Prevention Through Deterrence
By Peter Streufert
On a usual morning in El Paso, Texas you could expect to see the residents filter out of their homes and start the day for work. On the other side of the border in Ciudad Juárez, some Mexican citizens must first prepare for their daily, transnational, and illegal commute to work. Each day roughly 10,000 Mexicans would go back and forth between the two cities, easily making the journey for work on the other side of the river. This commute took little risk, energy, or commitment from those wishing to cross the border. If one was caught, they would be released and try again; the only real consequence being tardiness to work. Some border patrol agents claimed to catch the same person “2-3 times a shift.”1 Many of the residents of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez believed the “mythical division between these two cities just doesn’t exist”.2 Even casual trips were taken across this wispy border to buy a pack of cigarettes or get teeth cleaned at a dentist. The point being; nobody died, nobody was arrested for long, and crossing the border did not take up space in people’s minds. Prevention Through Deterrence changed this. Starting in 1994, this policy made crossing the border in these cities impossible by focusing agents and resources along these small sections of the border, forcing migrants hoping to enter the United States “over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing.”3 After the implementation of this policy, a trip that would have taken less than 5 minutes of planning and a short sprint across the river transformed into a multi-day journey through deserts and mountains. Temperatures range from sub-zero to over 100 degrees. The risk of dehydration and exposure are ever-present and costly guides and extensive planning is needed. Since 1998, border patrol has reported 7,442 migrant deaths along the southwest border, averaging 372 a year.4 The true number is likely higher as many migrant deaths in the desert are unseen and left-behind bodies are decomposed by the desert.5 The crossing has morphed. It is no longer done for a pack of cigarettes, but only out of necessity. In the face of violence, great adversity, and unpredictable or uncertain futures people turn to religion to help themselves and find safety. As Prevention Through Deterrence increases the length, difficulty, and occurrence of violence when crossing the US-Mexican Border, migrants and their families turn to religion to help them deal with the hardships of the journey. Prevention Through Deterrence’s often unseen violence presents itself through changes in the religious landscape of migrants, their families, and communities.
A stated goal of the Prevention Through Deterrence policy by the US Government was to increase “violence at attempted entries”,6 meaning more deaths and scarring experiences for migrants hoping for a better life in the United States. As a result of this, many turned to religion as a way to help their families or themselves successfully cross the border. One way this is displayed is through families creating retablos or altarpieces out of oil paints, tin sheets or the back of license plates. While retablos have been a common religious practice for centuries, they recently have taken a new common theme. These retablos often painted figures praying for safe border crossing and displayed families’ hopes that they would find prosperity and work in the United States. One such retablo from 1990 displays a man wearing semi-formal work clothes (a white-collared button-up shirt and a pair of blue pants) locked in prison with his arms outstretched holding onto the cell bars. Outside the cell is a painted Jesus on the crucifix with a caption below reading, “Con el presente retablo le pido al Sr. de la Conquista…Que permita me den mi libertad en Estados Unidos.”7 This translates to “With this altarpiece I ask the Lord of the conquest that they give me my freedom in the United States.” This retablo likely represents a man caught in a detention center praying that Jesus offers him freedom from this cell. The semi-formal work clothes may be alluding to the jobs and economic opportunities dreamt about before reaching the United States. The message displayed by this retablo and others like it provide an often overlooked qualitative insight into the lives of migrants as they cross the border. Their families understand the arduous and dangerous journey that awaits them and hope prayer through these retablos will provide their family members with extra help to successfully make the passage. Jason de León’s The Land of Open Graves provides unique insights into some religious practices and traditions formed by the Prevention Through Deterrence Policy. In one of the migrant shelters on the Mexican side of the border, León describes “a small altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe and a wooden sculpture of crucified Jesus”8 with various small trinkets surrounding the two figures. Often these statues will be filled with photographs of those who have recently attempted crossing and flower offerings as a way to ensure, “someone avoids la migra on the next trip or guarantee that [they don’t] run out of water.”9 Sometimes shrines will even be made along the route through the desert as migrants take breaks on their journey.10 These religious altars and retablos show the introduction of religion into the process of border crossing. Before PTD, the crossing was a secular process, involving little thought; now it seems to demand prayers or offerings from family and friends to ensure success in crossing and in one’s new life.
In 2002 a story emerged of a 45-year-old man from Zacatecas, Mexico by the name of Jesús Buendía Gaytán who had decided to make the journey north.11 He had hoped to find economic success in the US and had arranged to seek work on a plantation in California. Jesús wished to eventually make enough money to send to his family or reunite with them. Quickly after crossing the US-Mexico border and traveling into the Sonoran desert, Jesús and the other migrants he was with were spotted by border patrol. The group fled, leaving Jesús alone in the desert. Lost, walking through the hot desert sun, on his third day of the trek and out of water. He notices his dry mouth, the feeling of walking becoming harder, and the worry that he might not make it sets in. Suddenly, a pickup truck drives into his view, at first worried it might be border patrol, he looks around for somewhere to hide. Eventually, as the truck drives closer, Jesús realizes it’s an old truck with a single driver, not a border patrol agent. A light-skinned man with blue eyes steps out, smiles and hands him food and water. The mystifying man says in perfect Spanish, “When you get a job and money and are ready to return to Mexico, look for me in Santa Ana de Guadalupe. Ask for Toribio Romo.” Many migrants have experienced similar mysterious encounters with this man by the name of Toribio Romo along their journey. Upon the invitation from the man who saved their lives in the desert, they make their way down to Santa Ana de Guadalupe, Jalisco. There, they are pointed to a small church where they find the holy remains of Saint Toribio Romo Gonzalez, the man who helped them in the desert. In recent years since the Prevention Through Deterrence policy has been implemented, more and more people have begun to look to Saint Toribio Romo for help, and he has answered. Some have miraculous encounters with him in the same truck, other migrants have simply followed a walking man in the distance. He has appeared sitting next to them on a bus or even a plane. On the Mexican side of the border, migrants will often make a trip to Santa Ana de Guadalupe before crossing the border in hopes he will safely guide them. There, migrants will give offerings, photos, and personal stories to the saint. When the time comes for them to make the journey they will buy prayer cards with his image. Because of his miracles, he has been given the names “el santo pollero” and “coyote” saint.12 Many on the United States side of the border will pray to Toribio Romo wishing that he guides and protects their loved ones as they make the journey across. Temples in California, Texas, and Chicago have been created, as a display of faith and honor to this saint. A statue of Toribio Romo was brought to California from the church of Santa Ana de Guadalupe and within three weeks 50,000 people, mostly Mexican migrants, came to visit and pray to the statue.13 The Coyote saint isn’t the only new religious figure that has recently become popular in light of the PTD policy. Santa Muerte, a female saint involved with love, death, sex, and healing has recently been invoked in, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey, and Reynosa, all border towns near Texas.14 Her shines have been constructed near the border and even under a bridge that connects the two countries. Here, migrants, travelers, and border residents leave offerings and request favors of safe passage to the US. These religious actions in the name of Toribio Romo and Santa Muerte show how a policy that creates a violent and treacherous journey will result in people looking toward religion to help their troubles, altering the religious landscape. Before PTD, families could make it across borders to see each other or follow economic opportunities much easier and faster. There wasn’t as much of a need for a religious figure like Toribio Romo, but in the PTD era, people see him not only as their smuggler across the border but as their guardian or even immigration lawyer, a protector of all migrants.15 Lastly, the spread of new prayers to these figures in major US cities show that this border policy can affect the religious landscape on a larger scale than just the borderlands.
Much of the violence that takes place from the PTD policy is pushed into the desert where it goes unnoticed by most. However, churches and religious groups near the border have begun to recognize and take action against the increased violence. One such religious group gathers in El Paso to protest current immigration policies. This church’s leader, Rev. Owens said in an effort to prioritize action, “We can read our sacred text, we can pray our prayers, but unless we’re going to show up for humanity no one believes us.” 16 Groups like this have worked to provide food, shelter, and legal assistance to migrants that have recently crossed the border. Religious leaders supporting migrants cite that “traditions tell us that we are to welcome the stranger. We are to treat the immigrants as our own family.”17 They are troubled by the actions and policies of the Trump administration and their use of the bible to justify child separation. This political divide in religious groups in America provides a unique insight into the effects of the Prevention Through Deterrence policy. As PTD pushes migrants away from the city, the violence and deaths occurring become less visible to those outside of the region. News sources and other forms of media are unable to show the reality of crossing through the desert. Many Americans farther from the border may not be able to see this impact in the same way these religious groups closer to the border can, resulting in a new religious divide. This is one way PTD’s unseen violence not only changes the religious cultures of migrants crossing the borders, but alters the religious landscape of the United States as a whole.
While the religious traditions and practices examined all provide powerful insight into the effects of the Prevention Through Deterrence policy, all data here was collected from the internet, not face to face from real people. Many migrants’ experiences on the border have been traumatizing and to share these experiences online or even talk about them with others may bring back painful memories. As such, there are undoubtedly countless other stories, traditions, and religious practices that have not yet made their way onto the internet and I am unable to access. To claim the few examples I have selected to examine here are representative of migrants crossing the border and the entire borderland’s religious culture would be a mistake. I only intend to present evidence of some individuals’ religious experiences as a way to show the powerful effect of the PTD policy.
The longer and more dangerous border crossing in the Prevention Through Deterrence era led to new religious practices and traditions becoming an integral part of the migration process. This allows us to better understand the migration process and implications of the policy as a whole. We now know that this policy has made incredibly hostile and violent conditions for border crossing. Crossing the border is no longer something that can be done without thought; to do a single day of work and return, to visit a friend. For these migrants, it takes days of travel, prayers, shrines and offerings, and maybe even a miracle from a saint to help you cross. As more and more migrants have viewed crossing through a religious lens, activists and policymakers may be able to better understand the context of these migrants and make more informed decisions to benefit these individuals. These new religious practices, figures, and tensions are all direct results of the unnecessary death and hardships forced upon the migrants and may serve as powerful evidence to those critiquing the PTD policy.
1 “Border Trilogy Part 1.”
2 “Border Trilogy Part 1.”
3 “Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond.”
4 Emily Cataneo, “Mapping Migrant Deaths in the Desert.”
5 Jason De León, The Land of Open Graves.
6“Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond.”
7Timpane, “The Miracle of Migration.”
8Jason De León, The Land of Open Graves.
9Young, Mexican Exodus.
10Young, Mexican Exodus.
11 Young, Mexican Exodus.
12 Young, Mexican Exodus.
13 MARTÍN, “Borderlands Saints.”
14 MARTÍN, “Borderlands Saints.”
15 “Faithful Flock to See Statue of Santo Toribio, the Immigrants’ Saint – Los Angeles Times.”
16“Religious Leaders Stand Up For Immigrants At Border.”
17 “Jeff Sessions Cites Romans 13, a Bible Passage Used to Defend Slavery, in Defense of Family Separations – The Washington Post.”