Walls and Bridges: Del Rio and immigration policy in the age of spectacle

We live in a global society of spectacle. Capitalism in its latest stage is fueled by the production of the imaginary. Business, activism, and politics are all played out in virtual spaces, while the world we physically live in becomes experienced primarily in reference to images; the more spectacular, the more entertaining, or the more shocking, the more engaged we become. 

In this society of the spectacle, immigration policy has been turned into an absurdity, almost entirely divorced from the world. It is difficult to assemble and respond to all of the ways in which immigration policy is an illogical manifestation of an obsession with spectacle. However, we can look at the situation unfolding in Del Rio, Texas as a start.

Over the last week, we are told that up to 14,000 people have crossed the Rio Grande and are now under a bridge between the river and the Del Rio port of entry. While the people under the bridge come from all over the world, the media is focused primarily on Haitian migrants who make up the largest portion.

The media circus that has resulted is what one would expect with people in a desperate situation, crowded, overheated, without access to sufficient sanitation and so on.

Republicans line up to denounce Biden for being too lenient, using the people under the bridge as a backdrop.

Democrats assure everyone that they do not support an open border, and to make that point, have begun to deport people to Haiti at a pace unheard of even during the nadir of the Trump administration.

It is a spectacle to be sure. So, just to clarify:

The Bridge

The people who are under the bridge in Del Rio crossed the river at a port of entry. They are not “illegal” immigrants; they are seeking authorized admittance into the United States.

More to the point, for those seeking asylum, under US law they have a legal right to do so once inside the United States, no matter how they arrived.

Through the end of August, Haitians made up less than 1.8% of all CBP encounters so far this fiscal year.

Del Rio has become the sector where folk from Haiti (as well as Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and elsewhere) have increasingly attempted entry. 

At the Del Rio crossing, the percent of people encountered who are Haitian is thus higher than the national average—but still a small portion of the 251,000 people encountered in the sector.

In other words, the scene at the bridge has nothing to do with border crossing trends seen in recent months—and one must wonder why it is now that a crisis is declared and that Haitians are the face of it. 

To Republicans hand wringing over conditions, a reminder that two years ago the bridge was in El Paso, and the conditions were allowed to ferment for months under a Republican president.

To Biden, note that the horrible treatment meted out to the migrants in 2019 did not stop people from coming. Their desperation outweighs our cruelty. Sending 3 to 4 deportation flights to Haiti a day will not solve anything.

This is not a crisis born of leniency from the Biden administration.

The Wall

That right to seek asylum has been set aside under a public health order issued by the CDC in March of 2020. The public health disaster unfolding under that bridge is the result of this CDC order.

The reason? Under this public health order, which is referred to as “Title 42,” people are denied access to asylum except under a very narrowly read provision regarding request for protection under the Convention Against Torture.

Operational guidelines from DHS on implementing this order require that people be removed immediately through expulsion to the country from which they arrived.

Haitians, Venezuelans, Cubans, and others cannot be so removed—Mexico will not accept them. And so they are stuck between a river they cannot cross back over, and a port of entry where, with few exceptions, they will not be processed for any other reason than expulsion under Title 42.

Biden never halted deportations to Haiti, and he never made a public commitment to do so, despite being pressed to do this by members of Congress, human rights organizations, and others. There was a brief pause in removal flights following the assassination of President Moïse, and another after the earthquake in August. 

Deportation flights to Haiti had already resumed last week before the situation under the bridge in Del Rio blew up in the media.

Biden has continued to enforce Title 42, and has sent his emissaries far and wide with a simple message to people from Haiti and Cuba, to Guatemala and Honduras – DO NOT COME!

Far from being too soft, Biden has summarily expelled far more people than Trump during his last year in office—and though this is certainly the result of an increase in migration, the policies themselves have hardly changed.

The Migrant Protection Protocol was ended briefly—but MPP had already become marginal compared to the scale of Title 42 expulsions. Now, a court is forcing Biden to reinstate MPP.

Conditions

There is a tremendous amount of information in the media about the situation in Haiti – a political crisis, a spike in violence, the earthquake and its impacts, and an ongoing crisis of food insecurity made worse by all of the above.

More spectacle.

The Biden administration is well aware of all of this. For these reasons, his administration re-designated Haiti for Temporary Protected Status in July. TPS does not cover anyone under that bridge right now, and does not mean that deportations to Haiti were halted. TPS is not automatic.

Amidst the spectacle, what is not talked about is the grassroots movement for democratic reform in Haiti, and how the United States under both Trump and Biden have set aside the concerns of this movement and their proposals for solutions.

Amidst the spectacle, what is not talked about is the movement against violence from Haitian activists and civil society. A movement manifested in multiple strategies from longstanding intentional work against gender-based violence to impromptu protests against kidnappings. 

Amidst the spectacle, what is also not talked about is how weapons fueling this violence are almost all from the United States – which has not only failed to address, in any meaningful way, gun control within its borders, but refuses to address the US gun industries’ complicity in fomenting violence throughout the Americas.

The problem is not that the United States doesn’t care about what happens in Haiti. The problem is that the US government cares about the wrong things.

“The poorest….”

Every newspaper article about Haiti references the fact that Haiti is the “poorest country in the western hemisphere.” But almost none of those articles will mention the US colonization of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, the system of pillage therein established, and how the United States maintained that system of pillage by sponsoring dictatorship for decades. 

Rarely will these accounts mention the “independence” debt, whereby France demanded reparations for the lands and the human beings formerly treated as property by French colonists. If this is mentioned at all, never will the follow-up be how the National City Bank of New York assumed that debt in a process engineered by the US State Department, or that this debt was not paid off to the National City Bank of New York until 1947.

Articles never mention how multilateral lenders strangled the elected governments of René Préval and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, only to then funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to the US-installed regime of Gérard Latortue, and the PHTK governments under Martelly and Moïse – both elected, but in processes widely viewed as illegitimate and dominated by US pressure.

In other words, Haiti’s impoverishment is the direct result of 100 years of United States government interference and pillage. Haiti surely has many internal contradictions and tremendous inequality as a result of this. Yet, the biggest obstacle to democracy in Haiti remains the US government.

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