Donald Trump calls the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border a “humanitarian crisis.” He is right, but for the wrong reasons. It is not a crisis in terms of the number of people trying to cross, as this number has been decreasing. And the crisis itself is certainly not “humanitarian,” as if to suggest that there is some concern on the part of the current U.S. government to act humanely in this circumstance. Quite to the contrary, recent actions at the border have been decidedly inhumane. These include family separations for those who managed to get across the border as well as locking up parents and children in separate detention spaces that are deliberately kept at very low temperatures—cold storage lockers, in effect.
Instead of owning up to the sordid history of undue influence in Latin American countries that has led to migratory flows, the U.S. government looks away from this history in an outright refusal to accept responsibility for the present immigration impasse and then blames the immigrants themselves for trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The recent caravans from Central America are willfully misrepresented as aggressive maneuvers aimed at disrupting the stability of the American economy, and as populated by criminals and rapists. Overlooking the fundamental fact that the caravans provide protection to those who join them—and the remarkable fact that they have been welcomed and supported by an array of Mexican cities through which they pass—they are deliberately misconstrued as hostile in intent, rather than composed of vulnerable people who cannot afford coyotes and are seeking safety in each other’s company. This view suits the President extremely well at this particular historical moment, when he is obsessed with building a wall that will make no substantial difference in attempts by immigrants to enter the U.S.
Perhaps the most inhumane aspect of the circumstance goes back to the deliberate plan to force migrants into the desert by fortifying the border wall in urban areas like San Diego and El Paso, knowing that crossing in desolate stretches often leads to death in pitiless heat. It has been estimated that more than 6,000 immigrants have died from dehydration in desertified areas they were not prepared to cross safely. Still more inhumane is the recent practice on the part of the U.S. Border Patrol to destroy water tanks that have been left for immigrants by concerned U.S citizens who go by the name of “No More Deaths” (No más muertes). The Patrol justifies these actions—sure to lead to more deaths by dehydration—by declaring that the efforts of “No More Deaths” are illegal. Here is a blatant case of criminalizing actions that are exemplary of humane intercession in situations of urgent need.
Behind the incidence of inhumane actions such as those I have mentioned lies what we might call a “dishumanitarian nexus” that predisposes immigrants caught up in this nexus to be subject to undue pain and humiliation at the hands of those who have judicial and police power over their lives. Looming over this fateful nexus is the wall at the border, which has proven ineffective in dealing with immigration, drug traffic, and terrorism. As Wendy Brown has argued in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, the wall is much more significant as a symptom of a troubled and trumped-up imperialism than as an effective physical barrier. But in its very shadow and with its express sanction occur the deleterious actions I have briefly recounted.
Granting that the practices I have recounted are unjustifiable by the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrants and also fall far short of elementary ethical standards in which the protection and support of human persons in danger is at stake, what would constitute humane practices in this tragic situation?
Three basic actions are required for the re-humanization of the border circumstance: empathy, speaking out, and active outreach.
(a) At the very least, humane actions entail an ability and a willingness to feel for the suffering of others by way of an effective empathic imagination of what it is like to be forced to migrate because of a constant threat of deadly reprisals and then to suffer the abuse and neglect that immigrants experience at the U.S.-Mexico border. To lack empathy in relation to such circumstances is to be in-humane in the literal sense of dis-connecting from fellow human beings in manifest peril.
(b) On the basis of such empathic understanding of the plight of immigrants at the border, speaking out becomes imperative: describing and decrying malevolent and pernicious practices such as family separation and abuse in detention facilities.
(c) Beyond empathy and speaking out—matters of perception and of expressive language respectively—is outreach to immigrants in need of relief from their suffering. This can range from accompanying migrants who are being kept in waiting in Tijuana to providing food and clothing to giving legal advice to those coming up for a hearing. These concrete forms of outreach are genuinely humane actions that not only recognize extreme human needs but strive to mitigate their severity.
Only if what is now occurring at the border in such a manifestly callous and egregiously harmful manner begins to be redressed in the ways I here suggest will the ambiguous phrase “humanitarian crisis at the border” be construable as taking humanitarian actions at the border to prevent the proliferation of inhumane acts in that deeply troubled place. Force and indifference must be replaced by considerate and concerted action. The time has come for this to happen. Whether or not Trump gets funding for his much-vaunted physical wall matters little compared to this much more basic task. What matters is to seize the moment and to demand the transformation of the inhumane into the humanitarian in altogether specific ways. The border situation is a crisis in space that calls for a critically constructive intervention at this moment in time.