Back in 1954, the Eisenhower administration shut down the US government’s last remaining long-term immigrant holding facility, an immigration prison on Ellis Island. The attorney general at the time, Herbert Brownwell, said that closing the offshore prison—which, ironically, had a close-up view of the Statue of Liberty—would stand as an example of the “humane administration of the immigration laws.” Hard as it is to believe, at one time, the United States almost stopped imprisoning immigrants awaiting admission or deportation.
In the decades since this missed chance, a new consensus has emerged. Even today, something that liberals and conservatives agree on, surprisingly, is controlling immigration. Though they disagree on particulars, they believe that immigration can and should be limited. So, when it comes to US policies toward migrants, today’s cruelty is fundamentally bipartisan.
US ill treatment of migrants comes in many forms. A drowned 23-month-old, Valeria, and her father, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, from El Salvador, were photographed along the banks of the Río Grande in the summer of 2019, the child’s arm still searching for safety around the father’s neck. Diego Rivera Osorio, a three-year-old, was detained so long that he learned to walk inside an immigration detention center for families, while Obama was president. To liberals, migration is a humanitarian catastrophe captured in images of drowned families and caged children. To Donald Trump, migrants are a security threat: death and destruction embodied in rapists and gang members, all adopting the guise of innocent Central American families. But to both, migration is a problem best resolved by maintaining tight control over who comes to the United States, when, and how.
Given that calculated hostility to people immigrating to the United States draws support across the political spectrum—and has a long history predating the exceptionalism of the era of Trump—what is the best way to talk about today’s immigration crisis? Put another way: How should we tell stories about migration? How do we do justice to the lives of migrants? And when should the story begin?
There are many ways to present such information for readers, and the books discussed here—novels and essays, ethnographies, and investigative reports—hint at the multiple approaches required to tackle such an immensely complicated, deadly serious subject.
Today we hear about cramped Border Patrol holding cells, where children die of the flu, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement prisons, where US citizens are locked up. Yet of the many examples of the cruelty of Trump-era immigration practices, none is more sinister than the policy of separating children from their parents: locking up each in a different type of prison and sending parents separately to criminal prosecutors.
For a time in 2018, then Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen denied this was happening; she even described journalists and advocates as “irresponsible and unproductive.” But although administration officials could lie, they couldn’t hide the sordid reality playing out in courthouses and Border Patrol cells. The journalists Nielsen attacked were only asking about what everyone could already see.
By the time of Nielsen’s public denials, lawyers and activists in McAllen, Texas—the bustling border town unwillingly thrust into the family separation policy’s epicenter—were already struggling to keep up with the trauma. Every day, they were seeing more parents walk into federal courtrooms asking about their children who had suddenly gone missing. The chaotic effects of the government’s policy are chronicled in Daniel Blue Tyx’s Angry Tías: Cruelty and Compassion on the US-Mexico Border, illuminating the resistance that quickly took hold in this cross-border community.
Across this often-forgotten stretch of Texas, profoundly normal people helped other normal people. They took to the border crossings and bus stations with tacos and toys to comfort the tired and welcome the poor. From the tireless lawyers of the Texas Civil Rights Project to the women who banded together to form the book’s namesake, Tyx highlights the extraordinariness of ordinary people.
Under the blistering scorn of international attention, eventually even Nielsen could no longer deny that family separation was real. Instead, administration officials attempted to turn attention away from the cruelty of taking children from their parents, claiming that this was a necessary response to an illegal migrant “stampede” overwhelming the United States. How did this understanding of immigration—as an intolerable threat that justifies any means to stop it—take hold?
A quarter century after the Eisenhower administration closed the Ellis Island prison, the United States veered sharply from abolishing the immigration prison system to expanding it. In 1980 the Carter administration began constructing detention camps for refugees in response to large numbers of Haitians arriving, many of whom requested asylum—a history that Carl Lindskoog tells in Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention System.
By 1982, Ronald Reagan had formalized the Carter administration’s ad hoc incarceration policy, ordering the imprisonment of all Haitians who entered the United States without the federal government’s permission. Justifying this shift, Reagan’s attorney general, William French Smith, said, “Detention of aliens seeking asylum was necessary to discourage people like the Haitians from setting sail in the first place.”1 Despite the official policy of deterrence, soon Cubans set off for the United States, where they would also be targets of government imprisonment. (Not to mention targets of cultural scorn: in the opening scene of Brian De Palma’s Scarface, for example, Cuban migrants are described as “the dregs of [Castro’s] jails,” the Hollywood version of a political narrative that had broad appeal in the mid-1980s.)
Since then, whether Democrats or Republicans occupied the White House, law has been subservient to politics. In their detailed history of the creation of modern immigrant detention practices, Boats, Borders, and Bases: Race, the Cold War, and the Rise of Migration Detention in the United States, Jenna Loyd and Alison Mountz describe the political building blocks of a massive legal architecture.
In 1986, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (later divided into three agencies, including today’s ICE) opened a prison in rural Oakdale, Louisiana, “a place that epitomized the production of remoteness: designed to be far from attorneys, and thereby to ‘increase the speed and number of deportations.’” More remote still was the US naval outpost in Guantánamo, Cuba, where 10s of thousands of Haitians were held in the 1990s, spanning the presidencies of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Eerily similar to detention patterns that have become common in recent years, the Guantánamo facility included a unit for families, another for unaccompanied minors, and one that its residents called “kid jail.”
Confinement wasn’t simply a response to a policy problem. Rather, it was the tangible symbol of crisis control. “Incarceration and deportation,” Loyd and Mountz write, “became the tools for framing and managing people as national-security issues.” Today, crime and terrorism remain central concerns of the restrictionist right. And while liberals claim that the right’s rhetoric is inflated, they also embrace the desire to discriminate: to categorize some people as desirable and others as undesirable, based on perceptions of dangerousness. “We’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids,” President Obama announced in November 2014, while overseeing the largest population of detained immigrants in history until Trump.
Across the decades, racism appears as the unifying thread of strong-arm immigration policies. For example, the Cubans—just like the earlier Haitians—who came in the 1980s were largely poor people of color. “Forgetting the anti-Black animus driving Caribbean deterrence and detention operations would ideologically fortify the imagined geography of ‘the border’ as one isolated to the United States-Mexico borderlands,” write Loyd and Mountz.
What started with antiblack racism wouldn’t stop there. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Arabs and Muslims were treated as inherently suspicious. For example: “Two Arabs” rented a truck, one caller to an FBI tip line told the agency in the weeks after the attack, and another worked at a grocery store “operated by numerous Middle Eastern men,” claimed a second. Both superficial claims proved enough for the FBI to detain these migrants in its massive law-enforcement sweep following the attacks.
It’s right to be indignant about the Trump administration’s policies. But it’s wrong to assume that the indignity the president relishes is new.
Meanwhile, policing and prisons are cloaked in false humanitarianism. Administration after administration trumpets detention as a means of humanely deterring future migrants. If only people understood that they would end up behind bars and deported, each administration seems to naively believe, then they wouldn’t come.
It’s a silly argument, but one with real, life-threatening consequences. Throwing law enforcement, drones, a complicated immigration law mess, and even jails at migrants doesn’t keep people from coming to the United States. “Instead of cutting down on illegal activities and increasing security at and within U.S. borders,” writes Nancy Hiemstra in Detain and Deport: The Chaotic US Immigration Enforcement Regime, strong-arm tactics “do the opposite, without regard to (and because of) territorial borders.”
That’s because, if the knowledge that you might die along the way won’t keep you from coming to the United States, the prospect of landing in jail certainly won’t either. Put another way, “Better killed by the gringos than by the gangsters,” 65-year-old Tómas Leyva told a reporter, explaining why policing shifts migration but doesn’t stop it. “Kill me here because I can’t do this anymore. Kill me here because I can’t return to my country,” said Magda, a Venezuelan woman stuck in a Mexican border town trying to ask for asylum in the United States, and too afraid to tell a reporter her last name.
This is an important lesson that policy makers should learn. Sadly, few in either major political party seem inclined to do so. Under President Obama, ICE’s detention population grew to record highs. Then President Trump came along, and it grew even more. All the while, migrants have continued to die in the deserts and detention centers, the places US immigration authorities imagine as arrows in their policing quiver.
In her novel Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli takes aim at an older version of a newly invigorated immigration policing practice: splitting up families. Luiselli’s characters, an imperfect couple struggling to maintain their marriage, leave New York on a cross-country road trip with their two children in the backseat. In its account of their search for a friend’s two daughters—who are walking through the deadly Arizona desert, hoping that they will once more see their mother—Luiselli’s novel bears witness to a round of family separation drama that preceded today’s headlines.
This real-life tragedy unfolded along the US-Mexico border in 2014. That year, the Department of Homeland Security was under Obama’s control; yet when families began arriving at the southwestern border in larger numbers than expected, federal authorities responded by opening family-only prisons. Luiselli got caught up in this ordeal as a volunteer interpreter in New York City; she recounted this personal journey in Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, the captivating nonfiction version of her novel.
Freed from the limitations of reporting reality, Lost Children Archive focuses on the complexity of humans caught up in migration politics. Even as the New York family nears the Southwest, where they are hoping to find the lost girls, their own existence as a unit shatters. In a last-ditch effort to save their family, and to find the girls with whom their mother has become fascinated, the children (ages 5 and 10) set off into the desert on their own. They barely escape with their lives. Even so, their effort proves insufficient.
Like the flesh-and-blood migrants featured in news coverage who run into the awesome power of the US government, Luiselli’s fictional characters learn that policing often won’t stop migrants; it may only channel them toward harsher, even deadlier, ends.
Sometimes through their flowing prose, at other times through their fine-grained research, these accounts remind us that policy makers must alter course: must remove security and criminalization as the central concerns driving present-day immigration law and law enforcement. If they do not, the consequence is simply that more people will die, more families will suffer, and the financial coffers of smugglers and the security industry will grow. In every instance, people are thrown behind concertina wire and families are separated. And all the while, in spite of this violence, the ties between the United States and countries of origin become deeper, stronger, and more treacherous.
Fortunately, every story contains glimmers of hope. The angry activists of Tyx’s book perfectly illustrate the groundswell of energy that Trump’s policies have ignited. Even so, Loyd and Mountz, like Lindskoog and Hiemstra, remind us that Trump didn’t invent the trauma of immigration enforcement. Building on the real-world policies that the Obama administration implemented, Luiselli’s novel is a reminder that, no matter who is in the White House, laws and policing can be deadly.
Migration law and politics need the kind of pre- and post-Trumpian analysis that these books, with their historical insights and people-centered narratives, offer. It’s right to be indignant about the Trump administration’s policies. But it’s wrong to assume that the indignity the president relishes is new.
This article was commissioned by Ivan Ascher.
- Quoted in Mark Dow, American Gulag: Inside US Immigration Prisons (University of California Press, 2004), p. 7. ↩