JW: Can I jump in? I’m sure there are some agents with master’s degrees and some who are business owners and all that. But it doesn’t matter to me who the agents are. Of course there are smart, compassionate people and of course there are terrible racists. But in the end I see border-patrol agents as hired guns for a murderous political agenda. The agenda is exclusive and racist, and in the end it ends up murdering people.
Besides loving one border-patrol agent—Francisco and I are friends—I don’t care who the agents are. I see what the agency does, and that’s what matters.
FC: I agree that the institution and the structure of the Border Patrol can be prone to enacting violence. On the other hand, to John’s argument that it doesn’t matter who these people are, that they’re hired guns, I’d say it does matter, in the same way it matters who these migrants are. I think about all the individual encounters I had and it matters who the agents are in the same way it matters who the man John encountered in the desert is.
JW: I think it matters who the migrants are because they are the ones being clumped and thrust into a marginalized group. Border agents might suffer some classist or racist attitudes at home, but on the whole they are the aggressors; they’re the ones enacting the violence and marginalization that ends up killing and maiming people. Right now I don’t think our priority should be to humanize the Border Patrol; I think it should be to humanize the migrants, and to stop the Border Patrol policies that are dehumanizing them. The humanity of the border-patrol agents is not, I don’t think, under threat.
JB: John, you’ve expressed support in the past for “open borders.” Can you describe how you see this policy working?
JW: The first thing most people say about open borders is how it would be chaotic; schools would be overrun, hospitals unable to handle new patients, etc. I don’t think that’s true, but my first response is that things are already chaotic. They’re chaotic for the people who are trying to cross, and in large part that chaos is caused by U.S. policy (or its legacy) toward the places they’re fleeing from—Central America, Haiti, etc.
What would it be like to have open borders? It’s hard to say. We’ve had some natural social experiments with large influxes of immigrants. The most famous is the Mariel boatlift people leaving Cuba in 1980 and coming to Miami. One hundred twenty-five thousand people came to Miami in a short period of time, and studies showed that wages did not decline, unemployment did not rise, the schools were able to handle it. There was some wage decline among native-born citizens without a high-school education, so maybe some demographics would suffer. But we could compensate the people who suffer negative effects, and economically (as well as ethically) it would be a net positive.
If we had open borders, we’d see a population spike in some areas, but even if the same percentage of people came who landed in Miami in 1980, those people could be welcomed, throughout the country, without overall adverse impact on the population. And those who do see some negative effect (wage decline or increased employment competition) could be compensated through tax revenue, or some other means. Miami could handle it 36 years ago; I think the U.S. could handle it now.
JB: Francisco, what would the idea of a humane border mean to you? If we’re going to have a border patrol, what should it look like?
FC: I think about policy solutions far less than I did after college, before I joined the Border Patrol. But in terms of open borders, for me, we have to first and foremost accept the current reality, and I don’t think that has ever been done.
Migration is, at its heart, an economic decision. The economics of migration is something that’s been irretrievably tinkered with through policy. After the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986—which gave amnesty to migrants already here while simultaneously doubling down on security and enforcement—we began to see the unfolding of unintended consequences which effectively transformed the experience of crossing the border into a true hell. The seasonal and cyclical migration that used to take place became much harder. After 1986, once people made it into the U.S. from Mexico, they were much less likely to return to their home country because of the ever-increasing difficulty of getting back in. But they’ll keep coming, because people leave their homeland out of desperation and necessity.
Since [George W.] Bush, Republicans and conservatives have had this line about securing the border first. And this has been happening—the Border Patrol has doubled in size since 2004. But the staunch position remains that no adjustments will be made in the way we take in immigrants until the border is an impenetrable shield. And I think that’s a very false and deadly way to go about it. The more humane and reasonable way would be to stop people from dying in the desert first, because people will cross that desert no matter how hellacious you make the journey.
JB: What have each of you seen as being effective in terms of educating people on an issue they often bring such strong assumptions to?
FC: The border is usually represented in the national imagination with very little nuance. Like I said, my biggest takeaway as an agent came from interacting with individuals—and, as a storyteller, I’m interested in representing this in a way that acknowledges the very fraught and tragic place we’ve arrived at. This is a more emotional argument, one that many might dismiss as typical bleeding-heart liberal babble, but I think it’s so important.
With regards to that hypothetical West Virginian we talked about earlier: it’s amazing to me how people will allow for exceptions among the people they know. I’ve known people who hold beliefs that seem racist, but they’ll allow for individual exceptions. “Oh you know, the guy who cleans my yard, Ricardo, he’s an honest guy and a hard worker.” Or “I’m anti-immigration, pro-border security. I think illegals are stealing jobs, but my coworker Alberto, his parents are undocumented and they seem all right.”
Once there’s a personal experience and connection between two people, that’s a very powerful place to start.
JW: Humanizing the migrants is critically important: they’re human, they’re people, and as we speak right now they’re in the desert hiding, terrified, desperate, hungry, dying. And they’re people just like us: kids, mothers, normal people. We can’t do enough to humanize them.
At the same time I think we should demonize the Border Patrol as an agency. We should approach it with some of the same tools we’re starting to use to talk about the police. We’re seeing that there are some structural problems with the way the police are interacting with community members, and killing them. But there’s a difference. Personally, I think there are some legitimate things the police do that can theoretically affect the community in decent ways. But I don’t see any legitimacy or necessity for the Border Patrol. Historically the reason for the agency’s existence has been to enact racist, xenophobic and classist policies. That’s still true today.
FC: Regardless of how the Border Patrol was founded and whether or not it should exist, it does exist. And it has many functions we haven’t spoken about in this conversation: e.g. national security and terrorism, the drug war and cartel violence, etc. As relates to the human cost of border enforcement, the relevant question is: Given that we have this institution, how can it be reshaped to address the humanitarian crisis we’ve given ourselves?
Currently, people being rescued from death in the desert are usually being rescued by the Border Patrol. Yes, it can be argued that the very thing endangering the lives of these migrants is the presence of the Border Patrol in the first place. But if our country ever begins the slow march toward immigration reform, the Border Patrol will be the institution best equipped to intercept the people who will still be risking their lives trying to cross the desert, even as policy changes take effect. And it will remain so for as long as it is regrettably and tragically necessary.
JW: There are search and rescue efforts that take place, but they’re not enough, and they are overwhelmed by the agency’s violent interdiction mission. Anyway, we’re trying to solve a problem that we’ve created. You can throw someone out of a boat and then toss them a lifesaver and call yourself a hero. But the first step is to stop throwing them into the sea.
As a society, we recognize that children, those under 18 years old, can not and do not function as adults. That is why the law takes special steps to protect children from the consequences of their actions and often seeks to ameliorate the harm cause when children make wrong choices by giving them a second chance. The law prohibits people under eighteen from voting, serving in the military and on juries, but in some states, they can be executed for crimes they committed before they reach adulthood. The United States Supreme Court prohibits execution for crimes committed at the age of fifteen or younger. Nineteen states have laws permitting the execution of persons who committed crimes at sixteen or seventeen. Since 1973, 226 juvenile death sentences have been imposed. Twenty-two juvenile offenders have been executed and 82 remain on death row.
- On January 27, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to review whether executing sixteen and seventeen year-olds violates the Constitution's ban on 'cruel and unusual punishment.' The review comes after the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of 17 year-old Christopher Simmons. Roper v. Simmons will be reviewed by the justices this fall, four of whom have called the juvenile death penalty 'inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society.'
While adolescents can and should be held accountable for their actions, new scientific information demonstrates that they can not fairly be held accountable to the same extent as adults. Studies by the Harvard Medical School, the National Institute of Mental Health and the UCLA's Department of Neuroscience finds that the frontal and pre-frontal lobes of the brain, which regulate impulse control and judgment, are not fully developed in adolescents. Development is not completed until somewhere between 18 and 22 years of age. These findings confirm that adolescents generally have a greater tendency towards impulsivity, making unsound judgments or reasoning, and are less aware of the consequences of their actions.
Because of their immaturity, adolescent children are also more likely to be coerced by adults and are sometimes the pawns for more sophisticated criminals. They are also more likely to be taken advantage of during the investigation of a criminal case. Juveniles are often intimidated by adults and authority figures, and are therefore more likely to be the victims of coerced confessions, which are often false. Moreover juveniles are less likely to invoke their Miranda Rights, including their right to legal representation. Most importantly, the goals of the death penalty do not apply to juveniles. Retribution aims to give the harshest punishment to the worst offender. Juveniles are the most likely to be capable of rehabilitation. Given their emotional immaturity and lessened culpability, they are not among the ""worst of the worst.""
Public opinion in the United States increasingly opposes the execution of juvenile offenders. According to a 2003 Harris Poll, 69 percent of the people polled opposed the death penalty for juveniles; only 22 percent supported the execution of juvenile offenders, while 5 percent offered no opinion. Meanwhile, the juvenile death penalty disproportionately affects children of color, as it is subject to the same racial disparities as have been discovered throughout the use of capital punishment.
Internationally, the execution of juveniles is largely considered inhumane, anachronistic, and in direct conflict with fundamental principles of justice. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights bans the execution of juvenile offenders. Although the United States has signed the ICCPR and therefore agreed to be bound by its standards, the U.S. has reserved the right to execute juvenile offenders as long as our Constitution is interpreted to permit the practice. Of the 123 countries that currently use the death penalty, only the United States and Iran impose death sentences on juveniles. In the fall of 2003, however, Iran's judiciary began drafting a bill that will raise the minimum age for death sentences from fifteen to eighteen. The bill will also exclude those under eighteen from receiving life-terms or lashing as punishment. Ironically, many of the countries that the United States government regularly criticizes for human rights abuses have abolished the practice of executing juveniles. For example, between 1994 and 2000, Yemen, Zimbabwe, China and parts of Pakistan amended their laws to prohibit the execution of juvenile offenders. In continuing what is universally viewed as a barbaric and uncivilized practice, the United States has, over the past decade, executed more juvenile offenders than every other nation in the world combined.
See the American Bar Association's web site on Juvenile Death Penalty
Read information and statistics about the juvenile death penalty here