How Does Border Militarisation Impact Irregular Migrants?

            Rather than preventing irregular migration, border militarisation policies have proven themselves quite effective in reshaping migration flows away from relatively safe points of crossing towards irregular migration routes that are more remote and dangerous . In the US this meant that, through policies like Operation Blockade in El Paso in 1993, during which CPB’s strategy shifted from apprehending irregular migrants after crossing the border, to preventing them from entering at the urban border in El Paso , and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego in 1996, during which the number of CBP agents doubled along the San Diego-Tijuana border, and the length of fencing and number of underground sensors almost tripled, safe urban border crossings were made impossible  such that irregular migrants were crossing the border in remote areas like the Senora desert in southern Arizona, with traumatizing effects for the irregular migrants forced to take this journey (Massey, 2020; Slack et al., 2016).

            In interviews conducted by Slack et al. (2016), irregular migrants crossing from Mexico described the journey:

Andrés’s food ran out on the third day of a six-day trek through the desert. He rationed his only bottle of water for the remainder of the journey. On the final day, the USBP chased the group, scattering and separating the migrants. Augustin avoided capture but fell and twisted his knee badly during the pursuit. He painfully limped for several hours to reach the pick-up point. Using a cell phone, he called the coyote who instructed him to wait for a vehicle. More than a day passed with no signs of his ride; then the cell phone battery died, cutting him off from the guide. Weak and hopeless, Augustin staggered along the highway for an hour in broad daylight, trying to flag down drivers who might have something to drink. Eventually, a USBP truck stopped, gave him water, and took him into custody. Augustin reflected on how fortunate he had been to be near the highway when the pernicious effects of dehydration set in. (Slack et al., 2016, p. 15)

            Jorge story suggests how easy it has become for migrants to be abandoned in the Arizona-Sonora desert:

The coyote told [the three female migrants] if you don't keep going, you're not going to make it. He gave them drugs to help them keep walking all day. And well, they didn't make it. The coyote left them in the desert. They were abandoned in the desert. (Puebla study, Jorge, June 10, 2011)

            The full excerpts may be found in the Appendix. These excerpts  show the horrific extent to which structural violence is used to deter migrants from crossing the border under US border enforcement policy (Slack et al., 2016). The deploying of structural violence against irregular migrants has also been a tactic used at the EU’s southern border. Relatively safe routes, like the eastern-Mediterranean one from Turkey across the Aegean Sea towards Greece, have been closed through externalisation of border enforcement. Thus,  migrants have been forced to take more dangerous journeys, like the central Mediterranean route across 400 km of open sea (Ferrer-Gallardo & van Houtum, 2014; Pinyol-Jiménez, 2012).

            Next to that Slack et al. (2016) also document the systematic use of violence by CBP agents against irregular migrants:

Table 1
Mistreatment While in US Custody.
Survey Question% Among All Respondents% Among
% Among
Reported physical abuse by Us Authorities 10.3%10.2%10.6%(0.4%)
Reported verbal abuse by US Authorities22.8%21.2%31.2%(10.0%)**
DID NOT receive sufficient food while in US custody 44.5%42.8%52.2%(9.4%)*
Needed medical attention while in US custody123.0%20.9%33.9%(13.0%)***
Needed medical attention AND ask for it266.8%69.8%58.5%(11.3%)+
Needed medical attention AND ask for it, but DID NOT receive it337.3%36.7%39.5%(2.8%)

Note. From Slack et al. (2016).
1 N = 1110           2 N = 263           3 N = 185
Level of statistical significance:
* p < 0.10           ** p < 0.05           *** p < 0.01           + p < 0.001

            This use of violence as a deterrent to “solve” problems is in line with the militarised logic of the CBP’s mission statement, which never mention irregular migration, but instead focuses on the fight against terrorism and drug smuggling (CBP, 2020). This operational goal implicitly constructs irregular migrants as terrorists and justifies the use of violence against them (Slack et al., 2016). While the literature doesn’t mention abuse at the hands of EU border guards specifically, the externalization of EU border enforcement to Libya results in irregular migrants being exposed to “physical and psychological violence, torture, rape, and other ill-treatment including malnutrition, sexual abuse, insufficient sanitation, racial and religious discrimination, and murder” (Pradella & Cillo, 2020, p. 6). Michalowski (2007) uses the term analogous social injury to classify the violence inflicted upon migrants mentioned above to make clear that while most of these policies are technically legal, they still inflict harm against migrants in ways that, in other contexts, if it weren’t agents of powerful states inflicting the violence, it would be considered a crime.

            The initial rationale behind border militarisation as a strategy for migration control has been laid out in 1987 by Todaro and Maruszko. They used neoclassical economics to conceptualise migration as a cost-benefit decision for migrants to maximise lifetime earnings. Todaro and Maruzko (1987) hypothesized that potential migrants would calculate the difference in expected lifetime earnings in their home country and their destination country and subtract from the latter the costs of migration. The goal for policymakers flowing from this model now was to raise the costs of migration to the extent that migrating would be unprofitable (Todaro & Maruszko, 1987). This rationale negates non-economic incentives to migrate, but nevertheless can be regarded as one grounding model underlying the US border enforcement policy. However, Massey et al. (2016) show below that in reality this strategy didn’t produce the intended outcome.

            In 2016 Massey et al. conducted a quantitative analysis investigating the effects of increased funding and militarisation of border enforcement along the Mexico-US border. They found that an increase in funding of border enforcement predicted a significant negative effect on the likelihood of crossing the border at a traditional location, like Tijuana-San Diego or Ciudad Juarez- El Paso. This relationship is shown in Figure 1 in the Appendix. This signifies that border militarisation, deliberately or not, leads to irregular migrants crossing the border in more hostile terrain. This displacement of the irregular migration flow also led to a rising share of migrants relying on paid guides, to the point that almost no crossings happen without the services of a coyote (See Figure 2 in Appendix). This heightened demand also increased the price associated with a crossing almost 6-fold since 1980 (See Figure 3 in Appendix). Moreover, the increase of CPB’s budget also predicts the rising number of observed deaths at the border (see Figure 4), which in turn explains the declining return-migration of irregular migrants visualised in Figure 5, since migrants are reluctant to experience the dangerous crossing again and need to work longer to pay the higher “crossing fees”. Consequently, this fall in irregular migrant outflow, together with no significant negative effect on the  inflow of irregular migrants, meant that border militarisation increased the population of irregular migrants in the US rather than “keeping Latinos out” (Massey, 2020; Massey et al., 2016).

Figure 1
The Percentage of Latino in the United States Under Two Scenarios 1970-2019.
Note.  From Massey (2020).

            However, it has to be noted that the analysis conducted by Massey et al. (2016) focussed on Mexican irregular migrants coming to the US for work, a group that made up only around 20% of the apprehensions in 2020 (Massey, 2020). Since 2010 the share of irregular migrants originating from the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) has risen and since 2018 these migrants make up the bulk of the apprehensions along the border (See Figure 6 in Appendix). These migrants, however, don’t enter the US in order to find work but to seek asylum from the violence in their home countries. This means that increased surveillance along the border is not deterring these families, since upon capture they can present their asylum claims (Massey, 2020). Unfortunately, irregular migration across the Mediterranean Sea lacks similar quantitative studies, but the trends of more enforcement leading to higher costs for migrants and more deadly journeys are likely generalizable.

            Cynically, both the EU and US repeatedly stress the humanitarian character of enhanced border enforcement. CBP, for example, frames border guards apprehending migrants in the desert as “saviours” and justifies the criminalisation of irregular migrants as necessary to deter future migration attempts and subsequent deaths. Strategies that aim at deterring migrants by forcing them through dangerous terrain have also been justified as a humanitarian necessity (Williams, 2016). The EU also framed the externalization of its border enforcement to Turkey as a humanitarian effort, while in reality, it led to more migrants travelling via the more dangerous central Mediterranean route (IRC Deutschland, 2021).