The failures of U.S. immigration policies

Three new books challenge the way we imagine the U.S.-Mexico border.


In 2018, I met a 29-year-old man I’ll call Alex (to protect his identity) at a soup kitchen for migrants in Nogales, Sonora, just across the U.S.-Mexico border from Nogales, Arizona. Most of the migrants were families with young children who came from Central America and the state of Guerrero, Mexico, fleeing poverty and violence fueled by a legacy of U.S.-backed military coups and corporate plundering. They had come to seek asylum in America. 

Alex was different. His parents brought him to the U.S. from Honduras when he was 7, and he grew up in New York City undocumented. At 21, he got into a fight, and the police were called. Immigration and Customs Enforcement eventually deported Alex, separating him from his infant son. He spent the next eight years in Honduras. Now, knowing he had no chance of asylum and no legal way to return to the U.S., Alex planned to cross the border illegally. “I’m trying get back to my son,” he told me.

A month later, Alex called me. He was staying with a friend in Tennessee, after spending 12 days crossing a deadly stretch of the desert from outside Nogales, Sonora all the way to Phoenix, Arizona, walking more than 150 miles, mostly alone. He survived, he thought, because of his military training; Alex had served briefly in the U.S. military reserves.

Without knowing his story, it would be easy to categorize Alex as either a victim or a criminal. But he was neither. He was a boxing aficionado, a construction worker and above all, a father who desperately wanted to be reunited with his son. But like so many, he was caught in the web of U.S. immigration policies.

Three new nonfiction books examine the failures of those policies, from the flawed, outdated science that shaped them, to the current wall-building fiasco, and, finally, to what it might take to create a more effective, and just, immigration framework.

IN 1994, the Clinton administration implemented a new border enforcement strategy called “prevention through deterrence,” designed to force migrants away from Borderlands cities and toward far more remote and dangerous routes, like the one Alex took. Such policies have not stopped migration, but they have made it far more deadly. 

In The Next Great Migration, Sonia Shah questions this strategy, challenging the view that migration is a “crisis.” As Shah reveals, the science tells a different story: Migration is central to human biology and history.

Draconian immigration policies, Shah argues, are a response to flawed public opinion, not a reflection of the facts. The perception of migrants as a global threat has become lodged in the public mind. Studies show that many Americans vastly overestimate the number of undocumented immigrants and are convinced they worsen crime. In fact, high rates of immigration (both legal and unauthorized) are associated with lower rates of both violent and property crimes.

“We’ve constructed a story about our past, our bodies, and the natural world in which migration is the anomaly,” Shah writes. But that story is an illusion. Shah explores how three centuries of outdated scientific ideas about the role of migrants, both in the natural world and in human societies, have shaped anti-immigrant viewpoints that persist today.

Shah begins with the 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, charting the path from his failed quest for proof that different races were biologically distinct species, to contemporary white nationalist and anti-immigration crusader John Tanton, a retired Michigan ophthalmologist who warned about a coming “Latin onslaught” in a series of memos revealed in 1988.

Shah skillfully weaves the connections between science, policy and public opinion, demonstrating how, for instance, biologist Paul Ehrlich’s ideas about catastrophic population growth inspired environmentalist support for immigration restriction — though even Ehrlich later admitted that his 1968 book The Population Bomb had not been rooted in science at all. Rather, it was a “propaganda piece,” he said, aimed at mobilizing interest in environmental protection.

Shah takes readers to nearly every corner of the world: from human migration hotspots like the Darién Gap, at the Colombia-Panama border, to the San Miguel Mountains in Southern California, one of the last habitats for the endangered checkerspot butterfly, whose survival hinges on its ability to migrate. Though her scientific history is expansive and rigorous, at times she sidesteps research that undermines her argument, overlooking, for example, the damage invasive species can inflict on ecosystems.

Still, Shah helps illuminate why Alex and so many others are choosing to migrate. “The idea that there should be a single explanation for migration is rooted in a sedentarist notion,” Shah writes, referencing the geographer Richard Black. Both human and non-human species respond to devastating environmental changes by moving. When people are threatened by war, rising seas or persistent poverty, fleeing is a matter of survival. Likewise, for someone like Alex, a father facing a future without his son, the decision was only natural.

“The idea that there should be a single explanation for migration is rooted in a sedentarist notion.”

IF SHAH SHOWS how outdated beliefs explain current attitudes towards migration, journalist and author D.W. Gibson reveals how those attitudes are playing out at the U.S.-Mexico border today. After the Department of Homeland Security advertised for border wall prototypes in 2017, Gibson began visiting the construction site south of San Diego, where they were erected.

His book, 14 miles: Building the Border Wall, starts there, chronicling the locals whose lives are affected by the building of the wall. Among others, we meet a member of the Kumeyaay Tribe, whose traditional territory stretches from Southern California to northern Baja California, Border Patrol agents, a Haitian asylum seeker, a former human smuggler, and activists who leave jugs of water in the desert for migrants. 

Unfortunately, few of the characters are fully developed, and at times, the interviews and extensive dialogue feel excessive. Gibson divulges little personal information, portraying himself as an out-of-place reporter who swigs bad coffee at a Denny’s restaurant and speaks mediocre Spanish. His strength lies in the way his interviews reveal the absurdities and contradictions of the border and the wall-building endeavor — its crass capitalism and phony politicking.

The most revealing character is the real estate baron and U.S. presidential hopeful Roque De La Fuente, one of several scammy businessmen clamoring to profit from the future wall. De La Fuente owns 2,000 acres of desert abutting the proposed wall expansion, and publicly hopes to sell his land to the federal government. Privately, however, he acknowledges that the wall “is a crazy stupid idea. We need more crossings.” Indirectly, De La Fuente supports Shah’s argument that human societies thrive on connection. What’s unnatural is trying to cut those connections off.

For Gibson, the border is less the frontier than its mirror, reflecting the vision of America people want to see. Such visions leave little room for “hyphenated Americans” — as a San Diego property owner refers to any people whose identities complicate his monolithic idea of America.

POETRY CAN “extend the document,” Susan Briante writes in Defacing the Monument, a book of documentary poetry. For Briante, the border’s failures emerge not only in cruel and inhumane policies like Operation Streamline, but also in how we tell the stories and record the history of those on the margins of our society.

Documentary poetry often resembles a scrapbook, mixing primary source material — photos, court records, letters and maps — with the poet’s own words, conveying her interpretation of the historical record and, crucially, what the documents leave out. “A frame of words can determine what one sees,” Briante writes.

Briante calls documentary poetry the “anti-journalism,” but I see it more as a meditation on the difficult moral and ethical questions facing anyone — whether journalist or poet — writing about the pain of others. “How can we amplify voices without turning other people’s stories into commodities, without re-affirming the faulty myth of ‘giving voice?’ ” Briante wonders.

Perhaps this is why those other voices are mostly absent from Defacing the Monument. But Briante is not writing here as a journalist; she is less concerned about the migrants’ stories than the way those stories are obscured or erased. Like Shah and Gibson, Briante asks us to reimagine the way we see the border and the lives it encompasses — to interrogate the false sense of normalcy that pervades our current immigration regime, and to “reframe and recontextualize every exception and every unexceptional atrocity.”

Instead of new walls, the U.S. needs new narratives, and a more expansive idea of what its borders are for.

Briante doesn’t offer concrete suggestions for how to fix our inhumane immigration system. Instead, she urges another kind of transformation. Instead of new walls, Briante suggests, the U.S. needs new narratives, and a more expansive idea of what its borders are for. That requires a more expansive idea of America itself, rooted in connection rather than fear.

“The future unfurls like the sky above the cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, a sky redacted by the bars of a wall. What will we write or imagine between those bars? What will we make from them?” Briante asks. 

When Alex called me to say he had survived the crossing, he spoke of his journey — about the blisters on his feet, the hallucinations from the heat. He saw a puma, he said, and the remains of a human body. But he kept walking. He focused on his son, he said, “the only thing I think about.”

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Carbondale, Colorado. 

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