In his classic 2015 book The Land of Open Graves, Jason De León shows that “the terrible things that [the] mass of migrating people experience are neither random nor senseless, but rather part of a strategic federal plan … that … simultaneously uses and hides behind the viciousness of the Sonoran Desert.” De León does this by demonstrating how the U.S. policy of immigration deterrence has moved people to attempt more and more dangerous crossings, thereby promoting mass death. This reality could not have been any clearer than it was in the horrifying discovery on Monday of dozens of dead bodies of migrant men and women found in an abandoned semi truck in San Antonio in 100-degree heat. The truth is that the cruelty of our immigration system caused these deaths as much as the smugglers involved—of whom two are apparently in custody. That is to say, Americans of every political stripe are responsible for the deaths of the 51 men and women who asphyxiated to death while suffering from unbearable heat, along with many more similar deaths.
Since De León’s book was published, borders around the world, especially the U.S. one, have continuously become more militarized and fortified, and immigration regimes more punitive. However, the need migrants feel to come to the United States has not been affected by these policies. The reality is that deterrence cannot work. People attempting to migrate to the United States overestimate their likelihood of success and underestimate the potential harms they may encounter, if they’re even aware of them. Moreover, because the harms they are escaping are so great, their will to leave is too strong to be affected by whatever obstacles of which they might actually be aware.
Fully internalizing this reality is to comprehend that there is no immigration deterrence policy that will greatly reduce migration and do so without killing human beings. And so the question is not whether countries have a legitimate interest in having some form of migration control, but rather whether those interests justify policies that cause mass death.
Periodically, this reality comes into focus with a particular tragedy that just as quickly recedes into the background of the political grind. Three years ago, the photograph of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, drowned in the Rio Grande Valley caused a stir worldwide. It was almost immediately forgotten. One wonders if Monday’s tragic events have even clocked with the American public. Despite the death toll—among the highest in modern history in a smuggling case—we can already see that this tragedy is being swallowed by wrangling over immigration policy.
Some politicians, notably Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro, have correctly pointed out the connection between these deaths and restrictive immigration policies. As Castro tweeted, “Tragedies like what happened in San Antonio … are going to become more and more common the longer our country keeps Trump-era anti-immigrant, anti-asylee policies in place.” Unfortunately, the official response from the current Democratic administration made no such recognition. The Biden administration took the line that the tragedy was caused by smugglers and that more law enforcement is needed to combat these rings, without acknowledging the role that its own restrictive immigration policies played in the tragedy. The Biden administration, for example, has not ended Title 42, which allows federal border agents to expel the vast majority of migrants seeking to enter the United States, including asylum-seekers. Furthermore, the administration also has increased the use of immigration detention by 63 percent since Biden took office. Some of that can be attributed to the uptick in immigration after the pandemic, but given the Title 42 expulsions, a lot of that is a policy choice. And, while it is true that detention has not returned to the highs of early 2020, the sustained reliance on it as a policy tool is a strong indication that deterrence is the only game in town. Meanwhile on the legal immigration side, the administration has needlessly wasted various legal visas authorized by Congress, denied more than 60 percent of employer-sponsored visas for individuals living abroad, and not fixed the tremendous backlogs at various agencies. To a hammer, everything is a nail, I guess, but it is still remarkable that despite all the evidence available, Democratic leaders cannot see that both the existence of smugglers and the deaths of migrants are effects of this country’s migration policies.
What is there to say about Republican policymakers and interest groups who are making the argument that this tragedy is somehow related to a supposed open border? The argument— that the border is so open that people need to go to such extraordinary lengths to hide to try to cross it—is so ridiculous on its face that it’s embarrassing to have to rebut it. And yet here we are.
More details are still to come about exactly what happened, but even with what we know now, this tragedy does not only highlight what we know about restrictive and punitive immigration regimes but also serves as a metaphor of what these regimes will provoke in a warming world. As the planet heats, more habitats will become unsuitable for human life, prompting mass expulsions of people. This is already happening. Without a comprehensive and global approach that manages and permits the movement of people, these migrants will be either killed on the move or at home due to not having air to breathe, water to drink, or land on which they can stand, just like 51 people did in Texas on Monday.
This future is not unavoidable, but it is at stake. To prevent it requires understanding what Jason De León and others have said for a long time: Deterrence is death.