Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza traveled to the United States earlier this year. He was 17 years old; he was a dedicated athlete who had dreams of being a soccer player. But he was from Honduras, and he wanted better medical care than he could access in his home country. A cousin in Tampa, Florida, agreed to be his sponsor in the United States, and everything was in order when he left Honduras on April 25. He even made sure to pack enough medication to last three months, just in case. Ángel entered the US on May 3 at the Reynosa, Mexico crossing, and Immigration and Customs officials placed him on a plane to Florida on May 5. His next stop was the Gulf Coast shelter, operated by Jewish Family and Children Services. But on the morning of May 10, 2023, staff found that Ángel had died in his sleep, evidently from a seizure.
Ángel had a physical exam at a clinic on May 8, and he did not disclose his epilepsy or medication. He also did not have his (three months’ worth of) medication with him when he arrived on May 5, and it was unclear what happened to it. However, his family had sent his medical files to Gulf Coast, twice for good measure, and these documents were uploaded into the system. Tragically, staff did not read the files, and Ángel died just miles away from the better medical care he had come the USA to receive.
This was the kind of case where immigration policy is meant to shine, not end in heartbreak. But at least two stressors are prominent in making this tragedy possible. First, while the US itself might be the answer an asylum seeker needs, fear and uncertainty often characterize encounters with the US immigration system. For example, you might have found it curious that Ángel didn’t disclose his epilepsy, but it is not unusual for asylum seekers to hide medical conditions. As Danielle Hernandez, an immigration attorney, explained for the Tampa Bay Times, “You don’t know when you’re 17 that your health won’t be held against you when you’re seeking asylum.” Ana Lamb, an immigration rights activist, explained that this “climate of fear” was created by the types of immigration laws passed over the years. “All the laws being implemented in this state are terrorizing people, … . We will see more of this if we don’t take care of people coming in.”
Second, the US immigration system is overburdened. In Ángel’s case, this resulted in the staff’s failure to read the medical notes that would have likely saved his life. And, in the tragic story described by Valerie Gonzalez in AP News, it was denial of care in the case of Anadith Tanay Reyes Alvarez, an eight year old girl who died in Border Patrol custody on May 17, 2023. Although the policy is that people are not to be held in custody more than 72 hours, Anadith’s family (her mom and dad, along with two siblings who were 14 and 12 years old) had already been in custody for nine days when Anadith died. After crossing the border in Brownsville, Texas, on May 9, Anadith was diagnosed with influenza by a doctor. They were then transferred to the Harlingen station on May 14.
That first morning at the Harlingen station, Anadith awoke to fever, headache, and bone pain. Her mother, Mabel Alverez Benedicks, reported these conditions, and the border agent (who was not a medical caregiver) waved it off, saying that “Oh, your daughter is growing up. That’s why her bones hurt. Give her water.” Mabel shared the doctor’s diagnosis and insisted on taking Anadith to the hospital, but agents said refused. Instead, they issued saline fluids and fever medication. But Anadith’s breathing worsened, she found it difficult to walk, and a sore throat kept her from eating. On Wednesday, they requested an ambulance, which was denied. Later that day, Anadith became unconscious and spit up blood. By the time agents agreed to take her to the hospital, she had no vital signs.
Anadith was born with a congenital heart disease that required surgery three years ago. It was successful, and Anadith dreamed of becoming a doctor herself. Instead, she became another victim of the tragedies that have come to characterize the southern US border, even for those seeking asylum, who travel to the United States with the hope of relief from suffering or violence.
That the suffering on the border is overwhelming is an understatement. For example, on May 21, 2023, more than 27,000 migrants were being held in detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Over 240,00 more people were being monitored through the Alternatives to Detention programs. According to the ACLU, the United States spends $1.84 billion on these detentions. Border deaths have also been climbing each year. The dangers are well known. The terrain is often risky itself: dangerous rivers; extreme heat; deadly heights, including from border barriers. And then there is the deadliness that often accompanies smuggling organizations, who are notorious for everything from packing dozens of people into tractor trailers to abandoning migrants in dangerous places. In 2021, more than 560 migrants died, a new record – until 2022, when more than 850 migrants died. (This is despite the fact that Border Patrol has actually increased rescues and “life-saving operations.” In 2022, they performed more than 22,000 rescues, up 72% from 2021.) But these numbers are almost definitely lower than the real totals. The US Government Accountability Office issued a “Report to Congressional Committees” in April 2022 that documented that the:
“Border Patrol has not collected and recorded, or reported to Congress, complete data on migrant deaths, or disclosed associated data limitations. Specifically, Border Patrol … did not record all available information on migrant deaths from external entities in its system of record, or describe these data limitations in the report.”The International Organization for Migration, a UN group, recorded more than 1,200 migrant deaths in the West in 2021, and more than 700 of them were on the U.S.-Mexico border. They named that border “the deadliest land crossing in the world.” Last September, a Morning Edition report from NPR recounted how a county sheriff in Texas even shared that their local funeral director had run out of room to store bodies until they could be transported to a neighboring county. “Right now,” he said, “they’re overwhelmed.”
It’s important to look at this situation honestly, even though it is painful: immigration is an issue of life and death. Beyond the politics of choosing strategies to address immigration issues, we need to return to the question of ethics. Basic human decency should energize and motivate all of us to resist easy narratives that allow us to justify the status quo. As Robin Reineke, a University of Arizona professor and co-founder of the Colibri Center for Human Rights, has rightly explained: "It isn't just a matter of strategy anymore. … It's a matter of human life and the costs, socially and morally to an entire generation of border residents, and families of those who died crossing."
At the heart of our flawed policies is a commitment to deterrence, a commitment that has been prominent since at least the 1990s. The idea is that if illegal crossings could be stopped at the safest, easiest, most accessible places, potential migrants would be discouraged from trying to cross the border. It would simply be too dangerous. But that did not happen, and immigrants continued to cross the border. Each renewed commitment to deterrence created more and more dangerous crossings, and yet migrants continued to be willing to take those risks. This history should make it clear to us that deterrence policies, at least as they have been generally legislated and enforced, do not address the root issues driving immigration. Our policies have failed to honestly wrestle with the conditions that make dangerous border crossings worth the risk to thousands and thousands of people every year.
Instead, we have focused on criminalizing migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. We have also normalized denying them basic rights, including the right to a trial for those facing deportation. As Erica Bryant wrote for the Vera Institute of Justice, “Many immigrants with the legal right to live in the United States are deported simply because they can’t afford an attorney to help them navigate notoriously complicated immigration proceedings.” For example, more than three fourths of immigration court cases in 2019 “had no legal representation” – even though studies have shown “that immigrants with attorneys are 3.5 times more likely to be granted bond (enabling release from detention) and up to 10 times more likely to establish their right to remain in the United States than those without representation.” Deportation can then have severe impacts on already vulnerable people, including “exile from home, separation from family, loss of income, and even forcible return to dangerous conditions in a person’s country of origin.” As the ACLU reminds us, “When the government has the power to deny legal rights and due process to one vulnerable group, everyone’s rights are at risk.”
These stories and issues are particularly relevant and important now, as the Biden administration rolls out a new border plan that largely relies on recycling past policies. For the last two years, the administration’s approach has depended on extending the Title 42 policy that the Trump administration created, which used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to quickly expel migrants. As that policy finally expired last month, officials anticipated a wave of new migrants, joining the already crowded border. In response, 1,500 more troops were deployed to the border. This means that the US now has 4,000 soldiers stationed on the southern border. As Fernando Garcia, executive director of Border Network for Human Rights, put it,
“Now, without a doubt, we can say that the US-Mexico border is one of the most militarised borders in the world. … That continues to perpetuate this idea that the border is an issue that can be resolved through enforcement, in this case the deployment of the military. That is very wrong because it fails to recognise the nature of what we’re seeing.”The Biden administration’s reliance on Title 42 was already broadly viewed as a failure to live up to Biden’s campaign promises that the US “must do better to uphold our laws humanely and preserve the dignity of immigrant families, refugees, and asylum-seekers.” This criticism was intensified when the administration proposed its own asylum ban that doubled-down on the some of the most cruel aspects of past policy. Ari Sawyer described the rule for Human Rights Watch:
“Through its ‘presumption of asylum ineligibility for certain noncitizens,’ Biden’s new rule combines a version of former President Donald Trump’s ‘third country transit ban’ – a policy Biden once campaigned against and a federal judge ruled unlawful – with additional asylum restrictions, … .”In a nutshell, the policy continues the practice of turning away people seeking asylum at the US border, unless: 1) their request for asylum was already rejected at another country they traveled through; or 2) the asylum seeker waited for months in Mexico in order to get an appointment at the border. In the latter case, Sawyer points out that:
“These appointments would be available only through a privacy-intrusive and internet-dependent cellphone application used by Customs and Border Protection called CBP One, which facial recognition technology that has been shown to reinforce racial discrimination in law enforcement and has driven family separation.”Unfortunately, this rule risks increasing pressure for migrants to cross the border illegally. For example, metering programs like CBP One sound convenient, but the courts have previously ruled them as illegal for good reasons. While asylum seekers wait, often indefinitely, while they try their luck at getting one of a few appointments, their safety is increasingly at risk. They are forced to endure uncertain and violent conditions, whether in their home country (which was dangerous enough that they want to migrate) or in border cities, which have their own dangers. And while they wait, the risks of a dangerous border crossing become more tolerable. The Biden administration’s rule was sufficiently outrageous that employees from the Department of Homeland Security, the asylum personnel that would implement the policy, filed a complaint against it. They called it “contrary to the moral fabric of our nation” and said implementing it would require them to violate their oaths. The union (representing 14,000 employees) commented that rule “rewrites the statute Congress enacted” and,
“At their core, the measures that the proposed rule seeks to implement are inconsistent with the asylum law enacted by Congress, the treaties the United States has ratified, and our country’s moral fabric and longstanding tradition of providing safe haven to the persecuted, … . Rather, it is draconian and represents the elevation of a single policy goal—reducing the number of migrants crossing the southwest border—over human life and our country’s commitment to refugees.”I agree with that criticism, while also recognizing the complexities involved. To their credit, the Biden administration did establish a program, led by Vice President Kamala Harris, for creating a “U.S. Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in Central America.” They released a report in July 2021 that acknowledged:
• “addressing the root causes of migration is critical to our overall immigration effort.”The report’s pillars are solid, naming important root causes driving immigration: economic insecurity and inequality; corruption; lack of human rights (including labor rights and a free press); organized violence and crimes; and sexual, gender-based, and domestic violence. And Vice President Harris’ cover message also emphasizes the need to “build on what works” while pivoting “away from what does not work.” “It will not be easy,” she wrote, “and progress will not be instantaneous, but we are committed to getting it right.”
• “providing relief is not sufficient to stem migration from the region.”
• “unless we address all of the root causes, problems will persist.”
The challenging truth is that it is difficult to be patient during a crisis, even if the crisis has been centuries in the making. And from a political point of view, public discourse tends to be caught in a tug-of-war between arguments emphasizing the necessity of a secure border and arguments emphasizing the rights and humanity of those crossing the border. And because immigration is tangled up in so many other open wounds in US history and culture, talking about immigration puts us directly in the path of discussions about colonialism, imperialism, and centuries of systemic racism and classism. There are painful, difficult, and even shameful parts of US history that we are tempted to forget, rather than honestly acknowledging and addressing them. The related social issues are also painful and complex, from honestly acknowledging intractable economic injustice and labor exploitation to wrestling with the painful realities around drug production, distribution, and addiction, on both sides of the border. These kinds of conversations and transformations are hard work, and it is easier to dehumanize immigrants - and one another. This has made immigration issues particularly vulnerable to partisan divides. And while we argue, more people suffer.
I called this reflection a lament, because my main goal was simply to return our awareness to the tragedies suffered by migrants (especially along the US southern border, but also around the world) to our grief, and hopefully to our care. As James Baldwin taught us, “The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter even by a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” Beyond our partisan divides, beyond our fears, beyond the difficult history that both binds us together and drives us apart, we share a common humanity. No one wants to suffer, and our well-being is bound up together. To be fully human in this moment requires us to honestly look at the continued abuses and injustices suffered by migrants, and to act in ways that embody and insist on the humanity, safety, and wellbeing of all – including and especially vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees. We should not – we cannot – stand idly by.