How many more migrants have to die for the U.S. to fix its immigration system?
Mexican prosecutors will be looking hard at video filmed inside a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez this month. Security cameras captured the origins of a smoky fire on March 27 that in the end consumed the lives of 40 men.
The apparent lack of reaction to the impending catastrophe by the center’s minders as the fire began has provoked global outrage. Guards can be seen milling about in indecision as flames quickly spread and smoke envelops detainees. The center’s security guards and other staff quickly evacuated, leaving the doomed men behind bars.
The appalling loss of life in Ciudad Juárez has many more authors than the people likely to be punished for it.
The fire was allegedly started by a migrant furious to hear that his struggle to reach the U.S. border was about to end in deportation. According to press reports, that suspect survived the fire and has been released from hospital care, where many of his fellow detainees remain.
His culpability may eventually be established, likewise that of the staff who did not respond in a moment of crisis, but this appalling loss of life in Ciudad Juárez has many more authors than the people likely to be punished for it.
Surely the Mexican government and its immigration bureaucracy bear some responsibility. Mexican officials have been regularly intercepting migrants, primarily from Venezuela, Haiti, and politically and economically unstable states in Central America like Honduras and Nicaragua, at the border, diverting them into migrant camps or into poorly maintained and over-capacity detention centers just inside Mexico, like the facility in Ciudad Juárez.
According to The Associated Press, complaints about poor conditions and human rights violations at migrant detention facilities in Mexico—including inadequate ventilation, food and water, and overflowing toilets—have been accumulating for years. An A.P. investigation discovered evidence of endemic corruption throughout Mexico’s immigration system. It reports that “everyone from lawyers and immigration officials to guards have taken bribes to allow migrants out of detention” and that little has been done to address any of these capacity and corruption problems.
But bad migration policy and practices in Mexico derive from escalating pressure from U.S. officials desperate to tamp down the numbers seeking to cross the border. The Biden administration is regularly accused by low-information critics of pursuing an open-border policy. In truth, the administration has merely carried on, even more aggressively at times, some of the same Trump administration enforcement and deterrence-first policies deplored by candidate Joe Biden during the 2020 elections.
Bad migration policy and practices in Mexico derive from escalating pressure from U.S. officials desperate to tamp down the numbers seeking to cross the border.
According to local media, at least some of the men who died in Juárez had been expelled from the United States under Title 42, an emergency provision under the U.S. health code weaponized against asylum seekers by the Trump administration during the Covid-19 crisis. The administration plans to end Title 42 in May but will replace it with a sweeping new policy that largely bans asylum for anyone who travels through Mexico without first seeking protection there, ignoring the reality that essentially all migrating people consider Mexico a transit state and the United States the ultimate destination.
While those charged in Ciudad Juárez will be the only people facing jail time, we all participate in a murderous hypocrisy about immigration. Gallup surveys find that most Americans want to see less immigration at the same time that they have come to rely on the labor of millions of immigrant and often undocumented workers living precariously in the United States.
They are invisible in plain sight, working on our farms and factories, in meat processing and service industries, in our suburban yards and in food delivery service. Do we all just pretend not to see them?
The bounty on our dinner tables this Easter would not be possible without the labor of immigrant workers. Eighty-six percent of agricultural workers in the United States are foreign-born; nearly half of that vast workforce are undocumented immigrants.
In the same states where undocumented labor has been a crucial component of the local economy, politicians regularly deplore immigrants as thieves or drug runners, spread lunatic lies about “the great replacement,” and issue demands for the erection of a magically impenetrable wall that will stop them from coming.
The president took a tentative step toward a more rational approach to migration when he stopped pretending that migrants from Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba were better off in their home countries.
It’s a lie. All of it. Build a wall as tall as you want; the people will keep coming. And most immigrants to the United States have no ambition to replace anyone; they want to save their farms, save some money and return home.
The United States is engaged in an expensive and futile arms race with migrants, seeking to thwart entry with legalistic barriers where it can and physical barriers when all else fails. But nothing will stop hemispheric migration until root causes are addressed—a much tricker proposition than throwing up a bigger wall for migrants to dig under or crawl over. People fleeing gang and government violence, hunger, and climate change will not be deterred by higher barriers. Too many of them literally have nothing to lose. More of them will die trying to reach the United States, of course, the harder North Americans make it.
So what will work? Well, nothing will work perfectly, and politicians should cease pretending that any one approach will neatly resolve the crisis at the U.S. border. It would help if U.S. politicians stopped treating migration as red meat for their political base and more like a policy challenge that can actually be addressed through analysis, negotiation and an attention to human dignity.
People have a legitimate right to migrate, the church teaches, when conditions in their home countries become an affront to human dignity and self- and family preservation requires it. Church teaching also acknowledges a nation’s responsibility to govern its borders and manage immigration. A tension inevitably exists between those two propositions that must be balanced with justice and wisdom and, above all, with mercy—a sense of a common good that transcends abstractions like national borders. In a nation largely peopled by descendants of immigrants who escaped political and economic oppression in the 19th and 20th centuries, is it so hard for North Americans today to imagine the plight of people fleeing the same conditions in our neighboring states?
And while North Americans grouse about migrants as a liability to deflect, many of the immigrants themselves seek only to work and support families back home. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that the U.S. labor force is only able to produce 68 workers for every 100 job opportunities U.S. businesses and industry are hoping to fill. There seems to be an obvious fix to work out both ends of these related dilemmas.
While those charged in Ciudad Juárez will be the only people facing jail time, we all participate in a murderous hypocrisy about immigration.
U.S. and Mexican officials insist that migrants should cease using “irregular pathways” to the border like the various off-roads that brought these men from Venezuela, Guatemala, Honduras and other states to their terrible fate in Juárez. That admonishment presumes that an adequate legal path exists as an alternative. It does not. While U.S. officials bob and weave to avoid obligations established by both U.S. and international law to migrants and asylum seekers, the migrants themselves have few options but to accept these perilous and irregular entries into the United States.
The president took a tentative step toward a more rational approach to hemispheric migration when his administration stopped pretending that migrants from Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba were better off in their home countries, stablishing humanitarian parole for applicants from those designated states with a quota that allowed 30,000 monthly admissions. By the administration’s own assessment, the new policy has significantly reduced the pile-up of humanity at the border—at least from those four states.
What might happen if those numbers were doubled or even tripled and the humanitarian parole extended to the other deeply troubled nations of the Americas? Broadening legal pathways into the United States with new or expanded humanitarian and work visas is the only realistic way out of life-threatening troubles at the border.
It may be that in the current nativist climate this idea appears a political non-starter. That persistent xenophobia is part of the reason comprehensive immigration reform failed in 2013 and why common-sense legislation like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals consistently fails to get through Congress, despite its broad support among the U.S. public.
But someone in Washington has to have the courage to speak sensibly about the so-called border crisis and to propose fact-based legislation that has a realistic shot at unraveling it. It’s worth recalling that the last time large-scale immigration reform passed in 1986, signed into law by a Republican Ronald Reagan no less, the U.S. public was even more skeptical about the value of more immigration.
Last year, at least 890 people died trying to reach the United States via the irregular path deplored by humanitarian and politician alike; on March 24, two men suffocated in a train car near El Paso, just a few days before these 40 men choked to death in Juárez. How many more will die this year before North Americans acknowledge our hypocrisy and complicity and do something, in solidarity with our hemispheric neighbors, about it?