Unless you happen to live along the United States–Mexico border, or have friends or family there, or are called by business or pleasure to travel through the region with regularity, it may have escaped your notice that over the past decade or so, that area of Texas has come to resemble an occupied territory. Since 2001, the ranks of the Border Patrol (which was subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11) have grown by 118 percent, from 9,821 agents to 21,391. In the past eight years a massive steel-and-concrete border fence has cut the land in two. These days, Black Hawk helicopters cruising the skies are not an uncommon sight, and drones and electronic surveillance equipment of various kinds take part in the constant monitoring of activity up and down this frontier. U.S. citizens, both Anglo and Hispanic, complain of being hassled at all hours of the day and night, often on private property, by heavily armed green-clad agents demanding identification.
This is unprecedented—as recently as 1994, the Border Patrol had only four thousand agents—and it is likely to continue. Even after the recent force expansions, last year’s comprehensive immigration reform bill included an amendment calling for a “border surge” that would have again doubled the number of agents on the ground and thrown billions more at fencing and surveillance operations. The legislation passed the Senate before dying in the House, but it’s entirely possible that the effort will be renewed, either this year or after the midterm elections. Regardless, the legislative package is certain to include yet more security measures. Without them, the bitter pill of citizenship for the roughly twelve million undocumented immigrants who are already living in this country is extremely unlikely to ever be swallowed by hard-liners in Congress who consider “total control” of the border a prerequisite for reform.
Security, like money, is generally something we feel that we can’t have enough of. Everyone wants to feel safe, so more border protections are always better, right? Paradoxically, for residents of the borderlands—on both the U.S. and Mexico side—more security has sometimes meant less security.
This month senior editor Nate Blakeslee examines the case of Guillermo Arévalo Pedraza, a 37-year-old bricklayer from Nuevo Laredo who was shot to death by Border Patrol agents in 2012 (“Who Will Watch the Watchers?”). The details of Arévalo’s killing are shocking: He was celebrating his wife’s and daughters’ birthdays with a late-summer cookout at a park on the banks of the Rio Grande; a Border Patrol airboat was sitting in the middle of the river, surveying the scene, when a man jumped into the water from the U.S. side and tried to swim back to Mexico. In the commotion that followed, one of the agents on the boat fired at the picnickers on the Mexican side, killing Arévalo, who died in his 9-year-old daughter’s arms.
Arévalo’s story is well-known in Mexico but has been almost completely ignored in this country. That should change. Few recent cases offer as brutal a display of the human cost of our increasingly militarized border.