The Roots of Migrant Suffering

This week in North Philly Notes, Jamie Longazel and Miranda Cady Hallett, editor of Migration and Mortality, consider the lethal threat U.S. imperialism poses for migrants.

During a June visit to Guatemala, Vice President Kamala Harris had a simple, three-word message for those thinking about migrating to the United States: “Do not come.” Her stern statement received pushback from progressives, but Harris remained unwavering. “Listen,” she said, “I’m really clear we have to deal with the root causes and that is my focus. Period.”

But what exactly are the ‘root causes’ of the so-called migrant crisis? Who in actuality is being harmed and in what ways? Who is benefiting? And what is missing from political rhetoric of this sort?

We take on these questions in our new, edited book, Migration and Mortality. Our central argument is that capitalism, white supremacy, and U.S. imperialism—not poor individual choices or inherently despotic tendencies in the region—are at the root of death and social suffering among migrants in the Americas.

Simply saying “do not come” overlooks how systemic dynamics produce displacement in the Americas. It also changes the narrative. When it becomes an issue of individual choice, we lose sight of all the unnecessary social and biological death migrants experience, not just along the deadly U.S.-Mexico border and in detention centers, but at home, on the streets, and at work—in high-risk extractive industries and on the plantations of large agribusiness.

The Trump administration’s spectacularly harsh policies as well as the exclusion and risks faced by asylum seekers and other migrants during the coronavirus pandemic have brought this violence into sharp focus. Yet Migration and Mortality makes clear that these dynamics, and the harsh and undeniable differential mortality they reproduce, are bipartisan and longstanding.

The current conditions of violence faced by transnational migrants in this hemisphere are the product of long histories of U.S. interventionism. Without apology, ongoing policies from the Monroe Doctrine forward overtly seek regional control and domination, spurring violence and destabilization.

Domestically, brought on by a lethal mix of fearmongering, economic anxieties related to global restructuring, and the continued reactionary response to basic civil and human rights reforms, we’re seeing a rapid rise in xenophobic discourses and policies. Other forms of legal exclusion, too, threaten migrants’ lives: health policies that discriminate on the basis of status and labor law that fails to protect migrant workers, for example.

From our description, you may assume that we, like many others, argue that “the system is broken” and requires comprehensive reform. Our conclusion is a bit different: the system works just as it should for the most powerful and that is why it continues. Immigration policies and enforcement regimes underpin a system designed to give parasitic capitalists and corporations the ability to extract wealth from migrant bodies with impunity.

While this analysis frames the book, the chapters present diverse research reports and essays—drawing on empirical work from public health to cultural anthropology, and bringing critical social theory to bear on the devastating details. While some contributions trace the profiteering of private prison companies, for example, others describe migrants’ experiences of risk and solidarity through qualitative research with impacted communities.

Contributing authors also make a point to stay attuned to migrants’ survival and agency. Because even when non-migrants are sympathetic to the plight of people on the move, we have a tendency to dehumanize, to paint migrants as helpless victims. This is the other thing Harris gets wrong: of course her command won’t cause Guatemalans to relinquish their human urge to survive at all costs. The stories in our book are horrific, to be sure, but each also reveals people fighting back, engaging in collective resistance and personal resilience, and using solidarity and ingenuity to persist—not always surviving as individuals, yet enduring as a collective.

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