In September 2009, a woman who chose to remain anonymous sat down with human rights activists in northern Mexico. She told them she had lived in the United States for 17 years and had three children still living there. She had returned to Mexico to attend her parents' funeral but was apprehended by the Border Patrol when trying to reenter the United States. In a Border Patrol processing center, she said, guards laughed at her for being Mexican and had her strip naked. They took her clothes away and touched her breasts in the presence of both male and female guards. Her belongings, including $20, were taken and never returned.
The woman said she was detained for two months before she was handed deportation documents to sign. She said the documents were written in English and no translator was present. She was then deported back to Mexico.
The woman's harrowing story, along with many others, are documented in "A Culture of Cruelty," a 2011 report by the human rights group No More Deaths. From 2008 to 2011, the group interviewed thousands of people and documented 32,075 incidents of abuse perpetrated against detainees held in short-term custody by the US Border Patrol.
Border crossers commonly reported being denied food, water and medical treatment as well as being verbally and physically abused, separated from family members, and subject to dangerous repatriation practices.
Of all the stories injected into the current debate over immigration reform in Washington, the stories of those who live in the shadow of an increasingly militarized southern border are heard the least. Democrats, eager to overhaul the immigration system and provide a path to citizenship for 11 million potentially eligible immigrants, talk of hard-working families and youth seeking to emerge from the shadows and achieve the American dream. Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who refuse to support reform without assurances that the southern border will somehow be completely "secured," often echo ranchers and landowners who complain about trespassers and criminals passing through their property.
Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis continues. In 2012, No More Deaths released data collected from interviews with 92 men and 13 women, a majority of whom were originally from Mexico but lived in the United States for an average of 15 years before being deported. Two-thirds of those interviewed had children living the United States at the time, and 58 percent reported an abrupt removal from their home lives. Only nine percent said they did not suffer abuse while in detention, and 60 percent witnessed violence and insecurity in the borderlands.
Immigrant Rights Groups Pull Support for Reform Bill
Figures like those compiled by No More Deaths can help explain why immigrant rights groups are disappointed with the immigration reform package that passed the Senate last week. Some advocates are now opposing the bill altogether.
The reform package passed the Senate by a vote of 68-32 last Thursday. The bill, a clear bipartisan compromise, found enough GOP votes after Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and John Hoeven (R-South Dakota) tacked on a "border surge" amendment that immigrant rights advocates say will only harm border communities while lining the pockets of defense contractors.
"By shamelessly presenting this as a victory, proponents of this bill are banking on the toll that years of historic levels of enforcement have already taken on immigrant communities," said Susan Alva, a Los Angeles-based immigrants rights attorney on behalf of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR). "This is not compromise; this is blackmail."
The Hoeven-Corker amendment calls for $46 billion to be spent on border security over the next ten years and before millions of immigrants can become citizens. The funds would put 20,000 more Border Patrol officers on the ground, where they would patrol the borderlands and nearby neighborhoods, stop anyone driving a car on southwestern highways at checkpoints, and man processing and detention facilities. The funds would also pay for 700 miles of additional border fencing and high-tech surveillance technology such as drones, which civil liberties advocates say threaten privacy rights.
According to analysis by the NNIRR, the real winners are the "military contractors, Silicon Valley [firms], and enforcement construction companies, who all lobbied heavily for more enforcement," while border communities will "bare the brunt of the tradeoff."
Presente.org, the largest online Latino advocacy group, pulled its support for the reform bill just days before it passed. In a statement, the group cited the Hoeven-Corker amendment, saying it is "guaranteed to increase death and destruction in immigrant life" and turn the southern border into a "permanent war zone."
The group also said the current package would disqualify some immigrants taking the long road toward citizenship.
"The current direction of the immigration reform discussions in the Senate has taken a sharp turn for the worse," said Presente.org Director Arturo Carmona after the Hoeven-Corker amendment was added last week.
A Long Road to Reform
Despite deepening divisions and handwringing over the reform package in the immigrant rights community, some groups are continuing to support the bill as it heads to the House. America's Voice, an advocacy group pushing for immigration reform, points out that the bill does provide some important victories for immigrants, with a path to citizenship for millions of people topping the list.
The current reform package will also help reunify many families separated by deportation, mandates strict limits on solitary confinement in detention centers, encourages alternatives to detention and requires a use-of-force policy among all Department of Homeland Security agencies, including Border Patrol, that are involved in immigration.
Despite the compromises already made in the Senate, the immigration reform bill still faces big hurdles in the Republican-controlled House, where some Republicans are already crafting their own overhaul package and pushing "enforcement-first" legislation such as the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement, or SAFE, Act, which recently cleared the House Judiciary Committee.
The SAFE Act would give state and local authorities the power to enforce federal immigration laws and provide them funding to do so. The legislation would also punish states that have local laws preventing authorities from enforcing federal immigration law. Most alarming to immigrant rights advocates, however, are measures that would criminalize visa overstays and make it a federal crime to be in the United States unlawfully. Currently, illegal entry into the United States is only a crime if someone is caught in the act, but under the SAFE Act, an immigrant could be charged with illegal entry any time after entering the country.
The SAFE act would "create an environment of rampant racial profiling and unconstitutional detentions," according to the National Immigration Law Center.
The SAFE Act would also expand detention facilities for migrants and deportees. The bill would allow the government to detain immigrants in jails and jail-like facilities indefinitely without any meaningful legal safeguards, according to analysis by Human Rights First.
With draconian measures like the SAFE Act already on the table, it's clear that immigration reform faces a tough road ahead in the House as Republicans seize the chance to bolster border security, and their efforts may push the immigration reform debate even further to the right.