Post by Gabriella Sanchez and Ana Lilia Galván Tovías. Gabriella is a research fellow at the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute. Her work has examined the criminalization of mobility practices along borders, and while currently in Italy she calls the US Mexico border home. She tweets as @_gesanchez. Ana Lilia is a graduate student at the Institute for Social Sciences and Administration at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Her work explores the experiences of unaccompanied children along the US-Mexico Border.

Over the last couple of weeks the harrowing images of family separations taking place along the US Southern border have captured our attention span and our emotional bandwidth. Stories of young children and infants being forcefully taken from the arms of their terrified mothers and fathers; reports of mothers in immigration court asking for their children’s whereabouts; the screams of terrified children asking for their parents as border patrol agents stand in watch, and even allegations of children being drugged while in detention, have dominated the US news cycle. The disturbing media images of what have been systematically described as “children in cages” have allowed for the global dissemination of the situation, and generated an onslaught of condemnatory statements from concerned NGOs, international organizations, celebrities, politicians and policy makers who have rushed to call the actions of the current US administration immoral and inhumane. Comparisons to slavery, to the removal of Native American children from their communities and even to the Holocaust have also been abundant. Commentators have broken down in tears on live TV or online videos and demanded an end to the torturous practice of family separation.

We must be outraged by the recent developments on the border, and calls for the respect to due process, the protection of children and human rights and the end of immigration detention are rightly in place. Yet this blog entry is driven by another kind of outrage: the rush to portray what along the US Mexico border has been an everyday reality for decades as an unprecedented, decontextualized, isolated issue.

“Neither criminals nor illegals” Graffiti on the US Mexico Border fence in the neighbourhood of Anapra, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico (Photo: Fernando Loera)

Amid the panic and the condemnation, few have stopped to realize that for the people of the US Mexico border, for those who call it home, and for many of those crossing borders and living without the protection of documents worldwide, none of the practices we are witnessing is either new, extraordinary or unfamiliar. For generations, the people of the US Mexico border have attested or being the target of family separation, of the evolving immigration detention complex and of the systematic criminalization of their communities. As people of the border we live in places where local organizations, away from the national spotlight, must everyday rely on limited resources and volunteer and pro-bono work to provide assistance to the women and children who systematically become or are separated from their loved ones as a result of detention, deportation and enforcement practices. Migrant communities have consistently experienced employment site raids by local law enforcement agencies, patrols by military-grade equipment along war-like checkpoints, and the indignity of being searched and questioned as potential carriers of drugs, weapons or other forms of contraband. Furthermore, young people aspire and work hard to get hired by federal and local law enforcement agencies, which provide one of the scant paths out of precarity and toward employment stability in what are consistently designated as the poorest zip codes in the United States.

The eyes of the world through the parade of national and international media are –yet again – on the US Mexico border –yes, again. They were there a few months ago over the political uproar caused by the plans to build the wall (another topic the press is interested to hear us talk about every time a report or declaration calls our region inherently dangerous, violent and in need of control, as if the wire, concrete, steel barriers and long crossing times that have been a constant in our neighbourhoods and homes and part of our experiences as fronterizos were all a recent invention). The foreign correspondents and their trucks were there also a few years ago in 2014, when the arrivals of unaccompanied boys, girls and adolescents to the US Southern border were deemed a crisis by DC political pundits trying to pressure the Obama administration into passing what was labelled as comprehensive immigration reform. And they will all be gone in a few weeks as they move to the next “crisis.”

None of what is written here is aimed to suggest we should not be concerned over the fact that family separations occur because they take place anyway, or that the trauma experienced by children and parents should be disregarded as it is an everyday occurrence. What we want to convey is that the most recent developments must not be understood or represented as isolated, exceptional or unheard of, as the current uproar seems to suggest (think of this the next time you read a post that claims “this does not happen in America” or “these are not true American values.”) What we are currently witnessing is –sadly—yet another escalation of the war against migrants. But also another incarnation of the border spectacle –and we are falling for it.  

Detention, family separation, deportation, discrimination are part of the continuum of experiences that have for generations shaped the lives of migrants, their families and communities across the United States –and as several authors have rightly rushed to remind us, around the world.  Furthermore, the current attention on the US Mexico border leads us to forget family separations and immigration enforcement are not taking place on the border alone: deportations constitute another way of breaking up families. They grew exponentially under Obama and have continued to take place under Trump. Research has noted many of those attempting to cross the US Mexico border clandestinely are seeking to do so in order to rejoin their families (which often include US citizens) following removal and/or deportation (these are also some of the migrants who are more likely to fall prey of criminal activity, extortion, intimidation and corruption on both sides of the border). While the current focus is on the children (most of whom are, by the way, teenagers, rather than infant children as most images or that ubiquitous Time Magazine cover tend to suggest,) US deportation flights to Mexico have ceased, what means larger numbers of deported migrants are arriving to communities on the Mexican side of the border unprepared to welcome them.

There is also another aspect often forgotten amid the calls to shut down facilities that house migrants and the profitable contracts extended to the private companies that run them (the detention centres, processing facilities and what have been described as “tent cities,” all depicted as if having suddenly mushroomed as a result of the current series of events). While across the US there is a growing number of cities that have opted to cease their long-standing agreements with ICE concerning the apprehension and referral of irregular migrants, for often cash-strapped police departments or sheriff offices in smaller communities, profits from immigration detention have become a lifeline. Furthermore, the jobs the entire system creates are often at the core of the survival of once neglected communities, which simultaneously are many times home to migrants, minorities and their families. As mentioned earlier, along the border law enforcement occupations are seen as important mechanisms of social mobility, and becoming employed – and most importantly, remaining employed – constitute issues of immense pride (and often, of intense inner conflict) to young men and women whose parents were (irregular) migrants themselves.  Again, this does not suggest an endorsement of the immigration detention system, but rather seeks to stand as an often ignored example of how migration enforcement has become entangled in the lives of migrant and border families.   

So where do we go from there?

As Lauren Heidbrink’s posts on the current hysteria surrounding the coverage on family separations suggest, we can start by stopping our very own efforts to fall pray of migration clickbait. Yes, the images and the news are devastating, and convey dynamics few of us had imagined. But clicking on links ad nauseam and posting them on social media accompanied by lines that reveal our disbelief and disgust won’t stop the deportation and removal of mothers, grandmothers, fathers, godmothers, sisters and brothers.  

We can also listen, read and follow what local organizations from the border have to say—they were there before the latest “crisis” and will be there after the cameras go away. They are the ones operating on the frontlines, away from the DC bubble and the fundraising gala nights. Need ideas?  RAICES Texas launched an incredible campaign to help cover bonds for parents released from immigration detention (because even when someone has been granted a release, this is often conditional of the payment of a bond). Las Americas, in the City of El Paso, Texas has been in the community for over 30 years providing immigration law services to low income border residents. While the focus is now on children, thousands of families are waiting for news on their missing, disappeared and dead loved ones. Support Colibri Center, in the City of Tucson, Arizona whose staff has led a gargantuan, successful and unmatched mission to develop mechanisms to reunite family members separated by migration controls. DHIA on the Mexican side of the border, carries out participatory research and advocacy work with children and families with a history of involvement in smuggling facilitation, developing community-driven answers to marginalization.

Lastly, as academics, let us use this moment as an opportunity to rethink the way our work often represents, or rather reinscribes notions of the US Mexico border as an inherently crime-ridden, violent, place. It is time to hold ourselves accountable over how our work on border criminologies and migration has often reproduced and disseminated state-centric, decontextualized visions of borders and their people through the inattentive use of the lens of violence, which has often led our work to replicate sensationalistic characterizations of border communities, and fetishized representations of migrants and their experiences. I am encouraged by the work of scholars like Wendy Vogt, Robin Reineke and Jacqueline Hagan who have repeatedly reminded us how amid the violence of local and transnational economies of smuggling, organised crime, kidnapping and securitisation, love, emotion, encouragement, solidarity and care are equally present in the complex, contradictory and sometimes painful experiences of migrants. Let us follow their lead.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Sanchez, G.  and Galván Tovías, A. L. (2018) Beyond the Headlines. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/06/beyond-headlines (Accessed [date]).