On March 25, 2018, Palm Sunday, the Viacrucis del Migrante [The Migrants’ Way of the Cross] set out from Tapachula, Chiapas toward Tijuana. The approximately 1,000 Central American migrants traveled together for safety, as well as to draw attention to Mexican and U.S. policies that undermine the right to asylum. The 2018 Caravan drew significantly more attention than had previous years’ efforts. Sadly, much of the attention was from the Trump administration and right-wing media.
President Trump (predictably) voiced his ire through a tweet: “Mexico is doing very little, if not NOTHING, at stopping people from flowing into Mexico through their Southern Border, and then into the U.S. They laugh at our dumb immigration laws.” Fox News successfully transformed a peaceful effort by migrants and their allies to draw attention to their plight into an invasion. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Attorney General Jeff Sessions followed by advocating and implementing policies to deter asylum seekers by separating them from their children.
Though the tone of the Trump administration differs, in many respects it merely makes the brutality and racism of the U.S. immigration enforcement regime explicit. Most people in the U.S. first learned of Central Americans seeking asylum in the summer of 2014 through news reports of migrant children held in detention facilities described as hieleras (freezers). In the wake of these reports, the Obama administration quietly expanded detention, asked Congress to give the Department of Homeland Security additional discretion in removing and returning unaccompanied minors, and partnered with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to reduce the number of people reaching the US border. It also pressured Mexico to step up immigration enforcement so that refugees cannot make their way to the U.S. to claim asylum.
This is the strategy of externalization, in which governments shift migration controls outside of their territories to evade their legal obligation to give asylum seekers an individual hearing for protection. The United States pioneered externalization by intercepting and returning boats of Haitians fleeing the 1991 military coup, diverting some for processing at Guantanamo Bay. Australia followed with its interception of boats and it relocation of asylum seekers to off-shore detention centers. Today, the European Union and its member states broker deals with Turkey, Niger, Libya, and other African states to prevent asylum seekers from reaching EU territory. Italy’s partnership with Libya is perhaps the most egregious version of externalization, if only because the Libyan Coast Guard returns asylum seekers to detention centers where they often suffer torture and rape, and push people into forced labor.
Intercepting boats in the Mediterranean or off the coast of Australia is the visible arm of externalization, a spectacle to assure nativists of the state’s power to control its borders. A more insidious type of externalization is the visa regime, enforced through sanctions on air carriers. Requiring airlines to perform migration checks co-opts the private sector into enforcing immigration law. More insidiously, it forces migrants to hire smugglers, leading to a vicious cycle in which migrants seeking to exercise their legal right to asylum are depicted as criminals, justifying yet more drastic attempts to curtain and contain migration.
A deeply hypocritical logic underlies externalization. States have not officially relinquished their moral and legal obligations to refugees and continue to give people (at least in theory) who arrive at the border an individual right to claim asylum. Nowhere is this more evident than at the gruesome parody of the fence at Melilla that separates Spain from Morocco: migrants who survive the (sometimes lethal) gauntlet and arrive on Spanish territory are rewarded with an acknowledgement of their human rights. Those who remain in Morocco are outside of the moral and legal sphere. Stuck on the wrong side of the border fence, the law of asylum is rendered nonexistent because Spain refuses to hear their pleas.
Externalization may be a successful political strategy in a xenophobic climate, at least in the short run. As an attempt to evade moral responsibility, it does not withstand scrutiny (its legality is also questionable). Its effects are an open secret: millions of people suffering persecution, torture, or sexual violence find themselves immobilized or forced to take increasingly dangerous routes to seek safety and to rebuild their lives. In the process, many suffer human rights violations or lose their lives.
Externalization is only a plausible strategy when accompanied by certain false assumptions about migration and migrants. According to these assumptions, migration is harmful, undermines economies, and threatens public safety. Migrants are dangerous with dispositions toward violence, including terrorism. They are not like “us” (however “us” is constructed). As President Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly said, “they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society.” They embrace values that “we” reject. These assumptions contribute to the dehumanization and demonization of immigrants and refugees, reducing them to floods, hoards, and flows. This justifies not treating migrants as moral equals (they need not be treated like “us”) or excluding them from “our” moral community altogether.
As a result, advocates need to do more than condemn externalization. What we need to do is propose new models and new metaphors. Migration justice will only be possible when people reject the prejudices that structure how their governments address migration. The rhetoric surrounding migration now treats it almost exclusively as a security issue. Prevention and containment are the strategies for unsolicited mobility, ignoring how migration is part of the human condition. People have always moved and borders are usually porous. When people face violence and poverty, restrictions are more likely to divert migration (often along more dangerous routes), rather than stop it.
Expanding border security to sending or transit countries is often justified with language about providing aid to fix the root problems that cause migration. This assumes that migration is pathological and that people would prefer to remain if it were not for adverse conditions that force them to move. This is wrong. Migration is a response to violence and poverty, but it is also a predictable result of an interconnected world. People across diverse regions depend on each other, not only economically, but also because families and communities are often transnational.
Instead of seeing immigration primarily as a security issue, we need to see it as a social, cultural, and economic opportunity. Governments should not pretend to have the power to curb human mobility; rather, they should try to facilitate it, helping people move to where they are most likely to flourish and taking measures to reap the benefits and minimize the burdens of mobile populations. Rather than seeing human mobility as abnormal, we should see it as a normal facet of the human condition, necessary for many of the goods, services, and relationships that we cherish.
Finally, we should reject the naïve conviction that the boundaries of our world end at the official borders of the nation-state and that there is a principled distinction between what is “internal” and “external” in our political, economic, cultural, and social lives. Once we do this, the dichotomy between “us” and “them” becomes unsustainable and the perversity of externalization becomes clear. “Externalizing” migration in fact simply extends the border, bringing people immobilized by our policies inside our orbit, making them a part of us.
Alex Sager is Associate Professor of Philosophy and University Studies at Portland State University. His recent publications include Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Mobility: The Migrant’s-Eye View of the World (Palgrave, 2018) and the edited volume The Ethics and Politics of Immigration (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016). Follow him on Twitter: @aesager.