Immigration enforcement at work

Immigration Restrictions Enable Abuse

The writers at openborders.info frequently describe how immigration restrictions are immoral in the context of official policy.  Governments, in an effort to keep most people from immigrating to their countries, prevent would-be immigrants from entering their territories and detain and deport those who have managed to penetrate their borders; ending these official actions is our overarching goal.  The evils of restrictions are not limited to official government policies, however.  Immigration restrictions make immigrants and would-be immigrants vulnerable to mistreatment by individuals in myriad ways.

Before detailing this mistreatment, it is helpful to consider a similar dynamic in African-American history.  Ta-Nehisi Coates has described in the Atlantic how many whites in America have taken advantage of blacks in the context of government and societal discrimination.  He refers to “.. the marking of whole communities as beyond the protection of the state and thus subject to the purview of outlaws and predators.”  For example, Mr. Coates relates how an African-American sharecropping family in Jim Crow Mississippi, whose landlord was supposed to split the profits from the cotton with them, would lose most of the money to him. The father in the family told his son not to resist this situation “‘because they’ll come and kill us all.’”  In another example described by Mr. Coates, African Americans from the 1930s through the 1960s “were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market,” to a large extent due to Federal Housing Administration policy, which made black neighborhoods usually “ineligible for FHA backing.” As a result, “blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport.”

Borrowing terms from Mr. Coates, restrictions herd immigrants into the sights of the unscrupulous. To begin with, migrants crossing borders illegally, by attempting to evade government authorities, are put at risk of being robbed (or worse). A Mexican man who crossed illegally into the U.S. recalled that he was robbed two times that evening. Before he and the other immigrants in his group even crossed the border, they were ambushed by bandits who threaten them with ice picks. He was forced to strip and was robbed of $40. Then, approaching the border wall, another group of robbers approached with guns, but after the immigrants explained they had already been robbed, the second group left them alone. Soon after crawling under the wall into the U.S., they were approached by yet another group of robbers with ice picks. The man was forced to give up his tennis shoes and in return was given a pair of old, used shoes. (Cristine Gonzalez, “Journey to Wenatchee,” The Oregonian, 6/15/07) The New York Times reported that “illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican border often encounter bandits, armed civilian patrols and rival smugglers bent on robbing or stopping them.” In February of 2007, men with rifles robbed 18 immigrants who had crossed into Arizona. A day later, a group of undocumented immigrants from Guatemala were traveling in a vehicle along a known smuggling route when gunmen fired on the vehicle, which then crashed. Three of the immigrants were killed, three were wounded, and several others were kidnapped. An official with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department said, “’There have been similar cases where undocumented migrants have been taken to a location and relatives in Mexico contacted and extortion took place.’”

Immigrants from Central America who cross Mexico on their way to the U.S. border are exposed to danger even before they reach it. It is easy to cross into Mexico from Guatemala, but, as reported in National Geographic, “it is at the southern Mexican border where the perils begin—the thugs, the drug runners, the extortionists in official uniforms, the police and migration agents who pack undocumented migrants into detention facilities before forcing them onto buses to be deported.” The Central American migrants in a Mexican city near the Guatemalan border “… because they’re isolated, vulnerable, and likely to be carrying money—attract assailants whose toxic presence alarms everybody in town.” The article adds that migrants who ride freight trains north through Mexico are sometimes accosted at stops by locals who beat and rob them, “sometimes with police watching or joining in.”

When undocumented immigrants make it in the U.S., their desperation to have legal residency and their vulnerability to deportation make them targets of other types of theft.  Some attorneys have reportedly defrauded immigrants.  A director of an immigrant advocacy group stated, “Immigrants are easy prey for unscrupulous attorneys, and they are often unwilling and unable to complain because they are likely to be deported if they do.”  People who are not attorneys similarly take advantage of the undocumented.  The New York Times reported several years ago that over a hundred undocumented immigrants in the New York area were cheated out of almost a million dollars by two men who had set up a church in Queens, New York. The immigrants were told that green cards were available through churches. They were also told to pay a fee in cash ranging from $6000 to $10,000. The immigrants drained their savings and/or borrowed money from others to cover the fees. After months had passed and the green cards did not appear, the immigrants began asking for refunds. After first threatening to report the immigrants to authorities, one of the schemers simply stopped answering calls and closed the church. “Many of the immigrants say they find themselves in deep financial holes at a time when work is scarce. Officials can offer only limited hope: Full restitution for victims is often difficult in cases of financial fraud, especially in immigration-related cases, which almost always involve cash transactions.” (See also here.)

Beyond enabling the fleecing of immigrants, restrictions also make immigrants vulnerable to sexual assault. The National Geographic article on Central Americans crossing Mexico refers to sexual assaults on migrants. In addition, a report by groups that monitor the U.S.-Mexico border states that “smugglers have been regularly accused of coercion, rape, and forced servitude…” (p. 13) The undocumented are also vulnerable to sexual assault when they work. According to an article on the Public Broadcasting Service site, a study of hundreds of low-wage employees working illegally in the U.S. “found that 64 percent of the janitors surveyed had been cheated out of pay or suffered some other labor violation. About one-third said they’d been forced to work against their will, and 17 percent of that group said they’d experienced some kind of physical threat, including sexual violence…” Immigrant agricultural workers are also abused, according to another article on the PBS website: “The combination of financial desperation and tenuous immigration status make agricultural workers vulnerable to workplace violence and less inclined to report crimes.”

Immigration agents themselves have mistreated immigrants beyond their official duties of stopping illegal immigration.  This should not be surprising, given the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which volunteers assumed the roles of either guards or inmates.  Soon after the experiment began, the guards began to mistreat the prisoners.  The experiment was shut down early because of the suffering that was occurring. (“The Slippery Slope of Evil,” Mother Jones, July/August, 2015, p. 56)

Restrictions make immigration agents the “guards” and undocumented immigrants the “prisoners.”  Along the U.S.-Mexico border, each year there are hundreds of thousands of apprehensions of undocumented immigrants by armed immigration agents, so it is not shocking that, according to a 2008 report by groups that monitor the border, “in a very small but extremely important set of cases, Homeland Security officers (including Border Patrol officers) have used lethal force. The wider pattern of abuses includes pointing guns at immigrants, wrongful detention, excessive use of force, and verbal and psychological abuse.” (p. 15) In one case, an immigrant reported that on December 19, 2007, “I crossed the border and almost immediately an agent was upon me with his flashlight drawn like a weapon. I turned to run back to the Mexican side, he tackled me and pulled my feet and then there was another agent hitting me. Even though I had reached the Mexican side, the agent pulled me back and the other continued to hit me, and jumped on my back. My chest, hand and leg were hurt, and my body had cuts all over. The agent that was hitting me also pointed his gun at my head and was yelling at me. After I was taken to the border patrol station, an ambulance was called and I was taken to a hospital. After I was released and taken to the detention facility, I had to go back to the hospital two more times because of my injuries.” (Also see here, pp. 9-10)

Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Devil’s Highway, notes that as part of writing the book (on the deadly crossing of Arizona’s desert undertaken by a group of undocumented immigrants in 2001) he spent hours in Border Patrol stations and trucks. He reveals some Border Patrol views of undocumented immigrants. “Illegal aliens, dying of thirst more often than not, are called ‘wets’ by agents… ‘Wets’ are also called ‘tonks,’ but the Border Patrol tries hard to keep that bon mot from civilians. It’s a nasty habit in the ranks. Only a fellow border cop could appreciate the humor of calling people a name based on the stark sound of flashlight breaking over a human head.” (p. 16) And this: “There are other games the Border Patrol guys like to play. Sometimes they toss a recently shot rattlesnake, dead but still writhing and rattling, into the cage with the captured wets. Ha ha—that’s a funny sight, watching them go apeshit in the back of the truck.” (p. 27)

In addition, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are literally prisoners in detention facilities in the U.S. each year.  Some are in state and county criminal jails, while others are in facilities run by immigration authorities or private contractors. Amnesty International reports “pervasive problems with conditions of detention, such as commingling of immigration detainees with individuals convicted of criminal offenses; inappropriate and excessive use of restraints; inadequate access to healthcare, including mental health services; and inadequate access to exercise.” (p. 7) The New York Times has described the immigrant detention system as “a sprawling network of ill-managed prisons rife with reports of abuse, injury and preventable death… a system that puts little children in prison scrubs, that regularly denies detainees basic needs, like contact with lawyers and loved ones, like soap and sanitary napkins. It is a system where people who are not dangerous criminals by any definition get injured, sick and die without timely medical care.” A recent report from The Center for Migration Services and The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops noted that “attorneys and pastoral workers from Catholic agencies have learned first-hand of the sexual abuse of women detainees, women forced to deliver babies in restraints, frequent hunger strikes, suicides…” (p. 15)

The role of smugglers and employers in the exploitation of  undocumented immigrants is more ambiguous.  There have been cases where smugglers and employers have clearly mistreated undocumented immigrants.  I earlier noted reports of sexual assault on immigrants by employers and smugglers.  In addition, in at least one case smugglers of Chinese migrants had enforcers extort more resources from them during the voyage. (Peter Kwong, Forbidden Workers: Illegal Chinese Immigrants and American Labor, 1997, p. 80) When smuggled Chinese migrants arrived in America, they would sometimes be tortured to force the migrants’ relatives to pay off the smuggling fees and would even be forced to work without pay. Migrants from Syria and Eritrea often are smuggled across the Sudanese portion of the Sahara Desert on their way to the Libyan coast (and then on to Europe). An article in the Guardian states that “All must brave the desert – and not everyone makes it. At every stage, migrants are at the mercy of the smugglers in that particular area; kidnappings for ransom or for slave labour are common. There are stories of smugglers abandoning their clients in the dunes and of dozens dying of thirst.” Some of those who make it to Libya “are essentially kidnapped by smugglers or even local businessmen… whoever is doing it seems to be holding migrants in warehouses, or treating them as slave labour, until they pay what they owe.” In addition, “there are reports of beatings to extract more money from people while they wait” to begin the trip to Europe.

Employers can use immigration agents as a way of exploiting their immigrant workers. A report relates a situation in Louisiana in which
immigrants working to clean and repair an apartment complex damaged by Hurricane Katrina labored long hours, lived in moldy apartments in the complex, and were owed 15 weeks of unpaid wages. “The employer regularly threatened to call immigration authorities in response to workers’ demands for their pay.” A few days after an attorney sent a letter in 2008 to the employers on behalf of the workers demanding payment, ICE “agents arrived at the exact time and place that the immigrant workers were required to check in for the day, and arrested seven of the workers who had sought back pay.” At least two workers have been deported to Honduras. “As has been the case with many raids conducted by ICE, none of these workers had committed crimes, and the employer was not charged with anything or held liable for its abuse of the workers.” (“Raids on Workers: Destroying Our Rights,” Report of The National Commission on ICE Misconduct and Violations of 4th Amendment Rights, 2009, pp. 40-41) Another report stated that “in raids documented by NNIRR’s HURRICANE initiative in 2008, where employers cooperated fully with ICE’s enforcement operation, employers were subjecting workers to egregious labor rights violations. This included not paying minimum wage, non-payment of wages, including overtime work, threats of deportation, denying access to or not providing safety equipment and not meeting safety standards, sexual and verbal abuse and harassment by immediate supervisors.”

Notwithstanding these cases of abuse by smugglers and employers, on balance I agree with Vipul that “helping illegal immigrants by smuggling them or employing them, even when done for selfish reasons, is a good thing (if nobody were willing to smuggle people across the border, or employ them once they were on the other side, this wouldn’t be good for the immigrants).” (See here and here for Vipul’s elaboration of this perspective.)

The exploitation and abuse of undocumented immigrants described in this post is not a complete survey of all the suffering inflicted by immigration restrictions.  I did not explore the suffering and death from exposure to the environment in an attempt to evade immigration authorities, whether that involves crossing a desert or a long stretch of sea.  I did not relate the suffering caused by deportation and raids and the “normal” suffering associated with detention, such as separation from loved ones.  I did not address the lost opportunities for those prevented from migrating to a different country.  It should be kept in mind that the mistreatment discussed in the post accounts for only part of the suffering associated with restrictions.

It also needs reemphasizing that the ultimate responsibility for the mistreatment related in this post should be assigned to the people who create the laws that restrict immigration (and, in democracies, the citizenry that elects them). The immediate perpetrators of misdeeds against immigrants, whether they are border agents, robbers, swindlers, or prison guards, certainly bear responsibility for their actions, but they have been enabled by the policies that make immigrants vulnerable to their depredations. When immigration restrictions disappear (while keeping limited restrictions such as the exclusion of terrorists) and open borders are realized, the ability of people to abuse immigrants should dissipate.

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Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

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