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The Border Is the Problem: Resisting the “Humanitarian” Solution to Child Migration

We are urgently in need of an analysis of the very complicated child detention economy.

Central American migrants find quarter in southern Mexico. (Photo: Peter Haden / Flickr)

Recently, images of migrant prison warehouses on the US-Mexico border have been leaked to the media. These images are grotesque, illustrating the inhumane conditions of incarceration inside warehouses nicknamed “coolers” or “ice boxes”. This is where people who are captured while trying to cross the border are taken by Customs and Border Protection (CPB), one of the branches of Department of Homeland Security (DHS), before being transferred to other detention facilities around the country.

The reactions to these images are of justifiable outrage — people are crammed into cold warehouses that are not fit to house human beings, with no mattresses to sleep on and with no legal rights, no access to health care or to basic needs such as toilet paper. Images of detainees forced to sleep on floors, exposed to frigid temperatures and conditions of exhaustion, have shocked just about everyone who has seen them. Our outrage should not stop us from looking carefully at how the images are being used and how the “crisis” they illuminate is being framed. The incarceration of migrants in inhuman conditions has been an ongoing crisis, and the existence of the coolers has been reported by migrants and advocacy groups for at least 8 years, several lawsuits have been filed, yet there has been no public outcry. Why are these images being leaked, why now? And how is the shock value of these images being used?

The official narrative is framing the “crisis” as a “surge” in “illegal crossings”, a “humanitarian crisis” as Obama has called it — which is being used to justify opening up more and better detention facilities. The logic is this: a wave of crossings is underway, straining existing detention and enforcement capacity, resulting in overcrowding and dehumanizing conditions of captivity. Once represented in this way, the crisis demands a solution: more detention centers, more agents, more social workers, more capacity to capture and lock up people. The outrage over these images is not translating to a concern over the conditions that lead to forced migration, or to an outrage over the enforcement structures that imprison and dehumanize specific populations merely for trying to relocate whenever and wherever they need to. The outrage over these images is not translating into a demand to end the practice of detention and to delegitimize laws that illegalize people; it is slowly but relentlessly translating into a call for more and “better” prisons, and for more effective border enforcement.

The sudden visibility of the coolers is accompanied by a total mystification of the historical and current conditions within which they operate: the laws and procedures by which migrants are made to be “illegal” in their crossing. What is deliberately repressed is any understanding of the conditions that produce mass displacement, of the laws that confer to those displaced the status of “unauthorized” and “deportable” people, the legal fallacies that make detention an exceptional form of imprisonment and that make migrants an exceptional category of captive, or the ways DHS and its agencies operate in conjunction with local police forces and the non profit sector to reproduce and expand enforcement. In our analysis, these factors are the crisis — not that people are crossing the border, but that they are forced to cross in dangerous ways, that they arrested and incarcerated for doing so. Once these aspects become repressed, once migrant captivity becomes normalized, the crisis is narrated as though it is caused by the actions of the migrants themselves — the migrants are seen as “surging” the border, straining the capacity of the state, creating a “problem” that the state must now scramble to solve.

In parallel to the media spectacle of the border warehouses, a second wave of media leaks and stories focus specifically on the situation of migrant children, and of three new “detention camps” that have just been opened, presumably in response to the crisis on the border.

The “camp” at Lackland Air Force Base opened in May (with a capacity to detain 1,200 children); detention “camps” at Fort Still in Oklahoma (capacity 1,200) and Ventura County Navel Base in California (capacity 575) just opened the second week of June. They are talked about as “shelters”, places where thousands of children can be rescued, where there is singing and there are art lessons and language lessons, where children have beds and armies of social workers helping them, and where local economies can receive a much-needed boost as an added perk.

The sudden media visibility of child detention is stunning, with reporters being invited to tour these three new facilities and to report on the “improved conditions” they offer children. This is highly unusual given the history of total secrecy surrounding child detention, which has been shaped in its current form by the passage of the Homeland Security Act in 2002. It is also unusual given that there is still a media black-out of other child detention facilities in the border region, and still total secrecy surrounding the 68 child detention centers around the country that are managed by social service Non Profits. These secret child prisons have been operating since 2004, incarcerating some 4,600 children on any given day. Thousands of children are captured in border warehouses operated by CPB, then shipped to centers around the country administered by NGO’s under the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and now many are shipped back to the new border camps within Department of Defense facilities. All these facilities, and the organizational bureaucracies that oversee them, are integrated via sophisticated software borrowed from supply chain management solutions (similar to what Wal-Mart uses for just-in-time commodity delivery). This is a just-in-time detention system that updates numbers of captured children and “vacancies” into a national database on a daily basis, giving DHS and the Office of Refugee Resettlement the capacity to capture, ship, track and transfer over 47,000 children since October 2013.

We are urgently in need of an analysis of the very complicated child detention economy, and of the ways the service sector has profited from it. Instead, we get media “coverage” that replays over and over again the images of the terrible coolers vs the nice-looking camps. We also get accounts that the children are mostly from Central American countries (primarily Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador), and have endured long and arduous journeys. Many are ill, traumatized, injured. Many are crossed in large groups with no adults accompanying them, and left in the desert or on the side of the road for Customs and Border Protection (CPB) to apprehend them. In this narrative CPB is not arresting these children, they are rescuing them; in this narrative, the camps are not prisons, they are emergency shelters. But rescue them from whom, and shelter from what?

The crisis is not blamed on the children, nor is it blamed on the increased enforcement against immigrants — because, as a recent CNN article reminds us, “Americans are known around the world as a good and compassionate people — with a soft spot for children.” In the narrative of the media and of politicians from Obama to Jan Brewer, the blame falls on the parents, who are represented in subtle ways as deviant, immoral and deceitful. In a manner that reminds us of the demonization of poor Black mothers as “welfare queens” , as degenerate women who use their children to rob the state by claiming “bogus” benefits, migrants are now represented as trying to take advantage of the soft spot that the US presumably has for children: in trying to “cheat” the system and use children for “bogus” asylum claims, migrants endanger their children.

In the name of saving the children, the logic for opening up three prisons for immigrant children in three different military bases goes unquestioned as a necessary improvement. The logic of the humanitarian crisis demands a humanitarian intervention — historically this paves the way for punitive enforcement and military solutions under the guise of protecting the victims. But we have to remember these children are prisoners, and are only a few of the thousands caught in a child prison system that spans dozens of facilities around the country. And once they leave these prisons, children remain in deportation proceedings and the state continues to pursue actions against them. Once they leave the prisons, DHS is also in possession of their biometric data, as well as the biometrics of their “sponsoring families” — generally, their parents and other relatives who are also themselves undocumented — and fully capable of enforcing the deportation proceedings against them. Meanwhile, all immigrants under deportation proceedings — children and adults — have no access to due process and no right to representation. Cynically, some media articles suggest that passing immigration reform is the only way to improve the situation of detained children, because the current reform proposals offer access to legal representation for some of the children. The articles do not mentioned that immigration reform proposals focus on enforcement, and are centered on expanding criminalization, detention and deportation overall.

The detention system is undergoing a breathtaking expansion in military bases, NGO-operated “secure housing” and in government solicitations for new “family-friendly” prisons to be built and operated by the private sector. We are told this is necessary in response to the crisis of immigrants “flooding” or “surging” the border. Resisting this expansion will mean fighting to reframe the ways the crisis is represented; it means fighting to prove that enforcement against immigrants will not decrease, conditions will not improve, and the criminalization of migrants will not slow down by expanding the state’s capacity to incarcerate them. The system is not “broken” — the “humanitarian crisis” has been created in order to prepare us to cheer for its expansion.

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