In November of 2013, US Border patrol agents pulled aside 16-year-old Cruz Marcelino Velázquez Acevedo for questioning around a suspected illicit substance in his possession. He didn’t survive the exchange.
While in federal custody, Acevedo stated that the substance in question was apple juice. The agents, unconvinced, coerced the teen into drinking the liquid. Acevedo succumbed to violent convulsions and died two hours later. A test kit, readily available on the premises, would have confirmed the contents as liquid meth within three minutes.
Following a settlement reached this week by his family, Acevedo has been portrayed in the media as a “foreign drug dealer.” We know little about his motivations: It is well documented that cartels employ intimidation tactics to rope in unwilling smugglers, and it is possible that Acevedo, who had no prior record, was coerced in this way. However, what led him to have meth in his possession is ultimately immaterial. ICE’s haste to portray Acevedo as a “dangerous” drug trafficker skirts the issue of ICE’s own culpability: Neither of the officers was disciplined, and both remain on the force today.
Acevedo’s death is not an isolated incident: Terror of this sort is enacted on immigrant communities as a matter of routine. ICE has a long and sordid history of abusing migrants in detention. Under ICE’s jurisdiction, migrants face sexual assault, torture and even death. ICE is also aggressive in its cruelty toward those making the journey across the border, often disrupting humanitarian aid efforts to distribute water and condemning migrants to their deaths in the unforgiving terrain. However, within the system, there is little impetus to halt these abuses: Of 142 complaints against ICE compiled by the ACLU, only one resulted in disciplinary action — a one-day suspension.
Immigration enforcement officials pay little regard to extenuating circumstances: Migrants are often quite literally deported to their deaths. Guidelines around asylum claims are highly restrictive, and barely a third of the claims are approved. Cases not benefitting from international recognition — the Central American gang crisis is a particularly violent example — are not taken seriously. Demonstrating that one is in danger is not enough: Immigration courts have more often than not refused to recognize forced gang recruitment as grounds for asylum.
These practices prove deadly. Countless migrants have been murdered upon their return to their home countries, some within days of their return. Moreover, we must recognize that the bloodshed these migrants are fleeing can largely be traced back to US policies over the past few decades. US intervention has created a migrant crisis spanning generations. We funded and trained paramilitary death squads that unleashed terror upon civilians in El Salvador and Honduras. We overthrew democratically elected governments in Guatemala and Chile and imposed regimes more friendly to US business interests. We sent gang members back to the very power vacuums we created: They now operate with impunity, and membership has grown tenfold. And we still have the gall to turn away those who flee our bloodshed.
Then there is the quiet, everyday violence of deportation. Families across the US are torn apart, and children of deportees bear lasting scars. Deportation is a traumatic experience for all involved, and children of deportees suffer high rates of anxiety and PTSD. Families report fear of venturing outside their homes following a raid, leading to even deeper social isolation. They also face high rates of economic and housing instability, as family income plunges after a parent’s deportation: An Urban Institute study of immigration raid sites found that income drops an average of 70 percent following the arrest of an undocumented parent.
Migrants in detention suffer greatly as well — even those who are not subject to the kinds of extreme abuse that killed Acevedo. They routinely experience depression, feelings of helplessness and suicidal thoughts. Those in detention are given little to no information about their status. As Clara Long, researcher at Human Rights Watch notes: “They have no idea when they will be released, and they are terrified to be deported back to places where they could be killed, raped or otherwise harmed.”
It is crucial to bear in mind that — even when we are considering individual cases of extreme violence — the violence of immigration enforcement, detention and deportation cannot be pinned down to individual agents. Structural violence does not require individual racists in order to reproduce racial inequality.
Cruz Marcelino Velázquez Acevedo suffered needlessly at the hands of cruel and wrathful immigration agents. But kinder enforcers won’t help when racism is fundamentally embedded into these institutions.
US immigration policy is a matter of life and death.