During a visit to the southern border on July 12, Vice President Pence, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and other politicians stood before a group of detained men crowded into chain-link cages at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Tex. The images from the visit were wrenching. But equally awful are the unseen conditions faced by other migrants, expelled in growing numbers south of the border, where they sit mostly without the attention and intervention of the world. If history is a guide, their plight will only worsen in the coming months.
The United States has sent thousands of asylum seekers to the Mexican cities of Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana this year as part of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. They will wait there for their day in U.S. immigration court under this policy, which the administration has euphemistically named the “Migrant Protection Protocols.”
The Migrant Protection Protocols do not actually protect migrants. Instead, they inject vast numbers of displaced people into the most dangerous neighborhoods of cities that are unfamiliar to them. According to Human Rights Watch, the Mexican government noted this month that “the number of asylum seekers marooned in Ciudad Juarez already outnumbered the spaces available in free humanitarian shelters by 11 to 1.” Without money or work permits, these migrants end up sleeping in abandoned housing or outside, at risk of rape, kidnapping, robbery and murder.
There is, however, a second reason that the MPP’s name is a lie. The policy is likely to end up harming both migrants and the rule of law worldwide by exporting a network of concentration camps across the southern border. In doing so, the United States will perpetuate a trend from recent decades in which countries outsource civilian captivity and abuse to other nations.
Even without deliberate atrocities on the part of the government, indefinite internment takes a terrible toll on detainees, who endure suspended lives in concentration camps. To exist, these camps also tend to require demonization of the civilians held in them, leading to the kind of overcrowding, lack of food, squalor and punitive treatment of both adults and children seen in U.S. border detention today.
Over the past 100 years, even in the absence of gas chambers or mass executions, these same conditions have been lethal for detainees in camps around the world. Spanish reconcentración in Cuba in the 1890s killed well over 100,000 people, mostly women and children. British camps for Boer women and children at the turn of the 20th century in southern Africa caused tens of thousands of deaths, not counting the camps holding black Africans, which received less attention but were probably even more lethal. U.S. camps in the Philippines in the same era killed over 10,000 people in just a few months. The farther from the public eye such detention takes place, the greater the likelihood of abuse and neglect.
The postcolonial outsourcing of detention, however, is a newer phenomenon, one whose history is tied to more deliberate atrocities.
During the 1970s and 1980s, a network of intelligence agencies in South American dictatorships collaborated on Operation Condor, coordinating arrests and detention across most of the continent. They did so with the backing of the United States. Thousands of civilians fleeing persecution in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and other countries faced kidnapping, torture and even execution in the nations where they had taken refuge. The United States helped to train military officers responsible for Operation Condor, providing logistical assistance and looking the other way while bloody tactics were underway.
On other occasions, the United States played a more direct role. When it offshored tens of thousands of asylum-seeking migrants at the Guantanamo Bay base in the 1990s under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, they were held in overcrowded conditions. There were widespread allegations of abuse by guards, with HIV-positive men segregated into a separate camp without medical care. After a U.S. federal district court asserted its authority over Guantanamo Bay, the Clinton administration made a deal to leave any decision claiming jurisdiction off the books in exchange for the release of the Haitian plaintiffs. As a result, the court left unchallenged the idea that the Guantanamo base sat in a gray zone outside normal constitutional protections.
This state of affairs made the site particularly attractive after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the United States turned part of the base into a torture outpost of indefinite detention for terrorism suspects. Early abusive extrajudicial detention of asylum seekers set up a bureaucracy and a precedent that opened the door to later, more malevolent forms of detention.
More recently, Australia instituted a ban on refugees arriving by boat. Since 2012, it has paid other nations to hold more than 4,100 asylum seekers in captivity offshore on Manus Island and Nauru, where detainees have been forced to seek resettlement elsewhere or wait indefinitely for Australia’s national policy to change. This offshore detention continues today, with multiple suicide attempts in 2019 amid thousands of allegations of child abuse and assault. Investigators who would have had clear-cut authority in Australia remained hamstrung for years over the question of whether commissioners could examine the treatment of detainees outside the country.
Each nation that adopts these camps claims that it can carry out mass civilian detention humanely, but the results skew toward neglect, abuse and increasingly punitive measures. There is no reason to think that any similar experiment foisted on Mexico will reverse the trend of the past 120 years.
The “Remain in Mexico” policy is already endangering asylum seekers by leaving them vulnerable to criminal elements in a country that appears to have little intention of helping them and fewer resources than the United States to do so. The Trump administration’s policy is also destabilizing the perception of migrants abroad. A June poll showed that Mexican citizens are beginning to turn against the foreigners in their midst. And a July poll conducted by The Washington Post and Mexico’s Reforma newspaper showed that a majority of Mexicans are troubled by undocumented immigrants.
In December, Mexico resorted to using an open-air sports complex to house migrants on their way to the United States. What will happen when crimes against migrants escalate, and stadiums or other facilities become not temporary transit shelters but ongoing detention sites, as people wait for their asylum cases to progress month after month, year after year?
This kind of detention will not spontaneously improve; it will deteriorate and transform into concentration camps. Locations abroad are less likely to be monitored by U.S. media or visited by congressional delegations. Without adequate legal protections in place or the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General visiting these sites, the United States can wash its hands of oversight in any camps it ends up forcing on Mexico.
And the export of camps is unlikely to stop with Mexico. Late last week, the New Yorker reported that the Trump administration was negotiating a safe-third-country agreement with Guatemala, which would allow the United States to send asylum seekers from anywhere there rather than hearing their claims.
On Monday, the Guatemalan High Court blocked President Jimmy Morales from making any such agreement for now. But the same day, the Trump administration announced that it will refuse nearly all asylum seekers crossing the southern border who have passed from their home country through another nation on their way to the United States.
The United States has already created a concentration camp system north of the border, with many detainees held in miserable conditions in violation of court-mandated limits simply for pursuing the legally permitted activity of seeking asylum. If we continue our current policies, the United States risks spurring violence against migrant populations and further destabilizing Central America, all while launching a new civilian detention system abroad that will join our existing camps to establish a dangerous cross-border network that could endure for years.