The utter inhumanity of America’s immigration system and the case for civil disobedience, part 1

Few arenas of public policy encapsulate American society’s cruelest and most shameful impulses as that of immigration.


There is no denying it any longer: the current draconian regime of immigration management in the US is one of the most sadistic enterprises this nation has ever undertaken. It is responsible for massive death, impoverishment, hyper-exploitation and unspeakable human misery. It has torn apart families and put children behind bars. It has led desperate travelers to untimely and agonizing deaths under the desert sun. It has empowered a security apparatus that has little regard for civil liberties or human rights with bloated budgets and expanded authority. In the name of “immigration enforcement” and “border security” America has once again created a behemoth that robs the dignity of millions of the most vulnerable human beings. Instead of addressing some of the root causes of unauthorized immigration the US has, once again, decided to confront a problem head on with massive criminalization and militarization. The consequences are tragic but predictable.

The business of putting human beings into cages and kicking them out of the country for their lack of bureaucratic approval may be perceived as a basic and legitimate function for any national government in today’s supposedly globalized world. It is also true that undocumented immigrants are in the country illegally. However, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “any law that degrades human personality is unjust” and “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” US immigration law is broken at best and an immoral atrocity at worst. Since the 1990’s, it has refused to take into account the unique circumstances that led millions of migrants to make the dangerous trek through the southwestern border without authorization. It also operates on the principle that goods and capital are legally entitled to maximum freedom of movement through national borders while human beings can remain hindered by quotas and red tape. Whether intended or not, this has led to the creation of an international form of apartheid.

The Wider Context: Neo-liberalism & Inadequate Legal Avenues

The fact is that the influx of desperate Mexican peasants is largely a result of neo-liberal reforms the US encouraged Mexico to undertake through IMF and World Bank conditionalities in the 1980’s as well as the signing of NAFTA in 1993. Reduced Mexican state support for agriculture as well as the flooding of the country with heavily subsidized US agricultural goods (especially corn) pushed millions of farmers off of their traditional lands and would later result in massive food insecurity when international prices shot back up. This may sound like “Blame America First” bilge at first, but the basic premise of peasant displacement is acknowledged by leading anti-immigration crusader Mark Krikorian, whose only lament is that “neither country did anything meaningful to make sure that the excess Mexican peasantry moved to Mexico’s cities instead of ours.”

As to the question of why displaced Mexicans did not immigrate to the US legally, the simple answer is that they were not allowed. The US has in place a per country cap for green cards that puts populous countries like Mexico at a great disadvantage. Also, green cards based on employment are heavily geared towards high-skilled workers. Out of the 140,000 green cards granted annually for employment reasons, only 5,000 are reserved for low-skilled workers. Put together with the high demand for low-wage labor from farms, slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, illegal immigration was heavily incentivized. That’s not to say there were not significant, often deadly, barriers in the way for individuals coming across the Mexican border.

The Monstrosity of Border Security and the US-Mexico Death Trap

“To put this death toll in perspective, the fortified US border with Mexico has been more than 10 times deadlier to migrants from Mexico during the past nine years than the Berlin Wall was to East Germans throughout its 28-year existence.”

Professor Wayne Cornelius, 2005 (when death toll was 2,978)

It is incredibly difficult to deny the sadism and cruelty underlying the US’ border security strategy. Since the early 1990s, more than 6,000 unauthorized border-crossers have lost their lives attempting to get into the US from Mexico. There is little doubt that draconian border security policy plays an enormous role in making this death toll possible. Since the early 1990s, the US Border Patrol has engaged in a policy of “prevention through deterrence.” By positioning a heavy Border Patrol presence on stretches of the border close to urban areas, this has encouraged undocumented travelers to attempt to enter the US through inhospitable and dangerous terrains. This is known as the “funnel effect.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that the genesis of today’s border security strategy took place the same year NAFTA was signed. In September 1993, Operation Blockade (later renamed “Operation Hold the Line”) positioned some 400 Border Patrol agents along a twenty-mile line of the southern border between El Paso and Juárez. The initiative was the brainchild of Silvestre Reyes, who was head of Border Patrol operations for the El Paso sector at the time. The popularity of this measure eventually lead to the strategy being replicated in the San Diego border sector with Operation Gatekeeper being launched in September 1994. Reyes, for his part, took advantage of his reputation as a successful enforcer against illegal immigration to win a seat in the House of Representatives for Texas’ 16th Congressional district, where he became a “major player” in the “military/homeland security complex.” As the ACLU puts it, this was the moment that “death was inserted into border security strategy” (p. 21).

In 2000, INS commissioner Doris Meissner confirmed that utilizing the deadly terrain of the southwestern US was part of  the official strategy. She informed the Arizona Republic that her agency was convinced “geography would be an ally to us” and that “it was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle, once people realized what it’s like” (p. 5).

In a 2002 hearing before the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights, UC San Diego Professor Wayne Cornelius declared that the massive enforcement actions taken in ‘securing’ the US-Mexican border “constituted the most obvious, the most acute, and the most systemic violation of human rights occurring on U.S. soil today.”

In the summer of 2006, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) declared the problem to be a “humanitarian crisis” and requested a GAO report on the matter. The report asserted that:

Increased enforcement efforts in the San Diego and El Paso sectors that began in 1994 ultimately resulted in the redirection of migrant flows to eastern California and the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. […] Studies of migrant deaths along the southwest border at the time concluded that, while migrants had always faced danger crossing the border and many died before INS began the Southwest Border Strategy, following the implementation of the strategy, there was an increase in border-crossing deaths resulting from exposure to either extreme heat or cold” (p. 8-9).

The actual deaths are predictably nothing short of excruciating. The GAO report states that “many migrants suffer severe dehydration and heat exhaustion as a result of attempting to cross the desert where temperatures can exceed 115 degrees in the summer” (p. 9). Evelyn Nieves describes it this way:

The deaths are full of suffering. People have suffocated in airless trucks, died in vehicle crashes, been struck by lightening or drowned. Most often, though, they are felled by heatstroke or dehydration. Some carry no identification and, in a tragic irony, end up where they wanted to be, in the United States—but in anonymous pauper’s graves (Quoted on p. 31).

The bodies continue to be discovered to this very day. In FY 2012, at least 171 migrants died while attempting to get in through the southern Arizona desert.


In the second part of this series, I will explain the plight of undocumented immigrants who made it past the border death trap and are living in the shadows in the US. It will examine their exploitation by unscrupulous businesses and how their undocumented status impedes their labor rights. It will also delve into the massive detention and deportation complex as well as the perverse role played by private corrections companies.


Bacon, David. 2012. “How US Policies Fueled Mexico’s Great Migration.” Nation, Janaury 23.

Jimenez, Maria. 2009. Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the US-Mexico Border. American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Mexican National Commission of Human Rights.

Martínez, Daniel E. and Robin Reineke. 2013. “New Report Shows that Migrant Deaths Remain High in Arizona.” Border Wars. June 4.

No More Deaths. 2008. Crossing the Line: Human Rights Abuses of Migrants in Short-Term Custody on the Arizona/Sonora Border. Tucson.

No More Deaths. 2011. A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short-Term US Border Patrol Custody. Tucson.

Unnamed No More Deaths participant. 2011. “Designed to Kill: Border Policy & How to Change It.” 21 June.

US Government Accountability Office. 2006. Border-Crossing Deaths Have Doubled Since 1995; Border Patrol’s Efforts to Prevent Deaths Have Not Been Fully Evaluated.


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