- More people are dying trying to cross the US-Mexico border than ever before.
- Biden increased funding for border enforcement, despite promising not to build Trump’s border wall.
- This is a change in name only and will keep the border as dangerous and deadly as ever.
- Will Meyer is a freelance writer and co-editor of The Shoestring.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
On July 30, the Biden Administration began sending migrant families back to their home countries via “fast-track” deportation flights. According to the Washington Post, there has been a “sharp increase” of border crossings in the Rio Grande valley in Texas. The apprehension and deportation of families — save for those who test positive for the coronavirus — has been steadily increasing throughout the year, from 7,300 in January to 55,800 in June.
According to The Post, the spread of the Delta variant “has intensified pressure on the administration to ramp up enforcement.” Adding that “on July 16 … [ICE] was holding more than 700 children with their parents, including 451 children ages 5 and under.” In other words, border enforcement has become a policy solution to fight the pandemic (never mind the role Immigrations and Customs Enforcement actively played in spreading the virus).
Indeed, as the pandemic, as well as economic and climate instability, force people to move, more migrants are dying in the desert. According to NPR, migrant deaths at the Arizona-Mexico border are on track to be higher than any year when data has been recorded, and CBP data suggests that “encounters” and “apprehensions” of migrants are higher than they’ve been in 15 years.
These deaths and dangerous border crossings are a result of the 1994 “prevention through deterrence” policy. In order to restrict migration, the Clinton Administration bulked up enforcement efforts at major points of entry so that migrants would be forced to cross through areas so remote that they would stop trying. As the New York Times explained, according to government documents, the policy was predicated on forcing people into “mortal danger” and one report suggested that the “death of aliens” was a measurement of policy’s effectiveness.
While official counts indicate that 7,805 have died trying to cross, advocates suggest that deaths are severely under counted, indicating that as many as 80,000 may have disappeared since the implementation of the policy. NPR reports that the Pima County Arizona medical examiner Greg Hess has received the remains of 140 people this year — the highest numbers resulting from last month’s brutal heat wave.
Further, and despite Biden’s campaign promise not to build “another foot” of border wall, Congress is on track to increase funding for border surveillance technology, which advocates believe “is a continuation of the Trump administration’s racist border policies, not a break from it.”
As In These Times’ Maurizio Guerrero explained, Biden’s budget proposal for the upcoming year includes a $291 million increase in funding for the Border Patrol, including additional funding for a high-tech “smart-wall” — sensors, barricades, and “surveillance towers” that alert authorities of migrants’ movements, and thus push people further into dangerous areas to cross, continuing prevention through deterrence.
In sum, the remote area where these dangerous border crossings occur amount to what UCLA anthropologist Jason De León once described as “a remote deathscape where American necropolitics are pecked onto the bones of those we deem excludable”; and, as a result, sentences border crossers to what Cornell’s Mary Pat Brady termed as “passive capital punishment.”
Climate at the border
Climate change is a major driver of displacement. While storms and natural disasters continually increase their tenacity, the Department of Homeland Security has described the climate as a “threat multiplier” and “an accelerant of instability or conflict.” November’s Hurricanes Eta and Iota prompted as many as 10,000 to try their luck migrating north.
According to CBS News, “With winds of 150 miles per hour and devastating flooding from torrential rains, the storms impacted 6 million people, destroyed thousands of homes and displaced nearly 600,000 in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.”
The storms, which made landfall only two weeks apart, severely impacted as much as 80% of Honduras’ agricultural sector. One unemployed farmer explained, “There is no employment, there is nothing. Because we work in agriculture and you saw the two hurricanes that damaged all the crops, we have nothing. We have to go out and find what we can offer our children, because we have nothing.”
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that as many as 24.5 million people per year are displaced due to weather related events, many of which are climate related. Indeed, the World Bank suggests that with unchecked emissions the world could see 143 new climate refugees from Latin America, the Caribbean, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
To put it differently: If Brady is correct, the emissions of wealthy countries could play a role in sentencing migrants to avoidable deaths due to politicians’ unwillingness to lift border restrictions and reduce emissions.
And further, the pandemic is calcifying American nativism, as migrants become scapegoats for the spread of the coronavirus. On August 2, the CDC elected to continue the controversial Title 42 policy, which allows US authorities to turn away migrants and asylum seekers without court hearings under the pretext of stopping the spread of the Delta variant. In many ways, this is the public health upgrade of Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy and a stark reminder that the Biden administration is more willing to enforce border restrictions than mask wearing.
Hardened borders as a response to social crises
When Biden ran for president, he promised to “meet the urgent demands of the climate crisis.” However, according to the New York Times’ Spencer Bokat-Lindell, climate experts and activists have deemed his current infrastructure bill “highly insufficient” in meeting the scientific demands of significantly reducing emissions to prevent further unrest. The New Republic’s Kate Aranoff believes the bill is a “complete abdication of responsibility” on climate, while, at the same time, spending a historic amount on related infrastructure.
However, while spending for climate infrastructure remains grossly underfunded, resources for what journalist Todd Miller has termed the “border industrial complex” is ballooning.
His reporting has shown that the homeland security and emergency market is on track to grow 6.2% annually, from $668.7 billion in 2021 to $904.6 billion by 2026. Miller argues that US border militarism represents “a war on climate change, aimed not at mitigating carbon emissions in the biosphere, but at erecting ‘defensive fortresses’ against the people most impacted, the people on the move.”
Historically, both political parties have waged a war on migrants, the journalist Daniel Denvir has argued. From Bill Clinton’s prevention through deterrence doctrine and Operation Gatekeeper to Joe Biden’s signing of the 2006 “Secure Fence Act”, the efforts to fortify the border, to passively kill migrants trying to cross, and deport children have been a bipartisan undertaking.
Unless politicians find the courage to aggressively change course, the border will remain the de facto response to climate instability and future public health emergencies. The worst may be yet to come.