On April 11, the United States, Panama, and Colombia announced a joint two-month operation to “end the illicit movement of people and goods” through the Darien Gap. While he was arriving to Panama, DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas explained in a tweet that the three countries would work together to “target criminal networks, build lawful pathways, and save lives.” The short-on-details trilateral announcement left much to the imagination; how, for example, will these ambitious feats be accomplished? But the announcement did provide a clue as to one way the U.S. will ramp up its border enforcement after May 11, when Title 42, the pandemic-era statute of rapid expulsions, will be phased out.
Today I arrived in Panama. I and other US officials look forward to meeting with @JanainaGob and @AlvaroLeyva and other leaders from Panama and Colombia to target criminal networks, build lawful pathways, and save lives. pic.twitter.com/MXkSw22J7i
— Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas (@SecMayorkas) April 11, 2023
The Associated Press put it this way in its article about the Darien Gap operation: “Without that instrument of dissuasion [Title 42] at the U.S. border, there is concern [in the U.S. government that] migrant arrivals could again become unmanageable.” The key word here is “dissuasion,” a term that evokes the multidecade strategy on the U.S.-Mexico border to make crossing as difficult and dangerous as possible. The export of the prevention-through-deterrence strategy to the Darien Gap and across the hemisphere, in other words, is a part of scrapping Title 42.
Mayorkas affirmed that other countries would be helping guard the U.S. border during an April 27 press conference, “This is a hemispheric challenge that demands hemispheric solutions,” he said. “Working with our neighbors in the region, we can and will reduce the number of migrants who reach our southern border.” With this, Mayorkas includes asylum seekers who will need to go to U.S. Regional Processing Centers that will be established across Latin America, starting in Colombia and Guatemala.
While Washington says that it will admit more refugees, there will also be “stiffer consequences for failing to use lawful pathways.” This would include if people “fail to seek protection in a country through which they traveled on their way to the United States,” according to language by the Biden Administration in February that explained a new rule to “incentivize lawful migration processes.” Comparing this shift in policies to the Donald Trump-era transit ban, journalist Belén Fernández had another way to describe it: an “asylum ban.”
Although Mayorkas emphasized current international operations as a response to Title 42’s phaseout, pushing out its borders has been a fundamental part of U.S. enforcement strategy for two decades. Former CBP commissioner Alan Bersin called this post-9/11 shift to the internationalization of U.S. border operations a “massive paradigm change.” As he wrote, there has been a shift “in our perception of borders not only as lines, but as movements—flows of people and goods on a global scale both legally and illegally.” In 2004, CBP commissioner Robert Bonner explained this change as a military commander would: he called it “extending our zone of security where we can do so, beyond our physical borders—so American borders are the last line of defense, not the first line of defense.”
These ideas have been incorporated into border strategy, and this is no secret. U.S. Border Patrol strategy documents constantly talk about a “layered approach.” According to the Homeland Security agency, the border and its enforcement apparatus go well beyond the U.S.-Mexico divide. This includes not only interior enforcement in the United States (the 100-mile zones along the borders and coasts, and inland ICE operations), but also the aggressive pushing out of the U.S. border into other countries across the hemisphere and beyond. The U.S. has done training operations in more than 100 countries, and made many transfers of equipment and technology to these countries to assist in border enforcement. CBP also has 23 attachésaround the world, including in Panama City and Bogotá.
It’s hard to say what this operation will look like in the Darien Gap, and we will be looking into this and other operations in the next few months here at The Border Chronicle. Examples of U.S. border externalization abound, however, throughout the Western Hemisphere and beyond. The Mexico-Guatemala border, which has received much U.S. attention and financing, might be at the top of the example list. In 2017, when I interviewed a U.S. official from the International Affairs office—at CBP headquarters inWashington D.C.—about the coordination of U.S. border operations in Mexico, he told me, “I bet there are 15 phone calls going on with Mexico at this very moment.” As there are probably right now, as you read this. And when I went to investigate Mexico’s Programa Frontera Sur border enforcement program in 2014, I found that despite the official rhetoric about concern for the safety of people migrating, the ramped-up enforcement under U.S. tutelage and use of U.S. equipment pushed migrants into more remote and dangerous areas. People camped out in the woods along the railroad tracks near Arriaga, Chiapas, eerily reminded me of how unauthorized people move through the Arizona desert. Was this, I wondered for the first time, the export of prevention-through-deterrence?
It’s not just Mexico. The U.S. has heavily invested in creating border patrols in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and other countries. In 2015, while on a research trip for my book Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World, I rumbled down a road in a truck near Copán, Honduras, with the commander of the newly formed Maya Chortí force, as they named it (yes, the border force uses the name of the indigenous people who have inhabited the area for nearly 2000 years), he told me they arrested and detained 18 Ecuadorans and Dominicans at a nearby checkpoint. In 2017, the Guatemalan border force (known then as the Chortí, without the “Maya” of its Honduran counterpart) showed me how they could rapidly weaponize their U.S.-provided jeeps and deploy a checkpoint on a road. There was a U.S. military supervisor on hand observing it all as well. And in the Dominican Republic in 2012 I witnessed the country’s relatively new border guard’s U.S.-trained commander argue for several minutes with a group of detained Haitian men that there was no hunger in their country. And because of this, he said, the arrest was well justified. I document this incident in the book Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security.
In each place enforcement was distinct, yet with the common denominator of U.S. support and rhetoric about dismantling smuggling networks, criminal organizations, and illicit activities. There is also the common denominator of detention, death, and brutalization of people on the move without government authorization—whether it be in Tapachula, the Arizona desert, or now increasingly the Darien Gap.
The Darien Gap, where 250,000 people crossed in 2022 (nearly double the number from the previous year), is becoming a new layer of U.S. border. With the Biden administration’s latest announcements regarding Title 42, the U.S. government cosmetically accomplishes two important things: First, the removal of this contentious pandemic-era policy from the border conversation, a policy that many people have demanded the U.S. put an end to. It reaffirms the Biden administration’s claim that it is creating a “safe, humane, and orderly” border. Second, it pushes U.S. border enforcement further away, away from the cameras and the press, away from global awareness. Border enforcement becomes out of sight, out of mind.
This first appeared on The Border Chronicle.