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.

Recalling public health efforts in Pennsylvania

This week in North Philly Notes, Jim Higgins, author of The Health of the Commonwealth, looks back on past epidemics.

By the last half of the nineteenth century, science began to unlock the secrets of infectious disease, most importantly that bacteria and viruses were the cause. No cures for human infectious disease emerged until the 1890s, when antitoxins for diphtheria and tetanus debuted. Even without cures for most infectious disease, public health efforts made remarkable inroads at the turn of the twentieth century in Pennsylvania and across the nation. 

As The Health of the Commonwealth neared its final edits, the new coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic was on the move. Even the barriers posed by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, which I suspect millions of Americans depend upon, if unconsciously, to keep a dangerous world at bay, delayed the virus by only a matter of hours once it got aboard a transoceanic passenger jet.

 

The responses of the citizenry in the midst of an epidemic varies. Many quiet people in quiet corners cooked food for neighbors, checked on friends, took care of family, and generally soothed unsteady nerves. Most of those stories went unrecorded in our history. Most go unrecorded today, too. At the same time, there has always been resistance to modern public health measures in Pennsylvania. During a smallpox vaccination effort in 1906, parents allowed their elementary school aged children to parade the streets of Waynesboro, Franklin County with an effigy of the commissioner of health, which they kicked, spat upon, and ultimately burned.  The city council of Allentown declared in late-1918 that the flu, which was just beginning to infect people in the city, was actually nothing more than a “regular” cold. Homes, they suggested, should be kept warm to avoid catching these widespread, severe colds, even as the same councilmen were preparing that day to deal with a severe coal shortage throughout the region. Many people just tried to go about life as if nothing were amiss. Just push through it, they seemed to think, through the years and through the typhoid, smallpox, polio, and HIV tragedies. If one continues to go through the motions of life, eventually the threat will pass and (provided one survives) the stout-hearted (or delusional) person who ignores the presence of an epidemic will…what?  I’ve never been able to figure that part out. I guess the best I’ve come up with is that people who ignore epidemics satisfy a psychological need for control. Or because they are terrified. Sometimes, like now, politicians can harness an epidemic as a vehicle for meeting political ends. It happened in 1918 when Pennsylvania’s response to the flu became a major political issue in the 1918 senatorial race.    

But I’ve got news for you. The way people react to widespread disease outbreaks is nothing compared to the changes that have sometimes followed in the wake of epidemics. A single typhoid outbreak in the obscure town of Plymouth, Pennsylvania in 1885 led to the creation of the state board of health. Twenty years later, another typhoid epidemic in Butler, Pennsylvania led to the creation of the state department of health. Five years after that, Pennsylvania possessed the most aggressive and powerful state health department in the nation. 

On a broader note, the standard narrative for both prohibition and women’s suffrage is that after years of agitation, both efforts finally bore fruit nationally in the period 1919-1920. The war helped accelerate both social efforts. During the First World War, many voices demonized alcohol production because it directed labor, grain, and coal away from the war effort—and because the beer industry was dominated by people with German names. We have forgotten that in late-1918, in Pennsylvania and beyond, the alcohol industry was hit with hammer blows by public health officials who closed saloons and banned alcohol sales as an anticrowd measure in the face of the epidemic of flu. In Pittsburgh, the fight over alcohol sales involved military officials and threats of a near-martial law. The alcohol industry lost a great deal of sympathy during the epidemic. In the case of women’s suffrage, a long, bitter fight for the right to vote was pushed to a quicker successful conclusion by the war. Perhaps the flu epidemic offered national sentiment a final shove. Hundreds of thousands of women volunteered in emergency hospitals during the epidemic. Many were middle class and unacquainted with blood and pus and the sounds and sights of dying. Across Pennsylvania, newspapers, politicians, and civic leaders lauded the work of the state’s women and memorialized those who died with a prominence never before seen in American history.   

I really don’t know—nobody knows—whether the video of George Floyd would have sparked the response it did in the absence of COVID-19. But if the response to systemic racism continues, we might look back on a moment, in the midst of pestilence, when certain things changed in our society. I can’t predict exactly how America will change after COVID-19 fades, but if the history of epidemics teaches us anything, then changes are afoot.    

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