Sometime in the coming weeks, an asylum-seeking migrant caravan will be met by thousands of U.S. troops at the southwestern border. The administration has kept the cost of the deployment under wraps (reports say it could exceed $200 million), although a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called the operation “wasteful.”
Worse, President Donald Trump’s head nod to troops to use deadly force against any rock-throwing migrants stokes tension at the border, where agents have already killed at least 97 people — citizens and noncitizens alike — over the last 15 years under opaque use-of-force policies. Now the military presence will only complicate an already fraught situation at the border, and the president’s comments add to a culture of government secrecy and misinformation, fueling fear and abuse at taxpayers’ expense.
Border observers for years have found that a lack of accountability and oversight has enabled agents to abuse power and kill unarmed civilians in episodes that remain shrouded in secrecy. Barack Obama’s administration took nominal steps to increase transparency on border policies, but little was done to counter the culture of impunity that remains. Families of those killed are still burdened with seeking truth and justice, while perpetrators are rarely held accountable for unlawful killings.
The second federal trial of a border patrol officer who killed 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez after shooting into Mexico through the border in 2012 is still underway. The government has stonewalled information requests for records on that case, and eyewitness accounts dispute border agents’ claims that Elena Rodríguez was throwing rocks.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, in particular, has become known for hiding the truth behind the administration’s border enforcement policies. It took an extensive effort by government watchdogs for the public to get a glimpse of the secret memo revealing that she signed off on the policy of separating families ― despite her statements under oath to the contrary. The memo ― still largely redacted ― also exposed that the intent of the policy was to drive fear and deter migrant families from trying to seek refuge. Missing from the memo was any plan to reunite separated families, with the devastating result that children are still missing even as the administration is considering a new family separation policy.
The administration’s problematic secrecy extends south of the U.S.-Mexico border as well. Mexico’s decision to use tear gas on the caravan and the recent killing of a Honduran migrant at Mexico’s southern border suggest that, behind closed doors, Mexico is taking direction from Washington to implement a hard-line policy against asylum-seeking migrants. Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S. has denied any deal between the countries on stopping the caravan but said his country was working “very closely with the United States government” to address “shared objectives regarding regional migration.”
What we do know, thanks to strategic use of transparency laws and targeted lawsuits, is that such shared objectives have lined the coffers of government contractors — Boeing, Dell, General Electric, IBM, Motorola, Raytheon and Sharp, to name a few. In fact, Washington has poured billions of dollars into private companies with little oversight in order to build up Mexico’s security forces with training, greater wiretap capabilities, biometric databases, surveillance aircraft, satellites, all-terrain vehicles, Black Hawk helicopters and more. Previously hidden files have shown these contracts were doled out with little scrutiny and expose direct connections between these programs and security units involved in violations, such as extortion, kidnapping and massacres of people traveling north. Those files took years to pry loose from government agencies, and ongoing secrecy cripples the public and Congress from holding contractors accountable for waste and abuse.
While the “Leahy Laws” strictly prohibit U.S. assistance to foreign security forces credibly believed to have committed a gross human rights violation, secrecy and cover-ups prevent the law from curbing aid for Mexico’s police and military responsible for such abuses. Even after authorities discovered mass graves of hundreds of Central American migrants just south of the border, U.S. agencies shielded information on Mexico’s cover-up of police involvement in the massacres as dollars continued to flow for immigration enforcement programs.
Secrecy undermines informed decision-making about policies and practices that have enormous consequences. Far too often, the administration hides the truth behind our country’s immigration policy and the fate of those seeking safety by ignoring obligations to report to Congress on immigration detention and border enforcement or lying about policies that have separated thousands of children from their parents. Such secrecy hinders Congress’ ability to conduct oversight and means that costly litigation, at taxpayers’ expense, is the often the only recourse for getting at the truth.
As immigration policy becomes increasingly shaped by clandestine maneuvering, the right to truth is vital to protect thousands of lives and to defend our country against increasingly authoritarian decision-making — at the border and beyond.
Jesse Franzblau is a policy analyst at Open the Government and a longtime freedom of information advocate specializing in use of transparency laws to document U.S. national security policy and human rights violations.
CORRECTION: This piece previously misdated the killing of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez as well as the discovery of mass graves in Mexico.