On the Border, Fear of More Security Grows

Border patrol says it can use more funds to strengthen the border, but advocates are not so sure.

(John Moore/Getty Images)
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BROWNSVILLE, Texas--Residents here cannot ignore the evidence that they are smack dab in the middle of a battle to stop illegal immigration.

Border fences run through a University of Texas campus and back up against a colonia, an immigrant settlement.

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Heavily armed federal border patrol agents keep a close watch on the downtown marketplace just yards from an entry point. Even "Hope" serves as an ironic moniker for a municipal park in Brownsville that overlooks the majestic Rio Grande River, but is enclosed by a border fence.

But this could just be the beginning. This scene is expected to intensify if Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform.

The Senate's immigration reform proposal, which passed in June, would allocate $46.3 billion more over the next decade to build 700 more miles of border fence and double the number of border patrol agents to nearly 40,000 along the southwest border. The plan would also boost the use of high-tech surveillance technologies like drones and sensors. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the infrastructure improvements could curb the number of immigrants entering the country illegally by 50 percent.

Border patrol agents welcome the additional funds, which they say are essential to running the agency effectively. Right now the agents say $600 million in automatic budget cuts brought on by the sequester have seriously affected their ability to carry out missions and patrol vulnerable entry points. While Congress approved a plan in June to protect agents from furloughs, cuts have limited the border patrol's ability to maintain its fleets and significantly cut access to fuel. Hiring freezes and reductions in training have also halted the agency's ability to prepare its agents for the field.

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But for immigration advocates, the further militarization of the border is an alarming prospect.

"We almost have a human fence with the border patrol agents we already have, 10 agents per mile. Our concern is the civil rights infringements that will come along with even more agents," says Astrid Dominguez, who does community outreach in Brownsville for the American Civil Liberties Union

Dominguez says that as the number of border patrol agents has increased in the Rio Grande Valley sector, so have the instances of intimidation and abuse of immigrants.

Since 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union says border patrol has been responsible for the deaths of nearly 18 immigrants. Some cases, like the death of Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year-old Mexican boy who was shot multiple times by U.S. border patrol agents in Arizona last October, have attracted a media firestorm. The border patrol has said the agents opened fire out of self defence because a group was throwing rocks, but evidence was inconclusive as to whether Rodriguez was involved or just a bystander.

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Sexual assault cases have also been a black eye on the law enforcement agency's reputation in the area.

As recently as May, a south Texas agent named Philip Westerman was accused of allegedly sexually assaulting an immigrant he was guarding at a Corpus Christi, Texas, hospital.

But other intimidation tactics and abuses that are less headline-grabbing are also a major problem for immigrants and even legal residents living in the area.

"We all know abuses when border patrol shoots someone. You have a dead body, you have outrage. But then there are low profile types of abuses that go unreported. That is a big concern," Dominguez says.

The Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, an immigrant rights coalition made up of 10 advocacy groups, has come together to document complaints. They keep track of everything from agents not providing adequate food and water at detention facilities to agents asking immigrants to sign important documents solely in English, when they may only understand Spanish.