2016 Borderlands Trip: Law Enforcement Challenges Around Migration

By Syed Fida Hassan Shah, Pakistan

On February 9-15, 2016, thirteen Humphrey Fellows from the University of Minnesota traveled to Arizona to study immigration with Humphrey Fellows in journalism at Arizona State University. Fellows learned hands-on through site visits and meetings with leaders and academics dealing with issues on the border. This year for the first time, Fellows crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to examine border issues from the Mexican side. The following is a  reflection by one of the Fellows who attended this cross-campus collaboration, generously funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Institute of International Education.

Migration of people from one country to another always creates new challenges for law enforcement agencies.  Enforcement of migration laws doesn’t come under direct purview of local police and other local law enforcement agencies. The immigrants living in the United States, however, often complain about undue stop and search and harassment by local police officers.

The trip to Arizona by Humphrey Fellows from both the Law School and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs gave us an opportunity to look at the issue of migration on the US-Mexico border. The Fellows, along with Humphrey Fellows from Arizona State University (ASU),


The US-Mexico Border as seen from Nogales, Mexico

had a chance to discuss and explore the issue of immigration from different perspectives. It was a very informative and educational trip that gave us an opportunity to see the issue of illegal immigrants from different angles.

Talking to police and border patrol officers on the US-Mexico border gave us the impression that the immigrants crossing into the US from Mexico are all involved in crimes and/or drugs, and therefore pose a challenge to local law and order. We were given the impression that Mexican authorities are not doing enough to stop immigrants and drugs from entering the United States. However, after listening to the mayor of Nogales and other officials on the Mexican side of the border, it became clear to us that Mexico is in fact a victim of the situation. We were told that apart from immigrants coming from different South American countries, people from countries as far as China and India also attempt to cross into the United States from Mexico. It is extremely difficult for a developing country like Mexico to manage a 1,950 mile-long border and stop people from illegally crossing it.

There has always been debate among different law enforcement officers about the role of local police in checking the documents of immigrants. There are many law enforcement officers who have the opinion that local police should not involve themselves in enforcement of immigration laws because it will erode the trust of local communities. It creates a sense of insecurity among the immigrant community, and as a result they hesitate to report to police even if they are victims of crimes. At the same time, many law enforcement officers are of the view that local police can also enforce immigration laws because the people who have illegally entered the country have broken the law.

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Rosaries of migrants praying for safe passage at a migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico

The trip to Arizona and the Mexican border was an opportunity to think about the pros and cons of enforcement of immigration laws by local police agencies.  To me, giving local law enforcement agencies the power to enforce immigration laws is a violation of basic human rights. It will further worsen the miseries of poor migrants, who are forced to leave their countries due to conflict and many other reasons. The already oppressed minority communities will further feel threatened because of stop-and-search procedures by local police for checking the illegal migrants. I appreciated the approach of Sheriff Tony Estrada, who sees immigration as a human issue. When asked about the reasons for his compassion for the migrants, his simple response was, “Put yourself in their shoes.”

Closing borders, erecting walls, and deporting back poor, illegal migrants in the middle of the night, separating children from their parents, is a genuine human rights issue. Instead of having a solo fight, the US government should collaborate with the Mexican government for better border management. Encouraging big companies to invest in Mexico and create employment opportunities may improve the situation. The issue of drugs also needs to be dealt with in collaboration and cooperation with Mexico and other countries in the region. Involving police in the enforcement of immigration laws will further complicate the matter and have a negative effect on its already deteriorating relationship with minority communities.



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