - NYT White House.png

This past week, while I was preoccupied with legislative proceedings at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection announced the department’s latest data from February.

The New York Times published their coverage within hours. Apparently the Trump administration liked their headline, because they quoted it in the subject line of the email newsletter that arrived in my inbox a few hours after that.

Time for another media side-by-side…

Border at ‘breaking point,’ New York Times reports

The White House • March 5, 2019

Two and a half weeks after President Donald J. Trump declared a National Emergency to address the crisis on our border, mainstream media outlets have dug into the numbers—and the personal stories—surrounding America’s broken immigration system. 

What they’ve found comes as a shock to many Americans who never knew the trauma felt by those living in the shadows—including both U.S. citizens and migrants alike:

“More than 76,000 migrants crossed the border without authorization in February, more than double the levels from the same period last year and approaching the largest numbers seen in any February in the last 12 years,” The New York Times reported today.

And… that’s it. After the condescending implication that the New York Times is a “media outlet” (as opposed to the nation’s foremost source of original investigative journalism), and that its reporters have only just now decided to look at actual numbers and stories (as opposed to—see above), the email skips right ahead to listing other statistics and linking to a few older articles. Taken together, the message is that border crossings are on the rise and that crossings bring violence. The email concludes its section on the border with these lines:

These reports are welcome. The ongoing humanitarian and security disaster at our border shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and the heart-wrenching stories it causes shouldn’t be told only by conservative media. A modern, safe, and secure immigration system would be a bipartisan triumph that renews Americans’ faith in Washington.

The only thing standing in our way is the political will.

Which is all well and good, as vague platitudes go. But the White House email cherry-picked one line from the New York Times piece, large-sounding numbers that support its narrative of a crisis that’s emerged from a vacuum and is all about violence versus security. It ignores all context, both the situation’s broader historical context and the quote’s literal context in the Times story—which is actually very critical of the Trump administration’s role in exacerbating the borderland’s humanitarian crisis.

In fact, the email doesn’t even provide a link to the full article so readers can easily find it.

That’s okay. I found it. Here’s a longer excerpt, plus the link so anyone who wants to can read the rest.

Border at ‘Breaking Point’ as More than 76,000 Migrants Cross in a Month

By Caitlin Dickerson
New York Times
March 5, 2019

More than 76,000 migrants crossed the border without authorization in February, an 11-year high and a strong sign that stepped-up prosecutions, new controls on asylum and harsher detention policies have not reversed what remains a powerful lure for thousands of families fleeing violence and poverty.

“The system is well beyond capacity, and remains at the breaking point,” Kevin K. McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, told reporters in announcing the new data on Tuesday.

The nation’s top border enforcement officer painted a picture of processing centers filled to capacity, border agents struggling to meet medical needs and thousands of exhausted members of migrant families crammed into a detention system that was not built to house them — all while newcomers continue to arrive, sometimes by the busload, at the rate of 2,200 a day.

“This is clearly both a border security and a humanitarian crisis,” Mr. McAleenan said.

President Trump has used the escalating numbers to justify his plan to build an expanded wall along the 1,900-mile border with Mexico. But a wall would do little to slow migration, most immigration analysts say. While the exact numbers are not known, many of those apprehended along the southern border, including the thousands who present themselves at legal ports of entry, surrender voluntarily to Border Patrol agents and eventually submit legal asylum claims.

The main problem is not one of uncontrolled masses scaling the fences, but a humanitarian challenge created as thousands of migrant families surge into remote areas where the administration has so far failed to devote sufficient resources to care for them, as is required under the law.

The latest numbers stung an administration that has over the past two years introduced a rash of aggressive policies intended to deter migrants from journeying to the United States, including separating families, limiting entries at official ports and requiring some asylum seekers to wait in Mexico through the duration of their immigration cases.

Never Even Mentioned the Region’s Hotly-Debated Border Crisis by Karie Luidens

Angelica Rubio.jpg

State Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces) has served in the New Mexico House of Representatives since 2017, so this is her third legislative session. House Bill 287 is just one of nineteen pieces of legislation that she’s sponsoring this year, as listed on the legislature’s website.

In all, it looks like five of her bills are concerned with what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border, or with immigration policy and enforcement:






Yet despite the national attention focused on these issues lately—both the fiery political rhetoric and the constant media attention—no one seems to be talking about these bills. A New Mexico state representative is attempting to pass laws restricting the activities of the Border Patrol and I.C.E. in one of the nation’s four border states! Why was I hard pressed to find even a few relevant articles from the last month? Even those I did find simply noted that the bills had been introduced or sent to committee without much further reporting or discussion.

Perhaps no one’s talking about these bills because they’re unlikely to make it through their committees for a third reading and vote on the House floor. If they don’t stand a chance of becoming law, they simply don’t warrant much attention, right? The 2019 legislative session ends a week from tomorrow, at noon on Friday, March 15. At this point HB 287 is the only one of these five bills to have made it to the House calendar; HB 624, 625, and 626 are held up in the House Consumer & Public Affairs Committee, while SB 196 continues to await its day in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Maybe the bills’ existence is simply not newsworthy.

Still, I’m struck by the resounding silence.

In particular, while combing news coverage for any mention of them, I was fascinated to find that when Rep. Rubio sat for a half-hour interview this past week with KRWG (“Public Media for Southwestern New Mexico and Far West Texas”), the host never even mentioned the region’s hotly-debated border crisis, Border Patrol, I.C.E., or immigration. He spent all their time talking about her bills related to the minimum wage, oil and gas revenue, and… the fact that she biked to the capital to raise awareness for her first sponsored bill of the session, HB 192: FIVE FEET FOR PASSING BICYCLES.

Seriously. They led with that.

Apparently Public Media for Southwestern New Mexico thinks unsafe bike lanes are a bigger threat than border crossers.

That is, everyone involved in the production of that segment knew they had the opportunity to grill a state representative about her multiple bills related to border security, specifically, preventing federal agents from tapping into state resources to monitor the border, wall it off, or enforce immigration policy. I’d have thought their viewers would take a strong interest in those matters, one way or another. But they didn’t bother to bring it up. What does that tell us?

To me it signals that despite the ranting and raving of politicians in D.C., the people who actually live along the New Mexico–Mexico border don’t presently feel threatened by Central American migrants invading their towns and upending their lives—at least when compared with the danger posed by cars clipping bike handles.

Friends With Plenty of Expertise to Share by Karie Luidens

Phone Malte Fleuter Unsplash.jpg

Exploring the Santa Fe Roundhouse on Monday was a great experience. Still, I was hoping to hear the House of Representatives debate and vote on HB 287, one of the “border” bills I’ve had my eye on since January. It was listed as item 2 on the House’s daily calendar for March 4, so I was surprised and disappointed when the Speaker skipped right over it to start debate on a bill related to the national bone marrow registry (also important).

Clearly there was more to the proceedings than I understood.

Lucky for me, I’ve got friends with plenty of expertise to share.

This afternoon I sent a message to my friend Marcos Gonzales, who has years of experience working in New Mexico policy and politics. He currently serves as Assistant Director of the Bernalillo County Economic Development Department. (He’s also the son of State Representative Bobby Gonzales of Taos, who I’ve therefore had the pleasure of sharing some family meals with over the years and who I spotted on the House floor the other day.)

Not only did Marcos reply to my message within minutes, he then picked up the phone to call me from his office and took the time to answer my questions. Thanks, Marcos!

Here’s how our talk went, jumping right into the meat of it…

Marcos: So, each piece of legislation has to be heard three times on the floor. The first reading, the second reading, and the third reading.

Me: What happens in the first two readings that’s different from the third one?

The first reading is when the bill is introduced. In general the Clerk will read about what the bill is, and then the Speaker will decide to refer it to committees.

Okay. And the second reading is checking back from committees?

Pretty much just checking back into it. And then the third reading is the actual debate and the voting, if it makes it to the third reading.

But it might not make it that far if the committees just vote not to move it forward?

It can get tabled—the committee can vote to table.

And if a committee tables it, that means that they’ve decided that they’re not going to discuss it—it doesn’t go any further than that?

Marcos with his dad on opening day of the New Mexico legislature, January 15, 2019.

Marcos with his dad on opening day of the New Mexico legislature, January 15, 2019.

Yeah, that’s it. Or it can not get heard. You know a bill’s gonna die if it’s assigned to like eight committees. There’s not enough time for it to go through that [since New Mexico’s legislative session is only 60 days long].

Okay. So all the bills that made it onto the calendar I had, those were already voted through the committees and had made it all the way to the third reading then, right?

Yeah. And the third reading is where they actually debate it on the House floor. The bill you were asking about, they may have skipped over it for a bunch of different reasons: if the sponsor wasn’t there because they were in a Senate hearing, or they wanted to defer it for some reason, like if they wanted to get a different expert or different opinions. It really varies where it’s at.

Do you know who would make the decision, or at what point the decision would be made, which ones got heard on Monday versus which ones got skipped?

That’s the Speaker’s call.

The Speaker. Do the representatives on the floor know in advance which ones the Speaker’s going to call or skip?

They would have asked beforehand for it to be deferred. They’ll know that their bill is going to be up, and they’ll ask the Speaker for it to be deferred if they can’t get their expert witnesses there in time, or if they need to do more preparation.

Gotcha. And they can bring expert witnesses to the House floor as well, not just the committees?

Yeah, exactly. I have to go testify tomorrow myself.

Oh, cool! That’s right, Sarah told me you were involved in writing and promoting an economic development bill.

Yeah. So, it was in committee on Monday, and then it’ll be on the House floor tomorrow.

Awesome. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, and good luck being an expert witness tomorrow!

As of this writing on Wednesday evening, shows that HB 287 is still on the House calendar. If I want to know exactly why the Speaker hasn’t yet brought it up for a floor debate and vote, I suppose I’d have to get in touch with someone who’s working on that bill, like its sponsor, Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces).

My Name Preceded Me in the Capital by Karie Luidens


The House didn’t end up discussing HB 287 on Monday, March 4, 2019. I don’t know why. For some reason, even though there were dozens of bills on the agenda, the Speaker skipped ahead over some of them in fits and starts that were unpredictable to a mere observer.

I’m sure there’s an explanation for which bills got a hearing that day and which didn’t, but everyone working there was busy and I didn’t have a chance to inquire about it. Unfortunately I didn’t even have the opportunity to say hi to Representative Gonzales before he was off to his next committee meeting and I had to catch my train back to Albuquerque.

Oh, well. I’ll look into it later.

Oh—one last “what a small world” moment for my day in Santa Fe yesterday. The Albuquerque Alibi has a few boxes around the city to distribute their alt weekly. On my walk back from the Roundhouse to the Rail Runner station to ride home for the night, I had to take a quick look. Yup: my name preceded me to the capital by a few days, and will be available in print there until the next issue comes out on Thursday.

Excellent. “And get a mind of your own!!!” Cracks me up every time.

This Is What Happens in New Mexico by Karie Luidens


Roberto “Bobby” J. Gonzales

I saw his name plaque on the House floor and did a double take.

I’ve met Representative Gonzales. More than met him—I’ve eaten his wife’s homemade wheat tortillas hot off the pan in his sister’s Albuquerque kitchen. That was after I spent a September morning with the Gonzales family peeling fresh-roasted Hatch green chiles. They were such gracious hosts, they sent me home with a Taos community cookbook so I could learn more about their hometown and try to cultivate the beloved flavors of northern New Mexico myself.

Of course. I knew that I knew a state representative. I knew that before I showed up at the Roundhouse to sit in the gallery as an anonymous observer of a floor session. I just forgot until I spotted his profile, then his plaque, that he would of course be one of the legislators at work in the House today.

My face cracked into a grin.

Of course.

Antelope Wells is hardly a place.

Albuquerque is a small world.

Santa Fe es familia.

This is what happens in New Mexico. In some places, there aren’t a lot of people. But in the places where there are, you meet people who know people who love people who are related to people who introduce you to other people who work with the people who pass our laws. You keep looping back on the same communities, interlacing and overlapping and linking together. New Mexico is, I guess, as perfectly circular as its name and pledge imply.

I walked into the Roundhouse expecting to see distant strangers participate in a formal process. I expected it to be alien and complex and opaque.

Then I looked up and thought oh, it’s Bobby! I danced at his son’s wedding a couple years ago. I peeled chiles with his wife and sister. I have plans to get lunch with his daughter-in-law tomorrow in Nob Hill. Tomorrow. These legislators—the people we chant at and call and lobby, the all-powerful button-pushers who make our laws—they’re fleshy familial people like the rest of us.

Symbol of Perfect Friendship Among United Cultures by Karie Luidens


At about 11:25am on Monday, March 4, 2019, the Speaker of the House announced that enough representatives had arrived in the New Mexico House of Representatives’ chambers: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a quorum.”

All rose for the opening prayer, an inclusive invocation read by a young woman in a clerical collar. When she concluded, many of the representatives and staff members on the floor promptly crossed themselves in the Catholic tradition.

Everyone gathered was then prompted to place their hand over their heart and face the American flag for the pledge of allegiance. I could hear a chorus of young voices behind me—a tour group of young students was still in the House gallery. “…indivisble, with liberty and justice for all. Yo prometo lealtad a la bandera de los estados…”

I smiled to myself. The dozens of adults in the chambers fell quiet at the end of the English-language pledge, but the children must be in the habit of reciting both the English and Spanish versions in school each morning. They quickly trailed off into silence when they realized things were different in the House of Representatives.

A moment later, however, the House caught up to them—the Speaker invited all of us to repeat ourselves in Spanish after all.

Lastly, the Speaker announced that we would all recite the New Mexico pledge of allegiance. We shifted from facing left with hands over hearts to facing right with hands outstretched, palms up as if in offering to the red sun symbol on the yellow field. I didn’t know the words to this pledge—I didn’t grow up here—so I simply listened along and looked up the words later. “I salute the flag of the state of New Mexico, the Zia symbol of perfect friendship among united cultures.”

It wasn’t until we were all invited to take our seats again that I scanned the chamber and realized I recognized one of the men below.