It's Time to End Immigration Deterrence Policies


Photo credit: Jenn Budd, border wall at Playas Tijuana, B.C., Mexico


On June 27, 2022, a group of asylum seekers were discovered locked in a tractor trailer abandoned on the side of a road in the San Antonio, Texas. So far, at least 50 people have died from heat related causes. Among the 50 are 4 children. Survivors have been taken to area hospitals in critical condition.


As usual, the Department of Homeland Security’s Secretary Mayorkas denounced the cruel and brutal treatment of migrants by smugglers. “I am heartbroken by the tragic loss of life today and am praying for those still fighting for their lives,” he said. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Commissioner Chris Magnus stated, “This speaks to the desperation of migrants who would put their lives in the hands of callous human smugglers who show no regard for human life.”


As a former Senior Patrol agent and intelligence agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, I do not disagree with these statements. I have witnessed smugglers cram migrants into hot railway cars. I have heard smugglers promise migrants that the hike is only 15 to 30 minutes when it will take days to reach their destination. I have been told by migrants that they were assured they would only be locked inside a tractor trailer for an hour, and yet they were locked inside for much longer.


Smugglers are callous, but this callousness can also be seen in our government.


I joined the Border Patrol in 1995, only one year after our deterrence policies began on the southern border. The purpose, the stated intention of deterrence policies on the border were meant to drive migrants to their deaths. Former Immigration and Naturalization Commissioner Doris Meissner (CBP’s predecessor) stated that the fact that crossing illegally in dangerous terrain often caused deaths would “deter” future illegal crossings. Death was an acceptable, even required aspect of our immigration deterrence policies. Death was the deterrent.


But it didn’t work.


For nearly 30 years, our government and the agencies enforcing these policies have claimed they were working. For nearly 30 years, we have seen Border Patrol and CBP claim they were overwhelmed with people crossing in between the ports of entry. Year after year, Democrats and Republicans give the agencies more money, more boots on the ground and more resources to combat illegal immigration, yet the numbers of asylum seekers crossing in dangerous terrain continues.


Migration is a human condition that is often manmade. The 50 migrants who died in that trailer were pushed into that trailer by our immigration deterrence policies. It is likely that many were asylum seeking families. Families who normally would present themselves at a port of entry and voluntarily submit themselves to inspection just to be considered for asylum in the U.S.


But there is no asylum system.


There is no asylum system save for a select few because of Donald Trump’s Title 42 Covid 19 response policy. Under the antiquated Title 42 health policy that even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated is not needed, both Republicans and Democrats have closed the asylum system. There is no “legal way” for these families to apply for asylum. And so, they are forced to break the law to save themselves from cartels, criminals, and corrupt law enforcement.


When President Joe Biden, Secretary Mayorkas and Commissioner Magnus state that smugglers have no regard for human life, they are correct. It is also correct that our deterrence policies have no regard for human life either. Every year, immigration rights advocates like myself warn officials that thousands will die crossing in between our ports of entry. Before this summer began, many of us issued these same warnings and added that it would be worse because of Title 42 and climate change.


It is past time that we accept responsibility for creating this gauntlet of obstacles that we have known for nearly 30 years intentionally causes thousands upon thousands of preventable deaths. Our deterrence policies have created a genocide for asylum seekers. Yes, the smugglers are responsible, but we are as well. The government and its agencies have created this system of death. I enforced it and helped build it. Our collective silence enables it to continue.