Deterring Our Neighbors

Written by Michelle Manivel

Within this Administration, there have been multiple bills that seek to deter people from immigrating to the U.S., but deterrence tactics are not new: U.S. border and immigration policies and laws have utilized deterrence for decades, including policies such as Operation Gatekeeper from the Clinton Administration, Operation Guardian Support from the Trump Administration, as well as other deterrence policies and tactics specifically surrounding the deserts in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.  The deterrence policies and tactics maintained and expanded by the current administration systemically deny the dignity of migrants and in many cases have led to irreversible consequences. We must come together to bring about compassion and respect for those who have sacrificed so much to find a better life.

Types of Deterrence-based Tactics:

  • Family separation

    • Check out IFCLA’s statement on family separation here

  • Increasing number of officials at border

  • Military techniques/culture

    • Employing National Guard

    • Armed weapons at border for agents

    • Militarism among Customs and Border Protection (CBP)

    • New technology as part of a “Cyber Wall” such as drones, motion detectors, sensors, and radars

  • Physical barriers

Operation Gatekeeper

Operation Gatekeeper is an early ‘90s border policy that was designed to be a discouragement tactic to try to prevent people from illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, specifically in California. Similar policies were implemented across the Southern Border such as Operation Hold the Line. This is the hallmark of prevention through deterrence strategies, which attempt to stop migrants from attempting to enter into the U.S. without inspection.

How it Operated:

  • Hyper militarization at urban ports of entry

  • Constructed hundreds of miles of fence/border barriers

  • Exponentially increased the number of agents at the border

  • Enhanced and expanded equipment such as night vision goggles, radios, four-wheel drive vehicles, light towers

Guardian Support and Other Current Tactics

More recently, the Trump Administration authorized an operation known as Guardian Support. This border policy exploits the false ideas that the current administration has made popular- that the border is out of control; that we are at an all-time high for undocumented immigration; and that border agents are overworked and underpaid.  Guardian Support expands the power of the U.S. military while making excessive profits, and diverts the focus to assisting CBP with logistics, administration, surveillance, intelligence analysis, and aerial/mechanical support.

How it Operates:

  • Equips surveillance aircraft with cameras, using unmanned drones to target people in the deserts

  • Directs assistance from the National Guard and expansion of military power on domestic soil: air and surveillance patrolling, infrastructure support, and operational support

Human Consequences

These different types of deterrence policies have led to extreme human tragedy. Some of the outcomes include:

  • The funnel effect: Increased militarization at urban ports of entry only deterred crossings in those locations but did not have an actual impact in the number of crossings overall. Instead, it forced migrants to attempt their entry through more dangerous and deathly routes, pushing people into the most remote areas of the border, the harshest deserts and incredibly treacherous landscapes.  

  • End of circular migration: Migration has historically followed a circular pattern, where individuals would enter the U.S., stay and work for a short period, return to their country of origin, and then repeat that cycle. This met demands of the U.S. labor market and for some Latin American families, it even offered a path to subsistence. As these policies made crossing the border much more difficult and costly, migrants began staying in U.S. longer, which meant families were either separated indefinitely or they had to make decisions to relocate the entire family.

  • Racial profiling and the criminalization of people of color:  Racial profiling undermines fairness and equality of people, violates due process, and further stigmatizes the community. The nation’s value of ‘equal justice for all’ does not accept profiling to fit stereotypes. Racial profiling violates privacy and takes away from the dignity of the human person. Through the biases people have and the divisive political environment at the border and in the interior, practices of racial profiling and discriminatory stereotyping have expanded as an underlying standard behavior and basis for enforcement decisions.

  • Death and disappearance: The increases in border enforcement have led to the exponential increase in death and disappearance at the border.   Deterrence policies are forcing migrants to travel longer and attempt more treacherous routes in order to avoid detection and capture. Due to the funnel effect, described above, the Tucson Sector became the most traveled crossing point for migrants, where roughly 38% of known deaths occurred in 1998-2012, and 43% in 2013 (compared to 1990-1997 where only 12% of apprehensions were occurring). Another example is in Brooks County, Texas, where 129 deaths were reported in 2012 compared to 20 in 2010.  

All prevention through deterrence techniques must stop immediately not only to keep people physically safe and alive, but also because it is already a traumatic event that psychologically impacts people, and will have to cope with for the rest of their lives. Prevention through deterrence is domestic militarization, which we are morally called to vehemently oppose.  IFCLA remains committed to standing in solidarity with the people of Latin America to resist repression and devaluation of human life anywhere. We call on the U.S. government to take responsibility for the human costs of harmful interventions in Latin America and tragic militarization of our borders. We must do everything in our power to demilitarize our borders and #DefundHate.  


  • Stay up to date on immigration policies in your area. Consider subscribing to the Weekly Migration Update emails produced by the Center for Migration Studies. Details available here.

  • Communicate regularly with your members of congress about these important issues. Find your representative here.

  • Attend IFCLA’s Immigration 101 series. Currently, the course is being offered at Kirkwood United Church of Christ in a 6-week series; details are available here. Follow @IFCLA on Facebook and check the Events page of our website regularly for future offerings. Interested in hosting an Immigration 101 series at your organization? Contact Sara John for details.

Watch and share the #DefundHate campaign video to cut funding for ICE and CBP in 2020. Click here to see the video.

*Prevention through deterrence image property of No More Deaths Arizona.