The criminalization of migration, the detainment of undocumented bodies, and the militarization of artificial borders, have become normalized pillars of U.S. immigration enforcement. Guided by deterrence theory, policymakers across the political spectrum continue to pen “bi-partisan” legislation designed to control migration despite the human and moral costs.
In 1994, Bill Clinton implemented a strategy of “control through deterrence” that systematically fortified the U.S.-Mexico border region, thus laying the foundation for future militarization efforts. This aggressive enforcement method ushered in the construction of miles of fencing, increased border patrol personnel and surveillance technology, and funneled migration flows out of border cities and into more hostile and remote terrain.
Military-style operations such as Hold the Line at El Paso, Gatekeeper in San Diego, and Safeguard in Arizona violently transformed the southern border, using mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers, and valleys as “natural barriers to passage.” The impacts were devastating and continue to be so two decades later.
According to data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), over 7,800 people have died attempting to cross the border between 1998 and 2019. Those are just the official statistics. Many more migrants have gone missing, and their remains have yet to be found.
“What doesn’t get talked about is the blood on Democrat and Republican hands,” said Jacqueline Arellano, who directs the Border Angels Water Drop Program alongside James Cordero. “People need to become aware of the history, bipartisanship, and human rights violations that have been occurring at the border and the American apathy behind them.”
In response to the staggering rise of migrant deaths and disappearances in the borderlands, Border Angels volunteers hike into the California desert—leaving food, clothing, and gallons of water along high-traffic migrant paths. It’s not easy. Extreme temperatures ranging from searing heat in the summer to freezing cold in the winter make the journey difficult. But the need to provide supplies is crucial and can be lifesaving in areas where migrants are most at risk of exposure, dehydration, and hypothermia.
The “prevention through deterrence” effort proved ineffective in deterring border crossings. Driven by violence, persecution, and economic and political instability, migrants continued to come.
“When you are somewhere where your likelihood of surviving and thriving are extremely low, nature and the laws of life indicate that you will go somewhere that you’re more likely to survive, regardless of what the obstacles are ahead of you. Man-made laws don’t supersede the laws of humanity,” Arellano said.
Additional measures and post-9/11 legislation surfaced under George W. Bush, who formed the Department of Homeland Security and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, better known as ICE.
Since the creation of DHS in 2003, and despite calls for abolishment from immigration advocates and activists in recent years, ICE’s budget has nearly tripled from $3.3 billion to $8.3 billion. According to data from the American Immigration Council, Border Patrol spending has also grown from $363 million to more than $4 billion annually, with the number of border patrol agents spiking from 4,000 in the 1990s to more than 19,000 in 2019.
The Secure Fence Act, which garnered support from then-senators Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, maintained “operational control” and systematic surveillance of the Southern border, installing nearly 700 miles of barriers with physical infrastructure enhancements. Donald Trump continued this endeavor and built 450 miles of a new border wall system, which cost taxpayers $15 billion.
Bush also accelerated the federal criminal prosecution and incarceration of immigrants through Operation Streamline. The program sought to prevent unauthorized immigration by criminally prosecuting and punishing immigrants apprehended entering the U.S. without inspection—a departure from previous practice, in which most immigration cases were handled exclusively within the civil immigration system.
During his two terms in office, Barack Obama capitalized on the country’s punitive deportation machine, overseeing three million formal removals that earned him the moniker “Deporter-in-Chief.” His administration maintained that enforcement resources concentrated on “felons, not families,” prioritizing deportations of recently arrived migrants and people with criminal records. In 2014, he expanded the use of family detention to deter the influx of women, children, and unaccompanied minors arriving at the border, which later escalated to the forced separation of migrant families under Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy.
“All the institutional barriers posed to immigrants—the inability to create foundations for an entire community, the inability to have economic stability, the inability to have healthcare—are a form of deterrence intended to instill fear in immigrant communities,” said Ana Puente Flores, an immigration writer and scholar-activist from Mexico City.
Policies rooted in xenophobia and intimidation only swelled under Trump, who inherited an already authoritarian immigration enforcement regime constructed by both his Democratic and Republican predecessors.
Since entering office in January 2017, the Trump administration enacted more than 400 executive actions, policy guidance, and regulatory changes on immigration. This kind of institutional deterrence and bureaucratic violence, Flores says, manifests in more insidious ways, systematically eroding immigration rights, particularly that of women and children, through a series of under-the-radar administrative orders.
Trump gained new openings to limit immigration and narrow humanitarian protections further with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. Following the Migrant Protection Protocols, otherwise known as “Remain in Mexico,” he issued a Transit-Country Asylum Ban and invoked a controversial 1944 public-health statute from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that effectively sealed the US-Mexico border and cut off access to asylum. The administration also launched the so-called Asylum Cooperation Agreements, threatening to suspend foreign aid and impose tariffs if Mexico and Central American countries did not bolster their own immigration enforcement operations or receive more migrants.
Institutional xenophobia is nothing new, writes author and scholar Yuri Herrera. It is entrenched in the very psyche of American politics and the core of an immigration enforcement apparatus that resists the free movement of human beings.
“Sometimes people see Trump as an exception, as a mistake, or an anomaly. Except he was the exact opposite. Trump is a cultural and political product and the result of many, many years of really consistent, cynical policies. He’s truly American, as American as Apple pie, as they say,” Herrera said.
Administrations have often framed immigration and justified deterrence as national security matters. Bill Ong Hing, a law and migration studies professor at the University of San Francisco and founder of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, says otherwise.
“What we’re talking about are racist policies that ignore root causes of migration. This is a racial issue, and we’ve got to remind people of that,” he said.
On his first day in office, Joe Biden unveiled what previous administrations have also labeled as “comprehensive immigration reform,” hoping to reverse Trump-era policies and create new pathways to citizenship. Despite executive actions to fully restore the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, initiate migrant family reunification, and begin processing tens of thousands of asylum seekers placed in MPP, Biden has also rolled back on campaign promises, most recently a pledge to halt deportations.
Immigration advocates fear the new administration will maintain the very structures and repressive institutions that exclude refugees, exploit migrant labor, and demonize Black and Brown asylum seekers.
“A lot of harm is done when people aren’t looking. Whenever human rights are stripped, regardless of whether a person is a citizen, it creates a precedent and has a historical way of spreading everywhere,” Arellano said.
This history reveals that it isn’t a matter of whether the U.S. can dismantle the systems and regulations that have led to migrant deaths and detention. But rather, does it want to?