U.S. immigration policy causes migrant deaths

On March 30, Mexican police arrested three officials from the National Immigration Institute and two private security guards. The arrests occurred just days after a deadly blaze at a migrant detention facility in Ciudad Juárez. One of the incarcerated migrants, who has been accused of starting the fire, has also been arrested. (NPR, March 31

Mexico side of the U.S. border wall at Friendship Park in Las Playas de Tijuana, Baja California, December 2018. (Photo Credit: Ted Kelly)

While an investigation into the fire, which killed 40 people, is underway, those really responsible are still at large. 

Regardless of how the blaze started — or who started it — the scope of this murder investigation must go beyond who lit the match. This criminal conspiracy goes further than the immigration agents who locked the cell doors and walked away, even as the victims cried for help.

The responsibility even goes above the heads of the prison officials who let the fire burn. According to the Ciudad Juárez fire department, no one at the detention center called emergency services. Instead, an on-duty captain saw the smoke and ran back to the station to alert others. Firefighters had to break down the cell doors to make a rescue. “It was a coincidence that we were fortunately able to get anybody out alive,” said one. (La Verdad, March 31)

Long before the smoke, long before the fire, this mass murder was premeditated. No one should have been in that facility in the first place.

Why were they there? Who created the conditions that forced these people to flee their homes and seek asylum elsewhere? Who drew a border across the map? Who forced these families into a no-win scenario, making them choose between prison or a perilous dash across deadly terrain?

Title 42 is a death sentence

Immigrants rights activists are correctly pointing to Title 42, a policy implemented by former President Donald Trump in 2020, which forced asylum seekers in the U.S. back across the border by tightening restrictions on who qualifies for asylum. The rule has enabled U.S. border agents to order 2.7 million expulsions since March 2020, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Fewer than 8% of all migrants encountered at U.S.-Mexico border checkpoints are granted asylum. (borderoversight.org)

“The U.S. and Mexican governments have prioritized the deterrence, the criminalization, the militarization, the discrimination versus the well-being of those seeking protection,” Tania Guerrero of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network told NPR.

Title 42, preposterously pitched as a public health initiative to stop the spread of COVID-19, is scheduled to end this May 11. In reality, Title 42 “denies migrants a chance to seek asylum, on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19, but enforcement has fallen disproportionately on Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans and El Salvadorans, because those have been the only nationalities that Mexico agreed to take back.” (KPBS, March 31)

President Joe Biden has signaled that he will let Title 42 expire — as he has done to many other provisions that actually did help curb the spread of COVID-19.  The White House may want to prevent the Supreme Court from ruling on the legality of the asylum ban, which Justices had voted to take up this March. After Biden’s announcement, the Supreme Court canceled its session to hear oral arguments on Title 42. (Roll Call, March 2) But whether or not Title 42 does expire, the White House is poised to make the policy permanent through other means. 

The advocacy group WOLA was formed in 1973 by progressive clergy after the U.S.-backed military coup in Chile. WOLA’s Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isaacson says a transit ban “may deny asylum to people who passed through a third country en route and did not first seek it there. Aggressive use of ‘expedited removal’ could force asylum seekers to defend their cases within a few days, from the austere custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), without meaningful access to counsel. Ongoing negotiations with Mexico may enable thousands of removals of non-Mexican citizens across the land border.” (wola.org, Feb. 17)

Hard-line policies continue under Biden

Since his 2020 presidential campaign, which denied Trump a second term, Biden has painted himself as a compassionate, reasonable alternative to the hard-line and openly racist incumbent, especially when it came to immigration. Just last month, the White House released a statement claiming “Biden has taken historic steps to secure our border and rebuild a safe, orderly and humane immigration system that was gutted by the previous Administration.” (whitehouse.gov, March 9) 

In the same statement, the White House boasts it has increased the budget of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by more than $800 million, for a total of nearly $25 billion.

Biden’s actual record on immigration is completely in line with that of his predecessors, dating back to the 18th century — which is to say, neither humane nor safe.

Outside a refugee camp in Tijuana, Mexico ten miles south of the U.S. border. Hundreds of asylum seekers stranded here were denied entry at the San Diego border crossing. December 2018. (Photo Credit: Ted Kelly)

As a senator, Biden supported the “Secure Fence Act of 2006,” signed into law by President George W. Bush, which authorized construction of 700 miles of partition walls along the Mexican border. In a primary debate in 2008, during his second failed bid to become president, Biden defended his border-fence vote on the basis of preventing drug trafficking. Referring to “14 million illegals,” he pledged to “take out the criminals” and “get them back.” Then-Senator Barack Obama chimed in afterwards, “I think Joe is exactly right.” (NY Times, June 3, 2007)

It has only been seven years since the end of the presidency of Obama, whom Biden served as second-in-command. Obama, known by his second term to immigrant rights activists as the “deporter-in-chief,” expelled more people than all U.S. presidents before him combined. Biden stood next to him making wisecracks during every one of those 3,066,457 deportations.

Theft, exclusion and displacement

Land theft, racist exclusion and violent displacement have been the cornerstones of U.S. policy. In his first term as president, the wealthy slave owner and tobacco trafficker George Washington signed the Naturalization Act of 1790, which restricted the naturalization of citizens to “free, white persons” of “good character.” Despite the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, it took another two years before people of African descent were permitted to become citizens. 

Native Americans were barred from becoming citizens until 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act.  While Congress made it legal for people of Asian origins to become naturalized in 1898, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 remained in effect with some revisions until 1943.

Throughout most of the 20th century, between 1893 and 1993, the U.S. deported an average of roughly 17,500 people a year, with notable spikes during periods of imperialist war abroad and worker uprisings at home. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered deportations at a rate seven times higher than that of his predecessors. 

The Immigration Act of 1903, signed by President Roosevelt, targeted poor people, worker organizers, sex workers and disabled people, especially those with epilepsy. Also referred to as the Anarchist Exclusion Act, the policy was introduced in the aftermath of the Haymarket Affair and the assassination of President William McKinley, using accusations of anarchism to round up and deport migrants. Roosevelt deported over 76,000 people between 1901 and 1909.

Then, 15 years later, just weeks before the guns fell silent signaling the end of World War I, the administration of Woodrow Wilson expanded its powers through new immigration acts passed in 1917 and 1918 in order to better expel and incarcerate anarchists, communists, labor organizers and antiwar activists. Wilson deported more than 162,000 people between 1913 and 1921.

At the same time, the U.S. was adapting the tactics it had first deployed a century prior against the Indigenous nations of North America. Concentration camps were erected to incarcerate Italian, German and Jewish immigrants. Tens of thousands of arrests were orchestrated by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer between 1919 and 1920. These roundups and subsequent deportations are known as the Palmer Raids and were an explicit response to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the awakening of a global workers’ consciousness.

A mid-century spike in deportations ordered during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidency — nearly 172,000 deportations between 1933 and 1945 — accompanied the mass incarceration of at least 125,000 Japanese people across 75 internment camps. Four months later, in preparation for its invasion and occupation of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, the U.S. arrested almost 1,000 Native Unangax̂ people, 10% of whom are estimated to have died in the concentration camps. (Workers World, March 7, 2022)

Waging a 30-year war against refugees

A 2021 fact sheet from the American Immigration Council found the U.S. government had spent billions of dollars on immigration enforcement since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security 18 years earlier. “Since the creation of DHS in 2003,” the report states “ICE spending has nearly tripled, from $3.3 billion to $8.3 billion today. Much of this funding has gone to increasing the agency’s ability to hold immigrants in detention in locations around the country.” (AIC, Jan. 20, 2021)

The AIC also notes, however, that the current hypermilitarized U.S. border policy so much associated with Trump can actually be traced back to the very beginning of the Clinton administration, 30 years ago. It states, “Since 1993, when the current strategy of concentrated border enforcement was first rolled out along the U.S.-Mexico border, the annual budget of the U.S. Border Patrol has increased more than 10-fold, from $363 million to nearly $4.9 billion.”

We ought to consider what happened in 1993 as the beginning of a new phase of military offensive targeting one of the most vulnerable and oppressed sectors of the working class. Since then, the U.S. has waged a 30-year war on refugees.

It started with Silvestre “Silver” Reyes, a U.S. Army captain in command of a helicopter unit during the Vietnam War, who joined the Border Patrol in 1969 after returning home to Texas. In 1984 Reyes became Sector Chief and later Chief Patrol Agent of El Paso, during which time he developed a strategy to apply overwhelming military force to border enforcement. By 1993, Reyes deployed 20,000 border patrol agents directly on the border and across major urban areas. 

The CBP’s own history describes the policy — dubbed “Operation Hold the Line” — as a “show of force to potential illegal border crossers.” (cbp.gov) 

A subsequent operation by the El Paso Border Patrol under Chief Reyes, Operation Blockade, involved “400 agents posted round the clock in high-visibility fashion directly along the Rio Grande international boundary between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez for miles.” 

In his book, “Blockading the Border and Human Rights: The El Paso Operation that Remade Immigration Enforcement,” author Timothy Dunn calls the operation “a historic turn in Border Patrol enforcement efforts” that “sparked a series of new Southwest border region operations to discourage undocumented border crossers in the main long-standing, unauthorized border-crossing areas (in and around several border urban centers) and to divert or displace them to more remote and hostile terrain.”

Dunn argues that “Operation Blockade/Hold-the-Line marked a profound change in Border Patrol enforcement efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border, and though its origins lay in a reaction to civil rights abuse claims (largely rooted in a citizenship-nationalistic view of rights), profound human-rights problems ensued once it became the model for border enforcement.” El Paso became “the foundation for a rewriting of the Border Patrol’s national strategy.”

One of the most successful challenges to this militarization of the border under Chief Reyes came from teenagers at Bowie High School, located just yards away from the U.S.-Mexico border. The Latinx students organized protests and appealed to staff at the high school, after a pattern of harassment by border patrol agents. They were repeatedly stopped, questioned and forced to show identification and proof of citizenship. 

In one incident, reported at the time, “a Border Patrol agent pointed a gun at the head of Coach Benjamin Murillo, after stopping him as he drove some of his students to a varsity football game.” The students and staff brought a lawsuit against the U.S. Border Patrol in federal court, which found that their civil rights had indeed been violated by the policies. (United Press International, Dec. 4, 1992)

This unprecedented rebuke by a U.S. District Court Judge leveled against the Border Patrol did not deter Attorney General Janet Reno from holding a press conference with Chief Reyes in 1995, whom she counted among “special heroes of mine.” Reno went on to say that she had visited the border in San Diego and came away dissatisfied. 

The two briefed the commander-in-chief directly: “We have just come from a meeting with President [Bill] Clinton, at which time he signed a presidential memorandum directing our agencies to move forward with new initiatives to gain control of our border and better enforce our immigration laws.” (Transcript, Feb. 7, 1995) 

Before the year was out, “Operation Gatekeeper” was deployed in California, based on the model provided by Texas, where George W. Bush had just been elected governor.

Border Patrol in Arizona adopted similar tactics to Reyes’ with the support of another Vietnam-era war criminal, John McCain, who was then U.S. Representative to Arizona’s First Congressional District. Like Biden, McCain would foster a reputation as an immigration reformer, despite his history of voting against a 1986 amnesty for 2.5 million undocumented immigrants and his dangerous scapegoating of Mexican migrants, whom he claimed were responsible for wildfires in Arizona, and his crusade to complete the construction of a U.S. border wall, long before Trump ever ran for president. 

Also in 1993, the notorious human rights abuser Joe Arpaio ended his 25-year tenure at the Drug Enforcement Agency to become the sheriff of Maricopa County, located right in McCain’s district.

Understanding this history helps show how 1993 marked a turning point in border enforcement strategy, ushering in a national rollout of police terror against oppressed people and migrants. But perhaps the deadliest aspect of this strategy was how the threat of violence at checkpoints coincided with the elimination of legal pathways to entry. To reiterate Dunn, the new national policy toward those crossing the border illegally was “to divert or displace them to more remote and hostile terrain.”

‘It’s like a graveyard’

How dangerous is it to attempt to cross the U.S. border illegally today? The CBP’s own reporting suggests they discovered 7,500 corpses of refugees between 1998 and 2018. (cbp.gov, 2019) That’s before Title 42 was implemented.

“Without any type of relief for them and with measures that continue to deny them the ability to present themselves at a port of entry for asylum, we will continue to see migrants [who] will injure themselves or die,” said Pedro Rios, an activist with American Friends Service Committee.” (KPBS, March 13)

Describing the policy of “Prevention through Deterrence,” funeral industry reform activist Caitlin Doherty said: “This is government strategy. The hope is that people will see how dangerous crossing this inhospitable terrain is and how many people have died and just decide not to do it themselves.” (“Why migrant bodies disappear,” 2019) “Deaths are a success,” she added. “Deaths are a sign that the plan is working.”

By this grim metric, U.S. border policy is becoming more “successful” than ever. The United Nations reported the number of migrant deaths in 2019 as 497, one of the highest on record. (un.org, Jan. 28, 2020) In 2020, the year Title 42 took effect, the remains of 227 migrants were found in Arizona. (Guardian, Jan. 30, 2021)

In 2021, the nonprofit Humane Borders reported finding 43 bodies in the Sonoran desert during the month of June alone. Brad Jones, a volunteer, said: “What is happening is climate change is real, and the temperatures have been getting hotter, and the weather itself is more volatile.” (Voice of America, Aug. 2, 2021) June 2021 was the hottest on record for Arizona, where heat-related deaths have increased more than 60%. (Guardian, Jan. 27, 2022)

The official death toll subsequently increased by 58%, as 800 people died during attempted crossings between September 2021 and 2022, the highest reported by CBP to date. In June of last year, 53 people died in a single incident, when locked in the back of a tractor trailer outside San Antonio. (Texas Tribune, June 27, 2022)  Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber told the Wall Street Journal: “It’s like a graveyard. I’ve been working on the border for almost four decades and never saw tragedies of this magnitude.” (WSJ, March 17)

It must be kept in mind that these reported death tolls are only the official counts of recovered bodies. In his book, “The Land of Open Graves,” Professor Jason de León, professor of Anthropology and Chicana, Chicano and Central American Studies at UCLA, posits that people are dying on a daily basis attempting to cross the Sonoran desert. His research has found the climate, wildlife and terrain in these regions makes the recovery of corpses extremely difficult and therefore suggests the death toll from attempted crossings is much higher than reported.

Doherty, the Los Angeles-based mortician, said that in 2019 “an estimated 10,000 people died trying to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S., a number vastly underreported by the U.S. government. But why are so many people dying? Is the government aware this is happening? Yes! They are. Their plan is working.” (“Why migrant bodies disappear,” 2019)

The deadly fire in Ciudad Juárez proves that refugees and migrants are put in an impossible position by U.S. border policy: risk dying in prison or risk dying in the desert. The callousness and cruelty of the border agents and the capitalists who give them their marching orders must not be permitted to continue. The only way to stop the mass death on the U.S. border is to make passage between the U.S. and Mexico safe and legal.

Free them all! Full legalization now!

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