By Madeline Nichols and Savannah Sherman

On October 7th, The Reiff Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, in conjunction with the United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula, will be featuring the full-length documentary, Undeterred, the story of life on the U.S.-Mexico Border in Southern Arizona at 6:30 PM, in the Freeman Center’s Gaines Theater. The film will be followed by a Q&A session featuring several humanitarian aid volunteers, including the film’s Associate Producer.

This blog post is the second of a three-part series that traces migrants’ motivations for crossing the border, the history of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border since the 1990s, the weaponization of the desert that has led to the deaths of over 5,000 migrants, and the criminalization of humanitarian work along the border.


Following 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security created the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) along with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – two organizations that work jointly to enforce immigration policy. Recently, their efforts have focused on the U.S.-Mexico border.  A key element of CBP is its Border Patrol. The U.S. Border Patrol has been around ever since its inception in 1924. However, it became part of CBP once DHS was established in 2002.

The 1980s and 1990s marked the initial stages of Border Patrol’s militarization trend. During this time, there was an increase in manpower and modern technology (i.e. infrared night-vision scopes). A notable government initiative, Border Patrol Strategic Plan: 1994 and Beyondset forth that Border Patrol, “will improve control of the border by implementing a strategy of ‘prevention through deterrence.’” The mission that was set forth, such as heavy patrolling and construction of barriers on heavy-traffic areas on the southern border, is still prevalent among today’s Border Patrol practices and operations. 

Since October of 2018, 811,016 immigrants were apprehended by the CBP Southwest Border Patrol. Many of these people are fleeing violence and persecution in Central and South American countries. With this influx of immigrants, the current administration has responded by sending military troops and personnel to the border. Currently, there are approximately 6,600 troops on the US-Mexico border.

U.S. Military at the Border 

Despite the increasing presence of the U.S. military along the U.S.-Mexico border, this phenomenon is not new. In June 2006, former President George W. Bush launched Operation Jump Start, a U.S. military operation that deployed 6,000 National Guard troops in order to assist and support CBP Border Patrol’s efforts. Four years later in 2010, former President Barack Obama announced Operation Phalanx. This initially ordered the deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops, however, this number was scaled back in 2012 because the focus shifted from boots on the ground to aerial surveillance.

Use of Drones 

The focus on aerial surveillance has become a key asset for CBP operations. In September of 2017, CBP announced that Border Patrol would begin testing Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) in 3 Border Patrol zones – two of which were at the southern border. The purpose of the sUAS is primarily to provide better and greater reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance, tracking, and acquisition capabilities. There have also been instances of military drones being utilized at the border as well. Throughout 2018, the U.S. Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle has been called to the southern border to help with security missions.

Military Culture

The prevailing militarization of the border and CBP as a whole is not only prompted by political forces. There are also organizational beliefs and attitudes in CBP that may have a role in these recent developments. CBP heavily recruits and hires military veterans. For example, roughly a third of CBP’s staff have served in the military. As a result, the organization prides itself on its “military community culture.” Of the ICE workforce, one-third of those are veterans. They too emphasize the importance and demand of military veterans. 

“Men in Green”

There is also a visual element when it comes to the militarization at the southern border, particularly with CBP Border Patrol Agents. At first glance, the “men in green,” as they are often referred to, look alert and ready as if they are about to face combat. The weapon and gear Border Patrol agents possess are typically designed and created for U.S. service members. Agents are equipped with armored vehicles, riot gear, helicopters, M4 rifles with silencers, and noise-canceling tactical headsets, all of which are synonymous with what has been seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

In 2014, CBP received nearly $40 million in tactical gear from the Department of Defense. There has been a surplus of military equipment ever since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, many of these extras have been utilized by law enforcement agencies, including CBP. There are various images of CBP agents wearing Operational Camouflage Pattern uniforms. These uniforms were originally designed for the U.S. Army and have been worn by Green Berets, however, some Navy SEALs are also known for wearing them as well. 

Effects on Immigration Patterns

As of August of this year, 657,404 people were arrested for attempting to cross the border without adequate documentation. And of these arrests, more family units were arrested than single adults. This change in immigration patterns reflects the sense of urgency and danger these families are facing. Rather than facing the danger in their countries of origin, families are choosing to flee to the U.S. However, instead of attempting to cross the border via ports of entry, the intimidation caused by the militarization of the border deters migrants from taking an official route or port of entry. Its roots can be traced back to the Clinton administration, which established the strategy of Prevention Through Deterrence. This forced migrant routes to shift to desert areas due to the fear of being caught in the common and more urban routes.

The avoidance of official ports of entry leads people to funnel through dangerous desert terrain. But facing the menacing heat, dehydration and starvation is only part of the problem. Kidnapping and rape, as well as death, are common risks migrants face. 

Part III of the series will highlight the efforts of humanitarian aid workers who work around the border, especially in the desert, as well as increasing criminalization of such humanitarian work.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post solely reflect the authors’ opinions and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University.