Necoclí is a small town on Columbia’s Caribbean coast, known mostly for, as one travel headline put it, “Crabs, coconuts and volcano swimming.” When Tom Heyden wrote that column in 2011, he could focus on how “the town’s charm relies on its surrounding natural beauty, which provides visitors with the opportunity to relax and soak up the sun.” His descriptions include gorging “yourself on sweet, juicy mangos,” crabbing, and walking to the local volcano, where you can jump “straight into the murky, muddy crater of the volcano. … The feeling is truly bizarre as you half-float, half-sink in the midst of this active volcano, toying with the squelchy, infirm floor beneath you.”
It sounds idyllic and delightful, and I very much wished that this was all we could say about the lovely town of Necoclí. But I would guess that, if you have heard of Necoclí at all, it is not because of the juicy mangos or volcano swimming.
Beyond sunny beaches perfect for napping in a hammock, the roads that take you there also take you as close as you can get to Panama, where refugees seeking asylum in the USA must cross a dangerous stretch of jungle known as the Darién Gap.
But that is a risk that has been increasingly worth taking for thousands of Haitians, after waves of tragedies: centuries of economic and social injustice, compounded by natural disasters, the pandemic, and political violence and unrest. As a result, more than 70,000 people this year alone have decided that crossing the Darién Gap is the best option they have.
Last September, Necoclí’s mayor, Jorge Tobon, reported that between 1,000 to 1,500 migrants were arriving every day, while only 500 were allowed to leave to cross the gulf and migrate to Panama, “due to the recent agreement between the countries.” As the backlog grew, “more than 14,000 migrants” were stuck in Necoclí.
Once you can leave, the challenges awaiting in the jungle range from steep terrain to dangerous animals. Astrid Suarez, reporting for the Associated Press, described one group’s experience:
“They descended a steep hill and waded across a river where the water reached waist level. The current was strong and the sound of the water drowned out the voices of migrants and guides. As they headed into the rainforest many of the migrants became exhausted and started to leave some of their belongings behind to carry less weight. Wedding portraits, jackets and jeans were strewn along the trail.”
Diseases also abound, especially “foot funguses, gastrointestinal problems and respiratory infections.” As Suarez reported, “Children have reportedly died in the jungle, and some pregnant women have given birth. Migrants say they have seen skulls and cadavers along the routes that cross the Darien.” Despite all of this, the greatest dangers come from other humans, often in the form of trafficking, banditry, and sexual assault. As a refugee named Lafleur put it, “Fear is always with us, … . But we have no choice but to keep on going.” (ibid)
Mistreatment by Border Patrol
Of course, successfully reaching the US border, by whatever route, does not mean your troubles are over. Last month, shocking evidence of the mistreatment of Haitian refugees by the US Border Patrol at the international bridge in Del Rio were in the news.
Officers on horseback chased down and lassoed refugees, screamed obscenities, and otherwise abused asylum seekers in ways that evoked the USA’s ongoing and terrifying history of anti-Black violence.
The cruelty was so blatant that human rights experts with the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner “condemned the United States of America’s recent and ongoing systematic mass deportation of Haitian migrants and refugees, and cautioned that such collective expulsions violate international law.”
The Department of Homeland Security temporarily suspended the horse patrol and promised to “investigate the incidents and take disciplinary actions if warranted.” Still, deportations continued at an increased rate, using “Title 42, a public health authority that authorizes the quick removal of migrants and denies them a chance to seek asylum.”
Revolus, one of the refugees deported to Haiti, spoke to NPR in October. After describing the harrowing experiences his family suffered, compounded by the shock of being refused asylum, he said:
"After all the decades of U.S. meddling in Haiti's affairs, I truly believed I'd be allowed to apply for asylum at the border … . We never thought we would end up back in Haiti. … Haiti is like a war zone right now… . Shootings are rampant, people are being killed for small things. It's not a livable country. It's very dangerous."
The New York Times painted a similar picture: “After years enduring hunger, poverty and daily power cuts, Haitians say their country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, is in the worst state they have seen, with the government unable to provide the most basic services.”
Kidnapping became so common that schools started shutting down and students organized fundraisers to ransom their classmates. Controversies over when the president’s five year term would end, combined with efforts to change the nation’s constitution in order to expand presidential powers, left Haiti, in the words of Catholic bishops, “on the verge of explosion.”
A Global System of Migrant Incarceration
I still believe in the basic capacity of human goodness, so witnessing cruel treatment of people asking for help forces me to ask: how could anyone respond to such suffering by anything but compassion? What makes it possible to respond to people seeking safety and a better life with lassos, obscenities, harsh treatment, and deportation?
As Revolus knew, the United States has a long history of imposing its political and economic will on Haiti, robbing the nation of self-determination and social stability and helping create the conditions that plague Haiti today.
Moreover, US policies on Haiti have normalized mistreatment of Haitian refugees while setting the precedent for expanded immigrant detention. Professor Carl Lindskoog, author of Detain and Punish, has shown that “Policies were specifically designed to deter Haitians from coming in. These policies became the prototype for what became a global system of migrant incarceration.”
In the 1970s, working class Haitians began coming by boat to the USA to make asylum claims. The United States was already in the midst of a racist backlash to the civil rights movement, and Black Haitian migrants received similar treatment. Lindskoog explained that:
“The Carter administration introduced something called the Haitian Program — a punishing set of policies designed to deter Haitians from coming in. And if they were already here, it tried to keep them out of the mainstream population. That meant putting them in detention facilities and local jails, basically denying them carte blanche their asylum claims and just sending them back.” (ibid)
Legal challenges would overturn the Haitian Program, but the Carter administration circumvented the judgement. The Reagan administration went further, introducing “a new Haitian detention program and the policy of interdiction, in which Coast Guard cutters would intercept boats of Haitian asylum seekers before they could even reach land and send them back, often to violence and death in Haiti.”
This went on for decades, and its legacy continues in the recent stories in our headlines and in the statistics that have documented continued anti-Haitian and anti-Black violence against immigrants. For example, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) documented that, during 2020, “the share of Haitian families in detention increased to an alarming 44% of the total. In fact, the U.S. has consistently detained more Haitian families in 2020 than any other nationality.”
Moreover, anti-Haitian detention helped set the precedent for mass incarceration of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. According to the Global Detention Project, “The United States operates the world’s largest immigration detention system. On any given day, it can have upwards of 50,000 non-citizens in detention,” spread over 200 facilities.
The Largest Law Enforcement Air Force in the World
Most people I speak with about border issues are not aware of how extensive and expansive border patrols are in the USA, including warrantless searches “within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States.”
As the ACLU explains, the federal government defines that reasonable distance as 100 air miles. Combined with other federal regulations and laws, the result is that:
“Two-thirds of the U.S. population, or about 200 million people, reside within this expanded border region, according to the 2010 census. Most of the 10 largest cities in the U.S., such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, fall in this region. Some states, like Florida, lie entirely within this border band so their entire populations are impacted.”
Officers create immigration checkpoints, board buses and trains to demand documents, and pull over motorists. And with such a large area to patrol, the Customs and Border Protection agency has become the largest law enforcement agency in the United States, with nearly 20,000 agents.
It is also, as Andreas Flores and Shaw Drake documented for the ACLU, “the largest law enforcement air force in the world — roughly equivalent to the size of Brazil’s entire combat air force — including fleets of planes, helicopters, and Predator drones.” Its rapid growth over the last 20 years has been matched with growing violence:
“At least 102 people have died as a result of encounters with Border Patrol in the last decade. Six of these deaths were caused by Border Patrol agents shooting across the border into Mexico — murders met with complete impunity. The agency also lacks basic accountability practices: No agent has ever been convicted of criminal wrongdoing while on duty, despite deaths in custody and uses of excessive, deadly force. Border Patrol agents engage in criminal activities outside their official duties at five times the rate of other law enforcement agencies’ officials.
The agency’s discipline system is broken and agency leadership has not weeded out corrupt agents. As James Tomsheck, CBP’s former internal affairs chief, described the agency’s culture: It ‘goes out of its way to evade legal restraints’ and is ‘clearly engineered to interfere with [oversight] efforts to hold the Border Patrol accountable.’”
A Legacy of Racism
This lack of accountability grew from the Border Patrol’s xenophobic and racist roots. In a special report by the American Immigration Council, Katy Murdza and Walter Ewing wrote that:
“The racial animus of U.S. immigration policy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century formed the foundation for the agency. Federal laws banning Asian immigration were followed by the national origins quota system, which prioritized northern and western Europeans over the rest of the world. While not included in the original quotas, Mexicans, who previously could travel freely across the U.S.-Mexico border, began to experience increasing restrictions in the 1920s. / Congress created the Border Patrol in 1924 to patrol the northern and southern borders between ports of entry. Many officers came from organizations with a history of racial violence and brutality, including the Ku Klux Klan and the Texas Rangers, carrying over the culture of a racist ‘brotherhood’ into the new agency.”
Those connections keep resurfacing in reports of “racial slurs, sexual comments, and other offensive language.” Lawsuits have shown that the Border Patrol uses racial profiling and has “maintained connections to the white supremacist movement and the paramilitary SWAT-style Border Patrol Tactical Unit,” which has also been “deployed to crack down on protests of police brutality against Black people.” Like other law enforcement agencies, the Border Patrol has been increasingly militarized since the 1980s.
Then, in 1994, the government began a program of “prevention through deterrence,” which aimed to decrease unlawful entry into the USA by making it “so dangerous as to discourage people from trying.”
After the 9/11 attacks, the Border Patrol was made part of the Department of Homeland Security, which expanded the agency and accelerated its militarization. The end result has been the creation of an agency that perpetuates:
“violence in the form of killing, sexual assault, excessive force, and verbal degradation—all with impunity. Despite these problems, the Border Patrol has lowered hiring standards to pursue rapid staff expansion. The Border Patrol often perpetrates violence through less direct means, including medical abuse and neglect, inhumane custody conditions, and family separation.” (ibid)
Border Violence and the Violence of Borders
My best understanding of our collective cruelty is that the inevitability of borders and, with them, the inevitability of their violence, has become so normalized that we accept them without question. We are trained to believe that violent borders are the price of domestic and economic security.
Collectively, we turn the other way when people are mistreated at our borders, and we avoid learning both the reasons people take these risks or the possibilities of living another way. It is easier to look away from, or to dehumanize, the millions of people who suffer.
Reece Jones, in Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, demonstrated that borders help “establish a legal means for controlling resources and excluding others from these spaces,” with the result that “almost all of the land in the world is claimed” in this way today. It is tempting to believe that these borders, or at least these kinds of borders, have “existed eternally,” but the reality is that the system we take for granted today is relatively recent.
Jones points out that -
“even the oldest political borders are only a few hundred years old; most are only a few decades old. They are not the result of a transparent sorting of historical peoples into their own territories. Instead, borders are an efficient system for maintaining political control of an area through agreements and documents that are backed up with the threat of violence. … They changed the relationship between people and the environment by redefining land and oceans as closed areas of ownership that can be exploited for economic gain, not common spaces to be shared and conserved.” (117)
These borders are real and have real impacts, but they are not objective or neutral. Their history, along with their psychosocial meanings, reflect, among other things, the injustice of colonial violence.This context also helps us understand conditions that must be addressed if we want to live in healthy, safe, and regenerative communities.
We can help do this work, beginning with becoming increasingly aware of this violent history and how it has become embedded in our nation’s policies, institutions, and practices. Murdza and Ewing concluded that “Revamping the agency will involve fundamentally reshaping how Border Patrol agents view themselves in relation to the different communities and groups of people they encounter along the border.”
And this applies to all of us, especially us White folx. Better understanding helps us notice the social norms that fuel the injustice. We can think deeply about, and act courageously, in favor of honoring our shared humanity and our relationship to the earth. We can help move the broader culture toward transforming how our society thinks about and experiences relationships across differences.
“What we ultimately fear, what we ultimately hate, is, so often, an outward manifestation of our own action or inaction. … Waiting for the government to offer to share its roof, or to implement any positive change, will be waiting too long. Meanwhile, … we should open our churches, temples, mosques, schools, and homes. We should build communities that are willing and able to receive those in need, not merely incarcerate or expel them.”
What this looks like will be particular to where we live, but it is something we can do, and that must be done. The world overflows with possibilities for happiness, and there is enough for us all. If we are willing, we can face our fears, dismantle injustice, and make a place where everyone can be safely and joyfully at home.
david "katya" ketchum