Last week the Border Patrol held a bizarrely theatrical press event that claimed to offer reporters an opportunity to “walk in a migrant’s shoes.”
Herded along by Border Patrol agents and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, reporters took a walk in the South Texas heat. As reported in the Valley Town Crier the path had been strewn with clothes and other objects to evoke the losses that migrants suffer along the way. Some reporters were asked to carry plastic babies, supposedly giving them a more authentic experience of what the journey is like for families.
In the midst of this surreal stagecraft, one of the Border Patrol guides, RGV Sector Chief Rodolfo Karisch, lamented the many people who have died crossing through remote areas, but then seemed to suggest that their deaths were an inevitability because they made bad choices. He said, “There is a way to come into this country, and that is through a port of entry.”
What Karisch omitted was that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has all but sealed the ports of entry to asylum seekers with their official policy of ‘metering,’ or severely restricting the number of desperate families who are allowed to cross through each port. Putting their names on a waitlist and turning them away forces people who present themselves for asylum to spend weeks or months in Mexican border towns, in many cases sleeping in the streets and exposing their families to extortion, theft, and violence.
By subjecting families to unsafe conditions through metering, and through the new policy of forcing them to remain in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed, the Trump administration is intentionally increasing the hardships that they endure. This, it is claimed, will ultimately deter more people from coming.
But aside from causing hardship and deaths, it doesn’t work.
Instead, growing desperation and the need to remove themselves and their families from harm leads asylum seekers to cross between the ports of entry, to risk their lives swimming the river or trudging through the desert.
Karisch’s agency knows full well it is this practice of metering which is responsible for a recent increase in families crossing deserts, mountains, or the Rio Grande between ports of entry. Last year the Department of Homeland Security’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported this:
“OIG saw evidence that limiting the volume of asylum-seekers entering at ports of entry leads some aliens who would otherwise seek legal entry into the United States to cross the border illegally. According to one Border Patrol supervisor, the Border Patrol sees an increase in illegal entries when aliens are metered at ports of entry. Two aliens recently apprehended by the Border Patrol corroborated this observation, reporting to the OIG team that they crossed the border illegally after initially being turned away at ports of entry. One woman said she had been turned away three times by an officer on the bridge before deciding to take her chances on illegal entry.”
This is the same sort of thing that happened when the federal government intentionally built border walls and stationed more agents in populated areas where it would otherwise be safer for people to cross. As walls went up desperate people walked around them, trudging into the desert. The Border Patrol claimed that when would-be migrants saw how risky it was, they would just give up and go home. When word got out that people were dying in the attempt to cross, no more would come.
Instead, the number of crossings remained unaffected, while the number of deaths increased dramatically.
Thousands of men, women, and children have died horrible, needless deaths over the past two decades as border walls have gone up and Border Patrol agents have been deployed. The government has long known that these policies cause deaths while failing to deter immigration. The Government Accountability Office published a report in 2006 titled “Illegal Immigration: Border-Crossing Deaths Have Doubled Since 1995” that spelled this out. But that has not forced the government under multiple administrations to revisit this twisted idea and change border policies accordingly.
Instead they double down on the idea that ramping up suffering will deter people from crossing, as Senator Cruz did at this Border Patrol event. He declared that, in fact, the reason people are still coming and risking their lives is because the United States is not putting enough of them in detention camps when they get here. He told the assembled reporters that, “We know how to solve this problem.”
By Cruz’s logic not enough people have died in the river and the desert; the conditions that children suffer in detention are not horrific enough; we are not heaping enough abuse upon families who are running for their lives.
How brutal must we as a nation be to convince families fleeing the most violent countries in the world that the United States is worse than the Hell that they are enduring at home?
Carrying a baby doll on a hot day is not remotely comparable to what asylum-seeking parents endure as they struggle to reach safety. It is play-acting. So are the claims by Senator Cruz, who consistently supports legislation that would worsen the suffering of asylum-seekers, and Sector Chief Karisch, who oversees the implementation of inhumane policies, that their ham-fisted bit of propaganda demonstrates their concern for the lives of asylum-seekers.
If they, and the rest of us, actuallycare, we need to act to end the policies and practices that are brutalizing, and even killing, asylum-seeking families.
Stefanie Herweck is a member of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club executive committee. She lives in McAllen, Texas.
Editor’s Note: The main photo accompanying the above guest column was provided courtesy of Juanita Sundberg.