Border Militarization

Last Updated: April 15, 2021

Border militarization, the way by which the southern border has been turned into a mock war zone — complete with border agents masquerading as soldiers toting assault rifles and donning tactical gear, the violent and deadly border wall and the policies that allow this to happen — has ravaged our communities for decades.

The Southern Border region has always been a place of opportunity, encounter and hope, and many of the cities and towns along the border have enjoyed a diverse and lively binational and multicultural character. While cruel and unaccountable border agents have existed since the 1920s, they didn’t have the massive budgets they have today. The implementation of Operation Gatekeeper and “prevention through deterrence” tactics in the 1990s changed all of that.

Turning the region we call home into a war zone doesn’t make us safer. In fact, it leads to more violence, corruption and even death. We can’t afford to continue with harmful enforcement-only policies that militarize our communities. We need a New Border Vision that expands public safety, upholds human rights and welcomes all people to our borders.

The Border Wall

The U.S.-Mexico border spans nearly 2,000 miles, from Brownsville, Texas / Matamoros, Tamaulipas in the east, to San Diego, California / Tijuana, Baja California in the west. The border line passes through mountains, deserts, marshes and other incredibly diverse ecological regions. The border wall is not always built on the international boundary line - at times it is built up to a mile away, cutting people off from their private property, restricting access to parks and protected refuge areas.

Over the last three decades, the border has become home to one of the most militarized regions in the world. The deadly border wall has divided vibrant communities, put people’s lives at risk, harmed wildlife, and destroyed sacred indigenous sites.

As of January 21, 2021, 776 miles of wall exist dividing the U.S. and Mexico -- covering about 40% of the total length of the border. A total of 654 miles of border wall were built before Trump took office by the Bush and Obama administrations. The state of Arizona had the most miles of pre-Trump border wall construction at a total of 307 miles (including both pedestrian walls and vehicle barriers). California, Texas and New Mexico each had 116 miles before Trump rapidly and forcefully continued construction.

The Trump administration constructed an estimated 458 miles of border wall. Some construction (52 miles) took place where no type of wall or barrier existed before, while the majority (373 miles) replaced old pedestrian walls or barriers meant to stop vehicles from crossing. Some of the new forms of the deadly wall were made out of steel beams that are spaced apart and allow agents to see through the gaps, which CBP claims will help “carry out its mission.”

As the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden promised not to build “another foot” of border wall if elected president. On his first day in office, President Biden issued a proclamation that froze wall construction for 60 days to review the cancellation of contracts and reallocation of funds. This order was a step toward fulfilling his pledge, yet it did not officially cancel construction contracts, end open eminent domain claims or revoke environmental and cultural waivers.

The wall review period has already passed and it is still unclear whether or not some construction will resume. There have been reports that suggest that the administration could resume border wall construction to fill in “gaps.” Further construction of the wall, especially 30-foot bollard-style walls, separates binational communities, threatens wildlife, and damages invaluable environmental resources.

Environmental groups, private property owners, indigenous communities and advocates have made calls to tear down particularly harmful portions of the wall in order to heal communities and natural habitats. In February, SBCC joined a coalition of 75 organizations in identifying priority segments of the wall for demolition.

This section gives an overview of border wall construction and associated costs, migrant deaths, levels of law enforcement in the southern border, and maps the network of checkpoints impacting the lives of southern border communities.

Pedestrian Walls

These walls can measure up to 20 feet and divide urban areas. Many were originally built from steel landing mats, and are now being replaced by steel bollard walls.

Vehicle Barriers

Vehicle barriers are 4 to 6 feet high and block vehicle traffic. There are about 300 miles of this type of barrier in the southern border.


Trump-era walls include the steel ‘bollard-style’ walls, which are made of see-through steel bars.

Wall Funding

After exorbitant spending on wall construction during the Trump administration, Biden proposed completely cutting funding in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, including unused allocated funding. However, he also proposed investing in border surveillance technologies, signaling that enforcement will remain a priority for this administration. A “virtual” or “smart” wall is not a humane or benign alternative to a physical wall - and must be adamantly opposed. In fact, a “smart” wall, surveillance and other technologies present real harms for the environment, infringe on privacy rights of border communities, and can lead to more deaths as border crossers take more dangerous routes to avoid detection.

Biden also formally rescinded Trump’s emergency declaration that was unlawfully used to justify diverting military funds to wall construction at the southern border. Yet, it is still not clear how the new administration will use unspent funds.

Construction already cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars. During the previous administration, a staggering $16.3 billion tax-payer dollars were spent on the lethal border wall — which included $9.9 billion that the Trump administration illegally pilfered from the military and counter-narcotics funding.

In fiscal years 2021 and 2020, Congress approved $1.375 billion dollars of funding per year for continued border wall construction. Yet, in 2020, the Trump administration went around Congress and illegally transferred an additional $3.8 billion dollars from the Department of Defense to continue wall construction.

In fiscal year 2019, the administration re-appropriated $2.5 billion dollars of funds away from the Department of Defense funds used to support counter-drug activities. SBCC and others took the Trump administration to court and won. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court found that this move was illegal, underscoring that Trump’s blatant abuse of power to build the dangerous wall was unlawful.

Cost Estimates

No single estimate exists of the cost-per-mile for construction of the border wall. Varying factors like terrain type, materials used, and whether the land is private, tribal or federally owned contribute to different costs. Still, it is clear that the border wall cost taxpayers billions of dollars. The Office of Management and Budget wrote a letter in 2019 estimating that the then-requested $5.7 billion for continued construction of a border wall would fund approximately 234 miles, meaning that each mile could cost an estimated $24.4 million dollars. The Trump administration spent roughly five times per-mile on the wall than the Bush and Obama administrations.

Laws Waived for Wall Construction

A majority of land in the southern border is privately owned or owned by the states, according to a 2015 GAO report. Much of the land around the border in Texas is owned by private individuals - which has led to eminent domain court cases. Similarly, native lands straddle the border, and some tribes have even been split by the international boundary line.

Dozens of environmental and cultural laws have been waived and set aside for construction of the border wall. The Real ID Act, which was adopted by Congress in 2005, gives the Department of Homeland Security the authority to waive and ignore local, state and federal laws, regulations and statutes to expedite construction of physical barriers and roads.

So far, waivers have been issued 31 times - 5 by the Bush administration and 26 times by the Trump administration, starting with laws that protected the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas. Congress responded, however, by including protections for the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge during the appropriations process.The Biden administration has yet to take a position on whether or not it would support rescinding the provision of the act that gives DHS the authority to issue these waivers.

Over 60 different laws have been pushed aside for wall construction, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act among many others. The chart below shows the top-10 most frequently waived laws for construction of the wall since 2005.

Unaccountable Agents in the Southern Border

The southern border region is one of the most militarized regions in the world.

Thousands of federal agents patrol the border region with impunity, stopping and searching border residents through extraordinary and unprecedented powers. These powers allow border agents to interrogate people, board and search their vehicles and other conveyances, and enter onto private property without a warrant. They are also granted the power to make an arrest without a warrant, as other agencies are allowed to do, under limited circumstances.

The Border Patrol has a clear goal of becoming a national police force, most clearly exemplified by the deployment of agents to cities seeing protests and demonstrations for racial justice in the summer of 2020. The outsized agency now has an eye in extending its culture of abuse to cities and towns outside of the southern border.

The U.S. Border Patrol in particular has a reputation for violating and disregarding key constitutional protections and rights. Countless cases of abuse have been documented, showcasing the agency’s culture and systemic violation of border resident’s rights.

In fiscal year 2019, there were nearly 17,000 border patrol agents in the southern border region. The Tucson area has by far the largest number of agents deployed, followed by the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso and San Diego sectors.

The Border Patrol’s main task is patrolling U.S. international borders and deterring and apprehending immigrants entering without proper documentation. Yet recently, federal agents - including U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers - have furthered their scope by appearing in protests and actions across the country. In July, Border Patrol officers were first deployed to Portland to protests over the killing of George Floyd. CBP agents were documented making arrests with names and badges covered up, and carrying out other forms of surveillance outside of their stated mission. Advocates - as well as local leaders - have called these unfettered CBP actions a ‘blatant abuse of power.’ The deployments were justified by the Trump administration under the guise of protecting federal property - but they are part of Border Patrol’s effort of becoming a national police force.

A leaked, unofficial CBP letter to Senator Kamala Harris’ office reveals the extent of CBP actions outside of its traditional duties. Congressional leaders in both the House and Senate wrote a letter to the heads of CBP and ICE demanding answers for the role that federal agents were playing in national protests. According to the leaked document, CBP agents or assets were deployed to at least 19 states and over 50 cities between May 20 and June 10. The requests were often made by local police departments or other federal agencies. While the data in this letter - and the map below - should be interpreted with caution, it helps outline the creeping scope of CBP and their continued incursion into the interior.

Most requests were made for assistance in protecting federal buildings, or with crowd control measures related to peaceful protests. But some localities also requested assistance with surveillance of peaceful protests. CBP data show that over 270 hours of surveillance were collected, like in the case of Minneapolis where predator drones flew over the city to monitor protestors. All told, these actions by CBP demonstrate its capacity to abuse its unchecked powers and its willingness to violate American’s privacy and other fundamental rights.

Apprehensions in the Southern Border Region

Irregular crossings between ports of entry at the southern border peaked around the year 2000, and sharply decreased since then. There were about 852,000 apprehensions in fiscal 2019, according to the latest government data.

Increased border enforcement in the early 2000s pushed a large portion of Mexican immigrants to cross in remote areas of the Sonoran Desert along Arizona’s border. Then beginning in 2014, more individuals started fleeing unstable conditions and violence in Central America. Many Central Americans took the quickest route through Mexico to the border with south Texas, which explains why today a majority of apprehensions take place in Texas. In 2019, there were some 339,000 apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley sector, accounting for about 40% of the total. The second largest number of apprehensions occurred in the El Paso Sector.

The size of the Border Patrol steadily increased since 1992 and plateaued around 2012. Yet as the number of migrants crossing the southern border decreased, the number of agents kept rising. In fiscal year 2019, some 852,000 people were apprehended - down from 1.6 million in the year 2000. Data show, however, that the size of the Border Patrol (now nearly 20,000), are outsized for today’s apprehension levels.

The figure above shows the estimated number of apprehensions per agent per month in each fiscal year. In the early 90s, when the size of the Border Patrol was smaller, agents caught an average of 27 people per month. Today, however, when the Border Patrol is four times as large, agents apprehend only about 4 people per month, on average. The data tell a clear story: there is an unnecessary large force patrolling the southern border region.

In recent years, the demographic makeup of people arriving at the border has changed. More families and unaccompanied children from Central America and other regions have been arriving at the border who aim to request protection in the United States.

According to the most recent CBP data, approximately 168,200 encounters occurred in March 2021. This number included approximately 96,600 encounters with single adults, 52,900 encounters with individuals traveling with their families, and 18,700 encounters with unaccompanied minors. However, these numbers represent crossings, not individuals, and nearly 30 percent of March encounters were with repeat crossers.

Criminalizing Migration

Few people are familiar with the racist origins of the improper entry (8 U.S.C. § 1325) and re-entry after deportation (8 U.S.C. § 1326) charges made against people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border between ports of entry. In the early 1900s, nativists wanted to restrict Mexican immigration, but the agricultural industry relied heavily on Mexican labor. In 1929, Coleman Livingston Blease, an unrepentant white supremacist Democrat who was “notorious for playing on the prejudices of poor whites to gain their votes,” proposed a law that would criminalize those who did not cross the border through an official port of entry, where Mexicans would have to pay a high fee and be subjected to kerosene baths and humiliating delousing procedures. Because of these fees and procedures, many Mexicans avoided ports of entry and informally crossed the border, as both U.S. and Mexican citizens had done for decades. Blease’s law passed and thus improper entry became a federal misdemeanor, punishable up to 6 months in prison, and a felony, punishable up to 20 years when combined with another felony.

In the first 10 years of the law being in effect, about 44,000 immigrants were prosecuted, but during World War II, the prosecutions decreased because the U.S. needed more people to fill a labor shortage while many men and women were fighting overseas (this was the start of the Bracero Program). Prosecutions of immigrants under 8 U.S.C. § 1325 and § 1326 did not again become a priority until after 9/11 under the presidency of George W. Bush. Now, illegal entry and re-entry cases are the majority of cases prosecuted in federal courts, further clogging up the system and wasting federal resources.

In fiscal year 2007, nearly 30,000 people were charged with illegal entry and re-entry. This number more than doubled in 2008 with the expansion of Operation Streamline. Prosecutions for entry-related offenses reached an all-time high of 106,312 in FY 2019. Prosecutions of immigration charges sharply declined in April 2020, after the administration temporarily halted Operation Streamline and other programs for prosecution across the border due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However data from TRAC shows that prosecutions have been slowly picking up since June 2020, while still remaining below historic levels.

Along the Southwest border, the Trump administration spent vast resources by referring thousands of people for criminal prosecutions under 8 U.S.C. § 1325 or § 1326. This included prosecutions of asylum seekers, in violation of Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention and Refugee Act of 1980. The DHS Inspector General found in 2015 that the joint DOJ/DHS border prosecution program (i.e., Operation Streamline) was used regularly against those who express fear of persecution or return to their home countries, and found that en masse prosecutions may violate U.S. treaty obligations. Despite these findings, DHS had not made any notable changes in its monitoring or operation of the program, and in fact has expanded the use of prosecutions and continued to use Streamline for individuals who express a fear of return to their home country until the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s also worth noting that 8 U.S.C. § 1325 prosecutions were the driving force behind the Trump Administration’s family separation policy, when the 2018 “zero-tolerance” directive required each U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute all DHS referrals of unauthorized entry violations.

Also problematic is that DHS has not adequately evaluated the full costs for criminal prosecutions under 8 U.S.C. § 1325 or § 1326. A 2015 DHS Inspector General report found that CBP did not have a system in place to differentiate the costs of Streamline from other CBP enforcement activities. In 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report that found that the Border Patrol did not effectively account for all the costs of these prosecutions, focusing only on CBP’s own costs. In December 2019, GAO published another report finding that agencies had to divert resources to support the prosecution priorities outlined by the Administration in 2017 and 2018, including personnel and physical space. CBP has failed to account for the full monetary and human costs of implementing its deterrence policies, and has not provided sufficient justification for the use of taxpayer dollars.

These prosecutions have also shown to be ineffective in deterring improper crossings. Instead, it makes it harder for immigrants to regularize their status due to having a criminal record, and it may disqualify legitimate claims of asylum from courts.

Interior Border Checkpoints

The 4th amendment of the U.S. constitution protects people from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Yet a vast network of checkpoints laid throughout the interior of the southern border threaten this fundamental right with arbitrary stops and searches, which disproportionately target communities of color and lead to repeated violations of the U.S. constitution. The Border Patrol operates hundreds of permanent and temporary checkpoints within 100 miles of the U.S. border, supposedly aimed at stopping improper entries. At these checkpoints, drivers can be stopped and questioned to verify their lawful status. Yet an abundance of evidence shows that the checkpoints routinely violate constitutional rights and lead to abuse.

The checkpoints intrude in the daily lives of border residents, and have led to numerous cases of racial profiling, unjust and prolonged detentions, and other egregious rights violations. This is partly possible because the U.S. Supreme Court has also granted agents the power to stop anyone indiscriminately, even using racial profiling as a factor. These broad powers are codified in Title 8 U.S. Code §1357, also known as ‘powers of immigration officers’, which gives agents the power to detain and interrogate anyone they believe to be in the country unlawfully.

An analysis by the ACLU of Arizona using partial data between 2012 and 2013 showed that hundreds of complaints had been filed against Border Patrol in just two Arizona sectors. These records - which are likely an undercount of the actual volume of complaints - showed almost 150 civil rights complaints and 134 complaints of alleged 4th amendment violations. Recently, interior checkpoints on the northern border were also challenged for detaining hundreds of motorists traveling through New England.

These invasive checkpoints have also been shown to be ineffective and a waste of taxpayer resources. A report released by the federal government itself found that interior checkpoints do little to contribute to the stated mission of apprehensions and seizure of illegal drugs. Instead, a significant portion of arrests were for small amounts of marijuana confiscated from U.S. citizens. Between 2012 and 2016, some 40% of arrests at interior checkpoints were for 1 ounce or less of marijuana. Relatedly, only about 2% of immigration-related apprehensions in the study period could be attributed to interior checkpoints. About 10% of all Border Patrol man-hours are allocated to operating these interior checkpoints. The Cato Institute estimates that agents would have needed to have apprehended more than 100,000 more people in order for the apprehensions to have justified its level of expenditure.

The checkpoints - spread throughout the southwestern border - raise concerns of continued racial profiling and help propagate the Border Patrol’s disregard for civil rights. Hundreds of checkpoints are operated in the 100-mile enforcement zone.

Border agents claim to have extraordinary powers within this zone, but, in fact, constitutional protections should apply to everyone living or visiting within this 100-mile zone. Part of the problem has been statutes passed by Congress that have given border agents broad discretion to interrogate people, enter private property and land without a warrant, and board buses or vehicles in search for undocumented immigrants.

100-mile border enforcement zone



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