U.S. policies like Title 42 make migrants more vulnerable to smugglers

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The Supreme Court recently upheld a policy that deports asylum seekers at the border under the Title 42 public health authority as litigation over the issue continues. In response, the Department of Homeland Security said it would continue to deport asylum seekers at the border and work to expand the number of nationalities that can be refused under the policy.

As pandemic-era Title 42 policies close ports of entry to asylum seekers and ensure swift deportations without the opportunity for entrants to seek asylum, migrants become easy targets for smugglers waiting on the other side of the border. DHS has warned that “people should not listen to the lies of smugglers who exploit vulnerable migrants at the risk of their lives.”

But there is a reason smugglers can threaten and exploit migrants in the first place because policies like this which increase rather than reduce the vulnerability of border crossers. Restrictive immigration policies and long-standing immigration deterrence strategies — which study after study shows do not actually deter anyone from migrating — funnel child and adult migrants into clandestine entry routes that force migrants to turn to smugglers for help. When poor migrants, especially unaccompanied children, cannot pay the high prices for smugglers’ services, they are sometimes forced into forced labor schemes to pay off debts, as in states like Alabama, Ohio and Illinois.

These human rights dilemmas are not aberrations or exceptions. They are the result of border enforcement schemes that have for decades eliminated safe and legal migration routes and tightened border controls, leaving migrants vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

After 1965, the US government heavily militarized the US-Mexico border and closed several legal entry routes for Latinos. Ending the decades-old Bracero migrant worker program, imposing numerical limits on Latin American immigration, and giving preferential treatment to refugees fleeing communist countries made unauthorized entry the only option for millions of Mexicans and Central Americans in the late 1960s and beyond.

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A punitive approach to border enforcement pushed migrants into hidden entry routes and led to an explosion of the people-smuggling business from the 1960s to the 1980s. By 1975, more than 70 percent of migrants purchased the services of a smuggler to bring them across the increasingly hardened Southwest border. After being recruited in northern Mexican border towns and charged between $150 and $1,500, the smugglers transported undocumented people to rural farm fields in cramped buses, trailers, rental trucks and camper vans without adequate ventilation, heat or food .

Poor migrants who could not afford the rising costs of smuggling services had no choice but to agree to arrangements where smugglers transported them directly to jobs in the US, mostly on remote commercial farms where labor enforcement was almost non-existent for migrants to work. pay off your debts. When unscrupulous people recruit vulnerable people for labor exploitation through fraud or coercion, this practice is considered labor trafficking. In the case of non-citizens, labor trafficking is often carried out through debt slavery, in which desperate migrants are encouraged to take on smuggling debts that cannot be repaid and are silenced by the threat of deportation.

Those who survived their dangerous journey in the 1970s and arrived at their workplaces unscathed were forced to work from dawn to dusk. For these long hours, they received paychecks ranging from $0 to $40, as their earnings were deducted to pay smuggling debts that were arbitrarily increased upon their arrival. Migrants were also denied food, education and medical care for several days. When undocumented workers spoke out against the exploitation of their labor, they were intimidated with violence and threats of deportation. Estimates compiled by the Globe and Mail in 1980 show that 100,000 immigrants become victims of labor trafficking in the United States each year.

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By making border crossings more dangerous, US policy created incentives for smuggling. And as the cost of smuggling increased, many migrants ended up in dire and exploitative work situations that resembled labor trafficking.

In response, the Border Patrol, state labor investigators and local police worked together, particularly in the 1970s, to “protect and rescue aliens” from smugglers and employers through immigration raids on workplaces. Law enforcement agencies continue to call their detection and arrests of migrants forced into harm by immigration deterrence policies a “rescue.”

But after these “protective” raids, immigration officials withheld the migrants’ wages and locked them up in detention centers and county jails as “material witnesses” in prosecutions of their smugglers and traffickers. Although smuggling and human trafficking are different activities, the federal government conflated the two in an effort to deflect blame for the exploitation of migrants.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service justified the incarceration of material witnesses of all ages, which sometimes resulted in the prolonged separation of minors from their parents, by arguing that the detention of migrants was “necessary for their own protection.” But the government did not care about justice or human rights. Instead, policymakers hoped to find someone to blame in order to mask their responsibility for the harm caused by migrants behind the rhetoric of “protection.”

The injuries caused by draconian border enforcement only worsened in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration officially endorsed the Border Patrol’s “prevention through deterrence” strategy. The policy was deliberately designed to force migrants into dangerous entry routes to use the desert as a “weapon” against border crossers.

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Although the possibility of death was supposed to act as a deterrent, illegal migration continued in the 1990s and 2000s. This was even as the United States invested heavily in border enforcement during the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and, subsequently, immigration laws in 1990 and 1996 dramatically expanded the list of offenses requiring removal and detention, and sept . 11, 2001, attacks allowed the fledgling DHS to link terrorism and immigration to obtain additional funding for border security.

According to historian Adam Goodman, “the strengthening of border and immigration regulations did not stop unauthorized migration to the United States. However, this made migration more expensive, both physically and financially. More than 7,000 immigrant deaths have been recorded at the border since the late 1990s, with fiscal year 2022 the deadliest on record. The Trump years were particularly damaging for migrants, as journalists, advocates and researchers argued that people smugglers were “thriving” under his immigration policies, particularly his Title 42 executive order.

The lesson here is that the multi-billion dollar smuggling industry is enriched, not hindered, by punitive border enforcement. Claims of wanting to prosecute smugglers and regulate unauthorized migration only serve to prevent government complicity in the exploitation and abuse of migrants, while painting politicians as heroes in humanitarian dilemmas of their own making.

If the US government really wanted to end human smuggling and eliminate the vulnerability of migrants to human trafficking, it would get rid of the flawed and deadly logic of immigration deterrence and open pathways to safe and legal entry that would make it unnecessary for people to turn to crooks. actors first. Until then, US policymakers and others will continue to be complicit and responsible for the harms they claim to be combating.


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