Since April of this year, some 17,000 asylum seekers have boarded buses at the U.S.-Mexico border and traveled more than 1,500 miles to New York City. Given their harrowing trajectories to the border from unlivable conditions in countries including Venezuela, El Salvador, and Haiti, the comparatively easy ride to New York would seem unremarkable, were the journey not forced upon them by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott’s cynical maneuver, replicated by some Republican leaders from other southern states with high flows of immigration, seeks to take aim at heavily liberal Democratic locales whose partisan leanings are ostensibly more immigrant-friendly.
Ghastly as the gesture is, it is unfortunately not the worst of what many of these asylum seekers have endured in their hopes of living safely in the United States. It is of course perverse to play with human lives as a means of politicking in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections. But still more crucially, the coercive relocation of these many thousands of people carries legal implications pertaining to fraud, kidnapping, and human trafficking. While kidnapping and human trafficking are disturbingly common occurrences for those traveling from Central America up the “migrant highway” to the U.S.-Mexico border, it is startling that in this case, these same aggressions are being carried out by U.S. government agencies and elected representatives.
An Immigration System Built on Exclusion
These tactics, which now plague asylum seekers on both sides of the border, cast into relief how policies in the United States are very connected with the precariousness and suffering that refugees endure not so far outside of U.S. territory. This is not only a matter of active deportations, which did drop significantly once President Joe Biden took office last year, but also a question of exclusionary policies that have in recent years made it more difficult for asylum seekers to enter the United States to have their asylum claims legally processed. Among the most stringent of these were the Trump administration’s so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which forced asylum seekers to await their claims processing and court hearings south of the border, in Mexican enclaves notorious for rape, violence, and kidnapping. This is a departure from traditional asylum policy which, in accordance with international law, allows asylum seekers to enter the United States temporarily under humanitarian parole until their claims have been processed.
I witnessed the horrifying impacts of MPP firsthand in early 2020, when I visited one of the sprawling migrant encampments borne of that policy. While the United States had a damning record of anti-immigrant policies prior to the Trump presidency, images of that administration’s so-called “Zero Tolerance” strategy at the border, which actively separated children from their parents when they entered the United States, broke something in me. It was not enough to study the harms done by U.S. border policy; I needed to do work that felt more immediate, and understand what the border does to the human beings whose lives it ensnares. By the time I had arrived at the border, the “Zero Tolerance” practices had formally ended; even so, the trauma of anti-immigrant policy, the family separations wrought by ICE detention and deportation, by family members with unequal and precarious immigration statuses, made it clear that no specific law or policy would undo decades of Washington’s cruel and violent approach to immigration. The Trump administration’s child separation and MPP policies were not aberration, but continuity.
At the migrant enclave I visited in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, those who sought to enter the U.S. from Mexico were forced to live in large open-air camps, some for over a year, at the foot of the bridge that crosses the Rio Grande between the two countries. Living in those conditions, which consisted of precarious access to food, potable water, plumbing and basic healthcare, constituted the very type of struggle for survival that prompted these people’s initial departure from their home countries. Here again, the United States was perpetrating some of the same conditions that international asylum law ostensibly seeks to abate.
After various legal battles against the Biden administration, MPP was effectively ended this year. Nevertheless, the Biden Administration maintained another Trump-era policy, Title 42, which continues to expel immigrants without ever allowing them to begin asylum claims. Title 42 is based on an esoteric public health provision that Trump seized upon at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, effectively closing the southern border to people entering the U.S. from a country where a “quarantinable communicable disease exists.”
Some exemptions have been made on a case by case basis as individuals attempt to cross at U.S. ports of entry; the majority of these limited exceptions are afforded to asylum seekers from Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba — countries whose governments have inimical relationships with Washington. This too suggests that even at the federal and diplomatic level, asylum policy in the United States functions as a political maneuver rather than a meaningful humanitarian imperative. Furthermore, even as Biden promised to end the Title 42 program, behind closed doors his administration is flirting with the policy’s expansion as a way of gesturing towards tougher border policy in the runup to the November mid-terms.
The current administration’s ambivalent and contradictory border policy reflects a broader truth about asylum in the United States: the immigration system is built on exclusion, not on humanitarianism or aid. The party line, whether Democratic or Republican, follows this fundamental logic, even if Democrats have championed certain exceptions in the case of DACA arrivals or the overturning of Trump’s MPP policy.
These incongruities are palpable in Greg Abbott’s recent stunt, which is not as antithetical to New York Mayor Eric Adams’ political ethos as the Texas governor might think. It is hardly a new phenomenon that rightwing politicians seize upon New York’s so-called “liberal elites” as a counterpoint to the former’s white nationalist vision for America. The thinking behind Abbott’s strategy is not only to goad the Democratic party, but to visit upon the long-established liberal city a version of what he considers to be the scourge descending upon his state. What Abbott failed to consider is that Mayor Adams himself boasts a rather damning track record as it pertains to his approach to New York City’s most poor and vulnerable residents. In a response to the busloads of arrivals at Port Authority in Manhattan, Adams appealed to the city’s homeless shelter system to help get new arrivals on their feet, a system itself overrun because of Adams’ 2022 push to disband the city’s homeless encampments.
While the mayor has unveiled programs such as “Project Open Arms,” an initiative to meet the educational needs of families seeking asylum in New York City, finding a safe place to live is as much a matter of asylum seeking as it is a question of access to housing. The two issues, like the brutal forces that shape immigrant exclusion on and across the U.S-Mexico border, cannot be divorced. And so, as local politicians maneuver around electoral issues and media optics, the lives of asylum seekers on both sides of the border, and across the United States, hang in the balance.
Human Rights Activism in New York City and Beyond
As my ongoing research and reporting have made clear, the bipartisan consensus that works against a viable process of asylum in the United States is not new. Fortunately, for as long as politicians and special interest groups have targeted our most vulnerable, so too have human rights workers and activists rallied tirelessly on the behalf of immigrants. Their work is as visible and essential at the border as it is in New York City. Local examples include Ninaj Raoul, co-founder of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees (HWHR), which provides translation and legal aid for asylum seekers from Haiti as they prepare for their asylum interviews. HWHR is also at the forefront of a public call for the Biden administration to provide Haitian immigrant families with humanitarian parole in accordance to international asylum law, as opposed to his common practice of swift deportation and repatriation to Haiti.
Video: The NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic worked with the family and community of immigrant rights activist Jean Montrevil to help secure his return to the US following his 2018 deportation to Haiti. “It is the power of organizing that brought the government to the negotiating table,” IRC co-director and Montrevil’s lawyer Alina Das told Democracy Now.
Raoul and HWHR stand in the ranks of other vital advocates. Make the Road New York’s Luba Cortes works as an immigrant defense coordinator and helped launch that organization’s Deportation Defense Manual, which informs immigrants of their rights and resources in the face of illegal ICE arrests and deportations. The New York Immigration Coalition, directed by Murad Awawdeh, is conducting a “Welcoming New York Campaign” that presses federal, state and city officials to develop a coordinated response to the needs of new arrivals. Activist and lawyer Alina Das co-leads the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic, whose students provide direct legal representation to immigrants and whose work advances local and national campaigns for immigrant rights.
These advocates’ tireless defense of those seeking refuge reminds us that the politics around immigration need not be ones of harm and injustice; rather, immigration carries with it the possibility of deep and abiding humanity.
Miriam Pensack, a 2022-23 Fulbright-Hays fellow, is a writer, editor, and doctoral candidate in Latin American history at New York University. Her work has appeared in the New Republic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. She lives in Brooklyn.
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