Thursday, April 24, 2014

Racialized Exclusion Leads to Ungrievable Border Deaths

Guest blogger: Amelia Andersen, second-year law student, University of San Francisco

The number of migrants that have died crossing the border since 1998 is estimated to be at least 5,595  people. In 2012 alone, 477 migrants lost their lives attempting to cross. Importantly, these figures only represent the migrant bodies that have been recovered along the border. The vast, mountainous, and remote areas that constitute border crossing points means that it can take many years for the body of a migrant to be recovered, if they are discovered at all. For these numbers to be more than merely anecdotal, the loss of lives along the border must be understood within the larger context of the United States’ racialized immigration laws.

Beginning with slavery and continuing to the immigration laws that are in place today, “the meaning of citizenship [in the U.S.] has rested on the denial of citizenship to nonwhites living within its borders.”  Historically, whiteness has been produced through the legal and social reification of racial categories and racial difference. From Dred Scott to In Re Rodriguez, defining racial difference became the Court’s job in the early citizenship prerequisite cases. In these cases, courts used both “common knowledge” and “scientific” rationales to justify the racial divisions they used to define people as white (suitable for citizenship) and as non-white (unfit for naturalization).  Accordingly, since this nation’s inception, citizenship has been about denial of rights to certain racialized groups. In other words, the hegemonic belief in the privileges and rights afforded to the citizen is dependent on the construction of the racialized “illegal alien” who is denied these rights.

Today, the racialized underpinnings of the “citizen” v. the “illegal alien” paradigm has become invisibilized and normalized. As citizenship has become an unquestioned ideology, “illegality” has functioned to instill notions of criminality on migrants of color. “Illegal immigrants” have become hyper-visible as a result of both legal interventions and because of the ideological effects of the discourse of “illegality.” 

The ideology that allows the dominant U.S. polity to see migrant deaths as ungrievable, and migrants themselves as subhuman, is maintained not only by our national laws and policies but also by nativist and racist discourse. As author Nicholas De Genova explains, “migrant “illegality” is produced as an effect of the law, but it is also sustained as an effect of discursive formation.”  Discourse is essential in the production and affirmation of ideologies. Phrases like the “browning of America”, the undocumented “invasion”, and “the border crisis” merely reinforce dominant myths about undocumented migration and drive policies like Operation Gatekeeper. This rhetoric circulates through language or images used in the media. For example “Time magazine’s June 11, 2001, cover image illustrated just how subtly the idea of reconquest, or a Mexican takeover of the United States could be evoked.”  The image was of two smiling Latino children dressed as children anywhere in the U.S. may be dressed and the text next to it stated “THE BORDER is vanishing before our eyes, creating a new world for all of us.”  Clearly, the brown-skinned children on U.S. soil were intended to convey the vanishing of the U.S./Mexico border. This deeply racialized discourse functions as an apparatus of power to sustain migrants’ vulnerable and disposable position in U.S. society.

Much like “illegality,” the border itself is a social construction. For generations there existed no physical barrier along our national border. The border was porous, defined by the transnational communities that inhabited it rather than by militarized infrastructure and armed border patrol presence. However, as author Nestor P. Rodriguez writes, “for the generations of U.S. people historically removed from its inception, the border takes on the character of an institution, that is, as “objective reality” and as “self-evident.”  This means that the border is seen as a necessity, essential for sovereignty and national security.

The growing death toll along the border can be directly attributed to the federal policies that have been executed along the border in the last fifteen years. Operation Gatekeeper was implemented in 1994, the idea behind the policy was “prevention through deterrence.” By constructing the border wall and increasing border patrol presence, the government sought to cut off access to traditional crossing routes through the implementation of technological infrastructure and militarization tactics. However, rather than deter, this policy has only moved the foot traffic of migration out of the public eye and intentionally forced undocumented migrants to cross through extreme environments and natural barriers that the government anticipated would increase the likelihood of injury and death.  Not only did the government know that these deaths would be a likely result of their new policies, once this was proven true, INS chose to continue Operation Gatekeeper.  This means that the production of death along the U.S./Mexico border is an intended result of our current Federal immigration policies rather than an unanticipated consequence.

Perhaps one of the most crucial aspects of the release of the number of border crossing mortalities has been the absence of significant public outcry. The historical racialization of migrants, coupled with the construction of their “illegality,” has ensured that the implementation of border policies that produce predictable deaths on a large scale are more than tolerated by U.S. society; they are naturalized. Sometimes the deaths of migrant border crossers are viewed as a justified deterrent to others who may want to cross, or as a deserved consequence of their choice to break the law. This discourse focuses on “choice”: “they were the ones who chose to cross illegally” or “they chose to break our laws.” Blaming the undocumented person shifts the conversation away from the political and economic factors that create immigration patterns and the laws that produce their illegality. It makes the death of migrants sound inevitable or, at the very least, unremarkable. The ideology of “illegality” and the assumed entitlement of the dominant white U.S. citizenry equates to the belief that their deaths are a consequence of migrants’ “poor choices.” This belief is then bolstered when officials, like the former Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Alan Bersin, treat the loss of life along the border as “necessary incidents of war.” 

Author Judith Butler’s  explanation of what lives are deemed grievable and which are not, proves useful when discussing the lack of public reaction to the increasing number of migrant deaths. Butler explains how frames of recognition determine the ways in which individuals distinguish certain people’s privileged positions in relation to others. Crucially, “the frames that, in effect, decide which lives will be recognizable as lives and which will not, must circulate in order to establish their hegemony.”  In other words, the circulation of dominant frames operates to normalize societal inequalities in order to justify the systematic exposure of certain groups of people to greater violence and social injustice, or what Butler would term “positions of precarity.” Importantly, in the context of immigration, racism works as a frame to render certain lives grievable and others expendable. Butler notes that racialized bodies are exposed to such precariousness that when they die, their lives “are not grievable since in the twisted logic that rationalizes their death, the loss of such populations is deemed necessary to protect the lives of the ‘living’.”  In the case of the border crossing deaths, migrant’s racialized position within society renders their deaths utterly ungrievable, making sure that American citizens don’t see the blood on their hands or feel it on their consciences. 

Conservatively, at least one migrant a day dies attempting to cross the U.S./Mexico Border. The heightened militarization tactics along the most popular border crossing points and the strategies of “prevention-through-deterrence” have done little more than effectively funnel migrants through the desert. This “funnel” can be viewed as an incidental byproduct of these federal policies or it can be distinguished as a racialized national project of exclusion that normalizes and makes unremarkable the killing of thousands of human beings.


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