'It's Functioning Exactly As Intended': Our Border Policy Is Designed to Be Deadly

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Jakelin Caal Maquín was just seven years old when she died from septic shock, fever, and dehydration while in the custody of United States Customs and Border Patrol. In the week since her death was first reported, advocates and progressive lawmakers have demanded more information about what happened to Caal Maquín after she was detained by Border Patrol officials, the Trump administration has issued grotesque statements blaming her family for her tragic death, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General announced it will launch its own investigation. 

While there is still much we don’t know about the exact circumstances of Caal Maquín’s death, we do know a lot about the circumstances that led her to travel, along with her father and a group of more than 160 other people seeking asylum, through a harsh, isolated route to reach the United States.

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This is, after all, exactly what prevention through deterrence, a long-standing policy that dates back to Bill Clinton’s administration, is designed to do: force people seeking to cross the border away from urban entry points and into more brutal desert terrains.

“We know exactly what that outcome is,” Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler, a media coordinator and volunteer for No More Deaths, told Jezebel of prevention through deterrence. “It’s been same outcome since 1994. It’s unfortunate, but it’s actually functioning exactly as intended.”

Humanitarian workers at No More Deaths, a group based in southern Arizona that formed in 2004, provide direct aid to people crossing the border. They leave water, food, blankets, and other supplies to help people with the deadly journey. (Sometimes, those supplies are destroyed by Border Patrol agents.) I spoke to Orlovsky-Schnitzler about Caal Maquín, the conditions at the border, and how immigration policy under Trump and past administrations have worked to make the crossing as difficult as possible. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

A lot of immigration reporters have pointed out a lot of failures in the way the media is covering the death of Jakeline Caal Maquín, often giving deference to Border Patrol’s claims. Is there anything you’ve seen specifically—either about Caal Maquín’s death or about crossing the border in general—that you think is misinformed or skewed? 

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Blaming the parents is a really common tactic. That was part of CBP’s official statement, they had testified the other day talking about the idea that this is what’s going to happen to you if you take this journey. But we’re not presenting alternatives. We’re not saying we’re going to send aid down to your place of origin, we’re not sending attorneys to border to make sure we can process asylum claims.

I also think it’s definitely worth noting that you can present yourself for asylum anywhere, it doesn’t have to be a port of entry. Folks will point out and say, why aren’t they going to Tijuana or Nogales or any of these places on this border if they had “legitimate” claim. But you are allowed to do so anywhere, you can approach Border Patrol in the middle of the desert and say you’re presenting yourself for asylum. [Editor’s note: The Trump administration has tried to change the rules regarding where asylum-seekers can enter the United States, and is currently facing legal challenges in response.] It’s not illegal and it’s something that I think gets forgotten. People are assigning narratives saying well they must be good or they must be bad, or they must have valid or invalid claims based on where they were, when that’s simply not true.

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And where they were is a big product of the administration itself.

Exactly.

Making it more dangerous for people to cross the border is a longstanding policy decision the United States has made through many administrations, but can you speak to the ways in which this current administration has made the crossing more deadly?

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I think with Trump it’s more of a culture issue. It’s an advancement of xenophobia in the media. It’s intimidation tactics like when he flooded the border with extra agents sending active duty troops down. It’s the rhetoric of the administration, which is very, very harmful. Jeff Sessions announced the family separation policy and people understandably reacted to that on a very visceral level. While that was a new proposal by Trump’s administration, the roots of what he’s doing have already been there. We try to emphasize that the U.S. border policies since the mid-1990's has been an incredibly dangerous and racist set of policies. Nothing happens in a vacuum. For Trump, we would say that he’s a fulfillment of many people’s border fantasies and the people who voted him into office. But things have been bad down here for a while.

The Trump administration has emboldened both government and non-governmental actors against migrants, which often creates deadly outcomes. This means that Border Patrol feels empowered to retaliate, for example, against aid workers, and militias feel like they have political support to advance their agenda. More than anything else, Trump is a stamp of approval for deadly border enforcement. His policies aren’t coming out of a vacuum, however—and we always try to make it clear that the Democrats have consistently failed to extend adequate protection to people crossing.

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As you say, this is built on past administrations, including Democratic ones like Clinton and Obama. Can you speak as a whole about how this administration and past administrations have utilized prevention through deterrence?

As a general concept, I think people are pretty unfamiliar with the way the border landscape actually looks like. I can certainly understand that, before I moved to Tucson I didn’t actually understand what the actual desert looks like and what it means. I think a lot of folks don’t realize why there’s no wall in certain parts of the desert, and that’s because the terrain is so dangerous and so difficult that it’s virtually impossible to cross. So when Clinton started prevention through deterrence with Border Patrol in 1994, the idea was the government understood that people were going to die, and the official statement is we thought that would be a deterrent, we thought people would not come after that. Of course the numbers just escalated. And that went on through Bush, it went on through Obama. It’s working because the desert does its job very effectively. When Border Patrol is functioning and the desert is functioning as it currently does, we know exactly what that outcome is. It’s been same outcome since ‘94. It’s unfortunate, but it’s functioning exactly as intended.

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The policies we’re talking about are tricky, because they do allow the Trump administration to seem like they’re not the ones responsible for these deaths when they are. But we see the right-wing line over and over again blaming parents for taking this risky crossing when they’re actually making it as risky as possible.

I would compare it to the very famous image that came out of refugees putting their children into the boats that were sinking and people said, “How could you do that, how could you put your child into that?” A common response from folks who understood the gravity of the situation was that no parent would do that if they didn’t think this was more important than what they were leaving behind. To that end there’s room to talk about U.S. foreign policy and our intervention in Central American countries. To say, well we don’t understand why people are putting themselves in the dangerous situation, but to have aided in the Honduran coup just a few years ago that has really changed people’s lives for the worse, it is understandable when you take it with a broad lens.

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Can you detail what makes the routes that prevention by deterrence forces migrants into more dangerous than other entry points? 

I’ll speak specifically to the Sonoran desert because No More Deaths works in Southern Arizona, but along the Southern border conditions are pretty similar. In the summer you’re looking at temperatures that are anywhere from 115 to 120 degrees, in the winter after nightfall you’ll often get freezing temperatures. You’re looking at very little water, there are pretty much no natural sources of water. You’re also looking at heat exhaustion, dehydration. Something we’ve learned in providing medical care in the field is that something as simple as a blister can start and really deter somebody after just a few hours and make it so someone can’t continue walking. Say you’re crossing at the border into Arizona—if you’ve got say 40 miles to the nearest town, imagine trying to cross that on foot. You can’t physically carry enough water, you can’t carry the amount of gallons you would need on a day to day basis, continuing under those conditions and under such physical strain, so it’s virtually impossible to do without help.

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What has your work looked like under the Trump administration?

One of our volunteers, Scott Warren, was arrested in January and charged with harboring and providing aid to two undocumented people. That arrest happened the same day that our video of Border Patrol agents dumping out water over the course of five or six years was released and went viral. We can’t prove it was retaliation, but you’re seeing an escalation on the part of the government against aid workers, which is very upsetting, and certainly not a precedent you should want to set.

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We have several volunteers facing federal misdemeanor charges with abandonment of property, which is what the official line is for leaving aid supplies. The Southern Arizona landscape is kind of factioned up, there’s the Tohono O’odham Reservation, and then you’ve got a lot federal land, like wildlife refuges, Organ Pipe National Park, which has all these different jurisdictions and laws. Incidentally CBP is not subjected to this law, whereas aid workers are being told they can’t go onto these wildlife refuges, even knowing that’s a dangerous corridor that people are dying in. Border Patrol is allowed to drive their cars through. We have definitely seen an escalation of legal retaliation under the Trump administration. That isn’t to say we haven’t faced charges before, we have, but there’s a frightening overtone to this whole era. It feels different for sure.

A big part of the work you do deals in something very simple: providing water for people crossing the border. Logistically, what are the biggest obstacles people face to accessing water?

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We are limited as well by being people who have to hike this water into these locations, carrying enough for ourselves, carrying the water we’re going to leave. A lot of these areas are incredibly remote, it’s not just the distance, it’s also the height. The area can be quite mountainous. You need more water in these conditions than one would even need normally.

What are some other dangers involved for people making this journey?

There’s a report we did that talks about the chase and scatter tactic that Border Patrol will use to specifically disorient people away from groups and the people that they’re traveling with. One of the cases that we focused on was an individual who was essentially chased off a ledge of a cliff and died that way. It’s a mountainous area, it’s rugged. Animal-wise there are so many things in the desert that are quite frankly dangerous. People will leave pepper in a circle around them when sleeping in the hopes of warding off snakes. There’s so much wildlife that’s poisonous and dangerous, a lot of different dangers that people are facing. I can only imagine that it’s very difficult to keep all that straight. Once you become dehydrated, it’s difficult to keep your senses around you.

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