Human Rights Violations

by Caitlin Krasner                                                                                    

Relentless waves of illegal immigration have challenged the management efforts of the borderlands region and Organ Pipe National Monument for decades. More recently however, the ways in which the continual flux of migrants is managed has raised significant cause for concern. Since the initiation of stricter immigration policy along the border, allegations of human rights abuses against multiple groups of people including illegal migrants, Latino-American citizens, and indigenous persons have increased exponentially. This development has stimulated the involvement of various humanitarian groups and civil rights organizations that claim various procedures violate international migrant laws and also the civil rights of certain peoples living at and around the border.

Under international law conventions, all migrants are entitled to basic fundamental rights protecting their livelihood and dignity, and many argue that U.S. immigration policy has the distinct, though perhaps unintended, effect of violating certain tenets of these treatises. The “Border Patrol Strategic Plan for 1994 and Beyond” laid the groundwork for the implementation of several landmark border reforms including: Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Hold the Line, and Operation Safeguard. These plans were geared to amplify border control at key urban centers and idealistically create a natural deterrent, by redirecting illegal traffic through the harsh and inhospitable desert and mountain regions, like those of southern Arizona. According to Amnesty International, this strategy of “prevention through deterrence” had marginal effects on the numbers of illegal crossings, but has rather shifted migrant traffic through “more hostile terrain that placed them in mortal danger.” [1] Between 1998 and 2008, estimates of more than 5,000 deaths have been compiled and a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that inconsistent data collection and coordination between agencies might mean even these high figures are severely underestimated.[2]

Under international human rights treaties ratified by the United States, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Liberties (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (ICERD), all migrants are entitled to: the right to life, the right not to be tortured or ill-treated, the right not to be subject to impermissible

discrimination, and the right to recognition before the law.[3] The long-term application of border policy reforms despite escalating death tolls is considered by certain factions to be in direct violation of these laws.  The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights supports this position and has remarked that, “the United States is aware that [these policies] will lead to threats to life and threats to human dignity but has failed to develop effective responses”[4] and in doing so, displays a troubling disregard for a continual loss of life.

Courtesy of Humane Borders, 2010.

Many of those disturbed by the lack of preventative action and the rising death toll have created outreach groups that provide humanitarian assistance, advocate for more humane policy, and spread awareness. The organizations are numerous and perform a host of services in an effort to ameliorate the perceived injustice toward migrants. Groups such as No More Deaths and the Coalición de Derechos Humanos set up water stations, as well as provide food and medical assistance along popular routes throughout the Sonoran desert, while the Florence Project offers free legal counsel. Some groups move beyond local outreach and attempt to effect change at the national level or across the border. Border Action Network actively lobbies for policy change, and Humane Borders distributes accurate maps that “put the lie to smuggler’s claims of short ambles to Tucson or Phoenix.”[5]

Not all locals support the outreach groups’ efforts, however, and view such actions as helping to perpetuate the harm caused by illegal human traffic. Margaret Regan’s interviews with local ranchers reveal that many border-dwellers resent the “invasion of migrants [that] trespass on their lands, cut wire fences, and leave trash and plastic water bottles behind.”[6] Frustrated with the perceived facilitation of lawlessness, some locals routinely vandalize water and aid stations and local law enforcement has charged humanitarian volunteers with hefty littering fines.[7] Critics also cite the existence of official rescue and relief teams that are legally commissioned to intervene as a reason for humanitarian groups to disengage. For example, BORSTAR, the search and rescue apparatus of the Border Patrol, combs the desert daily in the hottest summer months and made 980 rescues in 2005 alone.[8]

Courtesy of No More Deaths, 2011.

The proliferation of illegality at the border also negatively affects other communities of color living around Organ Pipe National Monument. Indigenous tribal communities and Latino-Americans have reported being subject to racial profiling, harassment, and impingement of religious liberties. United States citizens and indigenous peoples are disproportionately targeted for stops and searches due to discriminatory profiling by federal and local law enforcement. Those who reside or move regularly around the border area object that they are “often intimidated and harassed by border officials for speaking little English…or holding only tribal identification documents.”[12] In effect, the increased border militarization has posed threats to the religious liberty accommodations afforded by the Constitution to indigenous tribes, like the Tohono O’odham, whose traditional territories, cultural communities, and spiritual lands straddle the U.S.-Mexico border. The free

Tohono O'odham members protesting border militarization

movement of indigenous peoples throughout tribal lands is guaranteed through federal law; however, many local tribe members protest that “even those individuals with Tribal ID cards encounter problems as Border Patrol agents sometimes question the validity or do not accept Tribal ID as a valid form of documentation for crossing.” [13]As a result, border tribes find it increasingly difficult to move across the border freely and exercise their right to make sacred pilgrimages, as guaranteed by law.

The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument area has been described by many as a “war zone” whose staff is saddled with dangerous and ever-increasing responsibilities that lie way beyond of the scope of their duties to protect the lands and facilitate visitors’ enjoyment. From this perspective, it is understandable why Border Patrol and other law enforcement entities may become cynical and err on the side of undue harshness. If this is indeed a trend, it only speaks to the mounting need to carry out comprehensive immigration reform so that it recognizes the inevitability of migration and lifts the unfair burden on those who must enforce it, while also upholding the rights and integrity of those traveling through or living in the borderlands area.


[1] In Hostile Terrain: Human Rights Violations in Immigration Enforcement in the US Southwest. London, England: Amnesty International, 2012: pg. 17

[2] Ibid, 17.

[3] Ibid,13.

[4] U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Summary of Migrant Civil Rights Issues Along the Southwest Border,” April 2003.

[5] Margaret Regan, The Death of Josseline (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 50.

[6] Ibid, 9.

[7] Demetria Martinez, “College Students Prosecuted For Assisting In Desert,” National Catholic Reporter, September 2, 2005.

[8] Regan, Death of Josseline, 69.

[9] Daniel Gonzalez, “Arizona Border Agents Mistreat Migrants,” The Arizona Republic, September 21, 2011. (accessed March 26, 2012).

[10] No More Deaths. “A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short-Term U.S. Border Patrol Custody”, 2011,, (accessed March 20, 2012)

[11] Daniel Gonzalez, “Arizona Border Agents Mistreat Migrants,” The Arizona Republic, September 21, 2011. (accessed March 26, 2012).

[12] Tim Gaynor, “Rights Group accuses U.S. of abuses on Mexican Border,” Reuters, March, 28, 2012.

[13] In Hostile Terrain: Human Rights Violations in Immigration Enforcement in the US Southwest. London, England: Amnesty International, 2012: 30.