Originally Published in The Nation
Jessica Suriano - December 15, 2020
In early October, for the second time in less than three months, Border Patrol agents raided a No More Deaths humanitarian aid camp about 11 miles north of the Arizona-Mexico border. After being detained with her fellow volunteers, Paige Corich-Kleim watched as agents descended into the camp with military-style vehicles and weapons to terrorize and eventually detain 12 migrants seeking food, water, and medical aid at the camp. Despite past victories in court establishing that humanitarian aid is not a crime and that No More Deaths should be able to operate freely without Customs and Border Protection (CBP) intimidation, its camps and the people seeking lifesaving assistance there continue to be threatened.
The group believes their unrelenting practice of investigating and publishing Border Patrol abuses could be one of the reasons they’ve seen an uptick in retaliation from the government and more frequent raids. On July 31, when the peak temperature of the day was about 110 degrees in the remote area of the camp, the Border Patrol and CBP’s paramilitary arm, the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC), invaded the aid area accompanied by an armored vehicle, three ATVS, two helicopters, and over 20 marked and unmarked vehicles. The agents, refusing to show a warrant and remaining unmasked, detained over 30 people seeking aid. The day before the raid, the Border Patrol had placed the camp under lockdown with 24-hour surveillance, turning away anyone else seeking to enter the camp for aid. In a No More Deaths press release describing the July raid, the group addresses the Border Patrol’s patterns of retaliation:
The initial detention and surveillance of Byrd Camp was set up just 24 hours after No More Deaths released emails from a FOIA request revealing the role of BORTAC—the tactical unit recently mobilized against protestors throughout the United States—and the Border Patrol Union’s role in a 2017 raid of the same aid station. The message is clear: expose Border Patrol abuses, face retaliation.
We talked to Corich-Kleim, a volunteer with No More Deaths for the past seven years who was present at the raid in October, about why the Border Patrol’s retaliation tactics are escalating along the Southwest border, how publishing CBP’s abuses is a tenet of the aid group’s activism, and what reports and documents are in the pipeline to be published next. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Jessica Suriano: Can you describe the scene during the October raid?
PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM The camp had been under surveillance for a little over two days by that point. We were pretty aware of Border Patrol’s presence and thought that it was possible they would raid the camp. It felt pretty tense. We were still staffing the camp; normally what we do there is we provide food, water, and first aid to people crossing the desert. It’s an off-grid camp, so there’s a lot of maintenance we do, a lot of cooking and cleaning. Especially now with Covid-19, we’ve really upped our cleaning protocols. We got word from people that live in Arivaca, which is the nearest town, that there was a caravan of Border Patrol vehicles, including an armored BearCat tank, that was seen staging in town. We knew about 20 minutes before the raid happened that it was going to happen. A big helicopter was hovering over the camp before they actually entered on foot.
It was a military-style raid. The first wave that entered the camp was all BORTAC agents, which is the tactical arm of Border Patrol. It’s like a SWAT team. They came in, guns drawn, in full camouflage. The sun had just gone down, so it was totally pitch-black. They detained all of the volunteers. We were all sitting at the entrance of camp. We were detained for about three hours. We couldn’t see everything that was happening in the camp, but we definitely could see flashlights going around, and clusters of agents going around the camp with guns drawn to clear the area. We later heard from some people with other aid groups that came out that they saw flashlights chasing people. All of the people that were at camp receiving aid were chased in the darkness. Border Patrol detained 12 people there.
JS: Have you been present at raids before? If so, were they similar to this one or different?
PCK: Border Patrol has entered the property five or six times since we’ve been there over the past 12 years. I was present for the lead-up to the raid that happened in 2017, which was the first one they had a warrant for. I was there as they were increasing surveillance, and they set up a checkpoint at the entrance of camps. Nobody could come or go in a car without getting pulled over and searched. I left the morning that they actually came, issued the warrant, and raided the space. But that one in 2017 was very different than these last two raids. Volunteers filmed the whole  raid, and agents did not have BORTAC support. They just entered like normal rank-and-file agents. The most recent raids were a lot more escalated as far as violence and military-style tactical gear.
JS: Why does No More Deaths think that they’ve escalated in this way?
PCK: I think the political climate has allowed them to do so. It’s kind of a complicated question because Border Patrol has been a really violent and unaccountable agency for a long time. We’ve been documenting their abuses since 2008, but under the Trump administration, more explicitly racist and violent policies and tactics are more widely accepted and endorsed by the president and by the political institutions. They’ve been able to normalize and escalate all of these tactics over the years. I think what we’re seeing now is Border Patrol is able to operate with even more impunity and in even more violent ways, and still get away with it.
JS: Does your group think a presidential change will create any tangible changes in this area?
PCK: I think under Trump we’re seeing our organization getting targeted more, but I think even if our organization isn’t being targeted actively, the violence that’s happening along the border is still going to be happening. The targeting of humanitarian aid is just an escalation of the targeting of migrants. We were able to win in court against humanitarian aid being criminalized, but migration is still being criminalized. That’s the core of it, and that’s the root problem. Biden will likely stop wall construction, but I think under both Democrats and Republicans, we’ve seen a gradual increase in border militarization. He might stop the wall, but then have more towers and checkpoints, more agents on the ground, or a virtual wall. I don’t think that the border is going to be demilitarized. Also, the last time Biden was in office with Obama, they deported about 3 million people. Everybody was really upset and mobilized around family separation, but deportation is also family separation. It’s important to remember that nothing under Trump is totally new. It’s just more egregious and explicit.
JS: No More Deaths uses publishing documents obtained through FOIA and other records requests about Border Patrol abuses as part of its activism. In your experience, has this led to even more targeting of the organization?
PCK: We’ve been documenting abuses since 2008, and we’ve been active in the desert since 2004. The clearest examples that we’ve seen of retaliation were with the arrest of Scott Warren, one of our volunteers in Ajo. We video recorded Border Patrol destroying water gallons and published a report talking about widespread interference with humanitarian aid by Border Patrol, and just about six hours after we released that report, Scott was arrested and charged with felonies. With the raid back in July, we had just released documents from a FOIA request that were showing that the Border Patrol union had pressured the local sector to raid the aid station.
Right after that, we had a big increase in surveillance. Border Patrol entered the property and arrested one person, and then later came back in force and raided the whole space. We’ve seen a pattern of it. Those types of tactics, repressing and targeting groups that are being the most vocal, is meant to deter other people from speaking out. It’s a tactic that goes along with just how secretive and unaccountable Border Patrol as part of the Department of Homeland Security is. They aren’t open to the same level of scrutiny as a lot of other law enforcement agencies, even though they’re one of the biggest police forces and most well-funded ones. They’re now kind of popping up in cities and widening their jurisdiction.
It makes sense that when there are groups that are interacting with people and documenting the abuses that they are experiencing, they’re going to try to silence those people and silence that dissent. We’ve also seen it in other ways within the interior, especially undocumented organizers and activists who are targeted by ICE for deportation for speaking out. It’s part of a larger pattern of retaliation and trying to suppress dissent.
JS: You all have been working on this three-part report called The Disappeared Report. How was the information in these reports collected?
PCK: A lot of it is based on interviews. For part one, which is about deadly enforcement tactics, we interviewed people who had been detained by Border Patrol to understand and hear their stories about what was happening in the field when no one’s watching. Part two is about interference with humanitarian aid. When we go out to the desert and we leave food and water on trails, we document all of that in a logbook so that we can track which areas have greater need. We went back through about four years of our data and analyzed it, and saw really widespread destruction of aid.
Our most current one that’s going to come out in the next few months is about emergency non-response. It is all based on information from a missing migrant hotline that used to be run by Coalición de Derechos Humanos, which is a local organization. If you call 911 in the borderlands, the call gets routed to Border Patrol. They’ve essentially monopolized emergency response for undocumented people that are crossing the desert, but they don’t have the same standards or responses as if a citizen was lost, say, in a national park, for example. The most recent report is looking at all of the cases in the hotline database and tracking patterns of an emergency non-response.
JS: Other than the immediate threat CBP poses for people traveling through the desert, what other elements compound the precarity of these trips?
PCK: Right now, something that’s really impacting the border is the Covid-19 pandemic. When people are detained in the desert, instead of working under any kind of public health emergency protocols, they’re just being driven to the nearest port and dropped off. People are being taken and dumped in towns where there’s no infrastructure to handle an influx of people who’ve just been in the desert. People might be medically compromised or just sick and exhausted, and they’re getting dropped off in a place that has no resources to support them. We’ve also seen pretty bad practices within Border Patrol around mask wearing to try to prevent the spread of Covid-19. They’re not wearing masks, and conditions in detention have been really bad. The US’s lack of an actual pandemic response is manifesting itself in really unique ways along the border.
JS: What kinds of conversations have been happening within your group about what happens next?
PCK: One of the things that I really love about No More Deaths is that we are able to be really flexible and responsive to whatever pops up. With Covid-19, we’ve implemented a ton of new protocols. We’ve changed our volunteer program. Right now, the biggest thing on a lot of our minds is that winter is here. Now it’s starting to freeze in the desert, which is something people don’t always think about. People think about the extreme heat in the summer, but in the winter it also gets really cold. So we’re doing clothes donation drives and putting out blankets. We’ll just keep seeing what the needs on the ground are and adjusting our work to accommodate them. It’s all very beyond us and what we’re able to control, but we are very committed to finding the most effective ways to intervene.
JS: How is the militarization of CBP that your group has been documenting for years connected to the abolition movement and calls for an anti-carceral country?
PCK: Border patrol started in 1924, but there were very few agents around until the mid-’90s, and that’s when the US started a border enforcement policy called “prevention through deterrence,” which is a policy that essentially walls off cities where it’s easier to cross, and pushes migration patterns into the remote desert areas. The idea was that it would be so difficult and dangerous to cross, that people would stop. That was put into place the same year as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which destabilized the Mexican agricultural economy. Since then, there’s been a steady increase in militarization along the border and a continual funneling of people into some of the most dangerous and remote corridors.
Over the past 10, 15 years maybe, we’ve seen checkpoints pop up on all the roads leaving the borderlands region. We’ve seen towers get put up and sensors buried in the ground, and all of this military infrastructure. Another thing that happened in 1994 that people don’t always think of as relating to immigration enforcement was the Crime Bill, which really kickstarted the expansion of the prison-industrial complex and was tied with the “war on drugs.” All of these policies really work hand in hand. We see a lot of collaboration between ICE and local police forces, which then deport people, who then cross back through the desert, and may interact with Border Patrol.
Looking at people who are doing all of this current work towards abolition of the prison-industrial complex, we definitely see the ways in which that could also have a dramatic impact on people dying in the desert. If people aren’t getting picked up in the interior, they won’t have to cross through the desert to get back to their families. The border is often used as a testing ground for a lot of technology and tactics as well. When we see things that are tried out along the border, we can often expect them to pop up in the interior in cities. A lot of people were talking about BORTAC showing up in Portland this year, and that wasn’t the first time they’ve shown up [in cities]. People are seeing that there needs to be a whole, huge shift in how all of these things are functioning.