The US government has dramatically escalated its war against refugees and undocumented migrants. In the week before the congressional midterm elections, president Trump deployed more than 5,000 military personnel to the country’s southern border as part of “Operation Faithful Patriot”. They joined 2,000 National Guards deployed earlier in the year and thousands of existing Border Patrol officers from US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Trump suggested that another 10,000 troops could be dispatched, threatened to close the border entirely and mused about an executive order to end birthright citizenship for undocumented migrants. (The 14th amendment of the US constitution stipulates that those born in the US are citizens.)

The primary public target of Trump’s most recent assault is a “caravan” of several thousand Central American refugees fleeing violence in their home countries: parents carrying children, walking thousands of kilometres in the hope of settling in peace.

“This has been an extraordinary week even in the age of Trump”, Juanita Molina, from the Border Action Network, a human rights organisation based in Tucson, Arizona, told Red Flag via email. “This administration has manufactured a crisis with the zero tolerance policies. They strive to increase the rate of prosecution … removing all discretion of CBP leadership without increasing spaces in detention facilities or providing more judges. This creates an immediate crisis along the border. Families are waiting for weeks at the port of entry just to present their credible fear interviews.”  

Trump’s anti-migrant rhetoric hit a new register in October after a federal district court judge temporarily blocked his attempt to strip legal status from 300,000 immigrants who fled Haiti, Sudan, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Some of his language has been even more extreme than during the last election campaign. For example, in 2016 his approach was to call Democrats and his Republican predecessors “stupid”; now, he seems unrelenting in his labelling of political opponents as conspirators intent on destroying the country and unleashing knife-wielding migrant hordes to slice up US citizens.

Trump as symptom

“The increased militarization of the southern borderlands, which stretch from San Diego in southern California, across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, has been noticeable for quite some time. Where we work, the border is a tangible and violent presence every day of the year”, Justine, media coordinator for No More Deaths, another organisation operating out of southern Arizona, told Red Flag. 

As shocking and callous as the Trump administration is, the majority of the country’s anti-migrant policies were enacted long before he won the White House. The shift toward a more punitive, and deadly, policy came under Democratic president Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Justine explained:

“In 1994, the policy of Prevention Through Deterrence was adopted. This strategy militarized the border significantly and instituted heavy surveillance and agent presence at metro points of entry. This was meant to push people farther from established urban areas and into denser wilderness – more unforgiving terrain with more barriers to entry. 

“The mortal danger this put those crossing in was the documented goal – the US government surmised that the journey would become so deadly, migrants would not undertake it. This did nothing to address the hundreds of reasons individuals might choose to risk their lives to cross, provided no material aid to those in need nor addressed the root causes of oppression that bring people across dangerous terrain in the first place. 

“People began to die in far greater numbers than had ever been seen previously. As a direct result of this policy, thousands of individuals have perished in the borderlands – due to extreme thirst, exposure to the elements, polluted water sources and a host of other preventable causes.” 

The way Justine outlines US developments finds parallels here. The militarisation of the Timor Sea and the Indian Ocean off the northern coast of Western Australia and the attendant gulag archipelago of Nauru, Manus Island and, until October this year, Christmas Island, have prevented asylum seekers arriving by boat from reaching the continent. 

That process was marked by a policy of confiscating and destroying any vessel transporting refugees, which resulted in only the most derelict crafts being used for the journey. Predictably, there were large numbers of entirely preventable drownings. Those lost lives were then used – unsuccessfully, because desperate people will always take their chances – as deterrents to new arrivals and in aid of a cynical political argument that “stopping the boats” was a humanitarian act, rather than a cruel policy to deny people their right to seek asylum.   

No More Deaths has been working since 2004 to stop the deaths of migrants crossing into the United States. Some of its volunteers, in collaboration with La Coalición de Derechos Humanos, formed in 1993, have formed a working group to document the effects of successive government policies and the routine practices of Border Patrol officers.

Those practices include dispersing migrants into inhospitable terrain, interfering with humanitarian aid work and not responding to emergency situations in which people crossing the border find themselves in life-threatening situations. The working group’s Disappeared report estimates tens of thousands of lives have been lost in the last three decades.

“What is truly shocking about the border crisis – both in its ongoing nature and in its scope, is that there is no way for us to truly know how many have been lost”, Justine said. “In the most remote corridors of the borderlands, a person can lose their life, their remains mostly broken down within a matter of days by the elements. In many ways, the borderlands … are a mass, unforgiving graveyard.”

Justine argues that Trump is an expression of the larger problems associated with nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and the growth of the far right in the US. “Has anything changed? Not as dramatically as people might assume”, she said. “Certainly, the policies of child separation etc. are immoral and meant to whip his voting base into a frenzy. But on the ground, here, in southern Arizona, I’d say his presidency is mostly a stamp of approval for those who have held deeply racist and reactionary views for quite some time.” 

The president’s barbs have made an impact across the country. A Pew Research Center survey released in October found that 47 percent of Hispanics/Latinos say that their situation has deteriorated in the US over the last year. Four in ten experienced discrimination, were criticised for speaking Spanish in public or had been told to go back to their own country.

Despite the crisis situation, solidarity work has not been dampened. “The continued work of our volunteers and of people in similar migrant-aid groups show that many people exist in solidarity with those crossing the border”, Justine said.