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Militarization on the Border: Professor Timothy Dunn on the History and Implications for Health

Militarization of Mexican border


Assuring health justice for the mobile poor, including asylum seekers and refugees, starts with an immigration strategy that prioritizes health and well-being. As we’ve seen in recent months, fear has driven policy away from one that is rooted in universal human rights, and instead toward one of militarization on the border. In November, tear gas canisters broke up a crowd of migrants on the border, causing young children with their mothers to run to escape the gas. Just a week prior, thousands of US troops began to set up temporary base camps along the southern US border. Timothy Dunn, PhD, Professor of Sociology at Salisbury University in Maryland, has spent his entire career studying border region immigration enforcement and border militarization. He says that the most recent military efforts at the border build on decades of militarization, and signal yet more blurry lines between the military, local police, and Border Patrol. Here, Dunn provides some background on militarization and why it may affect the health and well-being of migrants and refugees, as well as non-migrants, in the region. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


What is militarization of the border?

Militarization is essentially the military acting like the police, and police acting like the military. The military is getting involved in police matters -- border patrol is a police matter. Unless there’s an armed invasion, it’s law enforcement. As the police get more military training and equipment, they start acting more like the military. The Border Patrol has always been a paramilitary force, and, since the early 80s and implementation of military support, they’ve become more so.  The danger is, in the worst case, the military on the border may shoot somebody who is not a threat mistakenly (as they did in 1997), but they may also not respect human and civil rights because they’re not trained how to do that; they’re trained how to eliminate a threat.

Crime rates in the border region, from California to Texas, are generally lower in border counties than they are elsewhere in those states -- except in Arizona, where the crime rate is about the same as the rest of the state. But the military is trained to be in a hypersecurity mode, that there are all these dangerous threats. They frame the border as more of a security and terrorist issue, in spite of the fact that crime rates are generally lower.


Can the military legally be mobilized to protect the border? Isn’t that the job of Border Control?

The military is prohibited by an [1878] law, the Posse Comitatus Act, from participating in arrest, search, and seizure. It has kept the military out of law enforcement, for the most part, in the post-Civil War era -- and it’s a hallmark of democracy.  There have been some exceptions; for example, it’s legally allowed for the military to be involved in suppressing violent uprising. The military was called in during the 1967 Detroit race riots and after the Rodney King verdict in 1992. The National Guard, however, was not included in the Posse Comitatus restrictions -- so the National Guard and state militia have a more colorful history, being called out in law enforcement periodically.


If the military cannot participate in arrest, search, and seizure, what can they do at the border?

The roots [of militarization] go back to the Reagan Administration, when Congress passed a law that didn’t undo the Posse Comitatus, but it did for the first time specify that the military can do other things for law enforcement. They can loan or grant equipment to federal law enforcement, and they can train and assist in the operation of the loaned equipment -- like in transportation and surveillance. That sounds relatively innocuous, but it broke down a barrier between law enforcement and the military. The justification at that time was drug enforcement, but it allowed collaboration between police agencies, not just for drug or contraband but for immigration as well.

George H. W. Bush expanded these efforts. He had a formal drug assistance military task force. Most of that assistance went to border control -- including immigration. The actual use of the ground troops was limited. They had construction activities, like building fencing and roads. They did aerial surveillance, loaned and taught how to use equipment, provided specialized training on intelligence work.

The official reason [that the troops were on the border] was drug trafficking, but if they ran into an immigrant while looking for drug trafficking, they said, ‘We’ll report them to Border Control, and they can decide what to do with them.’

This was ongoing and expanding until 1997, when a US citizen was shot by a Marine. Esequiel Hernandez from Redford, Texas, right on the border near Presidio. The Marines were out there in full camouflage working for the Border Patrol, looking for drug trafficking. They were incorrectly briefed by a military task force that the area was dangerous. Hernandez, who was 18, was tending his goat herd, and saw something moving in the bushes. He [likely] thought it was someone after his goats, and he took his rifle and took a shot at it. The Marines radioed to regional headquarters overseeing the deployment and got the green light to shoot back. Rather than identifying themselves and attempting to de-escalate the situation, they followed him -- and shot and killed him.


What were the repercussions of that deadly error?

It was a tragic mistake -- and a PR nightmare. The Pentagon, 12 to 18 months later, said no more armed ground troops without high level authorization from the Secretary of Defense. This limited the use of ground troops, but other relationships continued -- until 9/11.

After 2004, you started seeing larger deployments, including of armed ground troops. Working with Border Patrol between 2004 and 2012, there were upwards of several hundred [deployed troops] at one time, for four to eight weeks. It’s an opportunity for them to have off-base training, as the desert environment in the Southwest is similar to the Middle East and Central Asia.

In 2006, George W. Bush put 6,000 National Guard troops at the border to assist Border Patrol. Comprehensive immigration reform had just passed. These troops were not federalized -- Bush requested governors to send the troops to the border, so they were under state command -- but the federal government pays for it.  These included armed ground troops in observation posts, but also many doing mundane behind-the-scenes tasks -- vehicle maintenance, observation of video cameras, receiving and analyzing video feed...


What about under President Obama?

Obama continued the deployment of the National Guard. Bush had been decreasing the numbers -- from 6,000 to 3,000 by 2009. But there continued to be 1,000 to 1,500 under Obama. He tried to shift the focus back to drug trafficking but it continued to spill over into immigration. He was also willing to show that he was “tough on the border,” as part of his strategy to pass immigration reform (legalization with increased enforcement) and have military out there. He just did so on a smaller scale.


How has President Trump’s approach differed?

An initial draft memo on immigration policy said the Trump Administration was willing to mobilize National Guard troops to four border states and those adjacent explicitly for immigration enforcement… and that there would be up to 100,000 troops available. We haven’t seen anything like that since the days of the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century! But the final immigration policy memo came out, and this mass mobilization was removed -- but [it’s telling] that the administration was considering it.

In 2018, Trump has turned to the use of the military on the border. In the spring of 2018, Trump announced he would deploy 4,000 National Guard to the border to aid in immigration enforcement, much as Bush had done. And this October, he called for up to 15,000 active duty military troops to be deployed to the border, ostensibly to meet the supposed threat posed by the migrant caravans from Central America made up of mainly political asylum seekers, including many women and children. (Apparently, some 5,000 active duty military troops ended up actually deployed.) It is important to keep in mind that there are already approximately 20,000 Border Patrol agents there as well, so there was no staffing shortage to begin with.


What do you expect in the coming weeks, now that the troops have reached their destination?

Prior to Thanksgiving, the officer commanding the border deployment started sending some of them home and expected the entire deployment to end by December 15th. However, with the Trump Administration, that could change quickly. They have mainly been reinforcing barriers (e.g., rolling out miles of concertina razor-sharp barbed wire), but have declined requests to build temporary detention facilities, interestingly. Other duties were supposed to be more behind the scenes, as in earlier deployments.

The whole thing seems to have been mainly a political stunt or theater act for the midterm elections in which Trump heavily villainized immigrants and especially the migrant caravans.


How did you react to the use of tear gas to break up a group of migrants at the border in Tijuana?

This is a gross overreaction and unnecessarily endangered the health of women and children in the crowd and nearby. The situation certainly could have been handled with less drama and force, but it seems Trump and the Border Patrol were seeking a chance to make a forceful statement.


What are the health implications for migrants of this ongoing militarization of the border?

As there have been more Border Patrol and military troops on the border, that has shut off historically easier places to cross, like Juarez or Tijuana, and it has instead increased unauthorized crossing in more remote dangerous areas, pushing migrants to walk farther in desert, mountains… and more people have died. Since 1994, there have been over 8000 human remains in the border region and the actual number is much larger than that. Many of thousands of migrants have survived such harrowing crossings, but often at significant physical and psychological harm which they carry with them.

In addition, the current build-up of forces and tensions may lead to further incidents and over-reactions on the part of authorities, causing more immediate harm to migrants. It is important to keep in mind that this is being done to try to discourage migrants by denying them access to apply for political asylum in the US, which they have a legal right to do under US and international law. Also, we are not addressing the “push conditions” in the home countries that compel them to attempt to come in the first place (extreme violence, poverty, lack of opportunities, corrupt government, etc.), many of which US policy has been directly involved in (such as supporting the 2009 military coup in Honduras and subsequent repressive and corrupt governments).

One further issue to consider is that, should migrants be able to apply for asylum, the Trump Administration intends to hold thousands more in detention for as long as possible, including children. This will incur tremendous psychological and likely also physical harm. For instance, there are currently more than 14,000 children in detention, compared to some 2,000 a year ago, and they are held for longer time periods. These are hallmarks of militarization/police-state tactics.

Some of these kids have faced abuse in custody, or have been medicated against their will to get them to calm down, all sorts of things, including sexual and physical abuse…[in addition to] the stress and trauma of being incarcerated.

It’s a real crisis. But, the uplifting part is the response of civil society. All sorts of groups and individuals, from border communities and far away from border communities, have stepped up to provide services and funding for those services, and are doing as much as they can to address what they are rightly viewing as a humanitarian crisis.


Clinicians around the country can support the health of immigrants at the border. Here are a few resources and action items to get you started.

The American Public Health Association’s “Border Crossing Deaths: A Public Health Crisis Along the US–Mexico Border.
MCN’s Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery page:

Read MCN’s previous blog posts on the health implications of the detention of children: 

Read MCN’s Behavioral Health page.

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