The news out of San Antonio, Texas, is horrific. Fifty-three people, migrants from Mexico and Central America, were found dead in the back of a tractor trailer earlier this week. The men, women, and children died of heat stroke and exhaustion, abandoned without air conditioning or water in a Walmart parking lot in 100-degree heat.
Critics were right to reject the ludicrous accusations of Republican governor Greg Abbott, who blamed the phantom of Joe Biden’s nonexistent “open border policies” for the catastrophe. The Biden administration, in turn, was quick to attribute the incident to “smugglers or human traffickers.” But the responsibility for this horrific mass death lies squarely with all levels of the US government, which has continued to pursue a racialized immigration policy of mass exclusion and expulsion, regardless of the party in power.
“Do Not Come”
The Biden administration rode into office vowing to roll back Donald Trump’s notoriously cruel immigration policies. Instead, the humanitarian disaster at the US-Mexico border has only intensified and extended steadily southward.
When not actively worsening the harm, the administration’s approach has been feckless. Biden moved to cancel Trump’s so-called Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), which forced over 70,000 asylum-seekers to await their hearings in Mexico, where they face the threat of extortion, kidnapping, sexual assault, and death. But the program was reinstated as litigation made its way to the Supreme Court.
Over five thousand people have been returned to Mexico under MPP since the program resumed in 2021, mostly from Nicaragua, Cuba, Colombia, and Venezuela. Those who do manage to pursue their cases are all but summarily rejected. Under Trump, fewer than 1 percent of MPP asylum seekers’ claims were successful. Under Biden, those odds have increased — to a miserable 2.4 percent.
The administration was in no such hurry, however, to discontinue Title 42 expulsions, which Trump deployed using the public health pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic to force asylum seekers from the country. Under Biden’s watch, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) expelled over one million people using this mechanism in FY 2021 and over 734,000 more during FY 2022 so far. These include over eight thousand Haitians, flown to a country in chaos; Ukrainians, meanwhile, have been exempted. After the White House finally announced an end to the restrictions in April, a district judge blocked the move.
At the same time, formal deportations have increased. From 308,115 proceedings filed in FY 2021, FY 2022 has already seen 557,642. These removals have principally targeted people from Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala — all nations that have been devastated by US sanctions or military interventions.
Biden has also continued to pressure Mexico to repress migrant movement through its territory. In 2021, Mexico deported over 114,000 people, 95 percent of them from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador; 35,600 more were expelled in the first four months of 2022. The southern border city of Tapachula became an open-air prison, trapping tens of thousands of migrants who have turned to organizing massive caravans to escape their confinement and demand safe passage north. Tens of thousands more remain stranded at the US-Mexico border, risking dire conditions for an opportunity to exercise their right to request asylum.
The White House has additionally partnered with the repressive and corrupt government of Guatemala to increase enforcement, spurring the deployment of the military and police to physically beat back migrant caravans. Vice President Kamala Harris’s message to Guatemalans, “Do not come,” was clear enough, but batons are much more effective.
These extreme recent measures have deep roots in US immigration policy. For decades, the progressively worsening criminalization of migration has served to ensure the subordination of racialized migrant workers in segmented US labor markets, helping to reproduce a vulnerable pool of illegalized labor that could be further exploited under threat of deportation.
In this context, the 1990s border militarization strategy of “prevention through deterrence” has driven thousands to their deaths, as migrants are diverted from better traversed, populous routes deep into the desert. For US authorities, this loss of life has been the acceptable cost of doing business. That cost is growing.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the prevailing conditions of accumulation and migration were destabilized. As a result, the last fifteen years have seen an intensification of mass deportation and exclusion, including the progressive externalization of US border controls deep into Central America. This same extended, spiraling crisis has only uprooted more people across the region.
As migrant populations are increasingly comprised of asylum-seeking women, children, and families, their northward journeys have become harrowing and lethal gauntlets through organized crime, militarized borders, and hostile natural landscapes. These conditions have occasioned shocking events of mass death.
The San Antonio calamity comes after fifty-five migrants were killed in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in a December 2021 truck accident and the 2010 massacre of seventy-two Central Americans kidnapped by the Zetas criminal organization in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Such spectacular incidents, however, punctuate the steady drum of disappearance and death that every day robs families of their loved ones by the ones and twos.
“It’s surprising that there aren’t more incidents like this both in the United States and in Mexico, given that all the policies they’re implementing lead people into taking more dangerous routes,” says Arturo Viscarra, international program manager with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA):
In the same way how, at the actual border, people are funneled to the desert and other dangerous crossings, people are also funneled into the hands of traffickers, because they can no longer travel through Mexico due to US pressure on that government to detain them before they reach the United States.
2021 was the most lethal year yet at the US-Mexico border. At least 650 people died crossing, the highest toll since the United Nations began keeping track in 2014. But 2022 is set to surpass that record. After recording thirty-nine deaths in the El Paso sector in 2021, CBP has already documented thirty-seven this year, including at least ten people drowned in irrigation canals in the last two weeks alone.
“It’s a feature, not a bug. This whole thing is based on deterrence, and you can’t deter people from migrating for their lives,” says Viscarra. “It’s the system actually working. People die.”
The horror in San Antonio was senseless and preventable. But it is also the inevitable, even necessary outcome of the reigning US strategy of mass expulsion and exclusion, which can only engender a vortex of exponential suffering.
The confluence of crises can seem overwhelming. But the US left can start by rejecting the terms of the immigration discourse that frame the discussion in terms of security or deservingness. Our approach should be guided, instead, by principles of solidarity and anti-imperialism.
In the immediate term, that means demanding measures like issuing blanket humanitarian visas to asylum seekers, halting deportations, ending migrant detention, and providing residency to undocumented people as well as Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients.
Like the Barack Obama administration, Biden’s White House likes to talk about addressing the “root causes” of migration. Predictably, these strategies are a cover for increasing private US investment and selling US weapons to security forces with atrocious human rights records. We must counter with calls for reparations, fair trade, debt forgiveness, and sanctions relief for migrant-sending countries.
These are long-term, distant goals for addressing long-standing relations of domination, exploitation, and extraction. But we have to imagine a future in which the world’s working class can make their lives where they choose and cross borders as freely and as safely as capital does today.