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As Title 42 Ends, More Active-Duty Troops at the Border Doesn’t Help

As Title 42 Ends, More Active-Duty Troops at the Border Doesn’t Help

About 1500 active-duty troops have been sent to the US Mexico border this week, as the federal COVID-19 health policy known as Title 42 ends. Title 42 was used to prevent migrants at the US-Mexico border from asking for asylum. Authorities are expecting an increase in people who are fleeing violence and disasters who may have been waiting for months or years to ask for asylum but have held off due to the health policy, in addition to new arrivals at the border, as more people leave their homes in search of safety or to reunite with family in the US.

These active troops will add to about 2500 troops who are already stationed at the border, along with thousands of National Guard troops deployed by the Texas governor. Using active-duty troops is not a new strategy, although it doesn’t appear to be an effective one and is dangerously inappropriate for an issue that poses “virtually no physical threat to the country,” says Tim Dunn, professor of sociology at Salisbury University in Maryland and author of two books on border enforcement and human rights, including one on border militarization.

“We’ve seen armed ground troops since 1989, doing jobs like construction of dirt roads, building parts of the wall, [providing] military training with the border patrol, and running a lot of electronic surveillance – deploying it, setting it up, running it,” he said. “They try to avoid direct contact with the public for the most part.” Indeed, the Biden Administration has claimed that the additional troops will be focused on administrative tasks like data entry and “warehouse support” and not law enforcement functions, nor interacting with migrants, according to White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre. “But they [can be conducting] ground-based detection and monitoring, which is what the Washington Post said, and that means deployment in the field and watching, usually with some type of camouflaging,” Dunn added. Those in the field may be deployed to remote or semi-remote areas where they could potentially have unintended encounters with the public. “They’re likely to be armed. So, when they run into people, whether people crossing the border or local residents, this is very much not a good idea,” he warned. He pointed to the killing of Esequiel Hernández, Jr., in Redford, Texas by deployed Marines in the Big Bend area in 1997 as an example. The 18-year-old’s murder became a cautionary example for troops at the border. Yet, active-duty troops are trained for military confrontations, not civilian efforts, and their arrival only confirms the longtime militarization of the border, Dunn says.

“There’s not enough much-needed social service assistance – and the assistance [the government] offers is the military, and as they say, if your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail,” Dunn noted. “You need health services and social services and basic care, and a lot of the NGOs are doing that anyway, but with far too few resources – just scale that up. Get some money in there, pay health and social service professionals to help do that. And that would be much more humane. These other tactics aren’t working anyway and they’re dangerously inhumane.”

Most people arriving to seek asylum have compounding trauma from violence in their home communities, and then from their difficult journeys to the border. Many have additional trauma from violence and danger as they wait in dangerous Mexican border towns, as some have already attempted to enter the US to ask for asylum and have been turned back to Mexico. (Many try again, leading some analysts to conclude that the record number of people at the US border last year -- 2.3 million “land border encounters” -- is significantly inflated, considering some 25% or more are estimated to involve repeat crossers.) Yet, despite their traumas, people wishing to seek asylum keep coming. 

Military and Border Patrol Gather at meeting

“People need services, and the communities are overwhelmed,” Dunn said. Border Patrol policies to push migrants away from cities in attempted crossings and into remote and dangerous desert, partnered with a dearth of health services and infrastructure for basic care, have contributed to last year’s record number of migrant remains recovered – around 850 bodies last year, reaching over 10,500 since 1994, when border enforcement greatly escalated. But these figures only account for the bodies discovered by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), not those who died in regional hospitals, for example, or recovered by other entities. In the Arizona border region, a recent study found the Border Patrol did not respond to 63% of distress calls from migrants routed via 911. As a result, “estimates are that between three and ten times more people die each year,” he said. Despite the dangers, migrants keep coming. “That’s because [migration policy] doesn’t address their needs or why they’re coming. It doesn’t address the ‘push’ conditions,” Dunn summarized.

Dunn points to political policy and practice as critical steps to build the security and well-being needed to reduce people’s need to migrate: humanitarian assistance after disasters or instability; grassroots economic development for low-income people; and the end of policies that destabilize nations and cause migration, like trade embargoes, military interventions, and US support of coups in the Americas. Some in Congress support a shift in strategy. In an important first, a group of congressional Democrats, including a Biden campaign co-chair and former Obama official, are pushing for an end to Trump’s escalated economic sanctions on Venezuela and Cuba left in place by Biden, which they see contributing to the border migration “surge.” That proposed end to sanctions is opposed by Senator Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Border communities are really being held hostage by that senator's insistence on sanctions on those migrant-sending countries -- because [the border communities] must deal with the tragic, preventable human fallout from that decision," Dunn said. Presently, instead of taking a policy approach, the US’s model of militarization of the border is being exported to other countries, despite its inability to provide basic safety to those on the border, Dunn noted. The US government provides training and equipment to other countries to assist them in disrupting the migrations of people who are on their way to the US-Mexico border. They are essentially contracting out immigration enforcement to Mexican authorities on that country’s southern border, he said, adding, “we are externalizing the border,” as noted by journalist Todd Miller.

In addition to increased humanitarian aid over military development, the US government could match its immigrant visas allotted to the real labor needs of the US as the economy is growing, unemployment is very low, and our population is aging, Dunn recommended. “We have a big labor shortage,” he said, noting that young children are now being brought into the workforce due to such an extreme lack of workers. “We’ve got people who want to work while their asylum claims are being processed or who are otherwise seeking to come to work [as labor migrants, not asylum seekers]. People would want even short-term visas of one or two years… Bring people in, let them get services, then start processing them to determine, ‘What kind of relief would you be eligible for?’” based on the individual’s particular circumstances, he said. “If you do that, you’d release the pressure quite a bit, if you did it in a meaningful way that wasn’t punitive. And it would have a positive economic impact.”


Resources and Additional Reading:

Border Crossing Deaths: A Public Health Crisis Along the US-Mexico Border, from the American Public Health Association

MCN’s blog has regularly covered border health and detention. We also regularly give updates on our own work on the border. Here are just a few: