Border Militarization Policy


The militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border is not a new phenomenon: it dates back to the 1970s, if not further back since the establishment of the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924. However, after the catastrophe of 9/11, national security concerns placed the border under unprecedented military escalations. With the reconfiguration of immigration services and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003, this trend has only increased.

By border militarization, we refer to the systematic intensification of the border's security apparatus, transforming the area from a transnational frontier to a zone of permanent vigilance, enforcement, and violence. The border has become an imagined war zone, where the war on drugs, crime, and aliens are fought. Such arrangements make the border an area where the U.S. constitution has little to no value, a post-constitutional territory that expands across the country. Although there are many ways to assess just how militarized the border has become, one of the clearest ones is looking at the colossal spike in funds funnelled into border security.


Huge Expansion of Border Patrol's Budget: Source: CBP website:

 CBP website

 Immigration Enforcement Between Ports of Entry














CSR Report: Between Security: Immigration Enforcement Between Ports of Entry

In fact, according to a 2013 Migration Policy Institute Report, the amount spent on border enforcement and immigration in Fiscal Year 2012 (nearly $18 billion) surpassed the combined budget of $14.4 billion of all other federal law-enforcement agencies (FBI, DEA, ATF, Secret Service and U.S. Marshals Service). Accompanied by the massive expansion of spending on border infrastructure and vigilance, there is also a tremendous increase in the number of agents placed in the frontier.

 Immigration Enforcement Between Ports of EntryCSR Report: Between Security: Immigration Enforcement Between Ports of Entry


In 1994 (the same year that NAFTA was signed), the now-nonexistent Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) introduced the first formal border control strategy. This action gave way to Operation Hold the Line (El Paso, TX), Operation Gatekeeper (San Diego, CA), and Operation Safeguard (Tucson, AZ). Seeking to prevent immigration through deterrence, the different initiatives were deemed as successes given the fall of crossing attempts in the areas implemented. In Texas, the state-wide Operation Rio Grande was later created.

However, despite government reactions, what was actually hapenning was that immigrants were readjusting their routes to avoid the growing border enforcement. This meant not only embarking in more dangerous journeys, but also a growth in the market for human smugglers. And, given the policy of the time, if undocument immigrants were caught, they could go through voluntary return, avoiding federal repercussions and reattempting the crossing at a later date.  Additionally, given the lack of a physical border, circular undocumented migration was still plausible.

Starting in 2005, with the post-9/11 national security logic, the border's militarization policies and practices exploded. The Secure Border Initiative (SBI) tremendously expanded technological and infrastructural capabilities of border agencies; sensors, radars and drones became commonplace. That same year saw the beginning of Operation Streamline, a program first initiated in the Texan Del Rio sector and later expanded to the rest of the border. Heavily criticized by activists, Streamline factually criminalizes and prosecutes undocumented border crossers through mass hearings and fast-track prosecutions, arresting individuals for months with unfair proceedings.

2006 then saw the congressional approval of the Secure Fence Act, a multi-billion dollar bill that called for the construction of the border's fence. This move has split binational communities, interrupted historical seasonal migration, and transformed the U.S. border into a physical warzone. This year also saw the end of "catch and release," now detaining all non-Mexican immigrants until hearings took place. 

Then, in 2008, the Secure Communities program began. Under Secure Communities, local enforcement agencies run fingerprints for detainees through FBI and DHS databases. If there is a match between the two (that is, the individual has a criminal conviction and an issue with their immigration history), the information is cross-referenced by ICE with other databases to assess if the person is removable from the U.S. If a case is found, the ICE can then request the local enforcement agency to detain the person for immigration proceedings. As of 2011, the program is active nationally, with local agencies determining whether they will cooperate with ICE's requests. A highly racialized program that has torn families apart for minor convictions, Secure Communities has expanded militarization to police forces in communities along the border. The warzone has invaded neighborhoods that can no longer trust criminal enforcement.

Secure Communities was subject to several legal challenges and in November 2014, was replaced with the Priority Enforcement Program, or PEP. Immigration advocates argued that PEP was little different from Secure Communities. Most recently, President Donald Trump, in an executive order on January 25, 2017, announced that the PEP program would be ended and that Secure Communities would be revived.

In 2012, new strategies were devised for 2012-16 regarding border enforcement, noticeably the Consequence Delivery System (CDS). Under CDS logic, apprehended immigrants are to be further criminalized and punished for their attempts to cross the border, no longer granting voluntary return. Violating immigrant policy adds to criminal records, feeding the detainee prison industry, yet still not actually creating deterrence factors for immigrants. It also recommends more expedited removals, barring hearings or requests for political asylum to immigrants.


Violence, community fractures, unreported abuses, and death: these are only a few consequences of the U.S. militarized border.

Indefensible: A Decade of Mass Incarceration of Migrants Prosecuted for Corssing the Border (July 2016). From Garssroots Leadership and Justice Strategies; an indictment of Operation Streamline and the criminalization of undocumented, prosecuted for entry and re-entry violations. An argument for an intersectional approach to migration and criminal justice.

On the Front Lines: Border Security, Migration, and Humanitarian Concerns in South Texas is a report from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) that provides an overview of the policies and consequences of U.S. border policies in conflict with the increased flow of migrants across the border into South Texas. The report includes policy recommendations concerning due process, deportations, border security, and migrant deaths. (February 2015)

Violence and Community Divisions: It is no mystery that the road to cross the border is full of violence, natural perils, abuses from gangs and federal agents, uncertainty and trauma. Added to this fact are the negative consequences brought by heavy militarization to border communities. The Border Network for Human Rights organizes an annual abuse documentation campaign. The 2013 preliminary report can be found here, and the full list of reports released by the BNHR can be accessed through this link: 

A 2013 article by Jennifer Correa, "After 9/11 Everything Changed": Re-Formations of State Violence in Everyday Life on the US–Mexico Border, documents the effects of border militarization in the lives of residents of Cameron County, Texas. Premised on the racialized fears rationalized by the 'war on terror,' the author argues that American communities and foreigners alike must go through the state violence expressed by this militarization.

Mother Jones has an in-depth report that narrates how the border zone has become post-constitutional warzone where constitutional rights no longer matter. This is a direct effect of indiscriminate border militarization, and U.S. citizenship is not a defense against it. 

Migrant Deaths in the Border: We have dedicated a section covering the unacceptable deaths of migrants caused by border militarization:

Abuse and Accountability in Border Enforcement: Accompanied by the highly privatized militarization of the border, there has been an unacceptable amount of unreported and overlooked abuses in enforcment practices. We have also dedicated a separate section for this topic: