American Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 1996.


Review by Matthew


On April 6, 1996, a truck loaded with
undocumented immigrants from Mexico lost control and careened
off the road while fleeing the United States Border Patrol in
Temecula, California. The crash resulted in the death of
seven men, including three brothers, and the injuring of 18

Unauthorized crossing of the border is a
matter fraught with increasing danger for would-be
immigrants. Apart from vehicular crashes, hundreds die each
year from causes ranging from violent assaults to railway
accidents and dehydration. Upwards of 300 people perish
annually while trying to cross Texas’s southern border alone,
the vast majority from drowning in the Rio Grande, according
to a recently released report from the Center for Immigration
Research at the University of Houston.

Timothy Dunn’s outstanding book, The
Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978-1992, provides
the much-needed analytical framework and extensive
documentation to enable us to begin to understand the growing
difficulties facing unauthorized migrants entering the U.S.
from Mexico. By providing an in-depth description and a
provocative analysis of the intensification of border
enforcement that has taken place since the late 1970s, Dunn’s
book fills a huge gap in the literature on the U.S.-Mexico
boundary. Dunn contends that creeping militarization has been
taking place over almost the last two decades along the U.S.
side of the country’s southern border, resulting in a
deteriorating civil and human rights situation.

According to the author, "border
control" emerged as an important topic in U.S. politics
in the mid-1970s in the context of an economic downturn,
rising numbers of apprehensions of undocumented immigrants,
and an aggressive Immigration and Naturalization Service
(INS) media campaign highlighting the severity of the
"illegal alien problem." Since that time, the
federal government has increasingly employed a variety of
enhanced security measures along the border.

While all such measures do not constitute
militarization, per se, many replicate or resemble specific
aspects of military doctrine. Dunn defines militarization as
measures associated with the specific U.S. military doctrine
of low-intensity conflict (LIC), the essence of which is
"the establishment and maintenance of social control
over targeted civilian populations through the implementation
of a broad range of sophisticated measures via the
coordinated and integrated efforts of police, paramilitary,
and military forces."

LIC doctrine emerged in the 1980s during
the Reagan administration as part of its efforts to maintain
and enhance U.S. global dominance while sustaining little
cost to U.S. forces. Its origins, however, date at least as
far back as the Kennedy administration, Dunn asserts.

Dunn’s explicit concern for civil and human
rights is central to the book. As the employment of LIC and
other forms of militarization in Latin America has
demonstrated, the process of militarization is a slippery
slope that almost inevitably leads to human rights violations
on a systematic and widespread basis. While LIC doctrine is
intended for third world settings, Dunn convincingly argues
that low intensity militarization has "come home"
under the guise of "beefing up" the border.

In the book’s concise, yet comprehensive,
overview of the evolution of the U.S-Mexico boundary, Dunn
illustrates that there is a long history of periodic
militaristic border enforcement, such as the infamous
"Operation Wetback" in 1954. The uniqueness of the
period of militarization examined by the book, however, is
not entirely clear. But Dunn seems to be suggesting that the
current militarization has become institutionalized, rather
than periodic.

The roots of contemporary border
militarization, Dunn maintains, are to be found in the Carter
administration. As early as August 1977, President Carter
proposed a doubling of the size of the Border Patrol. Some
aspects of the Carter program coincided with those of the LIC
doctrine. Uses of equipment ranging from increased
construction of fences to the employment of helicopters and
improved ground sensors, for example, grew noticeably.

The Reagan years saw the INS expand to
unprecedented levels. The administration framed the issue of
undocumented immigration as one of national security
proportions to a far greater extent than had the Carter
presidency. And the media was largely cooperative in
presenting the concomitant alarmist images and messages, thus
helping to galvanize public opinion for "regaining
control of our borders."

The INS increases during the Reagan
administration included high-tech air support such as OH-6
spotter-observation helicopters from the US Army,
night-vision and infrared scopes, and low-light television
surveillance systems. The number and size of Border Patrol
stations and checkpoints and INS detention centers also grew.

The 1986 passage of the Immigration and
Reform and Control Act (IRCA) represented the legislative
culmination of this border buildup. In IRCA’s aftermath, the
Border Patrol took an important strategic turn as it became
increasingly involved with the "War on Drugs" along
the border. But the anti-drug trafficking efforts (a specific
mission area of LIC doctrine) also aided immigration
enforcement activities. (Chapter 4 has an extensive
discussion of the "war" in the borderlands, its
relation to LIC doctrine, and the implications for civil and
human rights.)

The Bush administration continued and
intensified the trends set by the Reagan administration.
Border Patrol funding increased significantly and immigration
enforcement became more severe. In addition, greater emphasis
was placed on drug enforcement, resulting in the purchase and
employment of many more helicopters and additional electronic
surveillance equipment. Growing evidence of civil and human
rights abuses by Border Patrol and other INS agents emerged
during this period.

One of the more infamous cases was the
1989-1990 INS crackdown on Central American political asylum
applicants in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas. According
to Dunn, the operation resulted in the detention, often under
harsh conditions, of thousands of men, women, and children
for months at a time and extensive deportations of asylum
seekers whose claims were denied at "hastily held, often
ill-prepared initial adjudication hearings." The INS
even cooperated with various federal intelligence agencies
during the operation, a potentially very dangerous set of
liaisons given the ties between many of these agencies and
their counterparts in Central America.

The Bush administration also helped to
establish an ongoing relationship between the INS and the
U.S. military. The military and the National Guard, for
example, assisted in a number of border security-related
construction projects, including a seven mile wall of
corrugated steel between San Diego and Tijuana. (There are
now several such walls along the border. And the Clinton
administration has doubled the length of the San Diego wall.)

The Clinton administration, Dunn argues,
has increasingly framed the issue of undocumented immigration
as one of crime to be resolved through progressively more
punitive measures. Along the boundary, immigration
enforcement efforts have escalated sharply, most notably in
the form of the high profile blockade-style Border Patrol
operations in and near urban areas along the border. It was
within this context that the April 6, 1996 tragedy in
Temecula unfolded.

The official story, as reported by the Los
Angeles Times, is that the Border Patrol was trailing the
truck at a safe speed, but not chasing it. The Border Patrol
has had a stated policy of not engaging in high-speed chases
since 1992 when a similar pursuit ended with the death of six
people close to a Temecula school.

But human rights activists report that the
agency frequently violates its own policy. Indeed, survivors
of the April 6 crash report that a Border Patrol unit was
pursuing the truck at very high speed and was so close to the
truck that the fearful migrants inside were trying to wave
the Border Patrol off.

Smugglers of undocumented migrants have
been increasingly utilizing the back roads of eastern San
Diego County in the face of increased Border Patrol presence
in the San Diego area, the home of the agency’s much-touted
"Operation Gatekeeper."

Gatekeeper, begun on October 1, 1994, is a
military-inspired, "territorial denial" strategy
that attempts to prevent migrants from entering the U.S. (as
opposed to the old strategy of apprehending migrants after
they cross) through the forward deployment of Border Patrol
agents, and increased use of surveillance technologies and
support infrastructure.

As a result of increased difficulty in
crossing in relatively urbanized areas where such operations
are employed, potential immigrants and smugglers have felt
compelled to attempt crossings in more isolated areas along
the border (entailing arduous journeys) and/or to employ more
dangerous methods such as trying to drive through Border
Patrol checkpoints.

Some readers might feel disappointed that
Dunn focuses almost exclusively on the material
characteristics of militarization and generally ignores the
ideological and rhetorical aspects (while acknowledging their
importance, though). In addition, Dunn never explicitly puts
forth his own vision of the border, and, until the conclusion
(perhaps the most interesting and provocative section of the
book), does not explore broader explanatory frameworks for
the intensification of border policing in the context of a
rapidly growing, trans-boundary, economically integrated
zone, heavily dependent on low-wage labor.

That said, Dunn’s explicit intent in
writing the book is to sound an alarm, to bring to light a
disturbing, dangerous, and, until now, a largely-ignored
trend along the U.S.-Mexico boundary. In this regard, the
book is quite an accomplishment.

Dunn does not think that the border
militarization has been part of a conscious, calculated
project. Rather, it seems to have arisen in piecemeal
fashion, the cumulative result being a de facto
militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. Recent events
suggest that this trend is intensifying.

National Guard units, for example, now
assist the Border Patrol with logistical matters such as the
transportation of apprehended migrants. And in October, Bill
Clinton signed legislation mandating the construction of 14
mile, triple steel wall between San Diego and Tijuana
(despite objections by the Border Patrol) and a doubling of
the number of Border Patrol agents over the next five years.
Meanwhile, many politicians continue to call for the
deployment of the National Guard and/or the military along
the border to apprehend undocumented crossers.

Timothy Dunn’s ultimate goal is to provoke
much-needed deliberation and further research on border
militarization. For those of us interested in an immigration
policy that is both generous and sensitive to human rights,
we can only hope that The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico
Border, 1978-1992 is widely-read and discussed.

Matthew Jardine is a researcher and
writer on human rights and international affairs. His
latest book, co-authored with Constancio Pinto, is
entitled East Timor’s Unfinished Struggle: Inside the
Timorese Resistance and was just released by South End