Trigger Warning for discussions/descriptions of border violence, sexual violence, and state violence, specifically with relation to U.S. immigration enforcement.
Last week, the LA Times reported on a case of alleged assault and torture by a U.S. Border Patrol official against a drug suspect, tying it to other alleged and successfully prosecuted instances of violence, including sexual violence, by Border Patrol officials in the past 18 months. Suzy Khimm followed up with a blog post over at Mother Jones (h/t radically hott off).
In the last 18 months, five Border Patrol agents have been accused or convicted of sex crimes, including one agent who pleaded guilty in January to raping a woman while off duty, and another who is accused of sexually assaulting a migrant while her young children were nearby in a car.
Another agent, Gamalier Reyes Rivera, is jailed in San Diego on $10-million bail, awaiting trial on attempted murder charges in a hatchet attack that paralyzed a man.
In June, Agent Eduardo Moreno pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge for assaulting a migrant in 2006 at a processing center in Nogales, Ariz.
That same month, a Border Patrol agent shot and killed an unarmed 15-year-old Mexican in El Paso after a group of young men threw rocks at the agent, authorities said. A poor-quality cellphone video of the incident shows that the teen was a considerable distance away, on the Mexican side of the border, when he was shot.
There are more details about additional assaults at the link, if you’re not familiar with them. To its credit, the LA Times is careful to not only report on them collectively as a connected problem, but to also explicitly point out that they are a part of a pattern:
The Border Patrol treats detainees “very, very poorly,” said Tony Payan, a political scientist who studies the agency at the University of Texas at El Paso. “They see themselves as a quasi-military body defending the country. Add to that the fact that they are expanding rapidly, and you have thousands of rookies who have very little experience.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, said in a statement that “the overwhelming majority of CBP agents and officers perform their duties with honor and distinction…. We do not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks, and we fully cooperate with any criminal or administrative investigations of alleged misconduct by any of our personnel, on or off duty.”
Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, CBP is missing the point in the interest of self-preservation. I’d argue that the LA Times article ultimately misses the point, as well. The thing is that we can talk about accountability and how there is or is not enough of it until we’re blue in the face. But it’s really difficult to have accountability for violence inside a system that is predicated on violence itself.
The U.S.’s current model of border enforcement is built on violence and upheld through violence. Some activists make the compelling argument that border enforcement as a concept, through its dependence on colonization and restriction of free bodily movement, particularly of indigenous people, is inherently racist, violating, and violent. But even placing those important questions aside, there is no reasonable case that the U.S. immigration enforcement system, as is, is not a violent one. Anyone who has ever dealt with Border Patrol or ICE, been placed in detention, had their family torn apart, been robbed of the ability to work and feed themselves, or lived under the weight of being dubbed an “illegal” can tell you as much. Violence is the method. Violence is the “deterrent.” Violence is the point.
So what we’re really talking about here, when we look at outrage to these particular, individual acts of violence by Border Patrol, are the differences between acceptable and unacceptable forms of violence. It is currently acceptable for us to build fences along the border everywhere but the deserts where it is most dangerous for migrants to cross, and where they frequently die from dehydration; for us to detain children, including indefinitely; for us to leave detainees without water or timely medical care; for us to promote a culture where safely crossing the border is not an option, and abuse is seen as an inherent condition of passage. But rape and beatings, on the other hand — at least, when committed by border officials — these are forms of violence that apparently cross the line, that deserve newspaper articles and mainstream public protest and prosecution.
I suppose we could be glad that finally we are at a point where even undocumented immigrants, so frequently dehumanized and stripped of all dignity by the “legal” public, aren’t generally seen as deserving of rape and outright violent assault — though even then, I’m sure, there are exceptions, those willing to say that immigrants would not be raped or beaten if only they’d stayed where they belonged. But don’t be surprised if I can’t get too excited when the United States currently contains countless residents so instilled with fear that they will not seek out their right to medical care, even when it is necessary or even life-saving, and this form of bodily violence is still seen as somehow rightly deserved. Where violence involving fists and weapons may be seen as wrong, but violence relying on state power and implicit and explicit threats is seen as not only right but necessary.
This is what is so frustrating and terrifying but important to understand about the interconnectedness of different forms of oppression and violence. We can try to stop Border Patrol agents from raping or beating people, but that doesn’t stop the violence, or address the bigger or deeper issues at play. And drawing an imaginary line where some forms of violence and violations of autonomy are acceptable and others are not is not only just largely serving to make ourselves feel better, it’s also just plain unrealistic. How can we expect Border Patrol agents to reasonably respect the human rights of undocumented (or even suspected undocumented) immigrants when the denial of their humanity is the name of the game?