Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

A view from behind the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico, looking toward the United States. The U.S. Border Patrol has been detaining migrants outdoors between the wall and the “secondary fence” for up to 52 hours. The migrants have relied on allies to provide food, water and blankets passed through the steel bars of the wall. The Pacific Ocean is in the background. Photo © Jim McKeever.


If you had the opportunity to provide comfort to a child, or a family, sleeping outside in the cold, you’d do whatever you could, right?

It’s what any decent human being would do.

Not the United States Border Patrol.

Here’s what’s been happening for weeks now at the US-Mexico border in Friendship Park, a historic patch of land between Tijuana and the southwest corner of California.

Border Patrol is forcing migrants — children, women and men — to stay outdoors overnight without giving them food, blankets or sufficient water. This has happened on at least three separate occasions in the past five weeks.

It gets cold at night in Tijuana in November, with temperatures dropping into the 40s. It rained one night while five men from Nicaragua were confined outdoors for 52 hours. A week ago several families from three different countries, with a total of eight children, built a small campfire to try to keep warm.

Allies on the Tijuana side have been handing migrants food, water and blankets through the steel bars of the wall and sharing photos and videos on social media. Border Patrol then began moving the migrants to less accessible and visible areas.

The agency has not explained its actions. I have left three voice-mail messages with Border Patrol’s Public Affairs office, to no avail.

Formal complaints to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General have gone unanswered. At least two of us contacted the office of U.S. Rep. Scott Peters on Friday to let him know what’s going on.

Why is Border Patrol doing this? It can’t be a capacity issue. Certainly the agency with a budget of $5 billion (with a ‘B’) can find somewhere to keep migrants and asylum seekers out of the elements.

It’s simply another example of the U.S. government’s long-standing “prevention through deterrence” policy, initiated in 1994 under the Clinton administration. 

The idea was to make crossing the border so difficult near official points of entry that migrants would either give up or try to cross via the unforgiving desert, which has since claimed the lives of untold thousands of migrants and asylum seekers. 

What U.S. officials and much of the American public refuse to accept is that migrants will keep coming. The lives they are fleeing are so dangerous or so hopeless, nothing is going to stop them.

Prevention through deterrence — or cruelty — won’t work. Migrants will risk their lives, the lives of their children, and will endure whatever cruelty or indignities the U.S. inflicts upon them for a chance at safety and freedom. As Somali-British poet Warsan Shire wrote, “You only leave home when home won’t let you stay.”

So what the Border Patrol is doing in Friendship Park is pointless. 

Unless, of course, cruelty is the point.

Which undoubtedly it is.

So, please … when you read or hear anything about “the border,” try not to think in abstractions like “Title 42” or cruel terms like “illegal alien.”

Rather, picture cold, frightened children sleeping outdoors without food, water or a blanket, forced to do so by U.S. government agents with badges and guns.

Ask the politicians you just voted into office, Democrat or Republican — many of whom posed for photos on election night, their own children dutifully lined up behind them — to picture their children being forced to sleep outdoors, cold, wet and scared.

Then ask them what they plan to do about it.  

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He makes regular trips to the US-Mexico border to volunteer with different organizations aiding asylum seekers and other migrants.

4 thoughts on “‘Prevention through cruelty’ doesn’t work

  1. Jim McKeever says:

    Reblogged this on Jim McKeever and commented:

    The U.S. Border Patrol is forcing migrants — children, women and men — to stay outdoors overnight without giving them food, blankets or sufficient water.


    1. John Grau says:

      Another outrage. Another reason why we need these kind of essays. Interesting that this policy dates to the Clinton administration. Troubling, too. Shows how the idea of compromise, consensus and “horse trading” so celebrated as by left- and right-of-center types can go tragically wrong when the compromise is to essentially do nothing except reach for the most politically expedient window dressing. That old thing about “power corrupts” needs to be shown how that actually looks.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jim McKeever says:

        Reporters in Arizona say this happens alongside the wall there, too.


  2. Very sad. Similar cruel policies are now being applied to our own citizens who are homeless.

    In my opinion, as a nation, we have lost our soul.

    Liked by 1 person

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