The Great Mexican Wall Deception

By Todd Miller | ( | – –

At the federal courthouse, Ignacio Sarabia asks the magistrate judge, Jacqueline Rateau, if he can explain why he crossed the international boundary between the two countries without authorization. He has already pleaded guilty to the federal misdemeanor commonly known as “illegal entry” and is about to receive a prison sentence. On either side of him are eight men in the same predicament, all still sunburned, all in the same ripped, soiled clothes they were wearing when arrested in the Arizona desert by agents of the U.S. Border Patrol.

Once again, the zero tolerance border enforcement program known as Operation Streamline has unfolded just as it always does here in Tucson, Arizona. Close to 60 people have already approached the judge in groups of seven or eight, their heads bowed submissively, their bodies weighed down by shackles and chains around wrists, waists, and ankles. The judge has handed out the requisite prison sentences in quick succession — 180 days, 60 days, 90 days, 30 days.

On and on it goes, day-in, day-out. Like so many meals served in fast-food restaurants, 750,000 prison sentences of this sort have been handed down since Operation Streamline was launched in 2005. This mass prosecution of undocumented border crossers has become so much the norm that one report concluded it is now a “driving force in mass incarceration” in the United States. Yet it is but a single program among many overseen by the massive U.S. border enforcement and incarceration regime that has developed during the last two decades, particularly in the post-9/11 era.

Sarabia takes a half-step forward. “My infant is four months old,” he tells the judge in Spanish. The baby was, he assures her, born with a heart condition and is a U.S. citizen. They have no option but to operate. This is the reason, he says, that “I’m here before you.” He pauses.

“I want to be with my child, who is in the United States.”

It’s clear that Sarabia would like to gesture emphatically as he speaks, but that’s difficult, thanks to the shackles that constrain him. Rateau fills her coffee cup as she waits for his comments to be translated into English.

Earlier in April 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, still in the heat of his primary campaign, stated once again that he would build a massive concrete border wall towering 30 (or, depending on the moment, 55) feet high along the 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexican border. He would, he insisted, force Mexico to pay for the $8 billion to $10 billion barrier. Repeatedly throwing such red meat into the gaping jaws of nativism, he has over these last months also announced that he would create a major “deportation force,” repeatedly sworn that he would ban Muslims from entering the country (a position that he regularly revises), and most recently, that he would institute an “extreme vetting” process for foreign nationals arriving in the United States.

In June 2015, when he rode a Trump Tower escalator into the presidential campaign, among his initial promises was the building of a “great” and “beautiful” wall on the border. (“And no one builds walls better than me, believe me. I will do it very inexpensively. I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”)  As he pulled that promise out of a hat with a magician’s flair, the actual history of the border disappeared. From then on in Election 2016, there was just empty desert and Donald Trump.

Suddenly, there hadn’t been a bipartisan government effort over the last quarter-century to put in place an unprecedented array of walls, detection systems, and guards for that southern border. In those years, the number of Border Patrol agents had, in fact, quintupled from 4,000 to more than 21,000, while Customs and Border Protection became the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country with more than 60,000 agents. The annual budget for border and immigration enforcement went from $1.5 to $19.5 billion, a more than 12-fold increase. By 2016, federal government funding of border and immigration enforcement added up to $5 billion more than that for all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.

Operation Streamline, a cornerstone program in the “Consequence Delivery System,” part of a broader Border Patrol deterrence strategy for stopping undocumented immigration, is just one part of a vast enforcement-incarceration-deportation machine. The program is as no-nonsense as its name suggests. It’s not The Wall, but it embodies the logic of the wall: either you crossed “illegally” or you didn’t. It doesn’t matter why, or whether you lost your job, or if you’ve had to skip meals to feed your kids. It doesn’t matter if your house was flooded or the drought dried up your fields. It doesn’t matter if you’re running for your life from drug cartel gunmen or the very army and police forces that are supposed to protect you.

This system was what Ignacio Sarabia faced a few months ago in a Tucson court.  His tragedy is one that plays out so many times daily a mere seven blocks from where I live.

Before I tell you how the judge responded to his plea, it’s important to understand Sarabia’s journey, and that of so many thousands like him who end up in this federal courthouse day after day. As he pleads to be with his newborn son, his voice cracking with emotion, his story catches the already Trumpian-style of border enforcement — both the pain and suffering it has caused, and the strategy and massive build-up behind it — in ways that the campaign rhetoric of both parties and the reporting on it doesn’t. As reporters chase their tails attempting to explain Trump’s wild and often unfounded claims and declarations, the on-the-ground border reality goes unreported. Indeed, one of the greatest “secrets” of the 2016 election campaign (though it should be common knowledge) is that the border wall already exists.  It has for years and the fingerprints all over it aren’t Donald Trump’s but the Clintons’, both Bill’s and Hillary’s.

The Wall That Already Exists

Twenty-one years before Trump’s wall-building promise (and seven years before the 9/11 attacks), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to replace the chain link fence that separated Nogales, Sonora, in Mexico from Nogales, Arizona, in the United States with a wall built of rusty landing mats from the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars. Although there had been various half-hearted attempts at building border walls throughout the twentieth century, this was the first true effort to build a barrier of what might now be called Trumpian magnitude.

That rusty, towering wall snaked through the hills and canyons of northern Sonora and southern Arizona forever deranging a world that, given cross-border familial and community ties, then considered itself one. At the time, who could have known that the strategy the first wall embodied would still be the model for today’s massive system of exclusion.

In 1994, the threat wasn’t “terrorism.” In part, the call for more hardened, militarized borders came in response, among other things, to a never-ending drug war.  It also came from U.S. officials who anticipated the displacement of millions of Mexicans after the implementation of the new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which, ironically, was aimed at eliminating barriers to trade and investment across North America.

And the expectations of those officials proved well justified. The ensuing upheavals in Mexico, as analyst Marco Antonio Velázquez Navarrete explained to me, were like the aftermath of a war or natural disaster. Small farmers couldn’t compete against highly subsidized U.S. agribusiness giants like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. Mexican small business owners were bankrupted by the likes of Walmart, Sam’s Club, and other corporate powers. Mining by foreign companies extended across vast swaths of Mexico, causing territorial conflicts and poisoning the land. The unprecedented and desperate migration that followed came up against what might be considered the other side of the Clinton doctrine of open trade: walls, increased border agents, increased patrolling, and new surveillance technologies meant to cut off traditional crossing spots in urban areas like El Paso, San Diego, Brownsville, and Nogales.

“This administration has taken a strong stand to stiffen the protection of our borders,” President Bill Clinton said in 1996. “We are increasing border controls by fifty percent.”

Over the next 20 years, that border apparatus would expand exponentially in terms of personnel, resources, and geographic reach, but the central strategy of the 1990s (labeled “Prevention Through Deterrence”) remained the same. The ever-increasing border policing and militarization funneled desperate migrants into remote locations like the Arizona desert where temperatures can soar to 120 degrees in the summer heat.

The first U.S. border strategy memorandum in 1994 predicted the tragic future we now have. “Illegal entrants crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger,” it stated.

Twenty years later, more than 6,000 remains have been found in the desert borderlands of the United States. Hundreds of families continue to search for disappeared loved ones. The Colibri Center for Human Rights has records for more than 2,500 missing people last seen crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. In other words, that border has become a graveyard of bones and sadness.

Despite all the attention given to the wall and the border this election season, neither the Trump nor Clinton campaigns have mentioned “Prevention Through Deterrence,” nor the subsequent border deaths. Not once. The same goes for the establishment media that can’t stop talking about Trump’s wall. There has been little or no mention of what border groups have long called a “humanitarian crisis” of deaths that have increased five-fold over the last decade, thanks, in part, to a wall that already exists. (If the people dying were Canadians or Europeans, attention would, of course, be paid.)

Although wall construction began during Bill Clinton’s administration, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) built most of the approximately 700 miles of fencing after the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was passed. At the time, Senator Hillary Clinton voted in favor of that Republican-introduced bill, along with 26 other Democrats. “I voted numerous times when I was a senator to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in,” she commented at one 2015 campaign event, “and I do think you have to control your borders.”

The 2006 wall-building project was expected to be so environmentally destructive that homeland security chief Michael Chertoff waived 37 environmental and cultural laws in the name of national security.  In this way, he allowed Border Patrol bulldozers to desecrate protected wilderness and sacred land.

“Imagine a bulldozer parking in your family graveyard, turning up bones,” Chairman Ned Norris, Jr., of the Tohono O’odham Nation (a Native American tribe whose original land was cut in half by the U.S. border) told Congress in 2008. “This is our reality.”

With a price tag of, on average, $4 million a mile, these border walls, barriers, and fences have proven to be one of the costliest border infrastructure projects undertaken by the United States. For private border contractors, on the other hand, it’s the gift that just keeps on giving. In 2011, for example, the DHS granted Kellogg, Brown, and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, one of our “warrior corporations,” a $24.4 million upkeep contract.

In Tucson in early August, Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence looked out over a sea of red “Make America Great Again” caps and t-shirts and said, “We will secure our border. Donald Trump will build that wall.”  He would be met with roaring applause, even though his statement made no sense at all.

Should Trump actually win, how could he build something that already exists? Indeed, for all practical purposes, the “Great Wall” that Trump talks about may, by January 2017, be as antiquated as the Great Wall of China given the new high-tech surveillance methods now coming on the market.  These are being developed in a major way and on a regular basis by a booming border techno-surveillance industry.

The twenty-first-century border is no longer just about walls; it’s about biometrics and drones. It’s about a “layered approach to national security,” given that, as former Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher has put it, “the international boundary is no longer the first or last line of defense, but one of many.”  Hillary Clinton’s promise of “comprehensive immigration reform” — to be introduced within 100 days of her entering the Oval Office — is a much more reliable guide than Trump’s wall to our grim immigration future. If her bill follows the pattern of previous ones, as it surely will, an increasingly weaponized, privatized, high-tech, layered border regime, increasingly dangerous to future Ignacio Sarabias, will continue to be a priority of the federal government.

On the surface, there are important differences between Clinton’s and Trump’s immigration platforms. Trump’s wildly xenophobic comments and declarations are well known, and Clinton claims that she will, among other things, fight for family unity for those forcibly separated by deportation and enact “humane” immigration enforcement.  Yet deep down, the policies of the two candidates are far more similar than they might at first appear.

Navigating Donald Trump’s Borderlands Now

That April day, only one bit of information about Ignacio Sarabia’s border crossing to reunite with his wife and newborn child was available at the Tucson federal courthouse. He had entered the United States “near Nogales.”  Most likely, he circumvented the wall first started during the Clinton administration, like most immigrants do, by making his way through the potentially treacherous canyons that surround that border town.

If his experience was typical, he probably didn’t have enough water or food, and suffered some physical woe like large, painful blisters on his feet. Certainly, he wasn’t atypical in trying to reunite with loved ones. After all, more than 2.5 million people have been expelled from the country by the Obama administration, an average annual deportation rate of close to 400,000 people.  This was, by the way, only possible thanks to laws signed by Bill Clinton in 1996 and meant to burnish his legacy.  They vastly expanded the government’s deportation powers.  

In 2013 alone, Immigration and Customs Enforcement carried out 72,000 deportations of parents who said that their children were U.S.-born. And many of them are likely to try to cross that dangerous southern border again to reunite with their families.

The enforcement landscape Sarabia faced has changed drastically since that first wall was built in 1994. The post-9/11 border is now both a war zone and a showcase for corporate surveillance.  It represents, according to Border Patrol agent Felix Chavez,  an “unprecedented deployment of resources,” any of which could have led to Sarabia’s capture. It could have been one of the hundreds of remote video or mobile surveillance systems, or one of the more than 12,000 implanted motion sensors that set off alarms in hidden operational control rooms where agents stare into large monitors.

It could have been the spy towers made by the Israeli company Elbit Systems that spotted him, or Predator B drones built by General Atomics, or VADER radar systems manufactured by the defense giant Northrup Grumman that, like so many similar technologies, have been transported from the battlefields of Afghanistan or Iraq to the U.S. border.

If the comprehensive immigration reform that Hillary Clinton pledges to introduce as president is based on the already existing bipartisan Senate package, as has been indicated, then this corporate-enforcement landscape will be significantly bolstered and reinforced. There will be 19,000 more Border Patrol agents in roving patrols throughout “border enforcement jurisdictions” that extend up to 100 miles inland. More F-150 trucks and all-terrain vehicles will rumble through and, at times, tear up the desert. There will be more Blackhawk helicopters, flying low, their propellers dusting groups of scattering migrants, many of them already lost in the vast, parched desert.

If such a package passes the next Congress, up to $46 billion could be slated to go into more of all of this, including funding for hundreds of miles of new walls. Corporate vendors are salivating at the thought of such a future and in a visible state of elation at homeland security tradeshows across the globe.

The 2013 bill that passed in the Senate but failed in the House of Representatives also included a process of legalization for the millions of undocumented people living in the United States. It maintained programs that will grant legal residence for children who came to the United States at a young age and their parents. Odds are that a comprehensive reform bill in a Clinton presidency would be similar.

Included in that bill was, of course, funding to bolster Operation Streamline. The Evo A. DeConcini Federal Courthouse in Tucson would then have the capacity to prosecute triple the number of people it deals with at present.

After taking a sip from her coffee and listening to the translation of Ignacio Sarabia’s comments, the magistrate judge looks at him and says she’s sorry for his predicament.

Personally, I’m mesmerized by his story as I sit on a wooden bench at the back of the court. I have a child the same age as his son. I can’t imagine his predicament.  Not once while he talks does it leave my mind that my child might even have the same birthday as his.

The judge then looks directly at Sarabia and tells him that he can’t just come here “illegally,” that he has to find a “legal way” (highly unlikely, given the criminal conviction that will now be on his record).  “Your son,” she says, “when he gets better, and his mother, can visit you where you are in Mexico.”

“Otherwise,” she adds, he’ll be “visiting you in prison” — not exactly, she points out, an appealing scenario: seeing your father in a prison where he will be “locked away for a very long time.”

She then sentences the nine men standing side by side in front of her for periods ranging from 60 days to 180 days for the crime of crossing an international border without proper documents. Sarabia receives a 60-day sentence.

Next, armed guards from G4S — the private contractor that once employed Omar Mateen (the Pulse nightclub killer) and has a lucrative quarter-billion-dollar border contract with Customs and Border Protection — will transport each of the shackled prisoners to a Corrections Corporation of America private prison in Florence, Arizona. It is there that Sarabia will think about his child’s endangered heart from behind layers of coiled razor wire, while the corporation that runs the prison makes $124 per day for incarcerating him.

Indeed, Donald Trump’s United States doesn’t await his presidency. It’s already laid out before us, and one place it’s happening every single day is in Tucson, only seven blocks from my house.

Todd Miller, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security. He has written on border and immigration issues for the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, and the NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog Border Wars. You can follow him on twitter @memomiller and view more of his work at 

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Todd Miller


13 Responses

  1. What an excellent, well thought out and informative article. What a pity that, popular though this website may be. this information is hidden from the American people at large and those that need to know this don’t. Perhaps the only way to reach the masses is to dumb the whole thing down: “10 reasons why Trumps border already exists and is a humanitarian abomination – number seven is shocking!”

  2. Yes, most of the people crossing the border illegally have compelling stories that tug at the heart-strings. But the truth is, most people CAN and do enter the country legally – thousands enter the country legally every day with the appropriate visas. And when someone is caught crossing the border illegally for the first time, they’re not sent before the judge. They’re put on a bus and sent back to their country of origin – it doesn’t even count as a deportation. It’s only after repeated disregard for proper entry procedure that they wind up before a judge facing jail time – or if they have a criminal record. While most people who come into the country illegally are good, hard working people, the truth is, not all are. There are people who enter with bad intentions, drug smugglers, criminals, potential terrorists and people who the US should make every effort to keep out. Every country in the world, including Mexico, monitors who enters their country and attempts to keep out those who might do harm. Mexico itself is very tough on people who cross their borders illegally from the south. Assuming that everyone who crosses the border illegally is good and harmless is just silly. Maybe a fence isn’t the answer, but painting all border crossers as good, well intentioned people doesn’t help either. Most people can enter the country legally, but for whatever reason, they simply chose not to.

  3. America is a mean country. Not just to the original inhabitants, most of whom were decimated, but to poor whites and every peron of color. That meanness is clearly told in the book by Nick Turse, ‘Kill Everything that Moves’.

  4. The purpose of Trump’s rhetoric was never really to make illegal aliens go away. This is all about the creeping fact that Whites are losing their majority in America, which drives all the other perceived affronts in the eyes of racists. The purpose was to pursue the process of delegitimizing the rights of all immigrants, and then the rights of those citizens perceived as not being “real” Americans.

    Now, the purpose for that might be preparatory to ethnic cleansing. But our history suggests that racists have no problem with non-Whites within their borders as long as the latter clearly have lesser rights, much lesser, as in the rights of caged animals. The trick is restoring the legal recognition that White people are categorically on top over all other citizens, stretching precedents under Common Law from a single victory like Voter ID, or a religious right to discriminate, or profile searches, or a right to kill based on “reasonable fear.” Such efforts exist in dark corners of the far-right fringe… but they are no longer the fringe under Trump, are they?

  5. Generally, before World War I, visas and passports were NOT required for entry to most Western European nations. In the U.S., there was no federal immigration law until 1790. Before that time, the states controlled entry. All the 1790 law did was set a residence requirement of 2 years before naturalization. The first significant U.S. law was not adopted until 1819. Properly managed, there is no real reason to patrol borders, except to intercept contraband, sex slaves, etc. Otherwise, if a person enters and then leads his or her life in a peaceful and lawful manner, he or she should be left alone and allowed to be naturalized after a reasonable time.

  6. The fundamental issue is that there are not enough jobs. The efficiency of modern production ensures that most must seek employment in non-essential goods and services, a market that disappears in every recession. Only a socialist economy can plan for full employment and prevent the financial scams that cause bubbles and recessions.

    Only strong economic regulation can protect the elections and mass media, the tools of democracy, from the economic power that seized them in the right wing revolution after WWII.

    Neither Trump nor Clinton have any wish for full employment or economic regulation for public benefit. Neither of them cares at all for the people of the United States, let alone those of foreign countries. Such persons are a disaster for America, and have made America a disaster for the world.

  7. Two points need to be emphasized here.

    First, the United States has a very generous immigration policy, one based primarily on family reunification. Any U.S. citizen or Legal Permanent Resident may petition for the appropriate member of the petitioner’s nuclear family. Each year the U.S. takes in over one million legal immigrants based on these family relationships. And that does not count the number of refugees that are accepted via the U.S. refugee program, which, as they will eventually become Legal Permanent Residents and citizens, puts the eventual total much higher. That figure of one million legal immigrants exceeds the total of legal immigrants taken in by all other countries combined.

    Second, I have been to Nogales and seen the fence separating Mexico and the United States for miles. The fact is, the U.S., like every other country in the world, has the sovereign right to determine who enters the country and under what circumstances. There are significant measures taken besides a physical fence: drones, sensors, the Border Patrol covering certain segments, etc. This has led to many more illegal immigrants attempting to cross the hot, arid Arizona desert. But that is their choice. The U.S. has publicly tried to discourage illegal border-crossers. That they continue to make the journey is not the fault of the U.S. That they cross in spite of warnings of the danger and often suffer the consequences is due to their own decision and choice.

    Stories such as the author’s above about the illegal immigrant before the judge are of course sad. But the U.S. cannot be the final destination for every unhappy person seeking a better life, either in Latin America or the rest of the world. The U.S. carries its share of legal immigration and has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

    The 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country must be brought out of the shadows and allowed to apply for legal status. The cannot, and should not, be deported. Nevertheless, the U.S. must do a better job of controlling its border and seeing that those who have been granted a temporary tourist visa depart on schedule. What is really needed, though, is a very tough sanctions program, one that is rigidly enforced, against those employers in the U.S. who hire illegal immigrants. That would cut off the magnet that draws illegals to the U.S. in the first place.

  8. The “sovereign right” to exclude the desperate is no argument at all. The US takes in only a tiny fraction of the one million immigrants you claim: let’s see those facts. The US did not even take in the 10,000 Syrians refugees it promised , while Germany took in over one percent of its population (equivalent to three million in the US).

    The main issue here is the gross selfishness of the US, both in allowing the dislocations of NAFTA, and doing nothing to help Mexico. Add to that the complete abandonment of its own people to poverty, and you have a worthless and fake governing class, suitable only for removal.

    • The United States for years has taken in approximately one million legal immigrants per year under our immigration law. You can check statistics with the Department of Homeland Security (under which immigration falls). If you think the U.S. takes in only a “fraction” of that, you had better check your source’s validity. It is wrong. Filipinos, Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, Mexicans, Brazilians, and scores of other nationalities are admitted as immigrants each year under our immigration law.

      Your claim that a nation does not have the sovereign right to determine who enters the country is simply your own fantasy. It has always been the sovereign right of a country to determine who may enter. The United States indeed has a very generous immigration policy. But it is not obligated to accept every person seeking better economic opportunity to enter illegally.

      • The “sovereign right” to exclude is not an argument; might does not make right regardless of terminology. And you fail to argue the central point that US selfishness is the cause of failure to assist those in need elsewhere.

        If the US had spent its pointless military expenditures since WWII on humanitarian assistance, it would have lifted half the world from poverty. If it had thereby built the roads, schools, and hospitals of the developing world, it would have no organized enemies, and would have truly achieved an American century.

        The US needs constitutional amendments to restrict funding of mass media and elections to limited registered individual contributions, and to improve checks and balances, but without those tools of democracy we cannot get those protections.

        As to the numbers, statistics vary widely. The Time almanac states that average immigration (persons granted permanent resident status) in the 1980s was 101,000 annually, while DHS says that it was 624,000 and that it increased sharply with the Immigration Act of 1990 to just over one million after 2000. I will accept the DHS figure. The total (including illegals) is 42 million of 320 million population, about 13 percent versus the public belief that it is 33 percent.

        But this is not generous, it is a tiny fraction of what other developed nations accept. You have not argued your point.

        • “it increased sharply with the Immigration Act of 1990 to just over one million after 2000. I will accept the DHS figure.”

          “But this is not generous, it is a tiny fraction of what other developed nations accept. You have not argued your point.”

          For someone who thinks I have not argued my point, I am pleased to see that you accept my figure of one million legal immigrants per year, as DHS statistics demonstrate. Your next task, if you want to accurately understand immigration statistics, is to check on those for other developed countries. I assure you, you will find other countries do not come close to the one million per year accepted by the U.S.

          Regarding your apparent belief that the U.S., through humanitarian assistance, could have “lifted half the world from poverty,” it demonstrates a significant level of misunderstanding of both what the U.S. has done and the requirements for development. The U.S. has provided a huge amount of development assistance through the Agency for International Development and other organs. But development requires commitment and reforms within the underdeveloped world itself. We cannot do it for them. They must create the conditions within their own societies that lead to permanent, sustained development.

        • US has high legal immigration, benefiting its own corporate and global South elites. It has low rates of acceptance of needy refugees in international terms, especially from countries like Iraq where the US played a big role in causing displacements.

        • Actually, U.S. immigration policy is primarily based on nuclear family reunification, i.e., spouses, children, parents, unmarried sons and daughters. It is not designed to benefit corporate and global South elites.

          Regarding refugees, they fall under a different program and are not considered part of the immigrant mix. I would agree that U.S. acceptance of genuine refugees, as opposed to those illegal immigrants who are seeking better economic opportunity, is problematic and could be improved.

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