The Border in 2014 … and Now

It’s amazing how much people forget – or how much they never really knew. The New York Times reported in 2014 that there were about 100 permanent shelters located mostly near the United States-Mexico border, run by the Department of Health and Human Services. To deal with the influx of children that year, the Obama Administration opened three shelters with around 3,000 beds on military bases in California, Oklahoma and Texas.

The number of unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador picked up by federal agents at the border exceeded 50,000 in 2014. Most of the minors crossing the border were boys 15-17 years of age. Many of them were 6-8 years old. Some were as young as three. Those taken into custody by US border control were placed in fenced enclosures and slept on mats on concrete floors in silver sleeping bags (pictures of which were recycled during June 2018 and attributed to the Trump Administration). The Obama Administration routinely deported several thousand Central American migrants annually (this was hardly the extent of Obama’s deportation activities).

You probably don’t remember hearing much about this. There was press coverage. That’s how I know about it. But the echo chamber was shallow in the days of Obama. I haven’t conducted a content analysis to compare the coverage then to now, but I remember 2014 pretty well and I don’t remember an outcry from the left about Obama’s immigration policy. I certainly don’t remember comparisons to the Holocaust.

The journey to the US-Mexico border is extremely dangerous. (I have learned recently we’re not supposed to talk about this, because it sounds like victim blaming. But I am concerned about human life, so I will talk about it.) Many migrants ride a network of freight trains called “La Bestia” (“The Beast”) or “El Tren de la Muerte” (“The Death Train”), so named because so many people fall off the trains or die while riding them. When they aren’t hopping trains or making the journey on foot (also very dangerous), migrants pay human traffickers–“coyotes”–between $5000-$8000 to be smuggled into the United States. I have switched to present tense because this still goes on. Coyotes are extensions of organized criminal networks.

If the migrants make to the border alive, and when not left at the border to figure out how to get across, they’re led across the border through private property or through barren terrain where they won’t be detected and then abandoned. Between 2009-2015 more than 400 bodies were discovered in a desolate rural jurisdiction known as the “Corridor of Death,” one of many such places where migrants are left to fend for themselves. The Smithsonian Magazine reported in 2014 that nearly 6,000 migrants had died along the US-Mexico border since 2000. In 2014 alone as many as 445 people died trying to illegally enter the United States (that number was reported by the US Border Control, an estimate that may have been on the low side). Local officials collected so many bodies during the period that it financially overwhelmed their governments, the cost of coroner inquests affecting their budgets. A lot of bodies were found by volunteer groups. One organization, the Texas Border Volunteers, from 2012-2014, found 259 dead bodies in Brooks County, Texas alone. There were children among them.

This was how 7-year-old Guatemalan Jakelin Caal wound up where border control found her in December 2018. Her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz, paid human traffickers to take them to the border where they were dropped off (he left his wife and three other children back in Guatemala). Soon after arriving Caal became very ill (she must have become sick on the journey) and, despite the heroic efforts of first responders, she died from heart failure, a swollen brain, and a failed liver. What would have been a tragedy under Obama has become a scandal under Trump. Caal has become the poster child for the inhumanity of US border control policy, what a Los Angeles Times op-ed, channelling the horrors of Stalinism, called America’s “Immigration Gulag.”

The other line the corporate media pushes is that these are refugees. But the vast majority of those trying to get into the United States are economic migrants who desire to make money in America to send back to their families in Central America. Not everybody in these remote villages wishes to leave their families to travel this great distance, but many are enticed by a dream of making money and starting their own businesses. That was Cuz’s story, by his own admission. The money migrants pay coyotes is viewed as an investment. Children are often brought along for sympathy. They’re told that the US government provides for children. Media stories tell the reader how happy Caal was to migrate to America (it was a birthday present of sorts) while dwelling on the conditions of indigenous peoples of the region, peoples who live in small farming villages, as they have for thousands of years. Claims that the children had no shoes or toys are exaggerated. And the promise of striking it rich in America is an illusion.

Digression: Native village life is sometimes depicted as sacred and corrupted by modernity (the unmolested tribes of the Amazon throwing speaks at airplanes or the Sentinelese tribe celebrated for recently killing a Christian missionary who tried to contact them), while at other times it’s portrayed as a horrible condition created by oppressive modernity, deprivations for which those who live in developed countries owe reparations. In my Introduction to Sociology class I show a documentary, The Global Assembly Line (1986), in which people indigenous to the Philippines tell the story of how one day the military came and moved the huts they lived in (not at all unlike the huts Caal’s family lives in) to outside Manila, near the export processing zone, were they were told how much better their lives were going to be working for US and other foreign businesses. My students, who are otherwise generally quite supportive of capitalism, are troubled by the destruction of village life. The documentary connects this to the loss of jobs in the United States when the companies left for the Third World. So which is it? Is the modern West supposed to leave indigenous people to their own lives and traditions? Or is it supposed to entice them to leave their cultures and often their families to come work at groundskeeping, housekeeping, washing dishes, picking fruit and vegetables – or get stuck unemployed in the crime-ridden ghettos of US central cities? What is the evidence that sustains a claim that refugee status applies in Caal’s case?

There is so little understanding today on the left about the reality of illegal immigration, for instance, that it involves a vast criminal networks that reach across borders. Just today we learned that, in Georgia, three illegal immigrants have been indicted for the murder of a whistleblower who reported that one of the immigrants ran a scheme to employ other illegal immigrants in groundskeeping. The victim, Eliud Montoya, a naturalized American citizen, had filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming that one of his killers, Pablo Rangel-Rubio, employed illegal immigrants at a tree service company, taking a share of the illegal workers’ pay in a jobs brokering scheme. There are businesses like this across the United States, criminal companies supplying illegal labor to legitimate companies by smuggling in Central Americans; human traffickers in Mexico advertise the wonders of life and work in the United States, securing money to bring wide-eyed human cargo across thousands of miles to the border, handing off them off to criminal networks operating in the United States.

It was well understood in 2014 that migrants were coming to the United States because Obama’s immigration policy signaled to them that they could expect to be given work permits or receive welfare benefits. Of course, you know that Obama was tougher on migrants than that if you know anything about that period. But Central Americans didn’t get the message that it wouldn’t be worth their while. Misplaced humanitarian rhetoric is exploited by human traffickers. A priest, Father Heyman Vazquez, who ran a migrant shelter in Mexico (still does to the best of knowledge) said in media interviews at the time, “I remember a little boy of nine-years-old and I asked if he was going to go meet someone [in the US], and he told me ‘No, I’m just going hand myself over because I hear they help kids.’” The late senator from Arizona, John McCain, wondered aloud: “There has to be some kind of organized effort that is bringing them here.”

Four years later, it seems what was understood in 2014 is no longer understood at all. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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