Is a More Humane Border Policy Possible?

Imagining Border Patrol agents as "rescuers" instead of police.

May 12, 2013, 11:38 AM

May 13, 2013— -- Three men stand with their hands on the wall, legs spread apart.

A Border Patrol agent approaches one. He appears to knee the man so that he kneels down.

What happens after that isn't clear. The agent looks like he has his hands on the man. In seconds, the man collapses to the ground as if he's lost consciousness. Then he shakes, as if he's having a seizure.

The Border Patrol agent in question, Luis Fonseca, was found not guilty of strangling that man in April. But a video -- released to the media last week -- raised questions about how federal immigration agents use force when dealing with detainees.

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On the one hand you have agents who need to protect themselves. On the other, you have immigrant detainees, most of whom are likely in custody for a non-violent immigration violation, and who deserve humane treatment.

The issue has attracted enough attention to make its way into an immigration reform bill being considered in the Senate. The broad legislation includes a provision calling for the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice to issue new policies around use of force, which would apply to immigration agents.

But the solution might mean a change of mindset about illegal immigration, and not policy tweaks, according to Steven Bender, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law.

"I think as a culture we've dehumanized migrants," he said. "We view them solely as criminals and not as people desperate for economic survival."

Bender claims that spending more time trying to understand migrants -- why they're coming to the U.S., what they've been through -- would help agents take a different approach to their job.

"There's a misperception that border crossers are coming to deal drugs with one hand and collect a welfare check with the other," he said. "If you put yourself in the position of somebody desperate for survival, willing to risk their life to cross the desert, then you're more likely to confront them with compassion."

That would be a huge -- and difficult -- shift in ideology for the federal government for many reasons. The biggest being that, even as the immigration bill in the Senate calls for new policies to protect immigrants, it pours billions in additional funding into border enforcement.

There's also the fact that agents face serious threats. They need to use force to protect themselves and others, according to Shawn Moran, the vice president of the National Border Patrol Council.

"The agents are in a bad spot when it comes to something like that, and you don't want them second-guessing themselves or hesitating," he said, in reference to the video.

One thing that could make the retraining of agents more feasible is if traffic on the border slowed to a crawl. In that case we might be able to view the situation with more of a focus on humanity, and less on law enforcement.

The immigration reform bill in the Senate could do that, according to a projection by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

They envision illegal immigration falling to a tenth of its current level -- perhaps overly optimistic, but even less substantial drops could take the pressure off Border Patrol.

"We need compassionate border reform because otherwise it's a prescription for disaster," Bender said. "It's too much to expect that we would fundamentally change the view of law enforcement."

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