The meeting time was set for 10 a.m., in front of the San Diego headquarters of Border Angels, an NGO that coordinates initiatives to support migrants. Last Saturday, like every other Saturday, the group organized an expedition to bring supplies to the refugee camps across the border, in Tijuana. It’s a sunny morning in Southern California, and around 20 people arrive in their cars, bringing clothes, toys, food boxes and hygiene items. Most of them are young people, particularly women, who saw the online call and showed up, driven by the desire to do whatever they could to help alleviate the crisis on the border, just 20 km further to the south.
This border area, which has witnessed a lot of suffering and has always been a volatile environment, is verging close to full-on chaos after the past two years of Trumpist administration. The president, who built his political capital on the criminalization of immigrants, has been speaking of a “national emergency” for the past few months, and has invoked the supposed need to build a wall to stem the “invasion.” In the playbook he shares with his fellow nationalists around the world, an apocalyptic narrative is especially useful to rally the base around sheer panic and xenophobic paranoia.
It was for this purpose that Trump mobilized the army (who camped out for a few weeks, far from the actual border, with no tasks to do but unspool barbed wire), separated children from their parents and suspended the process of applying for political asylum. Almost every one of his initiatives has faced legal appeals, and the immigrants—in groups, families and caravans—have kept coming across the border. To reap the rewards of an escalation of the current psychosis, Trump has declared a state of emergency, although this only amounted to a blatantly self-fulfilling prophecy. In reality, the “existential threat” that the president keeps talking about doesn’t exist. What is occurring is simply the result of the predictable dynamics of a border that neatly divides the first world from the third world, magnifying inequalities, atavistic injustices and historical discrimination, just as it has been doing for a long time.
Clinton was the one who started to fortify the border back in the ‘90s, Bush doubled the number of border agents, and Obama made use of mass deportations. But Trump’s identitarian sovereignism has criminalized the very notion of immigration, using it to prod his true believers to action against the illusory specter of “ethnic replacement.” Just like his fellow supremacists around the world, his goal is not to fix the problem, but to keep the symbolic fight going with enough virulence.
The border authorities have detained 76,000 people in February, while the number rose to 100,000 in March. These numbers are not at the level of the historical peaks of the early 2000s, but they are still substantial, even for a border that has always been crossed by migration flows towards the north. What has changed, however, is the identity of the migrants: instead of men, mostly from Mexico, always drawn to the jobs available in the underground US economy, those who are arriving now include many more women and children, whole families fleeing endemic violence, especially from Central American countries that are in the grip of chronic poverty and, increasingly, organized crime, in addition to corruption and poor governance. For the past year, this region has been the origin of the “caravans” which have headed towards the US border, manifestations of a phenomenon of mass escape from evils besetting the whole southern hemisphere, for which the United States—which have historically assumed the role of “landlords” over their Central American “backyard”—bear more than a little share of responsibility.
Faced with this growing exodus, the US government has reacted with an iron fist approach—at the same time as it is openly trying to destabilize Venezuela, and after supporting the coup in Honduras three years ago and exporting the MS-13 gang to El Salvador. “I am telling you right now, we will close the damn border!” said the president at a rally in Michigan last Thursday, unless Mexico stops all further migrant caravans—a familiar, time-tested threat that never fails to get a rise out of his supporters. Meanwhile, over a thousand refugees—many of them children—remain in detention in a metal enclosure under an overpass in El Paso, exposed to the elements, a makeshift prison that makes yet another sinister addition to the iconography of this sovereignist era.
While an actual “emergency” does exist, it’s not the one in Trump’s contrived narrative, but rather a humanitarian catastrophe. A politics of cruelty is transforming fleeing families and children into bit players meant to represent invading barbarian hordes. At the Michigan rally last Thursday, Trump went on a rant against asylum seekers, his newest target for demonization after he famously called immigrants “rapists”: “You have people coming up here, you know, they are all met by the lawyers … and … they say the following phrase: ‘I am very afraid for my life. I am afraid for my life.’ OK. And then I look at the guy, he looks like he just got out of the ring, he’s a heavyweight champion of the world, he’s … It’s a big fat con job, folks.” His orders to the all-too-zealous Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, have ensured that asylum applications are only being considered a few at a time, creating delays of weeks and months.
In Tijuana, asylum applicants are assigned a number with which they must show up every day, in the hope of being among the dozen or so who are called. With the arrival of successive caravans, there is now a large population of displaced persons, with people who are effectively homeless and who live in a state of limbo, in a city without many resources and with a record crime rate. Just like on the bloody shores of the Mediterranean, the ultimate goal is to normalize the condition of permanent refugees, with no prospects for integration on either side of the border. The physical removal of refugees by deportation—or their rejection, a veritable denial of their humanity—are, like in Europe, all part of a eugenic grand design, in the name of the defense of cultural identity—a paradoxical notion to start with in the bilingual and mixed-race territory of the southwestern US.
In Mexico’s border towns, thousands of families that arrived here after marching 2,000 km are living without homes or jobs, forced into makeshift accommodations in the many refugee camps operated by voluntary or religious organizations, such as the Iglesia de Embajadores de Jésus.
We went to visit one of these, which can only be reached through a bumpy dirt road in the Cañon del Alacrán, on which you have to swerve to avoid chickens and pigs milling about through the garbage and among streams full of raw sewage. This neighborhood is called Divina Providencia, little more than a favela built atop the badlands on the inland outskirts of Tijuana. Here, before the dead-end street turns into an old creek bed that is being used as a landfill, the Evangelical pastor Gustavo Banda started receiving Haitian refugees in his own parish. Today, the tents set up on a cement floor are housing around 200 migrants from Guatemala and Honduras, but also from the Mexican province of Oaxaca, as well as Cuba and Haiti. The Haitians began to arrive in 2010, aiming to get into the United States, which was granting them accessible visas after the earthquake that year.
With the recent changes in policy, many were forced to settle in the city, and a village of huts has risen up around the original parish, called Pequeña Haiti (“Little Haiti”). But the Haitians, and the Cubans, keep arriving—many from the Caribbean islands, as Banda tells us. Now they are also coming in from Venezuela, where they had been received at first, because of the current crisis there.
Groups of kids can be seen running around the parish and the plywood huts built by refugees. Some women are waiting for their turn at the only available faucet so they can wash clothes. “We don’t get any help from the government. The only thing I’m getting is death threats,” Banda explains, who has often spatted with Juan Manuel Gastelum, the mayor of Tijuana who has sided with the anti-immigrant movement that developed in this city as well.
Furthermore, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s government is also playing an ambiguous role, as the “left-wing populist” president seems to have reached a compromise with Trump. To discourage new asylum claims, the concept of a “waiting period in Mexico” is being introduced. When the practice is implemented, applicants will be required to await the outcome of their asylum request in Mexico. However, they have to employ the services of an American lawyer, who likely doesn’t have a permit to work in Mexico—a diabolical Catch-22 that has sown further chaos.
These arrangements didn’t prevent the US president from continuing to spew threats against Mexico, which Trump thinks is guilty because they supposedly favor immigrants and “make more than $100 billion a year on the U.S.” Openly xenophobic politics is mixed with the general disarray that is a hallmark of the Trump administration.
On Friday, DHS Secretary Nielsen met with the leaders of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in a mini summit in Tegucigalpa, at the end of which a joint Memorandum of Cooperation was signed with the goal to “stem irregular migration,” using the classic model of monetary grants to friendly governments in exchange for repressive measures. Yet, not even 24 hours later, Trump threw his own representatives under the bus, proclaiming on Twitter his decision to cut all aid funding to the three Central American countries. Of course, any and all measures to address the root causes of emigration—the poverty, exploitation and iniquity caused by governments supported by the US—are off the table. Nor does it look like anyone will try the only solution that would make a difference in all these contexts: namely, fixing the problem of the abyss between affluence and suffering and the historical causes underlying the phenomenon of global migration.
Improvised detention camp in El Paso, Texas
The migrants who manage to make it over the border and surrender to the US authorities go through the doors of a Kafkaesque maze of courts and prisons, many of them private, to whom the incarceration of immigrants has been contracted. They can be detained indefinitely without the right to a hearing or access to legal representation.
It is estimated that several hundred children that were forcibly separated from their parents are still trapped in this inscrutable gulag, detained at black sites or assigned to families around the US, and who have become “untraceable” so that they can no longer be reunited with their parents (many of whom have already been deported to their countries of origin). Horrific news has continuously leaked about how the system works, including children aged 5-7 taken to court and forced to answer the questions of a judge all alone, families and children left to sleep on the naked ground in rooms intentionally kept very cold—known as hieleras (“iceboxes”) among their unfortunate victims—and the use of psychotropic drugs to keep prisoners docile. All of these are proof of the systematic removal of all traces of humanity, which is another common factor of nationalist-populist regimes.
The Little Haiti camp shows the fundamental fallacy of a policy based on the false distinction between political and economic refugees. On the day we spent there, the kids dove into a shipment of toys brought by the Border Angels. After these were divided up, Alejandro, a 11-year-old wearing a Juventus T-shirt with the name of Cristiano Ronaldo (“I actually like Buffon the most,” he confessed) came to us.
“Do you have a soccer ball?” he asked. “Here we don’t have one anymore.”
“I’ll see if maybe I can bring you one next time…”
“Yeah, next time—then I’ll already be gone to the next place…”
His reply gives a clear picture of the transience and helplessness afflicting a young life cast adrift in the world, being carried to and fro like a twig in a stormy ocean.