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Forced Migration and Detention Are the Real Immigration Crisis

While Republicans cry “invasion” and Democrats placate them with hard-line border policy, immigrants languish in prisons or die in dangerous passage. A rational approach to immigration must both address the causes of displacement and protect those w

A migrant looks over the fence between Mexico and the US in Tijuana, Baja California Norte, 1996, trying to find a moment when the Border Patrol may not be looking so that he can go through the hole under it and cross. ,(Courtesy of David Bacon)

Review of Humanizing Immigration: How to Transform Our Racist and Unjust System by Bill Ong Hing (Beacon Press, 2023)

photograph by Brandon Bell, distributed by CNN, shows fifteen beefy men in military caps and fatigues, standing in front of a chain-link fence on a concrete boat ramp. It is evening in Shelby Park, the city park of Eagle Pass, Texas. The frigid water of the Rio Grande flows just footsteps away. On the other side in the distance is a riverbank: Mexico.

It was here in the dark, on January 14, that Victerma de la Sancha Cerros, a thirty-three-year-old mother from Mexico City, stepped into the water holding the hands of her two children, ten-year-old Yorlei Ruby and eight-year-old Jonathan Agustín Briones de la Sancha. We don’t know how they got into trouble in the strong current or if they even knew how to swim. Grupo Beta, Mexico’s border rescue service, saw them struggling and called the US Border Patrol. Agents went to the park gate, a couple of miles from the boat ramp. The beefy men in fatigues, soldiers of the Texas Military Department (TMD), refused to let them through.

Mexican authorities tried to rescue the mom and her children but were only able to save two others. The three drowned, and Grupo Beta could only return to Mexico with their bodies. Later the TMD said its soldiers, standing behind their chain-link barrier, had shone high-powered lights on the water and used their night-vision goggles, but somehow had seen nothing.

The White House called the event “tragic” and used it as evidence to support its case before the US Supreme Court, challenging Texas’s assertion that it is entitled to erect razor-wire border barriers and use its own soldiers to stop migrants from crossing the river. “The Texas governor’s policies are cruel, dangerous, and inhumane,” said a spokesperson from the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS). “Texas officials . . . allowed two children to drown,” Congressman Joaquin Castro added.

Yet within days, President Joe Biden told a campaign rally that if Congress passed a bill to continue funding war in Ukraine and genocide in Gaza, he would agree to anti-migrant provisions that are part of the reason de la Sancha and her children drowned. “I will shut down the border immediately,” he promised.

Biden didn’t mean that trucks carrying jeans and TV screens from Mexican factories would be stopped from crossing or that he would halt the flow of respectable people with visas. He meant stopping migrants like de la Sancha, who are treated as though they are a threat and an enemy. She might have been fleeing from drug violence in her neighborhood or perhaps she couldn’t make enough money to keep food on the table, or maybe she was trying to find a family member working on the US side of the border. Regardless, she had no visa.

A memorial at the border fence for those who have died trying to cross in Tijuana, Baja California Norte, 2001. (Courtesy of David Bacon)

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Migrants found dead on the border between US and Mexico, in the area of the Imperial Valley and Colorado River, are buried in a potter’s field graveyard in Holtville, California. The identities of many are not known and are buried as “John Doe” or “Jane Doe.” Immigrant rights and religious activists have made crosses for many of the graves, most of which say “No Olvidados” or “Not Forgotten.” About 450 bodies are buried here. This image was taken in 2010. (Courtesy David Bacon)

No money, running from something or someone, trying to keep a family together and give it a future, or just needing a job at whatever wage — these are the commonalities of the thousands who arrive at the US border every year. In his 2023 book, Humanizing Immigration: How to Transform Our Racist and Unjust System, Bill Ong Hing rises to their defense. And migrants need defenders like him, especially now. Texas governor Greg Abbott has pushed through a law that makes being undocumented a state crime. Republicans in Congress last year proposed to build more border walls, create barriers to asylum, force the firing of millions of undocumented workers, and permit children to be held in detention prisons with their parents.

But Biden and centrist Democrats are very willing to agree to modified proposals like these, even if he promised in his 2020 campaign to undo similar measures put in place by Donald Trump. In return for war appropriations, Biden agrees that he’ll close the border to asylum applicants if their number rises beyond five thousand per day, and make it much harder to navigate the process for gaining legal status, for those even allowed to apply.

In Humanizing Immigration, Hing describes the tenacious battles fought by radical immigration lawyers and community defenders (himself among them) to beat off these efforts to twist the legal process into a maze few can navigate. At the time of writing, Biden has already said he would cut short the time for screening asylum applicants to ninety days. According to Hing, “rocket dockets” and “dedicated dockets” already reduce the ability of migrants to find lawyers and make a case for asylum. Cutting screening time would make winning permission to stay much more difficult.

An onerous process already exists, Hing charges, in which an arcane difference between a “well-founded fear” and a “clear probability” of persecution govern life-and-death decisions by immigration judges hearing asylum cases. He quotes one asylum officer featured in the film Well-Founded Fear who denies a claim because the person fleeing can’t remember if he was kidnapped by two men or three. “Let’s face it,” Hing says. “Most of the problems with decision-making over asylum cases are tinged with racism.”

To keep people imprisoned while their cases are in process, instead of releasing them, Biden agreed to more detention centers, a euphemism for immigrant prisons. There are already over two hundred, according to the group Freedom for Immigrants. Under a law signed by President Barack Obama, Congress required that thirty-four thousand detention beds be filled every night. At the end of 2023 those beds held 36,263 people, and another 194,427 were in “Alternatives to Detention — wearing the hated ankle bracelets that bar travel more than a few blocks. Over 90 percent of these jails are run for profit by private companies like the Geo Group, familiar to labor activists as the current incarnation of the old Pinkerton detective agency of strikebreaking fame.

Even if de la Sancha and her kids had made it across the river, these compromises would likely have meant their new home would be a cell. Ending family separation was tenaciously fought for in the suits Hing describes, and won in a reform that Biden did implement when he took office. But like other protections, these are granular advances (or the regaining of previous rights) that are never safe and must be defended again and again. Humanizing Immigration recounts the many courtroom battles that won them, naming and profiling the courageous migrants willing to stand up, and their equally courageous and tireless lawyers.

A worker is deported back into Mexico at the border gate, from a bus that has taken deportees from the detention center in El Centro in the Imperial Valley, under the watchful gaze of a National Guard soldier, Mexicali, Baja California Norte, 1996. (Courtesy of David Bacon)

Immigrants, workers, union members, people of faith, and community activists called for a moratorium on deportations. Almost 400,000 people had been deported every year for the previous five years. Photo taken in East Palo Alto, California, 2014. (Courtesy of David Bacon)

Criminalizing Existence

Of those profiled by Hing in Humanizing Immigration, one person stands out: Reverend Deborah Lee, who coordinates the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity (IM4HR). She and a tiny staff constantly mobilize a network of faith activists throughout California, marching from one detention center to the next, speaking in working-class black churches and morally outraged suburban congregations.

They are extremely effective. When California legislators voted to do away with privately run migrant prisons, their action (not surprisingly overturned by a federal court) owed much to Lee and people like her, willing to go into the streets for justice. A memo from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency of the DHS, admitted that the California ban on private detention centers would be “a devastating blow to the ongoing ICE mission.” That mission was, and is, incarcerating migrants.

Lee’s odyssey is worth a book in itself. I met her when we both helped organize workers at the Pacific Steel foundry in Berkeley, California, to resist another form of immigration punishment, the I-9 check. ICE had gone through the documents of hundreds of the factory’s workers and accused over two hundred of not having papers and demanded that the company fire them. Some had spent over two decades working the foundry’s heavy, gritty jobs. For two years, workers and their allies built a community support base that, in the end, couldn’t save those jobs, but that helped them survive, not a small accomplishment. Hing and I authored an article afterward, “The Rise and Fall of Employer Sanctions,” about the brutality of this form of immigration enforcement.

One lesson underscored at Pacific Steel was that the vulnerability of undocumented immigrants has economic consequences for other workers too. Good union organizers know this — a union has to effectively oppose immigration raids and firings if it wants to protect workers and win their loyalty. At the same time, immigrants under attack must find ways to unite with the community around them — an indispensable lesson for this political moment. Overcoming today’s increasingly reactionary and dangerous right-wing threat requires the unity of immigrants and nonimmigrants: each must fight for the other. A Biden strategy that throws immigrants under the bus will make that impossible and could lose the election in 2024.

As the workers’ battle in Berkeley unfolded, Lee started another, organizing monthly vigils at the ICE detention center just a few miles from the plant (and even closer to many workers’ homes). It took seven years of speaking before the social justice committees of Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Buddhists, and then bringing congregations out to protest, before they could force the center to close. IM4HR became a formidable force battling ICE and taking its closure campaigns to communities around other jails and prisons.

Lee and her coworkers developed an understanding about the relationship between class and immigration, between race and the migrant carceral system, and about the roots of migration itself. She took delegations to Honduras and Guatemala, in support of activists there. On their return, faith activists alerted congregations and communities to the fights in those countries for political and social change — for an alternative to forced migration for survival.

I described those fights as they took place in Mexico, from factories on the border to cornfields in Oaxaca, in my books The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border and Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. These books documented the impact of US policy, displacing millions of people in Mexico, and then criminalizing them as they became border crossers and immigrant workers. Another book I wrote, The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migrationgave a voice to migrant activists demanding a double set of rights — the right to migrate, with social and political equality, and the right to not migrate, i.e., for political change in communities of origin so that migration is not forced by the need to survive.

This understanding was the basis of Hing’s earlier book Ethical Borders: NAFTA, Globalization, and Mexican Migration. “Instead of addressing the contemporary causes of undocumented Mexican migration that are linked to NAFTA and globalization,” he wrote, “the United States has addressed the symptoms of the challenge by adopting an enforcement only approach.”

People of faith and immigrants in front of the West County Detention Center, where immigrants have incarcerated before being deported. Victor Aguilar and Hugo Aguilar were recently released detainees and embraced each other in front of the detention during the last vigil before the center was closed, showing the friendship that had developed between them during months inside. Rev. Deborah Lee looked on. Photo taken in Richmond, California, 2018. (Courtesy of David Bacon)

The Mixteca region of Oaxaca is one of the poorest areas in Mexico. Indigenous Mixtec, Triqui, and other groups from this region now make up a large percentage of the migrants who have left to work in the United States. Photo taken in Santiago de Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca, 2008. (Courtesy of David Bacon)

Ignoring the Root Causes

Hing puts forward a basic truth: winning public understanding of immigration is the only way to decisively defeat anti-immigrant hysteria. Yet centrist Democrats, caving in to the onslaught of Republicans and MAGA acolytes, won’t acknowledge the causes of immigration. This failure long predates Biden.

When large numbers of unaccompanied children started coming from Central America during the Obama administration, as it faced midterm elections in 2014, the president told mothers not to send their children north, admonishing them as though they were bad parents. “Do not send your children to the borders,” he said. “If they do make it, they’ll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it.”

President Obama made some acknowledgement of the poverty and violence that impelled them to come despite his warning, but drew the line at recognizing this migration’s historical roots, much less any culpability on the part of our government. President Biden sent Vice President Kamala Harris to Central America in his first year in office with a similar message — don’t come.

Today this unwillingness to look at US responsibility for producing displacement and migration is starkest in relation to Haitians and Venezuelans, who have made up a large percentage of the migrants arriving at the Rio Grande in the last two years.

After Haitians finally rid themselves of the US-supported François Duvalier regime and elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide president, the United States put him on an outbound plane in 2004, as it did with Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. A string of US-backed corrupt but business-friendly governments followed, which pocketed millions while Haitians went hungry and became homeless by the tens of thousands after earthquakes and other disasters. “The treatment of Haitian migrants,” Hing charges, “demonstrates how immigration laws and policies are . . . a concrete manifestation of systemic and institutionalized racism.”

Survival in Venezuela became impossible for many as its economy suffered body blows from US political intervention and economic sanctions. President Biden allowed Chevron, Repsol, and Eni to sell Venezuelan oil once Russian oil was embargoed during the Ukraine war, but the basic sanctions making survival precarious remain in place. Meanwhile, the ongoing effort to unseat its government continues. National security spokesman John Kirby demanded more political changes in late January, and threatened, “They’ve got till the spring.”

These interventions produce migrants and then criminalize them. In 2023, the Border Patrol took 334,914 Venezuelans and 163,701 Haitians into custody. And while promoting military intervention in Haiti and regime change in Venezuela, the Biden administration put people on deportation flights back home, in the hope that this would discourage others from starting the journey north.

The US media endlessly interprets this as a “border crisis,” but the disconnect is obvious to anyone born south of the Mexican border. For Sergio Sosa, who grew up during the Guatemalan civil war and now heads the Heartland Workers Center in Omaha, migration is a form of resistance to empire. “People from Europe and the US crossed borders to come to us, and took over our land and economy,” he points out. “Now it’s our turn to cross borders. Migration is a form of fighting back. We’re in our situation, not because we decided to be, but because we’re in the US’s backyard. People have to resist to keep their communities and identities alive. We are demonstrating that we are human beings too.”

Gina, a Haitian refugee, washes clothes in Mexico City in 2023. Several hundred Haitian refugees lived in tents in Giordano Bruno Park. They’d come from Haiti through Central America headed to the US border, but knew they’d probably be prevented from crossing. (Courtesy of David Bacon)

Michelle Medina, a Venezuelan migrant, nurses her baby Salome Comenal in a camp of Venezuelan and Haitian refugees in Mexico City, 2023. (Courtesy of David Bacon)

Displacement Is the Crisis

Biden calls the border “broken” and “in crisis.” That is the biggest concession to the media-driven storm that repeats these words endlessly. From them flows the hysteria that justifies repression.

Department of Homeland Security statistics show, however, that over the decades the numbers of people crossing the border and subject to deportation rise and fall, while displacement and forced migration remain constant. In 2022 about 1.1 million people were expelled after trying to cross, and another 350,000 deported. In 1992 about 1.2 million were stopped at the border, and 1.1 million deported. Over a million people were deported in 1954 during the infamous “Operation Wetback.” Arrests at the border totaled over a million in twenty-nine of the last forty-six years.

Last year the number arrested at the border was higher: about 2.5 million. But the real point is that the migration flow has not stopped and will not stop anytime soon. What, then, is the “crisis”? New York Times reporter Miriam Jordan says, “In December alone, more than 300,000 people crossed the southern border, a record number.” They all believe, she says, that “once they make it into the United States they will be able to stay. Forever. And by and large, they are not wrong.”

In fact, the number of refugee admissions in 2022 was 60,000. In 1992 it was 132,000. According to Jordan, applicants are simply released to live normal lives until their date before an immigration judge. That will certainly be news to families facing separation and the constant threat of deportation. But this is what Republicans and anti-immigrant Democrats call an “invasion,” and against it Biden threatens to “shut the border.” So enforcement and deterrence are the means to stop people from coming in the first place.

Should Trump win the election in November, he promises to reinstitute the notorious family separation policy. Children who survive the crossing, unlike Yorlei and Jonathan, might not see their moms again for months and easily be lost, as so many were, in the huge detention system. Oklahoma senator James Lankford wants to reintroduce the “Remain in Mexico” policy, under which people wanting asylum were not allowed to enter the United States to file their applications, and the Mexican government was forced to set up detention centers just south of the border to house them while they waited. Trump and other Republicans would imprison all migrants who face a court proceeding, applying to stay or stopping a deportation. Pending cases now number in the millions, because the immigration court system is starved for the resources needed to process them.

Immigrants and their supporters, organized by the Tucson immigrant rights coalition Derechos Humanos, call for a moratorium on deportations. That call was made by many organizations in the US when the number of deportations reached 400,000 per year. Photo taken in Tucson, Arizona, 2008. (Courtesy of David Bacon)

That system, Hing says, must go. But the whole idea that the people arriving at the border must be met with deterrence and enforcement does more than justify the tortuous immigration court system and the detention centers.

“The need to abolish ICE,” an oft-repeated demand among immigrant rights activists, “is a no-brainer for me,” Hing says. “In fact, I count myself among those who call for the abolition of the immigration system altogether. Migrants should have the right to free movement across borders and the right to live free of harassment over immigration status. Our system must be transformed into one that prioritizes our humanity first.”

To accomplish that, Hing advocates a set of tactics to make it hard for the system to function, including public oversight, marches like those that opposed the Sensenbrenner Bill in 2006, and antideportation campaigns like those of the Dreamers. He profiles as positive disrupters two lawyers: Jacqueline Brown, who fought the imprisonment of unaccompanied children, and Julie Su, who defended enslaved Thai garment workers in Los Angeles and is now the acting US secretary of labor. Until institutions like ICE and the detention centers are abolished, he says, “we should do everything we can to disrupt the system.”

To win an alternative to the present system, we have to uproot the causes of the displacement that makes migration involuntary, while recognizing the ongoing reality of migration and making it easy for people to come and to stay. No matter how many walls and migrant prisons the government builds, people will come anyway. But we can easily see the consequences of this system — one that first produces migration and then tries its best to bar migrants and send them away — in the death of Victerma de la Sancha Cerros and her two children in the cold water of the Rio Grande.

David Bacon is a California writer and documentary photographer. A former union organizer, today he documents labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights.