Rhetoric and Reflections on a Crisis

February 9, 2015

U.S.-Mexico Border (Steve Pavey)

The media attention on last summer’s unprecedented influx of child migrants to the U.S. southern border gave airtime to arguments old and new, from the humanitarian to the nativist, from left contextualizing to conservative race-baiting. Ultimately it put additional pressure on Obama to finally announce his executive action on immigration reform in late November, while also serving as the impetus for a new wave of U.S. funding for controversial anti-crime and anti-drug trafficking programs in Central America.

In late November, NACLA hosted an online panel to shed light on the biggest lessons to be drawn from the summer. In the first half of the panel, we discussed the causes of the crisis, both immediate and long-term: The crisis emerged out of a four-year long dramatic increase in migration of unaccompanied minors to the United States, during which numbers of young migrants leapt from a steady average of 6 to 8 thousand prior to 2012, to nearly 25 thousand in 2013, to nearly 70 thousand in 2014, according to the non-profit Kids in Need of Defense. In assessing the causes of the summer’s crisis, many analysts point to a 2008 anti-trafficking law that gave special protections to minors from countries not adjacent to the United States, rather than repatriating them automatically—an immigration policy loophole migrant smugglers were able to exploit. Analysts from the left further understand the crisis as the natural outgrowth of a history of U.S. military, political, and economic intervention in Central America, and the ever-increasing pressure on Central American governments to abide by neoliberal economic agendas that put downward pressure on wages, force rural farmers from their land, and fuel gang violence.

The crisis was considered more or less “over” by September, often explained by a combination of the seasonal drop in migration patterns, a deployment of resources into repatriation programs, and a highly coordinated campaign led by the Department of Homeland Security to circulate messages about the dangers of migrating on television and radio stations in Central America.

In this final print edition of NACLA, we feature highlights from the second half of our panel, with a discussion of the conservative allegations that President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was responsible for the crisis, the activist response to the crisis, and the renewed call for “open borders.”


David Hernández (moderator) is an assistant professor of Latino Studies at Mount Holyoke College. His research addresses immigrant detention and incarceration. He is currently working on a book entitled Undue Process: Immigrant Detention and Lesser Citizenship.

Denise Gilman directs the immigration clinic at the University of Texas law school. Before beginning her academic career, she held positions at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and other human rights organizations.

Leisy Abrego is assistant professor in the César E. Chávez Department of Chicano and Chicana Studies at UCLA. She is author of Sacrificing Families, Navigating Laws, Labor and Love Across Borders.

Arturo Viscarra is the advocacy coordinator at the School of Americas Watch. He was born in El Salvador, but was forced to leave during the country’s civil war. He holds a Masters of International Relations and a Juris Doctorate from Boston University.


David: Many people have spoken and written about the structural and root causes for the displacement of Central Americans—family reunification, violence, poverty, gangs, and then also the causes of those causes, such as U.S. intervention throughout the twentieth century, neoliberal economic arrangements, U.S. deportations to Central America, the recent coup in Honduras, and finally, U.S. sponsored anti-drug and anti-crime efforts. What information do we have of the “stay home” public relations campaign between the United States and Central American governments?

Denise: The vast majority of the women and children we’re seeing are from Honduras and El Salvador, which are among the most violent countries in the world. What we hear is that unlike what members of the administration have suggested—that Obama’s policies have created an incentive for the families to come—what the families themselves are telling us is that they came because they had to, because they were about to be killed, generally by the gangs. And they’re generally able to identify the specific gangs and the specific members of the gangs, and sometimes specific police units that are also involved with those gangs. Most of them tell us that they had absolutely no idea what was going to happen to them once they arrived in the United States.

When people come here they are exercising their rights under International refugee law to seek protection in the United States or in any country that they can access in order to protect themselves from a dangerous situation.

A “stay home” public relations campaign is itself a cause for concern. It’s an effort to create a deterrent situation. The efforts are largely ineffective because people are coming for reasons related to sustained violence, but to the extent that they are effective, that itself should be questioned.

Leisy: I actually was offended to see that a deterrent campaign was the first response, that we’re trying to hide the realities of inequality, of corporations that take advantage of labor in Central America to build such wealth. But it’s also not surprising. I started doing this research in the early 2000s, and I recently found text from a government website in El Salvador, a real ad campaign that did the exact same thing, telling parents, “Do not send your children into danger.” It’s in line with the way foreign policy plays out throughout the region. We pretend that migration is a problem at the individual level, for these individuals who make the decision to come and “break our laws,” erasing the notion that there are much larger structural issues.

Arturo: Agreed. It’s insulting to assume that people are so unsophisticated that they can’t understand that it’s an incredible risk to their lives to make this journey through Mexico. They’re doing it because they feel that they have no choice. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and the idea that DACA or rumors from coyotes have attracted people is complete nonsense.

David: So we have structural causes, the migration process, a return to mass detention as a response, and then the legal process. How do you think activists will move forward and address these challenges?

Denise: The government’s position right now is that children must be detained throughout their proceedings, and they’re detained in true jail-like facilities by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the same entity that is seeking to deport them, under any sort of conditions of monitoring that would normally be available for asylum-seekers. And there’s a new facility that [opened in late December], with another 2,400 beds in Dilly, Texas. There’s a huge need for advocacy to be done to try to prevent this expansion of family detention.  Australian researchers have begun to describe immigration detention of children as child abuse.

The legal community has come to the point where we will certainly try to provide representation to as many people as possible, but we also don’t want to be a crutch for the administration to be able to say, “well, it’s true that there are proceedings, but there are lots of lawyers working to represent individuals.” We’re trying to make very clear that the resources are not there to provide representation to everybody who needs to be represented in these fast-track proceedings.

At the same time, almost everybody in family detention and most of the unaccompanied kids have at least a potential asylum claim. And so far, every single case that has gone all the way through to the end of its case in our two facilities in New Mexico and Kearns, Texas, have been successes.

Leisy: It was a summer of first, shock, and then moving quickly to figure out how to come together from a bunch of different sectors, including lawyers, activists, educators, students. I’ve connected with people not only here in Los Angeles, but also with people in Queens, San Francisco, Texas. I’m hopeful that because it generated so much attention, even if it was short-lived, it created the possibility for longer-term change.

Arturo: The activism is not as developed as we would like it to be here in D.C. It seems to be coming from the national organizational lobbying environment, although there has been direct action by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) and others.

Hopefully we can see more Latinos take the lead—and also other immigrants, because we don’t want to invisibilize African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Asian, and other groups who also suffer from deportation and militarization in their home countries.

I do lobbying for School of the Americas Watch, and it’s important to note that refugee and immigration-related organizations need to increase their foreign policy IQ, need to look at the war on drugs, at U.S.-led militarization as part of the problem. They’re scared to do so, because oftentimes they are interfacing with government agencies and they don’t want to have that access closed, they don’t want to be perceived as leftist, as radicals. But they’re practicing their jobs in an incomplete way.

David: Many groups have mentioned the gravity and intensity of the humanitarian situation. I want to ask about the language that’s used for that, the language of “crisis.” What happened this summer was put in terms of mass abuse, mass detention, but also “the border’s out of control crisis”—a “surge.”

Leisy: It’s difficult to witness the way that the media created this narrative. On one hand, for certain sectors of the population, it did bring attention to what was going on, and it made them care, at least about children, humanizing them for a little bit. But on the other hand, it erased the longer-term trajectory of what’s been going on, of who’s been involved. In some ways it erases the possibility of having a broader discussion if it’s thought about as a one-time, unexpected, surprising thing that no one could have predicted, that came out of nowhere. To call it a “crisis” erased all of the structure that did actually create it, that is continuing to lay that pathway for more and more people to have to leave their countries.

David: I want to now turn to the question of open borders. How do we replace the utopian idea of open borders with an honest conversation that allows us to speak about the advantages of open borders, and, certainly, the limitations? If we ignore the structural causes that we’ve discussed today, we’ll still have the same flow of people coming from Central America. But if there were strategies put in place that would confront the structural causes, is there a possibility for open borders as a way of changing immigration? What are the legal, economic, and perhaps even political feasibilities of this?

Arturo: Are we talking about the entire hemisphere, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, or are we talking about maybe NAFTA countries first? Either way, within that framework you’d have to start it off the way it’s set up, meaning with countries that are already in some sort of commercial agreement with one another, like under NAFTA. But I just don’t see it being a possibility in the United States, there’s just too much racism and paranoia. From the vantage point of a Latin American state, borders are one of the few protections people have against imperialism, against exploitation by multinationals and the United States. There needs to be more Latin American unity before there’d be any consideration of having an open-borders policy with the United States.

On a practical level, open borders also wouldn’t help people better their own governments, without their having to migrate and toil under bad working conditions and then send the money back as the only way to develop their countries of origin. There has to be a way to economically and socially develop without having the need for migration. It’s about the right to stay home.

David: Do you think this kind of sovereignty of borders that all nations claim can be renegotiated given these larger movements of culture, of family, of economic forces taking place?

Denise: There’s been a huge evolution in the conception of borders, even domestically, to an international human rights law perspective. Even as recently as 20 years ago, international human rights bodies were highly reluctant to talk about anything that had to do with state’s sovereignty over their borders. And now you find international human rights bodies regularly investigating, considering, commenting on the policies of states even at their borders. It used to be understood that sovereignty reigned supreme. While this idea broke down with the advent of human rights discourse in other arenas, it took a while in terms of immigration and borders.

What are the constraints that do exist now on the sovereign exercising of power at the border? It’s about recognizing that there are human rights limits on what states can do. What we should probably do is focus on the rights of individuals to seek asylum and not to be returned to a home country where they could then face danger. We should focus on those rights that do exist in the system that continue to recognize sovereign power but also impose real limits on that power.

Leisy: I don’t think that it has to be all or nothing. Right now we’re at the point where it’s either open borders or a hugely militarized border that’s causing the deaths and violence against so many people. I’m not saying we should keep what we have right now, because the way that it works now is so violent for those who are migrating. Many of the people that I talk to today say, “I don’t want to leave. I just want to be able to go to school, and work, and pay my bills, and live a life where I’m not hungry, where I’m not in fear.” This whole debate about borders assumes that everyone wants to leave, and that if we made that possibility happen right now, that’s what would happen—everyone would leave. But why aren’t we thinking about creating the conditions so that people will go if they want to—as an option—not as a mode of survival?

Tags: Child Migrant Crisis, migration, Central America, unaccompanied minors, detention, Activism, open borders

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