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Checkpoint: Waiting and Death at the Border

Migration is about movement across borders. But it’s also about waiting at them: waiting for your hearing in court, waiting for a phone call home at the detention center, waiting for a visa to reunite you with loved ones you’ve been separated from for decades. And there’s the agonizing wait in Washington for politicians to reform the dysfunctional legal system that has trapped millions in legal limbo.Migrants from Africa attempting to sail to Lampedusa; many died when a boat caught fire and sank earlier this month. (Culture Str/ke / Micniosi)

This week, the political stagnation thickened as various parts of the federal government remained shuttered. While Border Patrol was allowed to continue as one of the “essential” services untouched by the congressional impasse, other aspects of the immigration system ground to a halt. The immigration courts—which handle both civil immigration prosecutions as well as asylum hearings—are largely paralyzed. Immigrants seeking to resettle in the U.S. after fleeing conflict or persecution have seen their legal limbo indefinitely suspended.

Although the U.S. touts itself as a major host country for refugees—the government received about 83,400 asylum claims last year—the government has been sharply criticized for inhumane practices, such as arbitrary detention, unnecessary separations of families, and an opaque, Kafkaesque legal gauntlet that that is notoriously difficult to navigate, regardless of the credibility of a petitioner’s claims. Even before the shutdown, the immigration court system overall was saddled with a swelling backlog approaching roughly 350,000 cases.

The shutdown has further destabilized the lives of asylum seekers. On Monday, Washington D.C.-based immigration lawyer Andres Benach described on NPR his numerous cases that are on hold until the shutdown ends. One client in particular is waiting for a court to prove her claim of fleeing sexual violence so she can start rebuilding her life. Though she is technically authorized to work in the U.S. “just having simple work authorization is not really the same as knowing that your status has been resolved finally,” he said, “that you can live permanently in the United States, that you can go back to your life and grow and develop in the way that most of us take for granted.”

The shutdown has further derailed the near-moribund immigration reform debate, which had already started slipping off the congressional calendar amid budget and military standoffs. Now activists are looking beyond 2013 for future legislative action in a battle that has dragged on since 2006.

But while Congress dithers, the consequences of inaction are accumulating steadily. The Obama administration is on track to preside over two million deportations by 2014. The collateral costs of our border policy are rising: 477 migrant corpses were counted along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2012, a sharp increase from the year before, despite, paradoxically, a decline in apprehensions of migrants. The number of people killed in confrontations with Border Patrol since 2010 has ticked up to 19. Though the Border Patrol has proposed reforms to curb the use of force by agents, civil liberties activists criticize the initiative as inadequate. Besides, the real violence on the border is ingrained in the border itself. The militarized border-security regime is designed to push migrants onto the most dangerous, deadly routes through the desert.

While immigrants wait for justice from Washington, similar tragedies pile up on other frontiers across the Atlantic. On the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa—a major crossing point for seaborne migrants from Africa—a rickety boat teeming with some 500 people, most fleeing Eritrea and Somalia, became a death trap when it got stranded and accidentally caught fire on October 3. Most of the migrants died; authorities are still combing the waters for their bodies. One survivor, 30-year-old Germani Negassi, recalled the trauma in an interview with CNN:

“For five hours we were floating, using the dead bodies of our companions. … There is nothing worse than this. There were many children. There was a mother with her four children, a mother with an infant, all lost at sea. My mind is scarred and in a terrible condition.”

Since the late 1980s, according to official estimates, more than 19,000 people have died trying to cross through the Mediterranean to Europe. Those who make it across face still more barriers: European governments have, like the U.S., tried to control migration with draconian security patrols and detention centers.

As just one of many mass migrant deaths at sea, the Lampedusa incident will soon recede from the headlines, passed off as a sad but inevitable result of Europe’s tightly guarded borders. But many pro-migrant activists see the refugee and migration crises as byproducts of global injustices: the factors driving migration and displacement, in fact, have roots in the Global North—from the Afghan and Iraq wars that have precipitated refugee exoduses, to the neoliberal trade policies that have ravaged poorer countries and perpetuated massive flows of workers seeking jobs abroad. The chronic indifference of wealthy nations to the desperation roiling just outside their boundaries intensifies the crisis.

As the advocacy group Public Citizen explains in a recent brief on migration and trade in the Americas, “many policymakers most focused on ‘closing’ the U.S. border were the very same ones who supported U.S. trade policies that have caused the economic crises that destroyed livelihoods and devastated communities throughout Latin America.

Migrants themselves are rising up to claim the basic rights they’re sick of pleading for from their host governments. In Calais, France, for example, a group of about 65 aggrieved Syrian refugees, including women and children, have set up a protest camp at the city’s port to demand safe passage to the U.K. In a statement released by a local pro-migrant activist group, the protesters declared: “We have the right to live a peaceful life and we have unfortunately war in Syria. We need help quickly… refuge in the U.K. or die at the port in Calais.”

Most migration along the southern U.S. border is not linked to asylum (though lately, drug war violence has reportedly fueled a rise in Mexican asylum claims). However, appeals to humanitarian protections for migrants lie at the heart of the campaigns of the Dream 9 and Dream 30—the undocumented youth who have sought reentry to the U.S. without papers. They argue that deportation from their adopted country would violate their human rights. Their claim, both desperate and hopeful, articulates more than a radical legal strategy: it reveals how all migrants can in a way be seen as refugees, seeking freedom in defiance of national boundaries.

Whether stranded on the Mediterranean or behind the desert border wall, migrants everywhere are brutalized by policies that treat immigration simply as a question of economic management or national security. Today, those failed policies are exacerbated by the institutional paralysis of Washington’s political elite. Meanwhile, on distant borderlands, the people seeking safe passage press the fundamental questions of rights and freedom, and they’re tired of waiting for answers.

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