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Targeting El Paso


The documentary Targeting El Paso, produced by Marcela Gaviria, gives an account of the atrocities migrants suffer at the hands of the US immigration sector as they try to find greener pastures and asylum in the US. This documentary paints the picture of the impacts of the harsh immigration policies set to curb immigration at the US-Mexico border, focusing mainly on the city of EL Paso. In light of that, this paper explores the various themes this investigative documentary brings to light, including the immigration policies set especially by Trump’s administration, their impacts on migrants as well as residents of El Paso, how El Paso has been in the past used as a testing site for Trump’s immigration policies, and the efficacy of the much-ballyhooed Trump wall.

US Immigration Policy and Its Impact

The US-Mexico border has long been entangled in crisis after crisis. Two significant crises, however, remain in the headlines even now. On the one hand, the droves of immigrants from Central American countries coming to cross over in search of greener pastures is a continuing conundrum even today; Trump labeled it as an onslaught to the US (Nevins, 2016). On the other hand, is the treatment of these migrants by the US government. This second crisis is among the most disheartening and appalling issues impacting the US geopolitical arena, as stated in Targeting El Paso.

In response to the hoards of migrants from Central American countries flocking the US-Mexico border, the US has, on occasion, taken drastic measures. In particular, the Trump administration is the most recent administration to ‘drop the hammer’ on illegal immigration and asylum seekers with somewhat excessive, if not oppressive, measures. Among these measures are deterrence tactics such as prolonged detentions of migrants and zero-tolerance policies. Slack (2019) writes that the use of detention centers and long detention periods may be interpreted as tactics aimed at asylum deterrence; this is whereby “people are placed in never-ending detention” to make them give up and accept deportation to their home country. In the film, for instance, Dariana, aged nine, was separated from her father after they were caught crossing and held in detention in Clint and then in Cayuga, to the point that when a judge later asked her if she would like to remain in the US, she refused and asked to be taken back to Honduras, a place they had prior fled. On the other hand, policies such as zero-tolerance policy attempt deterrence by making it extremely difficult for migrants even to have a chance to seek asylum.

The impacts of such deterrence measures are dire. Detention centers and long detention periods, as the documentary elucidates, impact migrants physically, emotionally, and even socially. In the film, interviews with individuals who had gone through detention centers bring to light some of the suffering migrants face during detention. They (migrants) are bundled up into detention cells in the hundreds when those cages can only hold a few or less than a hundred people. They are not afforded care. In addition, the film illuminates how children who had been detained, for instance, had been at a point left for days without showering or adequate food. Elora Mukherjee, a monitor for Clint detention center, brings to light that in Clint, they find over 350 children detained with clothes covered in nasal mucous, vomit and some had not showered since they were brought in (Gaviria, 2020). This phenomenon is not only brought to light by the documentary. John Washington, a reporter, recounts an interview he had with a Honduran grandmother who had been detained for almost two years before she was deported back to Honduras and separated from her granddaughter; she describes the detention period as being “like a purgatory” (Washington, 2020). She had fled Honduras to escape the culture of impunity and feminicides, a phenomenon that Blume et al. (2023) assert is common in many Central American nations, only to be held in a jail-like setting and sent back to the guillotine she fled.

On the other hand, draconian policies such as the zero-tolerance policy that have been used in handling migrants at the border have sent shockwaves to many, with most of such policies leading to horrible impacts. In particular, the zero-tolerance policy was found to be a precursor for increased family separation and detention of hundreds if not thousands of children in cages. Blitzer (2019), in an article on the families torn apart by Trump’s administration, explains that the family separation policy essentially broke the system’s integrity whereby even after months of inadvertently or carelessly separating children from their parents since 2017, the administration continued to separate children with their parents once border patrol caught them trying to cross the border. The blame game that came after protests against these horrible impacts is what is appalling. The Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S) changed its rationale for separation from the zero-tolerance policy and cited reasons such as ‘child safety and abusive parents’ (Blitzer, 2019). Further, it blamed O.R.R. for limited information provision regarding family separation (Blitzer, 2019). Whereas Trump blamed Democrats for the whole ordeal of family separation, as a clip in the documentary shows.

El Paso as A Testing Ground for Trump’s Policies

The documentary does well to introduce the city of El Paso as a primary site that the Trump administration used as a beta testing ground for immigration policies implemented in other parts of the country. El Paso was primarily where the US-Mexico border wall was physically hardened (erected) and militarized, as Dylan Corbett (an executive director at Hope Border Institute) explains in the documentary. In addition, once the Trump administration declared protection of the US borders, El Paso was among the primary border cities to detain and prosecute immigrants from Mexico and many Central American countries criminally. Essentially, El Paso was among the first cities in which President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy was enacted, with a general crackdown on immigrants crossing over to the US being detained and prosecuted. As Jessica Miles explains in the film, this crackdown led to a drastic change in how migrants were treated, where those caught crossing even to seek asylum began being criminally prosecuted. What is appalling, according to Sergio Garcia (a public defender interviewed in the film), is that some of the detained parents had absolutely no criminal records or history.

Being among the first border cities to detain and incarcerate immigrants, El Paso thus became one of the primary border cities where the separation of families began as children could not be detained in similar facilities as their parents. From the discussion before, the adverse impacts of the separation policy are evident. Some of the border patrol agencies even noted these impacts; for instance, in the film, Wesley Farris, a high-ranking border patrol officer, felt that the separation of families was to an extent extreme to the point that he felt it was not appropriate but would do nothing since it was his directive to separate families when asked to. Such separation and detention were primary in making individuals such as Dariana so hateful that they even tried to seek asylum in the first place and asked to be deported back. This clearly shows how the Trump administration ensured its policies were executed to the letter without consideration of any of the impacts we have discussed above.

The Failure of the Trump Wall

Trump used the border wall as one of his major campaigning selling points, mostly wooing citizens with the idea that constructing a wall along the US-Mexico border would, to a greater extent, curb the ever-present threat of illegal immigration by people from Mexico and other Central American countries. By the end of his administration, Trump had overseen over 400 miles of construction or replacement of the wall. However, the wall’s success has been a contentious issue, with research finding that the wall has had less impact on illegal immigration (Stephen, 2018). In a congregation celebrating the wall’s final construction, Trump argued that the border had made cities such as El Paso safer than before the wall was erected. However, the then mayor of El Paso, Dee Margo, states that the wall did little to make El Paso safer; in the documentary, Mayor Margo plainly states that El Paso has for long been a peaceful city and that Trump’s wall was just that, a wall, with no impact on El Paso’s crime rate and not necessarily a security revolutionizing idea (Gaviria, 2020).


In conclusion, the documentary Targeting El Paso is an exemplar of how US policy has been, on occasion, extremist in countering illegal immigration and asylum seeking. Whether policy and measures taken to curb immigration from the South have come from a place of love and patriotism, some of the enacted policies, such as the zero-tolerance policy, have led to adverse impacts as well as promoted negative-laden ideologies that have even influenced the general society. El Paso and the undertakings elucidated by the documentary stand as one of the best exemplars of how such draconian policies and inhumane deterrence tactics may impact those coming to the US’s front door for help. More so, Trump’s wall did little to alleviate the issues related to immigration and asylum-seeking. In sum, the issue of immigration to the US is complex. Simple measures may not necessarily solve the issue; strict policies may inadvertently cause harm to migrants, and deterrence measures must be examined to ensure their negative impacts are mitigated. Nonetheless, extensive research and collaboration among all parties involved is essential if the US is to solve this ever-present issue of immigration from Mexico and Central American countries.


Blitzer, J. (2019). The Uncounted Families Torn Apart at the Border by the Trump Administration. The New Yorker. –

Blume, L., Meza, D., & Heath, P. (2023, January 31). Honduran Women Leaders in the Crosshairs. NACLA Report on the Americas.

Nevins, J. (2016). How US Policy In Honduras Set The Stage For Today’s Mass Migration. The Conversation.

Slack, J. (2019). Chapter 8: “Who Can I Deport?” Asylum and the Limits of Protection Against Persecution in Deported to Death: How Drug Violence Is Changing Migration on the US–Mexico Border (Vol. 45). University of California Press. Pp. 172 – 190.

Stephen, L. (2018). Creating Preemptive Suspects. National Security, Border Defense, and Immigration Policy, 1980-Present. Latin America Perspectives, Vol. 45, Issue 223, p7-25. DOI: 10.1177/0094582X17699907

Washington, J. (2020, May 3). “It’s Like Purgatory”: How the U.S. Has Undermined The Promise Of Asylum. The Intercept.


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