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Looking Past Outrage and Violence to See the Border

Coverage of family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border has stirred outrage. We speak to border expert Gabriella Sanchez about the politics and policy, media coverage and meaning of these developments.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
Signs during a protest against U.S. immigration policies outside the U.S. embassy in Mexico City on June 30, 2018. Three undocumented migrant mothers filed a lawsuit against President Donald Trump’s administration, demanding to be reunited with the daughters from whom they were forcibly separated after crossing the Mexican border to seek asylum. JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

From the heart-rending cries of a baby to images of distraught children and parents, recent coverage of the “crisis” on the border between the United States and Mexico has been dramatic.

For many people living and working on either side of the border, the outrage that was stoked was understandable but troubling. Brief bursts of intense, viral attention – such as that which exploded around the practice of family separation at the border – can distort as much as they illuminate the issues involved.

Gabriella E. Sanchez calls the U.S.-Mexico border home. Her work has included stints as a criminal investigator, a teacher and now an ethnographer and research fellow at the European University Institute based in Florence, Italy. Her book Human Smuggling and Border Crossings examines the daily lives of smuggling facilitators on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Sanchez talked to Refugees Deeply about the politics and policy, media coverage and meaning of recent developments. Her thoughts challenge some of the prevailing progressive thinking and views of her own colleagues in academia. She advocates for a greater voice for the “real border experts” – the people who live and work there.

Refugees Deeply: Recent developments at the U.S. border have provoked outrage, but is what’s happening new? Is even the outrage itself new or productive?

Gabriella Sanchez: For the people who call the U.S.-Mexico border home none of the practices we are witnessing is either new, extraordinary or unfamiliar. For generations, we have attested or been the target of family separations, of the spread of the immigration detention complex and of the systematic criminalization of our communities. The wire, concrete, steel barriers and long crossing times have been a constant in our experiences as fronterizos: they are not a recent invention.

The representations of infant children in court (some of them recreations) and the immigration facilities on the border; the recordings of crying children and the images of the “cages” have generated widespread, global condemnation over what is happening along the region. But as in the past, the hype will be short lived. The coverage is yet another example of what we see often on the border: a news cycle that gets started by media’s sudden discovery of a long-standing practice in the region and its labelling as unprecedented or crisis-like; the ensuing uproar that follows the mobilization of often sensationalistic, dramatic images and the escalation of media coverage, that eventually plateaus before vanishing into oblivion. I think we’re already moving into the last phase by now.

Why would any of these representations or images — which in fact do not come from the people of the border and that only represent how outsiders see us — actually benefit people of the border or translate into change? I do not believe traditional, mainstream reporting and especially portrayals of migrants, let alone migrant children in transit are likely to generate any change. The images from the border have scant impact on those Americans who already have an opinion of migrants as invaders: migrants’ children are seen as a mini migrant, right? It’s a micro-tant.

In 2014, there was another spike in the number of arrivals of unaccompanied children to the border. The images of exhausted, brown women and children became in a matter of days used by DC political pundits as evidence of a new ‘crisis; – even though the numbers of unaccompanied minors had been on the rise for years and were in fact already declining by the time DC ‘discovered’ them; the outrage and the media crews were gone in a few weeks; journalists just moved on to the next story.

In some quarters Trump’s Executive Order ending family separation was presented as ‘problem solved’ and the story has moved on to reunification of families. Has anything been solved?

The truth is that the Executive Order is even more problematic. Everybody rushed to say that it was an indicator of Trump trying to save face. But what the order did was in fact to formalize indefinite detention. Now families can stay together, many say. But in detention? Do you see how problematic that is? The order formalized one of the worst versions of what had been a discretionary spectrum.

Quite often on the border, migrant mothers and their children when apprehended were allowed to stay together (even though fathers were often denied entry or sent to regular detention while they waited for an answer to their initial requests, which was another form of family separation). Let me say this again: family separation is not new. And children, families with children (but also adults in vulnerable situations, like the elderly, pregnant women, LGBTQI migrants, indigenous people, etc.) should not be in detention settings. There should be alternatives to immigration detention that provide dignified protection.

“You formalized one of the worst versions of what had been a discretionary spectrum.”

Refugees Deeply: How do you see the border enforcement and zero-tolerance approaches affecting the routes from Central and Southern America? Will there be a knock-on effect on other countries’ approach to migrants in transit?

Sanchez: First of all, it is important to understand that migration trends into the U.S. have been changing. The numbers of apprehensions on the U.S.-Mexico border involving Mexican people have decreased for most of this decade, only to be surpassed by those involving Central American migrants. Mexico in turn is arresting even more Central American migrants than the U.S. The number of asylum applications in Mexico has skyrocketed — applications, not approvals, which are now backlogged. Mexico is no longer a predominantly migrant-generating country, but a migrant destination and transit country instead.

What I am trying to say is that current migration patterns are reflective of long-standing, changing trends; they are not merely a result of what Trump has done. It’s erroneous to claim changes can be traced to ‘zero tolerance’ alone.

Refugees Deeply: Will there be any changes with the incoming Mexican administration?

Sanchez: I don’t think that we’re going to see many changes immediately. One of the criticisms that the leftist press and some scholars made prior to the Mexican election was that Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO as he’s known, had no agenda concerning migration.

AMLO has approached Father Alejandro Solalinde – one of the most visible faces of the pro-migrant rights movement — to lead the National Human Rights Commission. Solalinde has been documenting and denouncing the involvement of government agencies in migrant related violence for years. It will be interesting to see what kind of pronouncements both men make regarding migrants’ human rights.

Refugees Deeply: You have highlighted the drawbacks of the ‘crisis prism’ through which the media portrays the border. How have scholars shaped our understanding of borders and where do you see room for doing better?

Sanchez: Our work has often become a weapon. One of the main concerns some of us U.S.-Mexico border and immigration scholars had voiced is that the focus on violence, particularly, gang and organized criminal violence, as the leading factor behind people’s migration could potentially backfire. If you just look at the bulk of the academic and media production concerning the border you can see how violence of a sensationalized, attention-grabbing, voyeuristic kind has become an analytical cornerstone.

People have built entire careers on problematic characterizations of the border as plagued with drug traffickers, gangs, and vice. The border is so much more than that. There’s an obsession with [the criminal gang] MS-13, without a clear understanding of who they are, and what it means to be part of a gang. There are reasons to not hyper-emphasize MS-13. True is it poses some concerns, but not to the point that it has been depicted.

Yet you can see how Trump and others have appropriated these narratives of violence and incorporated them into his justification to deport migrants and describe them as rapists, predators, criminals, that are “infesting” the US.

Furthermore, while everyone was up in arms over Trumps’ remarks, few realized that some of the slim protections that were in place to protect children and women migrating from complex contexts in Central America were being reduced or altogether eliminated. For example, the Obama administration had a couple of very small programs that allowed children in countries in Central America to apply from asylum from abroad in order to reunite with their families in the US.

Those are virtually gone. Then we also had the decision of attorney general Sessions that domestic and gang violence no longer constituted grounds for asylum. Again, I think that the administration’s strategy was to distract us with what we could perceive as a larger threat, while erasing the programs that provided a lifeline to migrants.

Refugees Deeply: Where do you see legal or political opportunities to resist the current White House approach to immigration and borders?

Sanchez: Locally. Always. But from within. The people of the border have always resisted but hardly anyone notices. Local organizations and people have been resisting every day. None of these things on the news is new to us. It’s frustrating to see our border being so forgotten – and so remembered when the time to talk about crises comes.

When I was a professor on the US Mexico border, I always reminded my students they were the real border experts, that nobody knew the border the way they did, because they lived it. As people from the border we must recognize and acknowledge our ideas as expert knowledge that derives from our experience with the border itself –that is a massive form of resistance. All the solutions for what is good for the border often come from (Washington) DC.

Everybody comes and asks us about the wall, when the walls have been there forever. Nobody is interested in knowing about how it can take us anywhere between 5 minutes and three hours to cross the border, depending on how long the crossing lines are and the mood of the border agents, or of how the waits often impact our ability to make it on time to work, school, or even a life-saving medical appointment. Nobody wants to hear about the migration checkpoints in the interior, where all people regardless of citizenship are subjected to questioning and inspection. The focus on sensationalized violence renders that other kind of everyday violence invisible.

Refugees Deeply: Which organizations do you think are worth supporting for people who want to contribute?

Sanchez: RAICES Texas launched an incredible campaign to help cover bonds for parents released from immigration detention (because even when someone has been granted a release, this is often conditional of the payment of a bond). Las Americas, in the City of El Paso, Texas has been in the community for over 30 years providing immigration law services to low income border residents.

While the focus is now on children, thousands of migrants have gone missing, disappeared or died during their journeys. Colibrí Center, in the City of Tucson, Arizona has led a gargantuan, successful and unmatched effort to identify and return to their loved ones the remains of migrants who died as a result of migration enforcement and controls. DHIA on the Mexican side of the border, carries out participatory research and advocacy work with children and families with a history of involvement in smuggling facilitation, developing community-driven answers to marginalization.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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