Charla de Merienda: Borderlands in the Caribbean, Latin America, and U.S.
From debates around migration to the question of human value: Migrant Deaths in the Arizona Desert
Throughout the summer, the world followed the separation of families and the detention and incarceration of children along the U.S.-Mexico border. This reality is inseparable from various initiatives that make it increasingly difficult for millions of U.S. residents to apply for an adjustment of status, and increasingly likely to become detained and face deportation. For instance, the “Flores Settlement Agreement” seeks to provide for more detention, less stringent requirements for sites used for detentions, and even a broader scope of emergency emotions, circumstances under which the Administration could do what they felt was expedient. Thus, in the last year, the increase of up to 80% in apprehensions along the U.S-Mexico border is inseparable from growing detentions and deportations of U.S. residents, whose rights to be are increasingly curtailed as a result of their undocumented status. Yet, debates around immigration rarely address its most silent voices: those of the dead and disappeared along the Mexico-U.S. border. Here, attention must turn to the actual borderlands region.
Growing debates regarding immigration policies, including the ad nauseam rhetoric about “the wall”, are largely detached from the realities of the actual space of the border and lived experiences of borderlands communities. Too often, conversations about migration are limited by partisan politics in a spectrum of positions that in fact, and to varying degrees, rely in a shared set of assumptions: 1. that one could be ‘in favor’ or ‘against’ this thing called ‘migration’; 2. that there is a human type known as ‘the migrant’; 3. that there is a ‘there’ and a ‘here’ a ‘them’ and an ‘us’; 4. that the law is equal to justice; 5. that there is such thing as a compromise, whereby the rights of undocumented U.S. residents are contingent on the increased militarization, disappearance and murder of bodies along the Mexico-U.S. borderlands. In fact, the growing numbers of dead and disappeared along the Mexico-U.S. border is one more expression of a genealogy of impunity that extends to the key role of this region in the conformation of the U.S. and Mexican Nations, often at the expense of borderlands communities. Therefore, to understand the complexities underlying migration debates today, it is imperative that we turn attention to how they materialize along the Mexico-U.S. borderlands.
Scholars, activists and artists from the Mexico-U.S. borderlands have alerted to the growing humanitarian crises in their home region, calling attention to all those who die in the crossing. Following the work of the Binational Migration Institute, led by scholars Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith and Anna O’Leary at the University of Arizona, I call for the need to turn attention to the borderlands, and specifically to the Arizona-Sonora region, in order to address some of the voices that, from this space, talk back at the so-called ‘migration debate’. Under this light, positions regarding ‘migration’ demand a reflection on the value of human life. Put simply, any debate on immigration should ask: what do the dead and their traces along our desert reveal about the value of human life in the U.S. today? Approaching this question calls for a multifocal, transdisciplinary perspective that turns to the silences surrounding this human tragedy, while reflecting on our work as scholars, engaged citizens, and activists.
Authority, Law, and Morality: Does the law hold greater normative weight than morality?
In the years since Operation Gatekeeper was implemented in 1994—and other “Operations” in other border cities likewise militarized the border—migrant deaths related to border crossing have escalated. Available evidence indicates that border militarization did not have an appreciable impact on immigration flows—it simply diverted those flows to more dangerous territory, increasing border-crossing deaths. In response, humanitarian groups such as “No More Deaths / No Más Muertes,” “Humane Borders,” etc. have made it their mission to save lives at the border—through putting out gallon jugs of water (or filling water tanks), canned food, dry socks, and first aid supplies.
Tensions between Border Patrol and these humanitarian aid groups at the Sonoran desert have escalated over the past decade; Border Patrol has raided the No More Deaths camp in Arivaca, Arizona on multiple occasions; No More Deaths volunteers have been arrested on charges of littering for leaving water jugs in national preserves and on charges related to “harboring” or transporting undocumented migrants to medical care; and reports document smashed water jugs by Border Patrol agents, as well as vigilante border watch groups such as the “Minutemen.”
Debates about immigration tend to focus on one of several different themes—sometimes overlapping with each other and running concurrently: 1) a debate over resources (whether undocumented immigrants “cost” more in use of social programs than they contribute in tax dollars and contributions to the economy); 2) concerns over law and order (the argument that undocumented immigrants violate the law by entering the United States without authorization or by overstaying visas, and this gets coupled with concerns about rising rates of crime); 3) related concerns over national security, controlling our borders, and terrorism; and 4) concerns over “common culture” and the threat of a cultural or literal takeover by Mexican or other Latin American culture. Each one of these issues can be discussed and argued separately, and yet discussion, even with reference to research and data, rarely seems to move people from their fixed positions on either side of the spectrum on this issue, suggesting that something much more fundamental—an opposition of core, bedrock values—is at stake.
In this discussion, I hope to stimulate a discussion of the core values that lie at the bottom of the arguments on either side. My own personal position in this debate is based on the following premise: “law” is less of an absolute moral principle than human life. Laws are human-made and have historically often been deeply immoral (slavery, segregation). I advance the proposition that to smash water jugs is to suggest some possible ethical justification for depriving human beings of their lives based on their (presumed) illegal actions, in the absence of any “lawful” procedure (a trial, a court of law) to adjudicate the ethics of that decision. Whatever one might think about what immigration law should look like or what border enforcement should look like, smashing water jugs to deprive people of water suggests that the humanity of certain people counts less than that of others—a sentiment that has undergirded massive human rights abuses such as slavery and genocide in the course of history. Trump’s proclamation that he will send troops to the border (it is against the law for those troops to use force without approval of congress) to halt a caravan of people seeking asylum (a legal act)—as well as his declaration that he will issue an executive order eliminating birthright citizenship (which would be unconstitutional)—further provokes and complicates our notions of morality, legality, and ethics.
Impacts of the Carwash Operation: The New Right in the Context of Latin America
As I write these lines, federal judge Sergio Moro, the most popular face of the Carwash Operation in Brazil, concedes his first collective interview to the media accepting the offer to assume the head of the Ministry of Justice, thereby joining the core cabinet of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro.
The Carwash Operation is a vast anti-corruption investigation started in 2014, task-force style led by the Brazilian Federal Police, the Agency for Law Enforcement and Prosecution of Crimes, and members of the judiciary at various levels. The operation has revealed that the political parties in power had established a scheme of embezzlement within virtually all of the state-controlled companies, especially Petrobras, for the purpose of financing their electoral campaigns, buying congressional support for their political projects, and, obviously, self-enrichment. Briefly, the scheme consisted of highly overpriced contracts between state companies and private corporations whose additional values would return to the parties and politicians in power.
Notwithstanding its origin in Brazil, the task force has impacted the entirety of Latin America, since the Brazilian corporations maintained fraudulent contracts, now under investigation, with the governments of Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, and Mexico. The Carwash Operation has revealed not just a traditional corruption scandal; rather it has opened the guts of a deeply broken political economic modus operandi of continental proportions.
The companies involved, public and private, are giants of essential infra-structure construction and energy supply for very large populations who now watch at least as many as 45 major projects, various of which go well over several billion dollars, to be stalled or completely abandoned. The suspension of those projects has translated into major negative impacts such as bankruptcies, millions of jobs terminated, divestitures, and, most directly to the population, fast corrosion of the quality of fundamental public services in transit and transportation, energy supply, law enforcement, education, and healthcare. Daunting numbers for proof abound. According to the International Labour Organization, Brazil’s rate of unemployment easily goes beyond 14%, meaning 14 million people. Law enforcement-wise, the situation is even worse: according to UN figures, with just 8% of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for 33% of global murders, and in Brazil at least 63,000 people are murdered every year, of which less than 1% of cases are solved and even less go to final court decisions.
If the negative economic impacts of corruption in Latin America have been rough in the streets, equally rough have been the lives of many once powerful political leaders throughout the region, who now are either being investigated, prosecuted, or already serving time in prison as in the of Brazilian Ex-President Lula da Silva. In face of this scenario, with ex-presidents in prison, rotten political institutions, organized crime, and murder around the corner, many people in these countries have wondered: how can one live in such an environment of lawlessness? The number of Brazilians seeking to live in other countries has never been so high and rising so fast.
And that is not yet the whole story. The economic meltdown of Venezuela has been feeding an enormous migration crisis between its larger neighboring countries Colombia and Brazil, and the region at large. At least 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2014. The most cruel of the dimensions of this crisis has been its impacts in public health such as the upraise of malaria, yellow fever, diphtheria, dengue and tuberculosis, as well as HIV, and even measles. The neighboring Brazilian cities have reported virtual collapse of total infrastructure, especially public healthcare institutions due to the everyday-arriving Venezuelans walking away from unbelievable distances. Brazil has consistently failed to seriously manage the tension along the borders. And surprising to me, Brazil and Colombia have not yet attempted any moves in concert to address the problem.
As a result, in various countries such as Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Paraguay, and Brazil, the response has come in the form of a sheer turn to the political right, in the economic, and often social and cultural dimensions. The proposals have ranged around principles of economic liberalism on the one side and hardening criminal laws on the other. My take on this question is positive. In my view, the reasonable route to follow now includes a series of institutional reforms such as the remodeling of the public pension system, extensive privatizations, stricter laws, and harsher penalties for high-profile corruption. However, none of those possible remedies are perfect solutions, and so I would like to have this large movement to the right taking place in Latin America for evaluation in this discussion. Is this turn the correct political route to follow at this moment?