Death is a common occurrence for those who live in Mexico, under the shadow of the US border. Some deaths are unexpected, such as those who get caught in the crossfire of a shootout between the local criminal gangs and the ubiquitous Mexican soldiers, whose presence only seems to add to the violence. Others occur regularly, such as those of migrants who fall from atop the 10-meter border fence. Or those who drown attempting to swim around the metal fence that stretches into the sea on the west coast. Or those who are swept away by the treacherous and strong currents of the river that forms the border to the east. And those who perish crossing the inhospitable and unforgiving desert that is the central border region. Last year was the deadliest year on record for people trying to cross the US-Mexico border: more than 800 migrants died. That figure, however, does not take into account the thousands of people who disappeared during the journey and whose fate is unknown, though it is safe to assume that they also died, as they disappeared at a border that is designed to kill.
Title 42, a policy implemented during the pandemic to effectively close down the US borders to migrants, led to a new type of death among migrants: one caused by waiting. It is the type of death that I know best because I became an accomplice to it. In 2022, US border authorities asked a few NGOs working at the border, including mine, to identify a small number of vulnerable refugees who could receive “humanitarian waivers,” under which refugees could legally enter the United States in search of protection. This meant that each day we had to select a few dozen refugees from the thousands who had been waiting since Title 42 had closed the border two years earlier. The futility of our attempts to prioritize those most in need became glaring as people died while waiting for our makeshift Schindler’s List. My colleagues and I bore the burden of those lives cut short long before they should have been, especially that of Juan, a seven-year-old boy who died the same day he and his family were scheduled to cross the border. His mother, who had tried in vain to have her son cared for in Mexico, remained in Mexico to receive his small body from the morgue while the rest of the family finally entered the US, where Juan could have been saved if we had scheduled his entry a few days earlier.
In 2023, legal access to the US for refugees seeking protection has become even more dystopian. US border authorities have stopped forcing NGOs working at the border to choose who lives and who dies and have created a highly dysfunctional mobile app with which refugees should be able to make appointments to present themselves at legal points of entry. In practice, it acts as a perverse and deadly lottery that punishes the most vulnerable. Every morning at dawn, thousands of refugees wake up to press a button at exactly the same moment, hoping to get one of the coveted appointments, which run out in a matter of minutes. Most of those with old cell phones or those waiting in crowded shelters or camps without good internet access receive error messages or are simply unable to use the app due to technical problems. As this is the only system for requesting protection at an official entry point, those who cannot access it often risk crossing the deadly cross-border routes that have already claimed so many lives.
When did we become a society willing to predicate our border security on this ritual of human sacrifice? Perhaps it is because the deranged white nationalist fantasies espoused by the anti-immigrant right are now common currency, to the point where, for the average citizen, it is difficult to determine what is real and what is not when talking about the border. Congressional Republicans keep portraying refugees as drug smugglers, even though official statistics show that almost all of the narcotics entering the US illegally are transported by its own citizens. A hugely politicized and neo-fascist Border Patrol claims absurdities, such as that President Joe Biden has “opened the border,” despite record migrant detention figures and a border security budget that has doubled in the last decade. These lies fuel the fire, incite violence against immigrants, and make the American public not care that our government has openly abandoned the idea that their country should offer protection to those fleeing persecution in their countries.
Ironically, after implementing some of its most brutal policies, such as family separation and Title 42, the US has seen the greatest increase in refugees crossing its border. This is because that number has much less to do with US policies than with the conditions that induce people to flee their homes. It is clear that closing legal avenues of access to protection does not end the human survival instinct that drives these people to leave their home countries, it only increases irregular migration and strengthens the criminal gangs that increasingly charge exorbitant sums to exploit the desperate. Policies designed to repel and kill those seeking protection fail to understand that refugees have already decided that what they are fleeing is worse than what awaits them at the border.