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Topic / Fairness and Justice

Borderlands: U.S.-Mexico Border Policy in Pictures

Maria Davydenko is a master in public policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She is also a Pickering Undergraduate Foreign Affairs Fellow.


In May 2012, eleven students of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University visited El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, as part of a Leadership Service Seminar (LSS) program sponsored by the Center for Public Leadership and the offices of the Academic Dean and the Dean of Students. The Annunciation House, an organization that provides shelter to migrants who cross the border near El Paso-Juarez, graciously hosted them. Over the course of a week, they met with U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Drug Enforcement Administration agents, as well as the Office of Congressman Silvestre Reyes and El Paso Mayor John Cook. In Juarez, they visited a maquila (production plant) and the Centro de Los Derechos Humanos Paso del Norte, A.C. (Center for Human Rights). They also spoke with advocates at the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, toured the Otero County Processing Center, and attended an immigration court hearing.




[dropcap style=”simple” size=”4″]L[/dropcap]a biblia es la verdad. Leela.” The words jumped at us from the mountainside as our van sped toward El Paso. In the days that followed, we explored the U.S.-Mexico border from what seemed like every angle. We drove up to the fence with U.S. Border Patrol agents who told us of the most creative attempts at circumvention, quipping that a 40-foot fence could always be scaled by a 41-foot ladder. We looked past officials to impacted communities: We toured the Otero County Processing Center that houses migrants awaiting trial for illegal entry into the United States; we attended the immigration hearing of a gentleman who wanted desperately to stay in the United States to take care of his sick wife, an American citizen. Perhaps most challenging, however, was the trip across the border to Juarez. Separated from El Paso by the Rio Grande and a swath of maquilas, the streets of Juarez seemed strangely ordinary but for the constant patrol of government troops. In one of the most dangerous cities on earth, the Centro de Los Derechos Humanos Paso del Norte, A.C. greeted us with unparalleled hospitality and warmth. But with the kindness came pushback, skepticism at the true aims of the Mérida Initiative and a general suspicion toward government inevitable in a city overrun by the military, bloody cartel battles, and a string of limited but infamous femicides. The Mérida Initiative is a security cooperation agreement jointly implemented by the U.S. and Mexico in 2008 to fight drug trafficking and other kinds of transnational organized crime. Shared responsibility is a key theme surrounding the legislation. Under the Initiative, the U.S. government has contributed $1.6 billion to training security personnel, fighting corruption, and bolstering Mexico’s non-military police force. Critics of the initiative say it throws money at the symptoms instead of tackling the underlying causes. A number of the stakeholders in El Paso were frustrated with the initiative because it funneled money directly to “the wrong guys” or corrupt government officials. The Centro’s employees described again and again how government policy, both Mexican and American, had failed Juarenses (residents of Juarez). We found ourselves doubting the toolkit of policy analysis (statistics, economics, ethics, and management) we had come to the Kennedy School to acquire.

It was a week of questioning assumptions and confronting the tensions of border policy debate head-on. We thought Border Patrol agents would be terse and apathetic, but they told us stories of finding water jugs for border jumpers in the desert and looking the other way. We expected the border to be a tall, steely monolith—but in the city center it was demarcated by a simple chain link fence, and out in the desert west of El Paso by nothing at all. We chatted and played with Juarense children through the chain links one afternoon, a lighthearted moment that left us unsure of what to feel afterward.

Our experience on the border was intimately tied to its people. After every encounter, we came home to Annunciation House, a non-profit that provides shelter to migrants after they cross the border into El Paso. We were at first regarded tentatively, even with amusement. But over time, A-House residents opened up to us with their stories. They came from across Central America, even Somalia. We made it our mission to amplify their stories and voices in our meetings with government officials, and at the Kennedy School upon our return.

Our meetings with public servants–whether Border Patrol agents, the ICE Chief Counsel, or the Mayor of El Paso—helped us see that progress was slow but possible. At the office of then-U.S. Congressman Silvestre Reyes, we met with staffers who were well acquainted with the complex web of stakeholders we were just beginning to discover. The El Paso Sector, as Border Patrol calls this 268-mile stretch of the border, is the confluence of two states—Arizona and Texas—as well as two countries, and both federal and local jurisdictions. The issues surrounding this physical and regulatory barrier are inextricably linked— trafficking in drugs, arms, and humans, cartel violence, migration, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the maquilas. These linkages breed complexity, but the greatest takeaway for the participants of 2012 LSS Border was the need to embrace that complexity as policymakers and to have the courage and persistence to take action anyway.