Costs of border policies rising in El Paso and Juárez: Blanca Navarrete García and Dylan Corbett

A Texas National Guard soldier holding a pepper ball launcher monitors the concertina wire along the border in El Paso that migrants must cross to surrender to Border Patrol in El Paso, on June 1, 2024.
A Texas National Guard soldier holding a pepper ball launcher monitors the concertina wire along the border in El Paso that migrants must cross to surrender to Border Patrol in El Paso, on June 1, 2024.

Our organizations have worked together for nearly a decade on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, in our sister cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez.

Much of our work providing humanitarian aid to those seeking refuge at the border has been a work of picking up the pieces of a deterrence-centered immigration system.

Data over the last several decades demonstrate that harsh enforcement measures have a negligible long-term impact on arrivals and exacerbate the dangers and difficulties faced by those who migrate. For this reason, it is clear that the latest executive action from President Joe Biden to stem arrivals at the border, a recycled policy once used by Donald Trump, is largely a political maneuver.

Leaning into deterrence may be a winning short-term political strategy, but ultimately does little to manage regional migration in a safe, sustainable and humane way. What is worse, inaction to solve the real challenges at the border opens the door to dangerous rhetoric and actions from reactionary politicians and extremist groups, which compounds the challenges faced not only by those who migrate, but also by border communities and our two countries.

Texas National Guard soldiers patrol the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, in May 2024.
Texas National Guard soldiers patrol the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, in May 2024.

In El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, the local costs of inaction to put in place effective mechanisms to manage migration are deepening.

The absence of reform from Washington, DC has enabled Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s project to implement an extreme parallel immigration regime at the border. Through his Operation Lone Star effort, Abbott has deployed an army of state troopers and Texas National Guard personnel to El Paso.

While El Paso’s local government has largely enacted immigrant friendly policies, the community is being drawn inexorably into Abbot’s project to deter and jail, at a cost measured in both deaths and dollars.

State police are engaging in mass arrests of migrants at the border and unloading the financial burden of incarcerating them onto El Paso’s local government, which is now considering obtaining additional jail space. Reckless high speed pursuits by state troopers on El Paso’s highways are generating a horrifying death toll. In just the past year, nearly forty people were killed or seriously injured, and the local county hospital is absorbing much of the cost of these unnecessary mass casualty incidents.

More: Court documents reveal details of migrants-Texas National Guard confrontation at border

The presence of the National Guard in El Paso is also eroding decades of work by the local community and U.S. Border Patrol to ensure respect for the rights of asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants, as well as to develop transparent and accountable use of force policies. The doctors who work in our medical programs have treated wounds from pepper balls and rubber bullets, which the National Guard has fired into border encampments, including camps with families and children. Brazen and violent enforcement actions that would be prohibited for Border Patrol agents are routine for the National Guard here.

In El Paso, Operation Lone Star is taking place on federal land, in apparent contravention of the constitution’s supremacy clause, but puzzlingly without protest from the Biden administration. The effective seizure of El Paso’s border by the National Guard has pushed the number of border deaths here to the highest levels ever recorded.

Abbott envisions taking his strategy at the border statewide, by empowering local police to enforce immigration law throughout Texas. This is what will happen if the federal courts allow Texas’s recently passed SB4 to go into effect. If re-elected, Donald Trump has signaled that he plans to use the Texas model — deploying the National Guard at the border and local law enforcement in the interior — as the strategy for mass deportation.

Another pillar of the Biden administration’s deterrence approach consists of leaning on Mexico for enforcement. Despite the fiery rhetoric of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican government has largely capitulated by deploying its own National Guard and the INM, Mexico’s federal immigration agency, to harass and detain migrants. Lopez Obrador’s administration is also turning a blind eye to criminal groups which rob, exploit and kill migrants in astonishing numbers.

The local deterrence strategies are also growing more coordinated across the border.

Abbott and his counterpart in Chihuahua, Governor María Campos Galván, have entered into a legally questionable cross border agreement to limit migration. Campos Galván recently announced that migrants were no longer welcome in the state. A line can be drawn between her words and a major new spike in collusion on the part of INM agents, local police and mafia groups in Chihuahua and Ciudad Juárez to attack, abuse and reroute migrants back into Mexico’s interior or funnel them for the purposes of smuggling.

We recently met with DHS officials working on transnational crime who confirmed our observations and were equally troubled by the unprecedented numbers of those smuggled, kidnapped and trafficked in Ciudad Juárez, the cost of an overly securitized approach.

More: Juárez pastor who ran Aposento Alto migrant shelter gets prison in forced labor case

Texas is no longer simply going after people who migrate, but with Attorney General Ken Paxton’s ongoing attempt to close Annunciation House, a faith-based provider of hospitality to migrants in El Paso, the state is also targeting those who assist migrants.

Attacks on humanitarian workers and human rights defenders in Latin America have been common for decades and the number of priests, activists and journalists killed in Mexico has skyrocketed in recent years. But the Guatemalan government’s raid in April of the offices of Save the Children, an NGO that works with migrants, after reaching out to Paxton's office, may represent a troubling new frontier in cross-border intimidation.

Unfortunately, harsh deterrence at the border is now the default policy of all the major political parties in the United States and Mexico. But given the reality of war, inequality and violence around the world, migration is not going away anytime soon, and that includes migration at our shared border.

Biden’s recent executive action to curtail migration at the border will result in more people stranded in Ciudad Juárez and targeted for exploitation. It will be a further boon to smugglers, kidnappers and traffickers. And it will not placate restrictionists like Abbott, who, following the announcement of Biden’s new policy, quickly announced that he will surge even more police and soldiers to the border.

Next year, both the United States and Mexico will have new administrations. If Biden is re-elected, he and incoming Mexican President Claudia Sheinbaum will have an opportunity to pivot away from an enforcement paradigm, which has produced pain, death and criminality in our border communities, to a smarter and more humane model of management, which ensures robust systems of humanitarian protection at borders and legal pathways to migrate, and which takes away incentives from criminal groups that prey on migrants.

But if Trump is re-elected, Biden’s legacy will have been to put in place a blueprint for closing the border to those seeking asylum and letting Abbott’s draconian model of immigration enforcement by state authorities go largely unchecked.

And it will continue to fall to local governments and organizations like ours to attend to the chaos and human damage inflicted by deterrence policies.

Blanca Navarrete García is the executive director of Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción, in Ciudad Juárez and Dylan Corbett is the executive director of the Hope Border Institute, in El Paso, Texas.

This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Local government, organizations attend to chaos left by immigration policies