Borders On Insanity?

Anyone who has seriously studied the so-called “immigration issue” in the United States knows the problems extend well beyond the U.S. southern border with Mexico. In fact, the U.S./Mexico border itself is a varied geographical region, stretching from Texas through New Mexico through Arizona to California—a terrain of unforgiving deserts and a daunting river and in some places formidable rocky escarpments and ravines. And building a wall across such a great expanse of nearly 2,000 miles is all but impractical. Even so, the Trump Administration has just won a huge victory from the U.S. Supreme Court(Donald J. Trump, President, et. al. v. Sierra Club, et. al. 2019) for the approval of using billions in military funds to construct Trump’s grand wall.

In order to protest such wall construction, various artists, both Mexican and American, have staged numerous artworks along the borderlands and on the already extensive wall-system. One of my favorites, is a black-and-white giant baby overlooking the wall from the Mexican side—a quizzically huge baby face—underlining how children are being treated at the border in U.S. detention facilities. Another of the more creative and recent projects, were “pink seesaws” extending through the wall, whereby Mexican and American children may seesaw up and down in play. Thus, demonstrating a barrier does little in preventing borderland human interactions nor deny borderland mutual interests on either side of such fencing.

When examining the so-called “immigration issue”, we soon realize there is an enormous class difference in how it is being addressed. For example, there is considerable evidence to suggest more visitors to the United States overstay their “tourist visas” than cross the U.S./Mexican border. So, those with the means to buy an airplane ticket and apply for student visas, or tourist visas, or work visas, are more likely to overstay and the immigration numbers bear this out, far exceeding southern-border crossers. Yet, practically nobody in the media or politicians discuss the “overstayers” as a problem. Many indigenous poor and overall the indigent from the Central American “Northern Triangle”—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—would rather risk their lives trekking through Mexico to make it to the United States than remain in their home countries.

Why are so many Central Americans willing to gamble with their lives to come to the United States? What are conditions like in their home countries? Why is the United States cutting off developmental aid to these Central American countries?

Before answering these important questions, let me address certain political memes, those partisan ideas becoming copied and popularized among Republicans about immigrants. One is that Democrats want “open borders” is a complete nonsense. Another is that immigrants are coming to the U.S. to take away your healthcare and will be given a “free ride” on everything—another complete nonsense. At least, Democrats will more likely be more guarded about immigrant healthcare in coming months. If the U.S. were to provide such coverage to undocumented immigrants it would be an outlier among first world countries according to the New York Times. And currently, like European countries, it does not.

No serious person believes in “open borders”. The United States of America will protect its borders, regardless if a Republican or a Democrat is in the Whitehouse. We are a nation-state and all nation-states protect their borders in some fashion. And yet, our immigration policies cannot be based upon racism or xenophobia either but upon practical considerations.

After all, we are a nation of immigrants and built by immigrants, as well as a post-genocidal society from our maltreatment of our Native American population, and a post-slavery society from our maltreatment of African-Americans. Moreover, new migrants, undocumented aliens, do the jobs most other Americans do not want to do. They work in restaurant-kitchens cooking your food; they bus your tables at restaurants; they do the landscaping for your yards; they pick your fruit and vegetables; they work in the poultry and the meatpacking industries; they work as domestics and clean your houses; they clean your hotel rooms; they take of your children; and they work many hours and for lower-wages; and above all else, they pay federal income taxes.

One of the tactics already being used in the 2020 presidential election is “fear politics”. Immigrants are being scapegoated because it is easy to pick on a population without a voice. Blaming immigrants for the ills of society is easy and it detracts from focusing on real issues and on real societal problems. Scapegoating immigrants has a long Nativist historyin the United States with the “Gilded Age” (1865-1890), and populist targeting of unskilled workers from Eastern and Southern Europe; with the Chinese Exclusion Act, limiting Chinese emigration to the U.S. (1882); and with the Gentleman’s Agreement, limiting Japanese emigration to the U.S. (1907).

Unfortunately, the same racist fears against immigrants were expressed then as are expressed now: white jobs will be lost; immigrants are ruining society; immigrants do not do their fair share; and why should we care about those people; they don’t belong here; they should go back to where they came from; they are not us because they are not white and so on—the worst kind of white nationalist discourse.

So, returning to the previous questions: why would anyone risk their lives to cross the U.S./Mexico border? And what are conditions like in immigrant home countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras? And why did the Trump Administration cut-off aid to these Central American countries?

In the so-called “Northern Triangle” of Central America, gang violence is rife; climate change has created drought conditions for small-scale and subsistence farmers; mining companies have polluted water sources; NAFTA(North American Free Trade Agreement) have made small-scale farming untenable; cash-crops such as coffee in Guatemala have been affected by blight; police violence and paramilitary violence are rampant. In sum, conditions for most are unbearable and unlivable, especially for those living in poor and rural areas which are least developed.

So, families are willing to hazard homicide, rape, robbery, and harsh environmental conditions on a journey to cross the U.S./Mexican border because survival conditions in their home countries appear much worse than such a perilous trek. Moreover, by cutting off development aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, undoubtedly make supportable circumstances much, much severer, and as such, foment a “self-fulfilling prophecy” for a “border crisis”. In fact, this is what the Trump Administration may want. In creating a border crisis by limiting development aid to Central America is a distraction from real issues within the United States than by concentrating on our southern borders as the sole problem of our country.

What have been the specific policies of the Trump Administration in preventing migrants from seeking “asylum”—a request for protection and safety in another country for fear of one’s life in one’s home country? According to Heyman and Slack and The Center for Migration Studies (CMS, 2019), and others, migrants have been refused requests of asylum if they are subjected to expedited removal, even if migrant fears are justified that returning to their home country may result in their deaths. Further, migrants have been criminally prosecuted in order to deter other migrants from coming to the United States. Perhaps the most inhumane of all, children have been separated from their parents at the border and have been held in deplorable conditions without access to soap, toothpaste, or showers for as long as three months or more. Additionally, Mexico along with Guatemala have been declared “safe third-countries” in order to prevent asylum claims in the United States.

Whatever the reason for turning away migrants at the U.S./Mexican borderlands, and preventing asylum seekers from entering at U.S. ports-of-entry (POEs), endangers the lives of asylum seekers stranded in northern Mexico, leaving them homeless, and exacerbating the tenuous situations of an already vulnerable group. In these Mexican cities along the border, there is “a high level of death, violence, and criminal exploitation” in the words of Heyman and Slack (2019).

By blockading asylum seekers at the U.S./Mexican border, and specifically non-Mexicans, such people are particularly defenseless and besieged, and thereby subject to all sorts of violence, as victims of assault, fraud, and robbery, and as victims of kidnapping for drug trafficking, for sexual exploitation, and for organ harvesting, among other horrors. Hence, under such circumstances, Mexico is not a “safe third country”, nor is Guatemala for that matter because of the same and similar crimes as those in Mexico. Therefore, migrants cannot expect to be safe either in Mexico or Guatemala.

One important and undeniable effect of the so-called “border crisis” is the overt racism against Latin American immigrants in general as asserted by Heyman, Slack, and Guerra (2018) in their noteworthy article, “Bordering a ‘Crisis’: Central American Asylum Seekers and the Reproduction of Dominant Border Enforcement Practices”. As these authors explain: “The moral evaluation of that crisis differed, of course, in important ways. For some, a crisis of children and families needing assistance evoked powerful feelings of service and solidarity. For others, a crisis of disease-bearing, gang-ridden Latin American border migrants evoked anxiety over invasion. Crisis was, of course, overstated…” [p. 774]

Perhaps, the most unfortunate victims of our current “border crisis” are the children held in detention centers along the border and elsewhere such as the private detention-facility in Homestead, Florida. The psychological effects of young children being separated from parents are devastating and have been well-described by mental health practitioners. Prolonged childhood trauma, for example, may adversely affect such children’s mental health well into adulthood and affect how children as adults may negatively view authority figures.

As a final note, an interim report conducted by academic border-experts and law professors, was recently released in April, 2019 from the “Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Advisory Council Panel on Families and Children Care Emergency”. It proposed that “an enforcement-based approach to the current situation at the border that focuses on detention, limitations on access to asylum, restrictions on due process and a presumption that arriving Central American families present a threat. Such an enforcement focus is unwarranted and is doomed to be ineffective.” [p. 2]

As a nation, the United States must not succumb to racism, nor to dog whistles eliciting racist imagery. Nor should we listen to racist bombast about new immigrants. As the great South African leader of the anti-Apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela, once wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom( 1994): “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).