A photo of U.S. border patrol agents in California and Baltimore city police.
Ready for battle: Border Patrol agents and city cops now share the same military-style tactics and equipment. Madison McVeigh/CityLab. Photos: AP

There’s a connection between the militarization at the border and urban policing in American cities like Ferguson, Chicago, and Baltimore.

The photo of Esequiel Hernández Jr. circulated in the media shows a typical high school sophomore in a white cowboy hat, with a smile that goes all the way to his eyes. It was from his yearbook from 1997—the year a camouflaged Marine shot the 18-year-old near his home in the small border town of Redford, Texas. The Marines were a part of an anti-drug push overseen by President Bill Clinton, although news reports place them at the border as far back as the 1980s. Hernández, a U.S. citizen, has been herding his father’s goats.

Hernández’s death spelled a swift end to that then-controversial program, which finds itself in the news again: “The shooting in Redford remains a kind of cautionary tale as the president orders thousands of active-duty troops to America’s southern border in response to the caravan of Central American migrants seeking entry into the United States,” the New York Times noted on Wednesday.

But there’s something else about that case that makes it newly relevant. In a recent paper, sociologists Jennifer G. Correa and James M. Thomas draw a line from the death of Esequiel Hernández to that of Michael Brown, the unarmed young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, who was shot in 2014. The border militarization that killed Hernández, they argue, evolved hand-in-hand with the rise of military-style policing in segregated U. S. cities—with the objectives of both forces becoming increasingly muddled. Citing the scholarship of anthropologist Gilberto Rosas, the authors write that America’s urban areas are essentially a kind of “borderlands,” where heavily-armed police patrol intentionally established color lines—and “recast black and brown bodies, immigrant and nonimmigrant alike, as exceptions and aberrations.”

The paper provides a timely, crucial frame through which to understand the latest events at the border. Over Thanksgiving weekend, Border Patrol agents fired tear gas at two border crossings along the San Diego-Tijuana section where several migrants tried to cross into U.S. territory. These frustrated crowds had reportedly splintered off from a peaceful march. Following the flare-up, the San Ysidro crossing shut down for several hours. Officials told Buzzfeed News that the troops on site were not involved in the response, although they were shown conducting “riot control training” the day before on Facebook. These troops—recently authorized to use lethal force against migrants—will stay on till January.

Border patrol defended the response, citing a few incidents of migrants throwing rocks. The fact that they fired tear gas—a weapon banned in actual battlefields—when women and young children were in the crowd has become a national flashpoint. A widely shared photo from the confrontation showed Maria Meza, a Honduran mother of five, running away from the tear gas with her two young girls in tow. “I thought my kids were going to die with me because of the gas we inhaled,” Meza told Buzzfeed’s Adolfo Flores.

This confrontation is significant—a logical result of a series of recent policies barring asylum seekers from being processed, causing them to wait months at the border to exercise what is, in fact, their legal right. But it’s not the first time a Border Patrol agent has used tear gas at approaching migrants.


While the military has long been a presence at the southern border, the current U.S. border security apparatus evolved in the 1980s, as the War on Drugs ramped up. At that time, President Ronald Reagan loosened the Posse Comitatus Act, a Reconstruction-era law that banned the military from interfering in domestic matters. In 1986, he also framed illegal immigration as a question of national security and greatly expanded immigration enforcement resources.

While the GOP is known as the leading proponent of this policy, Democratic presidents largely followed suit: Bill Clinton established the “prevention through deterrence” border strategy, which made migrants take more and more dangerous paths into the country. (Thousands die in the dangerous journey through the desert every year.) He also authorized laws allowing local police to obtain surplus military equipment police equipment and imposing strict penalties for certain crimes.

Between 1989 and 2012, the budget of Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—born in the 1920s as the “Mounted Guards” who monitored the unauthorized entry of Chinese migrants—had ballooned 750 percent, because Congress kept passing legislation heaping resources at the border: more fences; more checkpoints, more surveillance equipment, more weapons, more personnel. After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was born, fast-tracking the militarization at the southern border. In this era, CBP became much more than an agency vetting entry and exit, it seemed to engage in domestic crime control and drug interdiction.

Meanwhile, within cities across the country, local police departments beefed up with military-grade tanks, weaponry, and surveillance technology, which research shows are then disproportionately deployed against communities of color. Many also help enforce immigration law. Their objectives, in other words, became conflated. The War on Terror and the War on Drugs melded together, creating a Frankenstein-esque nexus of immigration enforcement and policing.

Trump inherited this machinery, and simply revved it up.

“We’re seeing the failed policies of the War on Drugs played out in an immigration context,” said Patrisia Macías-Rojas, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of From Deportation to Prison: The Politics of Immigration Enforcement in Post-Civil Rights America. “We’re seeing militarized policing and incarceration for immigration offenses. We’re seeing a criminalization that imposes the stigma of a conviction. And we’re seeing patterns of family separation. These are things that have already been playing out for black and Latinx families under mass incarceration policies. We’re seeing them play out [in the immigration arena] with an intensity that I’ve not seen before.”


For those residing in border communities, life in these militarized spaces has many parallels to what’s happening in the most heavily policed parts of urban America. Both communities face constant surveillance and threats to the civil rights of certain residents. And, just like people on the streets of Ferguson or Baltimore, those on the border sometimes resist.

At the Arizona state capital on November 8, civil rights groups came together with members of the Tohono O'odham Nation—a Native tribe residing in the Sonora desert—and residents of the border towns Ajo and Arivaca to denounce the ramping-up of troops at the border. The protest, organized by the Border Communities Coalition, singled out policing tactics that will sound familiar to many residents of urban America. “The people of Ajo are accustomed to helicopters and drones flying overhead as we walk our dogs down the historical fields that my ancestors walked,” Jose Castillo, who was born in Ajo in the 1930s, said at the event. “[These are] weapons of defense against a false enemy.”

U.S. citizens along the border have had their land taken away, or sliced by border fences, or trampled on by patrolling agents. Upon monitoring their local checkpoint, residents from the unincorporated town of Arivaca found that CBP agents “systematically discriminated against Latino motorists.”

In this era, what law enforcement defines as “the border” was become a vast and pliable thing. As CityLab has written (and mapped) before, the CBP operates up to 100 nautical miles within the U.S. boundary, enjoying a wide berth of search and seizure powers inside a massive “border zone” that contains around two-thirds of the country’s population and 75 percent of its Hispanic population. Border patrol agents are free to use race as a factor in making stops; they can set up checkpoints on highways, ask for papers in buses, and stop travelers at train stations. As CBP’s own data show, these tactics appear to be more successful at intercepting U.S. citizens and legal residents with small amounts of marijuana than unauthorized immigrants.

They’ve also led to violence: In some cases, border patrol agents have killed unarmed civilians—citizens and non-citizens alike. The Guardian estimates 97 such cases since 2003.

The killing of Esequiel Hernández—the first civilian killed by the U.S. military since the National Guard fired on students at Kent State University in 1970—offered a lesson in the stark dangers of deploying troops and military-style tactics among civilian communities during peacetime. In the Trump era, that lesson is being vigorously ignored. Not only has the president ordered thousands of troops to the border, he’s lowered CBP hiring standards—despite the agency’s track record for corruption—in order to put more boots on the ground. And he has given CBP officers the sense that they have been unshackled from any scrutiny the previous administration may have attempted to exert.  

At the city level, Trump has lifted the Obama-era limits on the transfer of military equipment to police, and his Department of Justice has decided to look the other way on police abuses. Whether he’s calling for troops on the border or the South Side of Chicago, the message is the same: These spaces, and the predominantly black and brown people who live in or near them, are inherently problematic, and need to be forced into submission.

Proponents of such practices argue that this is about public safety and security. But critics ask: security for whom?

“It doesn’t matter how many border patrol agents, how much law enforcement, how much military, how much surveillance technology and drones, that we put out there, I don’t think that, in terms of the rhetoric, we will really ever be secure,” Correa said. “That’s part of the way that the machinery works.”

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