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Sand and Blood
America's Stealth War on the Mexico Border
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Over the past three decades, U.S. immigration and border security policies have turned the southern states into conflict zones, spawned a network of immigrant detention centers, and unleashed an army of ICE agents into cities across the country.
As award-winning journalist John Carlos Frey reveals in this groundbreaking book, the war against immigrants has been escalating for decades, fueled by defense contractors and lobbyists seeking profits and politicians–Republicans and Democrats alike–who relied on racist fear-mongering to turn out votes. After 9/11, while Americans’ attention was trained on the Middle East and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the War on Terror was ramping up on our own soil–aimed not at terrorists but at economic migrants, refugees, and families from South and Central America seeking jobs, safety, and freedom in the U.S.
But we are no safer. Instead, families are being ripped apart, undocumented people are living in fear, and thousands of migrants have died in detention or crossing the border.
Taking readers to the Border Patrol outposts, unmarked graves, detention centers, and halls of power, Sand and Blood is a frightening, essential story we must not ignore.
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I was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and my family moved to the United States in 1965 when I was a toddler. Even though I was born in a foreign country, I am a US citizen because my father was. It took me a long time to realize that by this simple twist of fate—the fact that my parent was a citizen—my circumstances were radically different from those of most people born in Mexico, affording me benefits that my counterparts could not access.
In the United States, we lived in a rural part of southern San Diego, California. From my family home, I could see Tijuana just a few hundred yards to the south. The phenomenon of migration was something I witnessed every day. Migrants seeking work in the United States would cross the border and quickly make their way northward, running through our backyard at night on their journey. US Border Patrol agents usually chased them. A Border Patrol helicopter would fly over every night; sometimes, its spotlight would cross my bedroom window, making the whole room as bright as day.
Occasionally the neighborhood kids would play in nearby open fields, trying to run into the helicopter spotlight. When we got close to it, we would stir up dirt, creating a noticeable cloud of dust and making it seem like a migrant group had just run through the area. Sometimes, the helicopter spotlight would linger on the cloud we had created, and we would all hide under bushes, scared but giggling. Eventually, we would get spooked and run to the safety of our homes. We never sensed that we were in any real danger. Looking back, I realize that it was not a great idea to taunt federal law enforcement officials, but at the time, it was normal for us. It’s what we did for fun. Didn’t every kid play migrant on the run? Didn’t every kid grow up this way?
I was never taught to fear the migrants, either. My parents told me that they were mostly poor people coming to California to work on the farms or on construction sites. Sometimes, on my walk to school, I would see migrants lying under cars to stay out of the damp weather. They were usually young men in their twenties and thirties; I rarely saw women or families. Sometimes I would wave or talk to them and continue on my way. At the time, there was no real border fence separating San Diego from Tijuana. Marking the borderline was a remnant of a chain-link fence that had been smashed and destroyed years prior. It was no barrier or deterrent. You could just tell that this was where one country started and the other ended. People would gather along the line and picnic or play soccer and music. It was a kind of no-man’s-land.
Hundreds of migrants would gather along this strange strip of land every night. They would wait for a moment when the helicopter and Border Patrol vehicles were far enough away, and small groups would run together across the border, knowing that guards would not be able to catch them all. As a Border Patrol vehicle approached, the migrants would scatter, hide in the brush, or keep running. If a migrant could avoid the Border Patrol for a few miles, he was usually safe in the United States. This game of cat and mouse wasn’t particularly effective from the perspective of the Border Patrol. I heard at the time that for every two migrants who were caught, more than ten would get across. That seemed about right, because a Border Patrol vehicle could only hold a few, and migrants usually came in large groups—too big for the patrols to manage.
It wasn’t long before the Border Patrol presence touched our lives more directly. One day when I was about twelve, I went for a walk with my mother down by the nearby open fields and farms. It was winter and the rainy season, which always brings a springlike bloom of plants and flowers. My mom loved to see the flowers, and I liked to play in the seasonal stream that was full of tadpoles. As we left the neighborhood and walked near the Tijuana River, I ran ahead of my mother to see what I could find in the water below. I made this trek frequently, sometimes with her and many times alone. It was my favorite place to explore. I could see Mexico in front of me and even hear sounds of traffic and music coming from the nearby city of Tijuana, just several hundred yards away.
My mother was a Mexican woman with dark features and dark skin. She spoke English with a thick Mexican accent. That day, as she walked seemingly alone along the road near the US-Mexico border, moving toward where I was, she caught the attention of a Border Patrol agent who was looking for migrants. Agents would drive up and down our neighborhood streets regularly, always on the lookout for brown faces. This one stopped to question my mother about her immigration status, asking for identification. She told him she lived just up the road and could get her ID from home. The agent didn’t believe her. She told him that her husband was in the house and that he could stop by and ask him. He still did not believe her. She told him she had lived in the United States for twenty years and that I, her son, was playing nearby. Instead of listening to my mother’s pleas, the agent put her in handcuffs and then in the back of his patrol car. He took her to the Imperial Beach Border Patrol station, where she was processed and held in a cell. Within a few hours, she had been deported to Tijuana.
A few minutes after she had been taken away, I came back from the river’s edge to find my mother missing. I called for her and walked up and down the road but found no trace of her. I ran home and told my father. He quickly called the police, and we all waited. We suspected that the Border Patrol had taken her, but since I hadn’t seen anything, we weren’t sure. For more than twenty-four hours, we knew nothing about what had happened to her.
Later the next day, after she had arrived in Tijuana, she contacted us to let us know where she was. We felt relieved that she was safe but also angry that she had been deported because of the color of her skin—she was, after all, a legal US resident. My father left immediately to bring her green card so she could get back home. She never went for that walk again, and she never left the house without carrying her green card and driver’s license.
I never forgot that moment. There were many others that made me question US policy at the border. Before I became an investigative reporter, I noticed how the landscape changed near my childhood home. I saw more agents patrolling my neighborhood. There always seemed to be a helicopter in the air, especially at night. The border fence was rising—haphazardly at first—then walls followed years later. The area grew more militarized by the year.
This was all during the late 1970s. Border security was a part of growing up so close to Mexico, but it was clear that more migrants crossed the border illegally than were caught. The United States needed farmworkers, construction labor, maids, and busboys. The US government put up a thin line of defense that allowed the “cheap” labor in while demonstrating some attempt at stopping the constant flow of migrants. It appeared that border security at the time was just a show for the public. Some migrants were caught, but not enough to hurt the US businesses that relied on the steady stream of labor. The pull into the United States from Mexico was stronger than the defense against it. It wasn’t until the 1980s that security strategy changed—and mostly for political reasons.
What was once a weak show of force and anemic attempt to stop illegal immigration became a more heavy-handed and militaristic approach to catch migrants. A warlike stance began to take shape against a population that was poor and mostly unarmed. Politicians pulled the levers and commanded the troops. Defense contractors escalated the tensions while companies in need of masses of laborers tried to tamp them down. Migrants were caught in the middle.
Every time I returned to visit family in southern San Diego, I noticed more border guards, more border fencing, more helicopters. It was getting serious. “Playing army” with the Border Patrol helicopter would now be a life-and-death exercise. It bothered me that the pristine natural surroundings I had grown up in had been permanently scarred to keep poor people from entering the United States—people who were coming to work. It made little sense to me. It was clear that we needed the cheap labor, and we exploited it—yet we were willing to spend billions to make a show of force against the workers we were employing.
My last fifteen years as a journalist along the border have revealed much pain and more inept and ineffective policy, with few of its intended positive results. Border security has never been stronger—we have never had so many guards and so many walls; we have never spent so many billions of dollars. Yet migrants with little in terms of resources, power, or skill still get across, and businesses in the United States still rely on their labor. The country still has a need for “cheap labor”; men, women, and children from Mexico—and farther south—still need work and safety from dangers in their home countries. The latter issues have not been addressed, so the migration continues—except now, it has a terrible human price. We are witnessing the effects of war and the inhumane policies of deterrence at all costs along the southern border. People are disappearing, and people are dying. Thousands have perished, and it is likely that thousands more will, well into the future.
In these pages, using my experience, reporting, and knowledge, I seek to prove a point. We are using the tactics and the machinery of war against all who dare to cross the US-Mexico border. US military might meets them with all its consequences and lack of compassion or responsibility. In war there are few rules and many casualties. Although the United States has not formally declared war on these targets, the results of our policies at the border sure look a lot like the effects of war, with a mounting death toll and no one held to account. We are not addressing the root causes of migration—and until we do, we will never be able to manage the flow of humanity. We are using a militaristic approach against an enemy that does not exist. As long as the push to fortify the border continues, as seems likely—no politician has yet challenged the assumed need for border security—the human costs will continue to accumulate.
As I write this, I am watching history unfold at the US-Mexico border as I have never seen it before. Trump has taken on the mantle of border security more aggressively and less thoughtfully than any president before him, and it is clear that past administrations have laid an ample number of tools at his feet to allow him to create great chaos and destruction. I noted that I’ve been reporting about the border for the past fifteen years. Politicians’ xenophobic rhetoric used to be somewhat nuanced, but no longer. That we could achieve comprehensive immigration reform or a sober approach to migration and all its complexities now seems impossible.
It’s worse than ever before, and migrants are suffering needlessly. But the groundwork was laid long before Trump. Year after year, the US-Mexico border has become increasingly militarized and with far too little public acknowledgment. The Border Patrol’s policing force keeps growing, and no one is asking if the zeal to seal the border is having a positive or negative effect. Is US border policy effective at keeping migrants in their home countries? Shouldn’t that be the metric by which we measure it? If it is, border policy has failed. Defense contractors have had a field day, descending like vultures picking at the scraps Congress throws them with every new administration. And yet too many of their supposedly innovative approaches have backfired. Migrants have died by the thousands, and still people keep coming. Now we’ve handed this massive infrastructure over to Trump with his promise that he will do more of the same, and the effects, as we’re coming to realize, will be even more devastating.
If you live along the border, where nearly eight million Americans make their homes, you know that it’s different from any other part of the United States. The Spanish language and the Mexican culture are everywhere. It is difficult to differentiate US and Mexican traditions; the two have melded. In places along the US side of the border, it is difficult to even distinguish which side of the border you’re on. It can feel like you’re in Mexico, because the Latino influence is so strong—after all, it was Mexico over 150 years ago. But that’s not all that makes it unique. It can seem like a war zone. Border Patrol agents in trucks, Humvees, jeeps, and helicopters are part of the landscape. You can see arrests of migrants on any given day, even on a busy road. There are checkpoints on every major highway heading north from Mexico, and everyone has to stop at each one. And if you get close to Mexico itself, there are walls, fencing, and barriers already existing along seven hundred miles of the border. In many port towns—such as San Diego, El Paso, Nogales, Laredo, and Brownsville—the wall is a constant backdrop. In some places, the wall is formidable, like in San Diego; in other towns, it simply scars the landscape. The closer you get to the border, the more militarized it becomes. Camera arrays sit atop walls. Customs agents, border agents, and ICE agents are everywhere—all to stop migrants.
The effects of militarization do not end at the border. The creation of ICE has stretched the immigration police presence into all areas of the interior of the United States. ICE conducts raids in workplaces and outside of courthouses, dressed undercover and driving unmarked vehicles. It is a clandestine police force looking for immigrants who may have committed crimes or overstayed their visas. The hunt for immigrants is now everywhere. In the past fifteen years, prisons have sprung up in every state to house all the immigrants that need to be processed—it has become a big business. The United States has become the largest jailer of immigrants in the world, most of whom have committed no criminal offenses other than possible immigration violations—and most of whom are housed in private, for-profit detention facilities.
US policy at the border also seems to have bypassed the Constitution. It is a zone where inspections can happen to anyone without probable cause and use of force can go unchecked without repercussion. Immigrants both legal and undocumented have been stripped of civil liberties, and the violations continue—to the point of the removal of children from their parents or even death.
The war against migrants costs in the tens of billions of dollars annually. This is a rough estimate including the annual budgets for ICE, customs agents, and Border Patrol as well as infrastructure projects, but it does not take into account the cost of lost family income due to deportation or the cost of thousands of lives lost. The taxpayer cost is high. Most of the dollars are spent on border security, with no real metric to determine its efficacy.
In the rush to increase border security, the United States seems to have ignored the fact that most migrants are desperate and will try anything to save themselves and their families. We have yet to apply reason or measure to this reality of migration. If you create a scenario where people may die in the attempt to cross into the United States, if they have run out of all other options, they will attempt it anyway. If you build a wall, they will scale it or tunnel under it or cut a hole through it. If you incarcerate people, their families will come anyway. If you separate a mother from her child, she will come anyway. Weapons, walls, and more border guards do not put food on the table for a Central American family who, facing drought and famine or gang violence in its own country, has decided to risk its members’ lives to cross the border.
For more than thirty years, the United States has engaged in a militaristic approach to solve the complex issues of migration, and it hasn’t worked. My hope is that this book can shed light on the mistreatment of immigrants and the injustice perpetrated by US policy so that we may find a path forward that does justice to the immigrant spirit of America.
Seeds of War
Since its inception in 1924, the U.S. Border Patrol has had a proud history of service to our nation. Although enormous changes have affected nearly every aspect of its operations from its earliest days, the basic values that helped shape the Patrol in the early years; professionalism, honor, integrity, respect for human life, and a shared effort, have remained.
—From the official website of the US Department of Homeland Security
Anti-immigrant sentiments in the United States can be traced back to even before the founding of the country. Benjamin Franklin said in 1753 of a German immigrant wave, “Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation… they come in droves. They will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”1 Current leaders could have spoken those words today, and they underscore the scapegoating of immigrants as part of US history. Strong rhetoric vilifying immigrants is harmful, and today there appears to be an all-out war against them. The United States has engaged in policy and procedure that involves military-style tactics to deter migration and has amassed a casualty list of injured and deceased that numbers in the tens of thousands.
The war on migrants entering the United States has deep roots, stemming from policies that date back to the 1880s. Since then, each administration and congress has built upon the last to expand this war, but in just the last few decades, it has accelerated at an unprecedented pace. Politicians using fear to win votes have made the threat of invasion from immigrants sound real, even if it is unfounded, and defense contractors looking for new places to sell their equipment have used it as well.
The Border Patrol wasn’t formally established until 1924, but there were federal government patrols of the American Southwest border as early as 1904.2 According to the official history of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the US military patrolled the border then, looking for and apprehending mostly Chinese immigrants. Chinese immigrant laborers had worked in California’s gold rush by the thousands, but when these immigrants began to settle in neighborhoods and create their own communities, especially in California, racial divides began to appear. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited Chinese laborers from emigrating to the United States, passed in response to the wave of Chinese immigrants arriving to work. One of the border guards’ first tasks was to make sure that such immigrants were not sneaking across the US-Mexico border.
Even before the formation of the US Border Patrol, military tactics had kept immigrants from entering the country as early as 1904. Although only a handful of horseback-riding inspectors from the office of US Immigration Service, referred to as Mounted Guards, did most of the sparse patrolling of the US-Mexico border—never totaling more than seventy-five men—military troops performed intermittent border patrolling between El Paso and California3 when needed. Military personnel also trained federal agents in military-style tactics in the early days. Although military personnel could not arrest immigrants, they directed them to immigration inspection stations, where they would be processed and deported. Most migrants, unless caught in the commission of a crime, would just be sent back across the border to Mexico directly after being apprehended.
Immigration laws were already restrictive prior to the formation of the Border Patrol, and a nationalistic streak ran through much of the legislation. Not only were Chinese immigrants restricted from coming to the United States, but by the time the first Border Patrol agent was formally installed, US law had restricted immigration to all “Asians, illiterates, prostitutes, criminals, contract laborers, unaccompanied children, idiots, epileptics, the insane, the diseased and defective, alcoholics, beggars, polygamists, anarchists,” and more.4 Nationalists lobbied to add more nationalities to the list of restricted sources of immigration, including Mexican, but agricultural lobbyists in Texas and California fought to keep restrictions off the necessary labor pool that they relied on.
In the early 1900s, no one considered the border a lawless or dangerous place. There was illegal immigration; an underground smuggling trade for Asian workers had been established, along with the importation of some forbidden vices such as booze and prostitutes. As early as the formation of the Border Patrol, the undesirable and restricted immigrants were commonly referred to as “the enemy.”5
Mexican migrants crossed the border regularly, if not daily, for work on the farms in the booming agricultural regions of California, Texas, and Arizona. Many lived in border towns and worked in the United States, returning to their homes in Mexico each night. Others sought employment on railroad construction jobs. Most Mexican migrants who wanted to work in the United States could do so without facing any legal hurdles. But that would soon change.
There were fears among white lawmakers in Washington, DC, that Mexican culture and deep poverty would take hold in America, degrading its fabric and culture. In 1924, Congressman John C. Box of Texas expressed the sentiments of other politicians who believed in immigration restriction: “The continuance of a desirable character of citizenship is the fundamental purpose of our immigration laws. Incidental to this are the avoidance of social and racial problems, the upholding of American standards of wages and living and the maintenance of order. All of these purposes will be violated by increasing the Mexican population of the country.”6 The pressure to keep immigrants out has, from its earliest days, been linked to racist sentiments.
Border security intensified in the 1920s, first in the wake of the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol. The amendment emphasized the protection of the southern and northern borders as well as seaports. Prohibition brought the need for border security to the forefront of lawmakers’ actions. Illegal immigration was not as strong a concern as contraband, but nevertheless, the porous borders were seen as a weakness to American integrity. The amendment was ratified in 1919, and several years later, Congress passed the Labor Appropriations Act of 1924, establishing the US Border Patrol.
Also in 1924, Congress passed the Immigration Act, which limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota.7 The quota provided immigration visas to 2 percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants (except Japanese Filipinos) from Asia, which was known as an “Asiatic Barred Zone,” because they were not eligible for citizenship. Any nationality ineligible for US citizenship was banned from access to the United States, according to the bill.
The bill was primarily designed to maintain America’s homogeneity and not tilt it toward an increase in ethnic diversity with citizens from any particular country. Immigration from the Western Hemisphere was not restricted, and the xenophobic undertones of the debates before the bill’s passage became part of the legislation. US Representative Albert Johnson of Washington (chairman of the House Immigration Committee) and author of the bill said during a debate, “It has become necessary that the United States cease to become an asylum.”8
Initially, the newly established US Border Patrol was charged with patrolling between ports of entry to enforce the immigration policies. By 1925, it could also monitor the coast. The act expanded the Border Patrol to 450 officers from a fluctuating group of about 75 part-time officers. The government initially provided each agent a badge and revolver. Recruits furnished their own horses and saddles, but Washington supplied oats and hay for the horses and a $1,680 annual salary for each agent, with an annual budget of $1 million for the patrol.9 The agents did not have uniforms until 1928. The majority of the newly formed border security force went to the Canadian border to stop booze smuggling there, but it also scrutinized Mexicans and “threats” from the southern border. The first Border Patrol stations were established in Detroit, Michigan, and El Paso, Texas, both in 1924. By 1930, the Border Patrol force had nearly doubled.10
The formation of the Border Patrol was a result of restricting immigrants from non–Latin American countries, but there was still a punitive and racist attitude toward Mexicans at the southern border. There was little immigration from Mexican nationals at this time. Most of the processing at ports of entry was for work visas so people could easily go back and forth between the two countries. In many border towns, Mexicans could pay an annual fee to obtain a work and commerce visa and move legally across the border either way. But when a typhus scare hit the United States in 1916, the inspection process to get into the country from Mexico became downright inhumane.
It was known that fleas and lice carried the disease of typhus, and Mexicans at the inspection station and the port of entry in El Paso were deemed responsible for the outbreak. Even though the Public Health Service officer in the region admitted that there was little danger of typhus being spread by Mexicans, the then mayor of El Paso, Thomas Calloway Lea Jr., was convinced otherwise. He pleaded with Congress to build quarantine stations at the port of El Paso and Juarez to disinfect the “dirty lousey destitute Mexicans.”11
Congress agreed, and a delousing or quarantine station was installed at the port of entry between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. The idea quickly spread to other ports of entry along the border. All Mexicans were subject to delousing procedures as a requirement to enter the United States, and it became part of the routine inspection process to cross the border. Even those who worked in the United States on a daily basis would have to go through the process every time they entered.
The process of delousing, then, was a daily ritual that served more to debase the border crossers than it did to prevent typhus. The fact that all individuals, male and female alike—including children—had to strip naked and be fumigated caused tensions to rise and sparked one of the first protests against US border control policies in history.
A 1917 account by C. C. Pierce, the senior surgeon for the US Public Health Service at the time, best describes the process for Mexicans entering the United States:
- "[A] searing eyewitness report"—Foreign Affairs
- "A must-read book for any American citizen interested in breaking down immigration rhetoric on both sides of the aisle...It is imperative that we come to understand the factors that drive people to cross the border...Frey's work is a crucial step in that direction."—AmeriQuests
- On Sale
- Jun 25, 2019
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Bold Type Books