The Precarious Life of the Migrant
Content warning: this post discusses the topic of death.
In two back-to-back tragedies, 51 migrants were found dead in a truck in Texas on Monday, the largest loss of migrant life in a single event in recent memory, just days after 23 migrants were found dead along the border of Melilla, a Spanish enclave in Northern Africa.
On-the-ground reporting and further empirical investigations will tell us more in the days and weeks to come about the concrete circumstances surrounding this loss of life. But an observation that many of my colleagues have already been making is that these two losses of life are neither unique nor disconnected.
To the contrary, border securitization, which has ramped up globally in the years following fall of the Berlin Wall, is predicated upon a certain minimal and unavoidable amount of migrant death. Not only is this not an unforeseeable consequence, migrant death has very often been intentionally mobilized as a migration deterrent by both North American and European governments.
For instance, Luna Vives (@lunavives), a fellow geographer, recently wrote about Spain’s attempts to dismantle the NGO search and rescue operations networks, thereby “causing preventable deaths and disappearances at sea”. An accessible article can be read here at Border Criminologies (@BorderCrim), and is based on an academic article of the same name.
The same is true for the US-Mexico border region. A detailed report by James Verini (really outstanding reporting) examines the development of “prevention through deterrence” and the idea that the risk of death in the desert would reduce migration. As Verini reports:
"Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the time, said later that “it was our sense that the number of people crossing through Arizona would go down to a trickle once people realized” how dangerous it was.
Spoiler alert: migrants were not deterred for many reasons, not the least of which is that violence and poverty in Central America, driving factors for migration, did not go away simply because the US government changed their border enforcement policy.
As a consequence, border deaths have been significant. Last year, DHS recorded that 650 migrants died crossing the US-Mexico border, although the Missing Migrants Project, which tracks migrant deaths globally, reports that number to be nearly double that at 1,248. Ryan Devereaux addresses CBP’s alleged undercounting in an article “The Border Patrol Is Systemically Failing to Count Migrant Deaths.“ For more information about border deaths in the Arizona region, the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants maps these deaths and makes the data available online.
These numbers have grown at the same time that humanitarian aid has come under attack, with Border Patrol officers filmed dumping out water left for migrants in the desert and prosecutors going after aid workers like Scott Warren (who was later acquitted) for providing aid to migrants. (Warren, by the way, is also a geographer. Geographers are everywhere.)
In response to the news of migrants found dead in a truck this week, DHS Secretary Mayorkas said in a tweet that the government would “hold those responsible” specifically referring to smugglers.
But how does one meaningfully investigate the broader moral implications and culpability of immigration policies? How does the criminalization of aid and the illegalization of asylum under Title 42 and the Migrant Protection Protocols figure into our understanding of social responsibility for the background that enabled these deaths to occur? And what about so many migrants whose asylum cases were rejected and they were deported to their deaths?
In my immigration studies course at Syracuse University, we talk about the concept of precarious life put forward by Judith Butler and others for thinking about how various social groups are exposed to death and to the possibility of death in different ways.
In some sense, simply being alive means that our fates are bound up with one another in a way that we could describe as precarious. My safety depends upon you not attacking me, for instance, but it can also be better illustrated by the distribution of generalized risk caused by a few people who refuse to wear masks during a pandemic.
However, precarity is slightly different. Although we are all living with existential risk, we do not all live with an equal amount of existential risk. Many of us cannot avail ourselves of life-giving or life-protecting services, due to, say, economic disadvantage or discrimination.
Even more importantly, some people are implicitly or explicitly designated for heightened degree of expendability simply because of their identity: people of color, people with disabilities, Indigenous groups, and, of course, migrants. In this sense, precarity is a product of social and political systems, and precarity can be created and mobilized to reproduce and reflect the devaluation of the lives of some while also elevating the value of other lives.
To be a migrant often means living under a politically induced condition of maximized precarity, including living with the consequences of state violence, while at the same time having few options other appealing to that very state for protection (e.g. in the form of asylum).
In this sense, the fact that migrants have been found in dead in large numbers at the borders of the US and Europe this week should be understood as an epiphenomenon—a logical, inherent consequence—of the routine functioning of borders and the perceived expendability of migrants’ lives. Regretful perhaps, but not surprising or inconsistent with what it means to be a person (of color) on the move in the 21st century.
In addition to death along the borders of developed countries, there are less spectacular forms of migrant death that do not make the headlines.
In February of last year, I posted a question on Twitter asking immigration attorneys about their experiences with how more routine forms of death affect the practice of immigration law. My goal was to try to capture the sense in which the socially constructed expendability of migrants’ lives often follows them beyond moments of border crossing and into everyday life.
The responses were astounding. Immigrants waiting for paperwork to get approved were shot at a Christmas party, killed in a motorcycle accident, or died of natural causes. Many clients died of COVID. Another attorney added this story just this morning.
The responses inspired me to write up a short blog post last year based on those responses. Mother Jones’ reporter Isabela Diaz (@isabelaalhadeff) followed up that post with a news article which is much better than my blog post, so read hers if you have to choose.
My original blog post is here: To Make Live and Let Die: How Our Immigration System Treats Migrants’ Lives as Expendable
Diaz’s article is here: Murder, Heart Attacks, Suicide, COVID—Immigrants Are Dying in “America’s Waiting Room”
That’s all I wanted to say about that. I am just sad to see this tragedy unfold in Texas and in Melilla, but I also wanted to find a way to emphasize how important it is not to see these as one-off events that are disconnected from each other. Being exposed to death is a big part of what it means to be a migrant. We’ve made it that way. And hope that someday we can unmake it, too.
Continue This Important Conversation with Reece Jones Next Week
Reece Jones, a fellow geographer and author of the recently acclaimed “White Borders”, has written another book called “Nobody Is Protected: How the Border Patrol Became the Most Dangerous Police Force in the United States” which very much connects to this topic.
Politics & Prose is hosting the book launch event virtually, and I’ve been asked to moderate the discussion. The event will be on Tuesday, July 5, from 6:00-7:00 pm. If you would like to join us, please register at Eventbrite link here.
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