Columban missionaries have been accompanying communities along the US/MX border for over 25 years. Every day we see how border communities are models of hospitality and creative cross-cultural encounter.
But we also see how inhumane immigration enforcement and extreme militarization sow fear, distrust, and trauma in our communities.
While every presidential administration over the past forty years has employed an enforcement-heavy approach to border policy, Trump’s administration has expanded and intensified it. This strategy has had brutal consequences for our migrant sisters and brothers, including deep psychology trauma and death.
As the President’s first term comes to a close, we want to review four of his major border policies: construction of a border wall, family separation, restricting access to asylum, and extreme militarization.
In this article, we will look at extreme militarization.
What is militarization?
Government often use their military might to solve humanitarian problems. Policy arguments that rely primarily or exclusively on appeals to “defense” or “national security” condition us to think that war-like solutions are an acceptable way to make the world a safer place.
But the Columban history of living and ministering in heavily militarized communities has taught us that military might cannot ultimately bring about peace and cannot paper-over unjust government policies.
The expansion of military presence around the world, and especially on the US/MX border, erodes at the culture of peace that people of faith work to cultivate.
Governments spend billions of dollars on the research and development of more deadly and sophisticated ways of hurting people and usurping their right to a free and prosperous life. Businesses and military contractors like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics often promote a culture of militarism as a way to increase their profit.
The US government has been militarizing the border for decades by building a wall, imprisoning migrants in detention camps, and deploying military forces to the border rather than humanitarian service providers.
Although the strategy of militarism is not new, under the Trump administration, the amount of money that the US government spends to weaponized the border has significantly increased. Unfortunately, the federal agencies that are responsible for administering this money (primarily the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees US Customs and Border Protection) do not have meaningful Congressional oversight or accountability, and are not transparent with how they spend their money.
Migrant detention is the practice of imprisoning individuals or families while they wait for a determination on their immigration status or potential deportation. Their forced internment is done without filing criminal charges. The detention or internment of groups of people is a tactic often used in war.
On the US/MX border specifically, government practice under previous administration said that families arriving at the border were supposed to be screened by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in a timely manner, transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody where they are processed. For here they would either placed in detention or released on an alternative to detention (like case management program) and await the processing of their immigration claim.
Now, however, under Trump's administration, the federal government is detaining migrants, including unaccompanied children, for the duration of their case. This practice has dramatically increased the number of migrants in detention.
According to Detention Watch Network, the average daily population of detained immigrants increased from approximately 5,000 in 1994, to 19,000 in 2001, and to over 39,000 in 2017.
After three decades of expansion, the detention system now captures and holds as many as 400,000 immigrants each year.
In short, the United States government maintains the world’s largest immigration detention system.
During the summer of 2019, the public learned about the unsanitary and inhumane conditions of most of these detention facilities. Reports by the Office of Inspector General, visits to detention centers by government officials, and media reports all detail the following emblematic conditions:
- Overcrowding: in one center, 155 people were held in a cell that was supposed to hold 35, and 41 people were in a cell that was supposed to hold eight. Nine hundred people were being held at the center on one day in May 2019, far exceeding its capacity of 125. Some of the detainees had been held in standing-room-only conditions for days or weeks.
- Housing conditions: air conditioning is often blasted all day at extremely cold temperatures and lights are left on 24 hours a day.
- Poor hygiene: with limited access to showers and clean clothing, detainees were wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks. In some centers, the men in custody hadn’t taken a shower in 10 to 20 days. Bathrooms were dilapidated and moldy.
- Food: hot meals were often not provided to children until the arrival of outside inspectors. In one center, open packages of raw chicken leaked blood into the refrigeration and lunchmeat was found to be slimy, smelling, and seemingly spoiled.
- Medical and childcare: outbreaks of scabies, shingles, and chickenpox spread among the hundreds of children who were being held in cramped cells. One teenage mother from El Salvador said Border Patrol agents at the border had taken her medicine for her infant son, who had a fever. The lack of trained caregivers forced older children to care for toddlers and babies.
Detaining migrants is a cruel and inhumane practices that can lead to life-long psychology trauma.
By increasing the number of detention facilities, attempting to change the rules around how long children can be held in detention, and threatening to detain all asylum seekers indefinitely, Trump's administration is trying to "deter" vulnerable people from migranting to the US for safety in the first place. However, this deterrence strategy, in addition to being inhumane, doesn't achieve its intended objective.
As people of faith, Columbans believe that our moral standing as a society can be measured by our actions toward the most vulnerable among us.
Instead of these cruel policies, we can implement alternatives to detention like non-restrictive, community-based case management programs that support court appearance and compliance. Programs like the “Family Case Management Program (FCMP)” help families navigate the legal system outside of restrictive custody. Currently programs like this do not receive the funding required to operate.
Military deployment to the border
In October of 2018, a group of families and individuals from Central America began a “caravan” to travel through Mexico to the United States in order to seek safety and protection. This journey, which most migrants walk, is incredibly dangerous and caravans are a way to have “safety in numbers.”
Trump's administration purposefully mischaracterized the caravan as an “invasion” as an excuse to send 5,200 military troops to the border. This added to the roughly 2,000 National Guard troops currently deployed to the border and the 16,605 Border Patrol agents stationed there.
While military personnel are legally prohibited from engaging in immigration enforcement, the domestic deployment of such a high number of troops sends a message of fear and hostility not only to migrants but to the border communities where they will be stationed.
In addition to deploying troops, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) often perform military drills that close lanes to cross the border and even temporarily shutting down an entire international bridge. Not only does this limit access to asylum for migrants, it affects the day-to-day life of border communities and stifles cross-border trade.
You can learn more here about our government’s militarization of the US/MX border.
What border residents and people of faith think
As one border resident said:
“Border enforcement policies instill a sense of fear and distrust. Border enforcement policies also have a direct impact on businesses, deterring tourism and stifling the economic growth of the region. … [El Paso], in particular, has been noted as one of the safest cities in the United States. I believe this is thanks in part to our large immigrant population and our diverse roots. We take care of each other. We support each other.”
Commenting on the president’s decision to deploy more troops to the border, former Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, Gil Kerlikowske said, “anyone who has spent more than a day on the border knows that this isn’t a national security issue. This is a broken immigration issue.”
Columbans reject a culture of war and militarism in favor of peace and nonviolence.
As people of faith, we should not see migrant as enemies or threats, but as our sisters and brothers, all of us created by God. As Pope Francis said when he visited the border in 2016, we have “an opportunity to meet Jesus Christ, who identified himself with the foreigner."
*Editor's Note: Download our Border Solidarity Toolkit for a curated list of resources and activities that will help you learn more about US/MX border communities and how you can support them through prayer, education, and action.