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Gabriel Schivone Headshot

An 'Animal Farm' Enters the Annals of US Border Enforcement

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Having boasted of his record number of "boots on the ground" along the US/Mexico border, Obama may now proudly conclude that at no time in our nation's history have there been more hooves on the ground. The federal deployment of horses to the border coinciding with severe disciplinary actions against Border Patrol agents increasingly criticizing untamed border policies spinning wildly out of control is creating a rodeo of dramatic irony that would assail even the imagination of classic satirist George Orwell.

George Orwell's 1945 satirical classic Animal Farm--about a group of farm animals that revolt against their human masters only to face corruption in the new order--has taken on a fresh relevance in 21st century US border security.

Last summer, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced a unique "expansion" with Border Patrol in the federal deployment of prison inmate-trained horses to the already heavily militarized US/Mexico border. The news coincided with reports of Border Patrol firings of agents who simply raised critical questions about policy while on the job.

In 2007, when Border Patrol's rapidly increasing "demand for horses outstripped" a Colorado prison's "ability to supply it," (through an suitably named "WHIP"--Wild Horse Inmate Program) BLM regional specialist Paul McGuire told me in a December 19 interview, new prisons were sought to create a "new supply" of the four-legged, "valuable tools" of border enforcement. Now utilizing multiple prisons across the US, this "ongoing" and "long-term" partnership expects to reach a supply of 150 horses by the end of next year. The horses will continue to be captured on federal land, delivered to prisons where they are WHIP-ed and "green broken" into line by inmates and dispatched to the border for duty.

Horse treatment better than migrants'
Considering what some animal rights advocates label as obvious animal cruelty, with candor the Border Patrol might argue that horses are rightfully treated better than undocumented migrants. For one thing, authorities view horses as "legal" property whose circus-like names ("Silver Bullet," "Tex," "Shorty,") are sometimes chosen by schoolchildren. By contrast migrants are unnamed "illegal" beings captured nationwide, well beyond the borderlands region (where many continually perish each month), and then are put into prisons and "broken" for different purposes.

In its 2009 report, Jailed Without Justice, Amnesty International quotes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)'s Former Executive director of the ICE Office of State and Local Coordination, James Pendergraph, speaking to attendees of the 2008 Police Foundation Conference: "If you don't have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he's illegal, we [ICE] can make him disappear."

This largely invisible incarceration of migrants has become a billion dollar industry, the numbers of detainees having tripled since the Clinton years, along with the expansion of hundreds of contracted private and state prisons (while detention beds skyrocketed from 5000 to 33,000).

How can ICE make an invisible people "disappear"?
The operative ICE verb "disappear" in itself is a rare acknowledgment of migrants (albeit a violent one), whose terminal plight along the border is often like the air we breathe--invisible but everywhere.
Recent (Dec. 2011) national news reports tell that Border Patrol apprehensions of undocumented migrants have "plummeted" to all-time lows, concluding that illegal immigration is "less of a problem now." But literally nowhere is a single word paid the to the stubborn facts of medical experts on the ground in Arizona who--if inquired after--reveal that migrant mortalities in the desert are, in fact, still at record highs since the mass death began.

Beginning under Clinton, every administration has expanded an aggressive "deterrence" strategy of funneling the paths of migrants into "geographically harsher," "more remote and hazardous border regions" where "mortal danger" becomes the latest weapon to "enforce" policy. According to state medical examiners and human rights groups, 14 deaths in the year of the strategy's fateful onset, 1994, jumped to 90 deaths by 2000, to 145 deaths in 2001, to 163 deaths in 2002. And as numbers of deaths kept climbing, the next year came one of those rare moments of frankness that occasionally crop up from retired government officials. Former Tucson Border Patrol sector chief, Ron Sanders, was quoted in The Nation magazine critiquing the new aggressive border policy: "By every measure, the strategy is a failure. All it's accomplished is killing people....If you had airplanes crashing in this country with the same numbers [of deaths], you'd have everybody after the FAA. But since these people [dying] are Mexicans, no one seems to care."

Today, the mortal toll continues, with 180 known deaths in this past fiscal year alone, which ended on Sept. 30. Forty-four more human remains have been recovered this fiscal year as of Jan. 1, 2012, according to the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office.

Yet despite migrant communities being literally under siege in many areas nationwide, and in the killing fields and mass graves of the desert borderlands, migrants themselves have risen to demonstrate they are not un-human and will not be disappeared. An emerging Migrant Justice movement has lately mobilized nationally focused, grassroots campaigns including targeted divestment against Wells Fargo and other corporations involved in the creation of the AZ-brand legislation that imprisons migrants and profits from their suffering.

In this setting, prominent human rights and humanitarian group No More Deaths/No Más Muertes released a report in late September 2011, "Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short-Term U.S. Border Patrol Custody," to demonstrate widespread patterns of systemic abuse, displacement and destruction of families.

Meanwhile, each administration, again beginning with Clinton, doubled the number of Border Patrol agents over each outgoing administration. 4,200 agents in 1994 ballooned to over 21,000 today (not including multiple National Guard troop deployments under Bush and Obama). A few dozen miles of fencing in the mid-1990s stretched to more than 600 miles of walls, fencing and barricades. Beyond the human cost, the financial cost is apparent. The unprecedented massive public expenditure has funded, in a single youth's generation, the largest border militarization and enforcement apparatus in US history. And with little result but a public cost which is offset by private profiteering from widespread detention, abuse, and evermore transparently absurd anti-drug policies, it should be no surprise that Washington's agents are growing increasingly disgruntled.

Agents' dissent swiftly squelched
Naturally, agencies carrying out aggressive border policies expect their agents to "break" themselves, whether voluntarily or by coercion, in order to enforce policy without question.

But some agents, unlike their equine and other human counterparts, refuse to be broken and are dealt with swiftly and severely by the agency. While on the job, agent Bryan Gonzalez sympathized with migrants and opined that decriminalizing drugs would end violence across the border. Gonzalez was summarily fired, notified in writing that he held "personal views that were contrary to the core characteristics of Border Patrol agents, which are patriotism, dedication and esprit de corps." Gonzalez's reaction: "I don't want to work at a place that says I can't think."

Other agents err from the path. Many may recall the case of Marcos Gerardo Manzano Jr., a Border Patrol agent arrested last January for harboring undocumented migrants in his home, among them his twice-deported father. While neighbors sympathized with his actions--"What could he do? He's family," one said--law enforcement officials expressed sharp condemnation. "His loyalty to his father was stronger than the loyalty to the Border Patrol, one official remarked, "and that's the sad reality of it."

We may yet again turn to Animal Farm for comment. A defining line in the book explains why many of the characters directly commit, or are indirectly complicit in, dreadful acts of brutality and violence. The characters' fatal flaw is their acceptance of the policy dogma that "loyalty and obedience are more important" than values such as bravery, strength of character, equal rights, or--in the case of agent Gonzalez--family.

To be sure, some critics may dismiss the above examples as cherry-picked exceptions. Retired Border Patrol veteran John Randolph reflects, however, from 26 years' experience in several agencies including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that the majority of his fellow agents and colleagues were decent people who sought only a secure job in border enforcement. (Only a handful, he says, ran on "power trip stuff with racism mixed in".)

If what Randolph says is correct, then most Border Patrol agents are just a few degrees away from vocal criticism if not outright resistance to, or sabotage of, US policy when it conflicts too intolerably with their own personal moral or familial code.

Returning to Obama's mass horse deployment to the border, more conclusions remain to be drawn. Having boasted of his record number of "boots on the ground" along the border, Obama may now proudly conclude that at no time in our nation's history have there been more hooves on the ground of the borderlands.

In Orwell's novel, the physically strongest character is Boxer, the horse, who proves loyal to power and tractable to policy under any circumstances. Referring to the wildly corrupt policies of the aptly named Animal Farm leader Napolean, Boxer's eventually tragic mottos--which "seemed to him a sufficient answer to all problems"--were "Napolean's always right" and "I will work harder".

A well-broken agent on the farm, Boxer persists in his support of increasingly destructive policies until his ultimately fatal collapse from fanatic overwork.

If federal border policies are "always right" no matter what and the answer must always be to "work harder" to increase the scope and depth of those policies, in spite of inhuman consequences, our system will continue in an uphill race to possible collapse, Boxer-style.

Everyone from agents to the general public faces the choice of how many spurring kicks of "loyalty" they will stand until it conflicts insufferably with their values--not only of family, decency, sympathy--but of simply distinguishing common sense away from the wild and the absurd.