All posts by Steven Sacco

Steven Sacco is a practicing immigration attorney in New York City and sits on the board of the Free Migration Project. Sacco is interested in challenging the borders from human rights, radical democratic and critical race theory perspectives.

What I mean when I say “The border is a lie”

I typically tweet at least once a week that ‘the border is a lie.’ Some readers may intuit what I mean by this statement, others may be less clear on its meaning. Since I have heard from some of the latter, I wanted to provide clarification. I explain below that first, it is meant literally, in that the border is imaginary, and second, that it is meant to indict the border as a purveyor of lies, in that it legitimizes a violent caste system based on mythology. 

The border is literally a lie:

The line separating two given states is an imaginary one, and we do our grasp on reality a service by regularly reminding ourselves of that. The border also holds itself out as the place where two nations cleave, but it is lying here too because those nations, like the fictional line that separates them, are also imaginary. I explain more below about why this is so.

The border is a purveyor of lies:

The border is the purveyor of lies in our minds, on paper and in the physical world. 

First, in our mind, the border reifies and reaffirms nationalism. Nationalism is the delusion that people can and should be taxonomized and then segregated by territory or culture or ethnicity. This notion is both fictional and ultimately racializing (as well as historically recent). It is fictional because the notion of nationality is both overinclusive and underinclusive. Nationality is overinclusive in that it asserts a monolithic population where there is none. While culture is real, there are no clean lines demarcating one culture from another. Rather, traditions blur into one another, and no group of people, no matter how allegedly monolithic, is without its own internal diversity (for example, a New Yorker might imagine a shared ‘american’ identity with a Dallasite, but may in reality share nothing in common with respect to politics, culture, values or even language). Nationality is also underinclusive in that people may share culture, values or other traits across borders that they do not share with members of their own ‘nation’ (for example, a New York City progressive may share more in common with a Torontonian progressive than they would with a conservative Dallasite). Ultimately, nationalism’s project of territory-based or culture-based taxonmization and apartheid of people is impossible mythology. But worse than impossible, it is also destructive. Nationalism, because it asserts that this taxonomization and segregation is desirable, also racializes people, otherizing different languages, skin tones, etc. into silos that we come to believe erroneously have biological or other bases in nature. Nationalism builds and reifies an ‘us’ and ‘them’ caste system, or racial caste systems, in our mind.

Second, this lie is not just in our minds, it is also written into our law. Nationalism’s caste delusion is reflected on paper in naturalization and immigration law. These written laws protect and enshrine the ‘us’ and ‘them’ case system by according rights to ‘us’ and taking rights away from ‘them.’ Like all caste systems, these laws exist to preserve power for some at the cost of others’ rights. Citizenship and immigration laws build a legal fortress around the privilege of some at the expense of other’s dignity and humanity. The law lies to us when it insists that this legal arrangement is natural, inevitable, and ancient; in a word, that it is self-evident. It is none of these things; but caste systems purvey these lies to discourage challenges against themselves. They need lies to discourage challenges because they are, on their face, obviously anti-democratic in their hostility toward principles of liberty and equality. We have been so conditioned to see the world as a quilt of nation states fixed by nature, that we don’t even have the framework to question it or imagine alternatives. By claiming to be natural and inevitable, these laws prevent us from interrogating them and never need to justify themselves. Only lies can sustain citizenship and immigration law because these written rules are, on their face, the opposite of democracy.

Finally, the lies written into law are made real in the physical world with violence. The violence of deportation, concentration camps and policing are where the rubber lies hit the real road, so to speak. The border is the physical site where the ideas of nationalism and the written words of law physically subtract rights from some to protect the power and privilege of others. The physical borders are pregnant with the delusions of nationalism and the lies protected by law. Their authority is used to justify and legitimize the physical violence that borders carry out. The border is the situs where the lies in our minds and the lies in our law mature into real atrocity. That is why we say “the border is a lie,” in order to denounce not just this violence, but the delusional presumptions and erroneous legal conclusions that license its brutality.

When we say ‘the border is a lie,’ we are rejecting all of those institutions discussed above which are oppositional to anti-racist democracy. We are demanding that the anti-democratic and racist nature of nationalism, citizenship law and borders is not self-evident, that it is both challengeable and replaceable, and that the notion that it is ancient is ahistorical. We are stating our refusal to consent to these institutions, expressing our commitment to their abolition, and demanding that they be replaced with new systems of democratic, anti-racist political and civic inclusion. To say the border is a lie is to spit truth in the face of power.

Immigration Reform or Revolution?

The idea of unconditionally open international borders, and entirely free migration across them, faces a great deal of resistance. Resistance comes, not only from the right,1 but from those on the left who may support the notion, but fear that vociferous advocacy for border abolition will sabotage the hopes of incremental reform by stoking a xenophobia that empowers its opponents.2 It is true that if we advocate for the abolition of migration restrictions, we may fail to reach our goal. But if we refuse to advocate for them at all, we are certain never to. The surest way to kill radical change is to stay silent about radical ideas. Border abolitionism needs more than just sympathizers, it needs proponents unafraid to make themselves spokespersons. As Rosa Luxemburg, the nineteenth century Jewish-Polish Marxist, pointed out, it matters tremendously whether we voice support for reform or revolution.

In Rosa Luxemburg’s 1899 pamphlet Reform or Revolution?, she challenged the moderatism of Eduard Bernstein, a Marxist contemporary of Luxemburg’s who believed that capitalism could be overcome through incremental reform.3 Luxemburg’s chief admonition in the pamphlet was that reform, when accepted as the means to a revolutionary end, risks becoming the end goal itself. The danger of the revolutionary who embraces moderate incrementalism is that they become moderates who disavow revolution. 

Our program becomes not the realization of socialism, but the reform of capitalism; not the suppression of the system of wage labor, but the dimunation of exploitation, that is, the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of the suppression of capitalism itself.4

Those resisting any form of oppression, not just capitalism, should hearken to Luxemburg’s warning. It raises salient questions for those struggles against oppressive systems in which structural change feels further away than ever and there is anxiety about alienating moderates: should we engage with the project of that system’s reform, or should we endorse its abolition? 

Luxemburg’s question seems always to be hanging in the air for those of us who support the opening or abolition of national borders. Must we choose between incremental “immigration reform,” and a real right to migrate? A few have come forward as notable carriers of the open-borders banner, such as New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo.5 There may be many more who, though silent, have been asking themselves Luxemburg’s question— closet border abolitionists who would tomorrow protect migration as the inalienable right of all, but do not think it politically acceptable to say so today. That was the kind of socialist Luxemburg was speaking to in her pamphlet, and that is the kind of “immigrant rights advocate” I want to speak to here: the person who wants to endorse an open border, but fears doing so. I hope Rosa will give that person a reason to participate in an anti-border revolution that needs their voice.

Reform is Sisyphean

Consider Rosa’s point that reform is Sisyphean. Luxemburg characterizes efforts to reform capitalism, such as labor unions, as labors of Sisyphus in that the incremental changes they achieve are often rolled back by the inherent injustices in the capitalist system that remains despite reforms.6  Luxemburg acknowledges that reforms like unions, while necessary to saving lives, are insufficient to eliminate systemic oppression. 

The problem with reforming an immigration law is that merely changing the way we exclude people fails to challenge the notion that the state has the right to exclude people at all. This concession keeps the inherent injustice of exclusion intact, justifying future revocations of otherwise progressive reforms. As author Natasha King points out about amnesties, a reform commonly thought of by progressives as a step forward, they historically accomplish little more than justifying tighter restrictions after they are passed.7 The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was a progressive reform for its time (among other things, it eliminated explicitly racist grounds for deportation)8 but by 1996 a host of new exclusionary rules made the law much more restrictive,9 among them measures that would grow the migrant prison camp system under each successive President.10 In 1979, 2,000 people were imprisoned on immigration charges on a given day in the United States, a number that has risen steadily over the decades and is today over 52,000.11 In 2013 congress seriously debated an “immigration reform” bill establishing lawful status for millions living without it12 – but today it is debating bills taking away legal status from many who have enjoyed it for decades.13

Changes that allow some to enter but fail to establish an inalienable right to migrate for all, are only temporary. Within them lies the seed of their undoing because they reinforce the idea that the nation state has the authority to discriminate on account of birthplace and ancestry. Our unwillingness to identify an open border as our goal concedes authority to the lies that undergird the immigration system’s brutality – that the state has the right to exclude and that no one has a right to migrate. Without abolition, we lose the war before we can even win the battle. 

Borders are Anti-Democratic

The fight to destroy the border is the fight to save democracy. Luxemburg dismisses Bernstein’s notion that democracy and capitalism are compatible. “He who renounces the struggle for socialism, renounces both the labor movement and democracy.”14 Here, Luxemburg challenged the notion that inherently oppressive systems can coexist with the principals of equality and personal liberty that characterize democracy.

A closed border, and the presuppositions that enforce its closure, must be called out as incompatible with democracy today. As other movements against other forms of oppression have recognized, excluding any group of people from an allegedly democratic order means we have no democracy at all. 15 The conventional view is that “democracy requires a bounded polity whose members exercise self-determination including control over their own boundaries.” 16 But some, like academics Nandita Sharma, Bridget Anderson, Cynthia Wright17 and Arash Abizadeh,18 have pointed out an inherent contradiction between maintaining a democratic order based on equality and personal freedom on the one hand, and the brutal social caste and deportation which the conventional “bounded polity” demands on the other. “Anyone who accepts a genuinely democratic theory of political legitimation domestically,” Abizadeh writes, “is thereby committed to rejecting the unilateral domestic right to control and close the state’s boundaries.”19 The only true democratic order is one in which no border exists to diminish the rights and liberties of some. This understanding is missing from most mainstream “immigrant rights” conversations, who limit themselves to practical or moral arguments against migration restrictions,20 and lack the insight of Luxemburg’s exhortation that the survival of democracy is itself on the line. 

Because democracy itself is endangered, Luxemburg’s other democratic point is that the fight against capitalism is not just about the liberation of workers. Similarly, the fight against the border is not just about the liberation of migrants. The right to migrate is no more reserved for those migrating than, say, the right to free speech is only for those speaking – like all rights if they are not ensured for those invoking them today, they will not exist for those who must call upon them tomorrow. “Immigrant” and “refugee” are identities assigned randomly by geography and time – any one of us could find ourselves tomorrow outside our state of citizenship fleeing violence, chasing work, or pulled by love. As they say, our liberation is bound up with the liberation of others. Border abolition is a fight for liberty itself, against the idea of caste itself, and none of us can be whole or truly free until that fight is won. 

Reform is for the Privileged 

Those of us who are safe have no authority to ask those in danger to wait for safety. Luxemburg describes Bernstein as out of touch with workers, and unfit to speak for them.21  She is reminding us that privilege is relevant to the moral authority with which one resists change. The privileged person who is not affected by immigration restrictions possesses questionable moral authority to oppose border abolition. I have no place asking those imprisoned because of where they were born to wait for liberty; I cannot ask the parent who seeks through movement to improve the lot of their children to wait for better lives; and it is indefensible for me, from my safe position, to ask those fleeing violence to wait for safety. 

The right to migrate is a right precisely because it commands with urgency a freedom which must be ensured now. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., making the abolitionist argument against American apartheid, condemned calls to wait for farer political weather, reminding the privileged that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”22 The privileged citizen will advocate for the end of migration controls of every kind, or that person will ally themselves with the violence of deportation – but there is no middle ground. These are the high stakes Luxemburg is asking her readers to own.

Borders are not Sustainable

Closed borders are also not sustainable. One of Luxemburg’s primary reasons for rejecting Bernstein’s incrementalism was her disagreement with his view that capitalism could be improved upon, that is, made politically sustainable. Luxemburg believed capitalism was inherently self-destructive, no matter how much this or that reform allegedly softened its edges. Bernstein argued that capitalism could manage its own internal contradictions, and the modern acceptance of closed borders asks us to believe the same. But as discussed above, there is an inherent contradiction between maintaining a society in which democracy and equality are supposed to be bedrock principles and surrounding that society with a border that creates a sub-class of human beings who are not equal and cannot participate in that democracy. Eventually one of those forces begins to destroy the other. 

The unsustainability of these inherent contradictions of exclusionary institutions like borders, and even citizenship itself, is something Hannah Arendt pointed out in her 1954 work The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt argued that immigration and citizenship law inevitably create a population of rightless “stateless” individuals, who lack even the right to have rights.23 She wrote that the lack of status for members of this group inevitably becomes corrosive to the entire democratic integrity of the society.24 Arendt identified the rightless legal status of political refugees as among the conditions in post-First World War Europe that facilitated the rise of totalitarianism there: 

Once a number of stateless people were admitted to an otherwise normal country, statelessness spread like a contagious disease. Not only were naturalized citizens in danger of reverting to the status of statelessness, but living conditions for all aliens markedly deteriorated.25

The longer we have normalized and accepted closed borders, the greater danger they have posed to the liberty of both non-citizens and citizens alike, as Arendt predicted. 

The exclusionary treatment of non-citizens has only deepened from the time that exclusion was accepted as law. Closed borders are themselves an historically recent phenomenon barely older than Coca Cola – there were effectively no federal immigration laws in the United States prior to 1875,26 and not even any U.S. border patrol until 1924.27 As author Teresa Hayter reminds us of migration restrictions, “[f]ar from being a natural feature of the political landscape, they are a relatively recent and disastrous distortion of it.“28 Yet the first closed borders of the late nineteenth century have given us fortress Europe and the mass carceral-deportation machine of Obama and Trump. Where once people crossed painlessly from country to country, now thousands die annually attempting to cross the deserts of North America and the seas of Europe. The number held in prison camps only rises with the passing of time. By the time Reagan was president, the open door of Ellis Island was politically unimaginable, but by the time Trump was president the same could be said of Reagan’s 1986 amnesty. Each new brutality justifies the next, more severe incarnation of violence.  

But the liberty of citizens has also fared worse as the brutality against non-citizens has escalated. Today, citizens can be jailed for decades just for giving water or comfort to people who dare transgress the inviolable border.29 The history of the law that criminalizes such aid and comfort is demonstrative of this escalation – originally passed in 1917, it became a felony in 1952, and the penalty for its violation was increased in 1994, 1996 and 2004 respectively.30  It is difficult to ignore the correlation between harsher treatment of migrating people and the erosion of liberty generally. Consider how democratic institutions and independent judiciaries have been weakened in the United States, Poland, and Hungary by parties and leaders carried into power on the popularity of their xenophobic platforms.31 Just as Marxists warn that capitalism would in time collapse into greater suffering, borderism too is collapsing into an anti-democratic, illiberal order. 

From an Arendtian perspective, no reform can overcome these internal contradictions, so none can make the border sustainable. 

The Revolution

None of these insights mean, however, that settling in the abolitionist camp precludes support for reformist measures. Luxemburg acknowledged that we can and should pursue reform consistent with abolitionist goals, as long as revolution remains the goal and not mere reform.32 This is also how Angela Davis has positioned reform within the prison abolitionist movement, instructing that “[w]e support reforms that will make life more livable for prisoners, while we call for the abolition of prisons as the default solution for the social problems that prison presumes to solve but cannot.”33 The pursuit of revolution requires us to support reform measures whose goals and rhetoric are consistent with abolition, and with the understanding that incremental changes – like “comprehensive immigration reform” – are not goals. The end of those exclusionary forces that preserve privilege for some at the expense of others’ dignity – all migration restrictions, and yes, citizenship and nationalism as we know them today – are the kind of immigration revolution that is fit to be our goal. If the opportunity should arise to make, say, asylum less restrictive on the path to that goal, we should seize the chance to save lives, but only while acknowledging that justice is nevertheless delayed and denied. As No One is Illegal activist Harsha Walia put it, “[w]e aim for campaigns with short-term goals that are not fundamentally at odds with – but rather advance and strengthen – our long-term vision of naming and transforming the root causes of injustice.”34

Demanding revolution rather than reform also demands vocal advocacy. Borders have, through normalization, calcified into a hard boundary around our moral and political imaginations. Other progressives need your voice to hear that a borderless world is possible. Be open with friends and colleagues about your position, write op-eds, go on the record. When you’re told why a borderless world won’t work, do ask how well borders, and the countless lives they claim, are working today. Talk about the right to migrate like it’s real, and the borders like they’re fiction, because both are. Match the outrage your views will inevitably stoke in your opponents. You are right to lose patience with tinkering around the edges of the border’s brutality, and with groveling for crumbs of justice: Family-based visas reduce to a privilege for the few what should be the right of all, and asylum amounts only to exclusive access to freedom —the opposite of a right to migrate. Partial justice is not justice. Our tolerance of it only undermines progress and exonerates injustice. 

Many fear that unapologetic advocacy for border abolition stokes conservative or fascist backlash and some may even blame that advocacy for undermining democracy for this reason. Their fear may be justified, but their blame is misplaced. Xenophobia, like fascism, does not need provocation to fuel its lust for brutality, and it alone is to blame for its violence. Consider the popular far right labeling of any immigration policy that isn’t indiscriminate deportation as “open borders.” A “backlash” describes some aggressive rhetorical or political movement, and we are already faced with that. As I discuss above, despite decades of timid proposals like DACA, or perhaps because of them, the far-right’s escalation of violence against migrating people has only become more aggressive, and more popular, not less. Far right ideologies cannot be appeased or met half-way, that only emboldens and legitimizes them. They must be fought and resisted, and provocation is ideal for triggering confrontations in which this fighting can commence. Mohandas Gandhi’s quip “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” is a good summary of how social justice movements from Selma to South Africa have used the provocation of oppressive institutions to ultimately destroy them. As xenophobia pushes increasingly violent and anti-democratic policies, the incompatibility between democracy and borders will become more transparent and the moral necessity for free migration will become more obvious. Perhaps that is why Bryan Caplan’s new graphic novel “Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration,” the first book on the New York Times bestseller list to push open borders,35 has proven itself so popular – not in spite of but precisely because of the political era in which it has been released. 

Abolition of the current system will not come without a fight, which is another point not lost on Rosa Luxemburg, herself imprisoned and eventually murdered for her ideas. Our willingness to so publicly struggle will build momentum, and eventually, a movement. Waiting until the political terrain is right for border abolition ensures it will never garner further support. Rosa Luxemburg understood this. More of us need to. 

The Practice of Immigration Law as Manumission

I do not want to equate the evil of chattel slavery with the evil of immigration restrictions. They may or may not be equal in one person’s experience or another’s, but I am not out to make a claim one way or another. I want to avoid at all costs what Elizabeth Martinez terms an “oppression Olympics,”1 referring to the weighing of which group is more or less oppressed than another such that the comparison succeeds in turning oppressed people against each other, which is of course a win for the oppressor. All I want to do here is re-frame the moral context of immigration law practice by way of analogy to the practice of manumission law in centuries past.

I. Manumission Law and Immigration Law

During the centuries that chattel slavery persisted in the Americas, there existed also in many jurisdictions the law of “manumission,” or the emancipation of a person from status as a slave through legal means, such as by purchasing or contracting for their freedom from their owner, or having it granted to them by their owner’s will and testament, making them a “free person.”2 Sometimes this involved slave owners asking a tribunal to manumit the human beings they themselves owned,3 but in other contexts it involved enslaved people directly asking the court to allow themselves to be manumitted,4 sometimes with representation by counsel.5 It is this latter scenario of self-manumission through an advocate that we’re referring to here – where an advocate argued on behalf of an enslaved person for their freedom.

The practice of immigration law6 is the lawful application for enhanced liberty or rights for individuals without U.S. Citizenship, before and against a government agency designed to restrict their liberty and their right to have rights, as Hannah Arendt put it.7 The immigration law practitioner petitions a government officer or judge for their recognition of a human being’s right to move, work and survive. This is to say, the non-citizen, through their immigration lawyer, asks the government officer or judge for permission to be treated as a full human being; put even more simply, a non-citizens asks the government, through counsel, to recognize their humanity.

The same law that affords the non-citizen the ability to petition for this recognition and permission is the same law that endows that officer or judge with the unchallenged power to dismember families, crush freedom and sentence deportees to death. Just as the enslaved person asked for their freedom on the authority of their owner’s will or contract – the same owner with the power to end their family, their freedom or their life. But, without comparing the degree of dehumanization or the frequency of torture and murder visited upon human beings within either of these institutions, what other aspects of them appear comparable?

In both instances the law afforded a narrow route of escape (albeit with limited rights to the escapee) from the institution. In both instances a legal advocate, a lawyer, had to work within the laws of the time and make arguments based on those laws and the assumptions that undergird them – seeking relief from the same power that presumed the authority to destroy their client. In both instances, engaging in this kind of advocacy against the institution did not actually challenge the institution’s authority or legitimacy, but rather reinforced them.8 Certainly it failed/fails to challenge but reinforces the artifice of white supremacy. In both cases the advocacy nonetheless enhanced the liberty of individual people on a case-by-case basis

One author describes manumission this way: “Slaves used the law designed essentially to keep them as slaves to win their freedom, and free people of color used the law to maintain and often to fight vigorously to safeguard their liberty.”9 Replace “slaves” with “undocumented people” and the former part of this explanation could easily describe removal defense and bond hearings while the latter could just as easily describe applications for legal permanent residence or naturalization.

II. Moral Tension

Another way in which the practice of manumission is comparable to the practice of immigration law is that neither was/is devoid of moral ambiguity. In each case well-meaning people were working within an institution they may have fundamentally disagreed with or even hated. In doing so they obeyed the rules of that institution and called upon the authority of the slave owner’s ownership to manumit, and thus arguably kowtowed to its authority, thereby legitimizing and reinforcing it. In this sense they were to some degree complicit in the crimes of the institution itself. When we ask the government today to give a person relief from deportation or detention, we imply that we agree that the government has the authority to destroy that person’s life; inasmuch as we appeal to a power, we also consent to it.

But at the same time, there’s a strong moral argument that an attorney’s practice of manumission law to secure a client’s freedom was necessary for a simple reason: it saved lives. It did require a lawyer to play by the rules of slavery, but practically it also saved the lives of individual human beings, shielding them from torture, murder and rape – just as deportation defense often does today.10 Ultimately manumission won an individual person’s liberty (or at least reduced their level of bondage11), albeit without injuring or truly challenging the evil institution from which they were liberated. The same can be said of the practice of immigration law today – like manumission before it, it may be necessary to save lives.

Historian Jessica Millward, in her article discussing how enslaved women used manumission laws to gain their freedom, describes this moral tension:

Manumissions were granted on an individual basis and never jeopardized the balance of power, which positioned the laws of the slaveholding South as an omnipresent force in the lives of African Americans. After all, manumission laws were slaveholders’ laws, and any space left for a slave to gain freedom through them was a loophole, not an open door. However, the ability to negotiate one’s manumission and that of one’s kin became a very important vehicle of resistance for enslaved women.12

As immigration lawyers, especially in the world of public interest law, we take enormous emotional shelter in the perception that we are on the just side of a war between right and wrong, and with good reason – we are. But we do not enough acknowledge the moral tension Millward describes in the context of manumission, where that tension is more obvious: we are doing the right thing, yes, but in a context that is so wrong that any proximity to it at all puts us closer than we want to be to culpability. As such that proximity deserves our scrutiny and critical thoughtfulness.

So this comparison is not to say that a lawyer’s practice of manumission or immigration law was/is evil in and of themselves; rather manumission practice, like immigration practice, could be a necessary vehicle of resistance (to use Millward’s words) when and inasmuch as it becomes a necessary intervention to save lives and protect people from harm. This comparison prompts us to conclude that their practice does not by itself satisfy the moral responsibility of the practitioner. Such a practice is necessary, but insufficient. It was not enough for a lawyer to advocate for the manumission of individuals during a time when the terrorism of slavery thrived – rather the minimum level of moral responsibility required that they call for the abolition of slavery as an institution.

Thus, like legal manumitters before them, it is not enough for immigration lawyers to practice the law – we must be abolitionists. It is morally insufficient to fall somewhere in the middle or to fail to take that position. And it is in that sense too that these two areas of law are analogous – not in the depth of the cruelty of the institution that they were a part of – no oppression Olympics please – but in their failure of each in and of themselves to be morally adequate conduct on the part of the practitioner in each of their respective contexts.

For both the manumitter advocate and the immigration lawyer, it is a failure of their moral imagination to believe that their responsibility ends with their legal work. Our duty does not end with advocacy on behalf of someone’s life or liberty, but with calling for the abolition of the institution that threatens them in the first place. Our job may begin with filing a Notice of Appearance, but it ends only with speaking out in favor of abolishing the border.13


1 Martinez, Elizabeth. 1993. “Beyond Black/White: The Racisms of our Times.” Social Justice 20 (1/2): 22–34.
2See, e.g., Michael P. Mills, Slave Law in Mississippi from 1817-1861: Constitutions, Codes and Cases, 71 Miss. L.J. 153, 184-188 (2001); Andrew Kull, Restitution in Favor of Former Slaves, Symposium: The Jurisprudence of Slavery Reparations, 84 B.U.L. Rev. 1277-78, 1280-81, 1286 (Dec. 2004); Warran T. Burns, Book Review: Judith Kelleher Schafer, Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846-1862, 78 Tul. L. Rev. 2339, 2340 (“slaves nevertheless continued to enter into contracts for self-purchase during the antebellum period”).
3 A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. & F. Michael Higginbothom, “Yearning to Breathe Free”: Legal Barriers Against and Options in Favor of Liberty in Antebellum Virginia, 68 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1213, 1255 (Dec. 1993); Michael P. Mills, Slave Law in Mississippi from 1817-1861: Constitutions, Codes and Cases, 71 Miss. L.J. 153, 184-188 (2001).
4 See Warran T. Burns, Book Review: Judith Kelleher Schafer, Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846-1862, 78 Tul. L. Rev. 2339, 2340 (“slaves in Louisiana had the right to bring suits for their freedom in their individual capacities . . .”); A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. & F. Michael Higginbothom, “Yearning to Breathe Free”: Legal Barriers Against and Options in Favor of Liberty in Antebellum Virginia, 68 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1213, 1260-61 (Dec. 1993).
5 See Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad 42, 133 (2015).
6 I don’t use this phrase here to refer to attorneys who work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Citizenship and Immigration Service – although they are practicing immigration law as well, inasmuch as a lawyer representing a slave state in opposition to an enslaved persons request for manumission could be said to have been practicing manumission law.
7 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, new edition 296 (1968).
8 This is probably not the case with federal impact litigators who might challenge an immigration law on constitutional grounds, for example, since they may be challenging the institution itself, just as, say, the 13th Amendment did to slavery, or Brown v. Board of Education did to slavery’s later incarnation, Jim Crow.
9 Judith Kelleher Schafer, Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans at xiii (Jan. 2003).
10 In truth, the lawyer defending the person from deportation does not “save” that person – but merely engages in a partnership in which the non-citizen saves themselves through that partnership, and the same can be said for any attorney who defended an enslaved person against a nineteenth century tribunal.
11 Manumission did not restore a former slave to full human being-status – they could still face violence and discrimination and in some jurisdiction could be re-enslaved to pay off their owners debts. Likewise, a non-citizen may win Legal Permanent Residence before an immigration court, but could still be deported if they commit a crime or engage in any number of other actions.
12 Jessica Millward, The Relics of Slavery: Interracial Sex and Manumission in the American South, Frontiers: A J. of Women Studies, Vol. 31, No. 3 (2010), pp. 22-30, at 26.
13 And when I say abolishing the border I mean abolishing the border.

The Immigrant Has a Right to Compete for Your Job

Many economic arguments have been made for why the non-citizen should be permitted to work in the United States. Many have argued that immigrants don’t compete materially with American for jobs, that they only compete with very “low-skilled” U.S. citizens for jobs, or only suppress wages by marginal and ultimately insignificant amounts, or that, regardless of competing slightly for already existing jobs, migrating people also create jobs and economic growth anyway, offsetting any competition.[i] Even I have made these arguments.[ii] But all of these arguments, while compelling and true, miss the point: it really doesn’t matter if immigrants compete with U. S. citizens for jobs- because the jobs in the U.S. do not belong to Americans – they belong to everyone because everyone has a right to survive.

The Right to Work Follows From the Right to Life, Despite Racist Law

The right to life is recognized under both American[iii] and international law.[iv] Unfortunately, the law does not recognize, either domestically[v] or internationally,[vi] that the right to life means the right to cross a border to access the means of survival, such as employment.[vii] Nonetheless, if people have a right to live, and people need to work to live, it follows that people have a right to work. So, while the right of all people to compete for the same job does not follow legally – it does follow logically and morally. The law, as is so often the case, just hasn’t caught up to the morality yet. But the law has not caught up to the morality yet because, while the right to work may follow morally, it does not follow politically.

It does not follow politically because it does not follow racially. White supremacy is naturally opposed to truly color blind and nationality blind, work opportunity. The artifice of white supremacy that says locus of birth dictates whether or not you have a right to survival, long ago found an expression in the law. This vehicle of expression is called the plenary power doctrine.

Like many platforms for white supremacy (e.g., the war the drugs[viii]), the plenary power doctrine hides behind ostensibly race-neutral concepts. On its face the plenary power doctrine says that a nation state is sovereign, meaning it has a right to self-determination, and therefore has a virtually unconditional right to exclude any non-citizen it wants from its territory, for whatever reason it wants, when and (more or less) however it wants.[ix] While generally, the constitution and its protections attach to any person in U.S. territory,[x] the doctrine still effectively allows Congress to eject non-citizens and especially “undocumented” non-citizens from that territory or deprive them of equal treatment basically, willy nilly.[xi] Practically, this means sovereignty absolves our society from any moral duty whatsoever to any human being that is not a citizen of the nation state. In other words, it exploits and abuses the idea of self-determination to vanquish totally the humanity of any human life that is not a citizen. Since citizenship is traditionally tied to race and nationality, and is, I would argue, an unalterably racialized idea,[xii] the ability of this sovereign-supremacy doctrine to serve white-supremacy should be obvious.

The reader may disagree that nationality is an inherently racist idea, but that does not change my moral obligation to call a fig a fig. It is impossible for me to ignore that the practical function of nationality is to allow different rules to apply to different people based on an assigned national label; a label which is itself defined by immutable (e.g., locus of birth, lineage) or non-meritorious traits (e.g., language or religion) – in a word, racism. It is a means to rationalize violence. In an employment context, economic violence.

Actually, Supreme Court Justice David Josiah Brewer, in a dissenting opinion from a late nineteenth century case that discussed the plenary power doctrine, made a not entirely dissimilar criticism of the doctrine than that one I am making right now:

It is said that the power here asserted is inherent in sovereignty. This doctrine of powers inherent in sovereignty is one both indefinite and dangerous. Where are the limits to such powers to be found, and by whom are they to be pronounced? Is it within legislative capacity to declare the limits? If so, then the mere assertion of an inherent power creates it, and despotism exists. May the courts establish the boundaries? Whence do they obtain the authority for this? Shall they took to the practices of other nations to ascertain the limits? The governments of other nations have elastic powers. Ours are fixed and bounded by a written constitution. The expulsion of a race may be within the inherent powers of a despotism. History, before the adoption of this constitution, was not destitute of examples of the exercise of such a power; and its framers were familiar with history, and wisely, and it seems to me, they gave to this government no general power to banish. Banishment may be resorted to as punishment for crime; but among the powers reserved to the people, and not delegated to the government, is that of determining whether whole classes in our midst shall, for no crime but that of their race and birthplace, be driven from our territory.[xiii]

Indeed, the idea that the plenary power doctrine is anything other than a racialized effort to diminish the humanity of others via banishment is belied by the very case law that articulated the doctrine. The seminal cases on the plenary power doctrine, Nishimura Eiku v. U.S.,[xiv] and Fong Yue Ting v. U.S.,[xv] were failed efforts to challenge the Chinese Exclusion Acts, explicitly racist exclusionary laws that prohibited Asian immigration. That the U.S. Supreme Court used an ostensibly race-neutral doctrine to procure an unambiguously racist result that upheld an equally racist law makes suspect the allegation that the doctrine is race-neutral and reveals the true motivation behind the doctrine and the Supreme Court decisions that kept it law.

Nonetheless, today the plenary power doctrine is the legal foundation of the federal government’s power to restrict immigration and permit discrimination, such as restricting which benefits non-citizens may receive, including work opportunity.[xvi] In this way the plenary power doctrine is the most powerful legal tool for protecting (white/american) privileged access to jobs and obstructing the right to life and survival for non-citizens. The argument that marginalized group A is “taking” the work that hegemonic group B has a superior right to is not new. It was wielded against black citizens and citizen women to exclude them from work as well. This exclusion not only gave white men privileged access to wages but also generated a source of cheap labor. As Aviva Chomsky notes in her book They Take Our Jobs!: And 20 Other Myths About Immigration, marginalizing a group of people, be it women or blacks, provided a cheap source of labor for white men, just as marginalizing immigrants does now:

For centuries, the United States and other industrialized countries have institutionalized inequalities by granting rights to some people but not to others. People without rights may be slaves, they may be colonial subjects, they may be racial and ethnic minorities, or they may be immigrants . . . In all cases, though, governments have made sure that there are people without rights to fulfill buisness’s need for cheap workers and high profits.[xvii]

Making the immigrant’s right to work less than the citizen’s right performed the same function today as it did before – shutting out equal opportunity of some group performs the dual purpose of both hoarding wages for the privileged few and creating a cheap source of labor to benefit them. That kind of privilege is just a rationale for brutality.

American Jobs Belong to the World

If everyone has the right to compete for jobs regardless of locus of birth and nationality than no one’s right is superior to anyone else’s. The non-citizen with permission to work is not morally superior to the non-citizen without that permission. They are not more deserving, they are not more accomplished, and they can prove no greater claim to the opportunity. The employment authorization card is issued without the moral authority to issue it: No one should need another person’s permission to survive. To propose that any person or institution has the right to give that permission is an argument against equality. Either everyone who needs to work has the right to work, or no one does.

To horde your local work opportunity for yourself is not just racist – it is also selfish. It is an act of destructive hedonism, a victory for shameless narcissism. The person who endorses “our jobs, not theirs” must admit they enrich themselves at the expense of another. They embrace an amoral, me-first universe and spit on the golden rule. There is no dignifying the law of the plenary power doctrine – it is the mindless law of the jungle masquerading as jurisprudence. Its true purpose is for “determining whether whole classes in our midst shall, for no crime but that of their race and birthplace, be driven from our territory.”

The jobs in the United States belong to the world, to the nation of Humanity, not just to the tribe of Americans. You may insist that you have a superior right to compete for that job in your neighborhood because you accomplished the dumb task of being born closer to it than someone else, but you would be wrong. Of course immigrants bring jobs, but that’s irrelevant because they have a right to compete for existing jobs. Will you lose a job if an immigrant is hired in your place? Of course you will, that’s how sharing works. That’s what equality looks like. Does that mean you may have a duty to make sacrifices so that others might live? Yes, that’s how morality works. Henry David Thoreau, making an argument against slavery that could easily double as an argument against work restrictions, once put it thusly:

If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. . . But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. These people must cease to hold slaves . . . though it cost them their existence as a people.[xviii]

Morally, it doesn’t matter if immigrants produce jobs, because they also have a right to compete for your job and my job. No non-citizen can take your job, in fact, because it isn’t yours. But if you are someone who insists on the contrary, curmudgeon myth, for as long as you insist on it, as an immigration lawyer I will insist on aiding as many people as possible to survive by helping them get work permission in the United States – as far and as often as the law allows me. I will work hard to pry what is not yours from your stubborn, selfish hands.

[i] See, e.g, Alex Nowrasteh, “Immigrants Did Not Take Your Job” (Nov. 2, 2012); Sari Pekkala Kerr & Willian R. Kerr, “Economic Impacts of Immigration: A Survey,” Harvard Business School (2008, 2011), available at; Tanvi Misra, “Immigrants Aren’t Stealing American Jobs,” The Atlantic (Oct. 21, 2015), available at; Adam Davidson, “Debunking the Myth of the Job-Stealing Immigrant,” The New York Times (March 24, 2015), available at

[ii] Steven Sacco, “In Defense of the Eligible Undocumented New Yorker’s State Constitutional Right to Public Benefits,” 40 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Soc. Change 181, 228 (2016).

[iii] Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S.Ct. 2584 (2015) (noting the “life, liberty or property” formulation articulated in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has its roots in the Magna Carta, which included the “right to life.”)

[iv] Art. 6 of the International Covenant on Social and Political Rights. (“Every human being has an inherent right to life”); UN Doc. HRI\GEN\1\Rev.1 at 6 (1982)(“[The Right to Life] is the supreme right from which no derogation is permitted even in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation . . . It is a right which should not be interpreted narrowly”).

[v] Harisiades v. Shaughnessy, 342 U.S. 590 (1953) (Douglas dissenting)(The power of Congress to exclude, admit, or deport aliens flows from sovereignty itself and from the power ‘To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization’. U.S. Cnst., Art. I, s 8, cl. 4. The power of deportation is therefore an implied one. The right to life and liberty is an express one. Why this implied power should be given priority over the express guarantee of the Fifth Amendment has never been satisfactorily answered.”)

[vi] While international law recognizes a righto work (See art. 6(1) of the International Convenient on Economic Social and Cultural Rights) international law does not also recognize the right to cross a border to fulfill that right to work See International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families. (Describing nowhere in the document any right to cross a border for the protection of life, other than the right to seek asylum, which is itself very narrow).  See Also art. 12 on the International Covenant on Social and Political Rights. (ensuring a right to leave one’s country, but no corollary right to enter another has been interpreted). See, e.g., the similar right to leave under the European Convention on Human rights: A.E. v. Poland, No. 14480/04 (31 March 2009), at ¶ 46 (“reiterates that Article 2 of Protocol No. 4 guarantees to any person a right to liberty of movement, including the right to leave any country for another country to which he or she may be admitted”).

[vii] See Supra, Notes 5 and 6.

[viii] See, e.g., Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prison, Torture and Empire Interviews (2005); Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness (2010);

[ix] Nishimura Eiku v. U.S., 142 U.S. 651, at 659 (1892)(“It is an accepted maxim of international law that every sovereign nation has the power, as inherent in sovereignty, and essential to self-preservation, to forbid the entrance of foreigners within its dominions, or to admit them only in such cases and upon such conditions as it may see fit to prescribe”).

[x] See, Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 369 (1886)( The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution is not confined to the protection of citizens. . . These provisions are universal in their application to all persons within the territorial jurisdiction); But See Lewis v. Thompson, 252 F.3d 567, 582 (2d Cir. 2001)(finding that a lower standard of review is appropriate for review of laws that discriminate between documented and undocumented people when the law says what federal immigration authorities may and may not do); Mathews v. Diaz, 426 U.S. 67 (1976).

[xi] See, supra, notes 9 and 10.


[xiii] Fong Yue Ting v. U.S., 149 U.S. 698, 737-8 (Brewer Dissenting).

[xiv] Nishimura Eiku v. U.S., 142 U.S. 651, at 659 (1892).

[xv] Fong Yue Ting v. U.S., 149 U.S. 698, 728 (1893)(“For the reasons stated in the earlier part of this opinion, congress, under the power to exclude or expel aliens, might have directed any Chinese laborer found in the United States without a certificate of residence to be removed out of the country . . .”)

[xvi] See Mathews v. Diaz, 426 U.S. 67 (1976).

[xvii] Aviva Chomsky, They Take Our Jobs!: And 20 Other Myths About Immigration (2007), at page 27.

[xviii] Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” (1849).

Damn Our Euphemisms: Who is the Accomplice to Murder in Dilley, Texas?

[CONTENT/TOPIC WARNING: Descriptions of violence, conflict, confinement. Strong moral exhortations and confrontational questions. Please be prepared when reading.]

I have said before, and I will keep saying: forcing people to return to violence they have escaped is an open endorsement of that violence, a collusion with their persecutor back home and a joining of the open threat on their lives.

Every year the U.S. mass-exile system forces thousands of people to return to war zones and other dangerous places where they may be and sometimes are murdered with impunity.1 Some of those deported are children. Nowhere is this more true than in Central American states like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where a toxic brew of corruption, organized crime and neo-colonial fallout have generated ubiquitous violence and the highest murder rates in the world.2 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) returns many immigrants from Central America to these same states where they are being hunted. You could say they are delivered into the hands of their killers – that their murder is enabled, even assisted, by their deportation, by their deporters.

One study found that between January 2014 and September 2015 eighty-three deportees who were sent back to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador were murdered after their return.3 They were people fleeing the killers who eventually took their lives. People like José Marvin Martínez, who fled violence in Honduras and made it to the U.S. when he was 16, but was deported and four months after his forcible return was shot to death.4 Or Juan Francisco Diaz, also deported back to Honduras, where he too was murdered a few months later.5 Or Giovanni Miranda, who, after spending most of his life in the U.S., was deported to El Salvador to be murdered in front of his wife and son in June 2015.6 Or Edgar Chocoy, 16, who ran away from a gang to the U.S. only to be murdered by that same gang seventeen days after he was deported back to Guatemala in 2004.7 Or an unnamed teenager who was shot to death hours after being deported back to San Pedro Sula, Honduras.8 Moises, 19, was murdered after he was deported to El Salvador.9 And there are too many more names we’ll never know.

What’s more, the number of deportees delivered directly to their killers does not include those who survive attempted murder or other violence because of their deportation – a number no one knows. Isais Sosa, who was 19 when the Los Angeles Times covered his story in 2014, survived being shot by a gang days after his deportation.10 The 19 year old daughter of Dora Lina Meza fled to the U.S. from the same gang that, after she was deported back home, raped her at gun point.11 After Juan Ines Alanis was deported he was kidnapped and held for ransom while his fingers were smashed with a hammer.12

The use of euphemism is a common tactic for masking brutality. Many have discussed the use of “bureaucratic euphemisms” to direct attention away from acts of violence in the context of slavery,13 genocide14 and torture,15 for example. From “special resettlement” to describe the forced relocation and mass murder of millions under Stalin,16 to “sleep adjustment,” and “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe torture in the Abu Graib prison.17 “Euphemism” comes from the Greek word euphemismos, meaning to use favorable words in place of inauspicious ones,18 literally “eu” and “pheme” together mean “good talk.”19 The only reason to use favorable words to describe human suffering is to hide that suffering from yourself and others. But human beings deserve to have their “inauspicious” suffering described as accurately and directly as possible.

The process of deporting people to their death or maiming is facilitated and hidden from us through the use of euphemism. When we strip away the “auspicious” language, we’re forced to confront honestly the suffering of exiled people and our role in their fate. ICE “detains” (kidnaps20) human beings for the purpose of “deporting” (condemning) them to their “home countries” (war zones) where ICE knows that they could be “persecuted” (raped or murdered in cold blood). But while the euphemism is used to hide culpability, the fact of culpability remains. Where A knows that C will murder B if C finds B; and A kidnaps B and delivers B to C – isn’t A guilty of something? When we acknowledge that ICE knowingly facilitates the death of human beings, it makes it difficult not to assign that institution some amount of moral responsibility and culpability for their actions. The evil of euphemisms used to describe evil should be obvious: talk about violence should be direct and honest because we collude with that which we hide and keep secret. We hide and collude with the suffering of people in the mass exile system when we resort to euphemism and doublespeak.

Translating ICE’s auspicious words into their inauspicious meaning forces us to confront the reality of their injustice. In criminal law, when a person does not themselves murder someone but contributes sufficiently to someone else’s act of murder, we deem this person an accomplice or an accessory to murder. If federal agents delivered U.S. citizens directly into the hands of those who sought to harm them, this would probably be considered both criminal and unconstitutional. But as the Supreme Court admits “in the exercise of its broad power of immigration and naturalization, Congress regularly makes rules that would be unacceptable if applied to citizens.”21 The only reason we don’t recognize mass exile as the moral equivalent of an accomplice crime is because the law has decided that noncitizens are inferior to citizens and may, therefore, be treated as less than human. We protect our own conscience and accommodate this law by covering up human suffering with legal jargon that comports with the denial of human pain. This accommodation makes compliance with the law easier (e.g., “removal to your home country” instead of “deliver you to your killer”).

Let’s discuss a salient example of accomplice crime: a prison for mothers and their children in Dilley, Texas; a place where A kidnaps B and delivers B to C. Let’s talk about how criminal law would evaluate what happens at Dilley if we decided that it actually was not ok to make rules for migrants “that would be unacceptable if applied to citizens.”

The Scene of the Crime

During the week of July 5th to the 11th of 2015, I was one of many volunteer attorneys who spent a week working in the Dilley, Texas internment camp for mothers and their children,22 assisting some of the people imprisoned there with their claims for asylum and “bond” (the immigration equivalent of bail, that is, release from detention while your case is pending).

Just outside the small town of Dilley, just past a federal prison, a forest of industrial flood lights hang over the roof tops of a sprawling internment camp that someone in government has the Orwellian temerity to call the “Dilley Family Residential Center.” That name, which sounds like it might describe a nursing home or gated community, tells you that this is a place of denial and euphemism. Volunteers have compared it to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, or refer to it simply as “baby jail.” Both are accurate. It is an ICE operated, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) administered prison for 2,400 women and children – 1,046 children, in fact, 96 of whom are younger than two.23 It is a series of interconnected trailers and dormitories surrounded by twelve foot high wire fences. It is equipped with a “playground,” and “court rooms,” spartan chambers where immigration judges preside over claims via video monitor from Miami, while the woman on the other end often sits alone with a prison guard at her side, often without an attorney. No one imprisoned in Dilley has been charged with any crime. This is where people are held after their capture near the border before they are either released into the U.S. (if they’re lucky) or deported back to their home country (where, it bears repeating, they may be murdered). Future generations will scarcely believe we were so timid in our opposition to such a place that we allowed it to flourish here. This is where the accomplices hide behind lies.

Much has been written about the madness of places like Dilley, by people with far more knowledge and experience with them than I have, and you should consult these sources first for thorough descriptions of the enormous human suffering Dilley contains.24 I will relate here only two memories from Dilley because they capture the ways in which its brutality is hidden with euphemism and denial.
First, the camp’s entrance: Visitors enter this prison for toddlers and their mothers through a long, white corrugated trailer with a bland gray door. Through the door you pass through antiseptic air and metal detectors flanked by armed guards. You may not enter the facility until you are stripped of any metal or glass on your person. Cell phones are forbidden. Cameras are forbidden. Money is forbidden (although you may take in a maximum of twenty $1 bills). More revealing of Dilley’s true nature, though, are the series of paintings on the wall opposite the metal detectors. They are watercolor-like, saccharine portrayals of life behind the iron fence; people dining carelessly in a prison cafeteria, happy children sitting in a classroom that’s behind bars. Think Norman Rockwell goes to hell. I mention them because they are a visual euphemism – an obnoxious and clumsy effort to convince us that this is a place suitable for human beings; an incredulous invitation to believe there can be happiness without liberty. This awkwardly placed art seems to be a disingenuous answer to a question DHS and CCA wish we would stop asking – how can it possibly be humane (or legal) to imprison whole families? It also smacks of what Vladamir Nabakov and Azar Nafisi called “poshlust,” or the banality and garishness often indicative of brutality, “the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive,”25 such as plastic flowers in a prison (or in this case, cheap paintings). The paintings reflect the mundane, humdrum mood with which Dilley personnel regard this place, a mood that evokes what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” These paintings attempt to warm the world to the idea of putting babies in prison and in so doing reveal the brutality inside.

Second, a very angry parent: At this point in history it is axiomatic to say that immigration detention camps often lack adequate healthcare for their prisoners – and the Dilley camp is no different.26 There are many stories of the people trapped there, adults and children alike, receiving inadequate medical care, or no care at all.27 In one incident, the Dilley facility endangered childrens’ health by giving them dangerously high doses of a Hepatitis A vaccine.28 Add this to humiliating living conditions (I’m told families are packed into bunk beds, in rooms less spacious than a college dormitory, with only a drawn curtain around the bed to simulate privacy, and someone has the gall to call these “suites”); add this to the persistent threats (any time ICE officials and judges remind internees about their imminent deportation they are effectively reminding them of their power to make internees suffer – in any other context we would call that a threat); also consider that many are hostages who cannot pay their ransom (ransom is a much more accurate way to describe the “bond,” $1,500 or more that when paid can ensure their release from this prison until the courts decide their fate, although not all are even eligible for bond); and you can imagine how angry a parent would be if the same people holding their son or daughter prisoner in this place also prevents them from seeing a doctor when they’re sick. Some people don’t need to imagine it. During my time at Dilley, one woman approached some of the volunteers to explain that her son had been feverish for days, that his conditioning was worsening, but that ICE or CCA or both would not release the child to a hospital. This would not be the first time volunteers called 911 for a sick detainee who was not receiving proper care. I cannot forget the rage on that parent’s face. Eyes wide, face red, her lips pursed and her bottom teeth exposed – she was as livid as I have ever seen anyone. If I was outraged, what words exist that could possibly describe how she felt? I feel compelled to talk about that person’s face because it seemed a rare moment of emotional honesty in a place where poshlust and cruel grandiloquence (“Family Residential Center,” “suites”) dominate. She described the injustice of Dilley with her face better than anyone writing about it can with words – her expression stripped away the euphemisms and lies.

So – looking behind the fantasy that those paintings want us to believe – when the people trapped in this government funded hell hole are forced to return to the places where we know they will be harmed or murdered – who is the accomplice to that harm or murder? Is it the ICE officer who physically pushes people into the airplane and forces them to board the flight back into the hands of their killer? Is it the Judge that orders the same? What about the Congress that made this cruelty law and the president who enforces it? Is it the CCA employee who conspires with them to hold that person captive for the purpose of having them forcibly sent away? Is it the guard who ensures this captivity at Dilley? Or the army of technicians, custodians and support personnel who ensure the prison functions and enables the guard? Is it the Customs and Border Protection officer who drags the parent and her child here in the first place to allow this process to begin at all? And what about the denizens of Dilley who support the facility indirectly, by delivering mail or scrubbing floors? What about the lawyers like me who, despite defending the prisoners from exile, must collaborate with this system in the process to do so? What about the taxpayers who funded this place?

Is it hyperbole to call any of these people accomplices to murder? It surely makes us uncomfortable to do so, and that discomfort is precisely what Dilley’s euphemisms are trying to make us forget or ignore. But dismissing this discomfort is dangerous because it deceives us into believing what is not true – that Dilley is anything more than a means to threaten and endanger peoples’ lives. The law of accomplice crime is an important tool for labeling accurately the cause and effect of what goes on at Dilley, even if it seems hyperbolic and especially if it makes us uncomfortable.

Accomplice Crime in Texas

Under Texas criminal law, a person “must” be found an accomplice to a murder when they “engage[] in an affirmative act that promotes the commission of the offense that the accused committed,”29 and do so “before, during, or after the offense,”30 while “intending or knowing” that their actions would “assist in causing the death” of the victim.31 To clarify, simply knowing that the murder will take place, but failing to stop it – or merely being present at the scene of the crime – are not enough to make one an accomplice.32 Rather, the person must engage in some affirmative act intending or knowing that this act will promote the victim’s death. For example, the Texas courts have said that simply disposing of a murder weapon33 or even disposing of the body after the murder,34 does not make one an accomplice to the act itself. It must be an act or omission that promotes the victim’s death.35 The standard for accomplice crime is the same, whether we’re talking about murder or robbery or any other intentional violent crime.36

Now, in criminal cases juries decide facts in the court room, and to do so properly they are given instructions by judges. Depending on the evidence, a Texas judge must instruct a jury to find that a person was an accomplice “as a matter of law,” or “as a matter of fact.”37 A jury will be instructed to find someone an accomplice as a matter of law when the evidence “clearly show[s] that the witness is an accomplice.”38 However, if it is not clear whether the individual is an accomplice, the jury must be asked to determine whether the witness is an accomplice as a matter of fact.39 For example, in one case, Mize v. State, a Texas court concluded that there was “at least” a jury question of accomplice “as a matter of fact” to the crime of robbery where the alleged accomplice drove the getaway car for the robbers and saw the robbers pointing guns at their victims.40 Here the driver’s affirmative act was driving the getaway car, it occurred immediately after the offense of robbery and the driver knew it was a robbery because he saw the guns pointed at the victims – thus, the jury and later the court found that the driver was an accomplice to the crime.41

Driving a getaway car is an apt analogy to the accomplice crime in Dilley. In Mize the driver was actively helping the robber complete their crime because without the driver’s help the robber would not be able to complete the crime. The analogy between driving the robber from the robbed and flying the murdered to the murderer – should be obvious. In a very real sense, ICE is driving the getaway car in reverse when they deliver people to their killers. Without ICE’s help, no killer hunting the deportee would be able to complete their crime. ICE facilitates the crime just like the driver in Mize. And just as the accomplice to the crime in Mize knew that he was chauffeuring around robbers because he saw the guns – ICE knows very well they’re chauffeuring Dilley captives to their death because they know the conditions in Central America, the captive has told them they fear death, and this pattern of deport-murder-repeat is not a secret to anyone. Those involved with physically holding and banishing people back to Central America, therefore, were they on trial in Texas, would at least have earned an instruction to the jury to determine whether or not they are accomplices to murder as a matter of fact.

Additionally, Texas courts have said that a person’s “consciousness of guilt” as to their facilitation of a crime, such as by fleeing the police or hiding their participation, “is perhaps one of the strongest kinds of evidence of guilt,” inasmuch as it would prompt a judge to instruct a jury to determine whether someone was an accomplice as a matter of fact.42 Do we have evidence that ICE wants to hide its participation in the kidnaping and murder of people? Yes. The euphemisms and poshlust are evidence. Why would the authorities who ordered, designed and set Dilley into motion call it a “family residential center” if they weren’t trying to hide the reality that it’s a prison? Why call it “removal” unless you’re trying to hide that it’s exile? Why decorate your prison with fake photos of happy prisoners when their real emotions are terror and rage? Why call them “suites” unless you don’t want people to know they’re cells? Do the higher ups of ICE and CCA believe that employees would find it harder to come to work if they were honest about the facility’s purpose? Does ICE assume the public would be more outraged if they used accurate words? Why hide behind a litany of misnomers if you weren’t trying to hide your own culpability? Those who bolster and entertain the use of these euphemisms let their guilt show. The circumambulation and the poshlust are efforts to hide their participation in violence, and this is evidence of their guilt as accomplices to the crimes committed again deportees. Look past the plastic flowers and you can see what Dilley really is: a crime scene.

No one who keeps Dilley running should be free from the creeping sense of shame or self-doubt. Every person who has ever been inside a place of such morally despicable character, who is not themselves its prisoner, even people like me, should be burdened with the responsibility to ask themselves, just like any Texas jury would have to ask themselves, how their actions have led to the death of other human beings and what role have they played in facilitating those deaths. These questions are the burden and the responsibility of anyone so involved. And if you’ve ever been through Dilley, close enough to it to be implicated in its crimes, then these questions are now yours– you own them. We cannot allow ourselves to assuage our consciences with words that hide the truth. Who is an accomplice to murder in Dilley, Texas? There, that question is yours now. Go live with it.

Related reading


1 See, e.g., Anna Cat-Brigida Deporting People to Their Doom in Murderous Central America, The Daily Beast, Feb. 7, 2016, (“Just last year 75,000 migrants were deported back to the Northern Triangle [Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador]”).
2 James J. Phillips, Honduras in Dangerous Times: Resistance and Resilience, at 227 (2015); Guy Taylor & Stephen Dinon, Violence Surges in Central America, Threatening New Refugee Flood, The Washington Times, Jan. 10, 2016
3 Attorney General Kamala D. Harris Joins Washington State in Filing Amicus Brief to Ensure Unaccompanied Minors are Guaranteed the Right to Counsel State of California Department of Justice Press Release, March 11, 2016; Sibylla Brodzinsky & Ed Pilkington, U.S. government deporting central American migrants to their deaths, The Guardian, Oct. 12, 2015; Anna Cat-Brigida Deporting People to Their Doom in Murderous Central America, The Daily Beast, Feb. 7, 2016
4 Sibylla Brodzinsky & Ed Pilkington, U.S. government deporting central American migrants to their deaths, The Guardian, Oct. 12, 2015
5 Id.
6 Roberto Lovato, Deported to Death: The tragic journey of an El Salvadoran immigrant, AL Jazeera America, July 11, 2015
8 Cindy Carcamo, In Honduras, U.S. Deportees Seek to Journey North Again, L.A. Times, Aug. 16, 2014
9 Pastor Mark Knutson, Francisco’s Son has been murdered in El Salvador, Feb. 20, 2016
10 Cindy Carcamo, In Honduras, U.S. Deportees Seek to Journey North Again, L.A. Times, Aug. 16, 2014
11 Bob Ortega, Revisiting the immigration pipeline: Deported into Danger, Nov. 13, 2014, The Arizona Republic
12 Aaron Nelson and Jeremy Roebuck, Immigrants are being deported into danger, The San Antonio Express-News, Oct. 5, 2013
13 Winthrop Jordan, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy, revised edition, at 94 (1995)(describing the word “examine” as a euphemism for whipping as punishment and to extract information).
14 Timothy Ryback, Evidence of Evil, The New Yorker, Nov. 13, 1993 (noting the “extensive” use of euphemisms in official documents that record the genocide at Auschwitz)
15 David Brooks, Shields and Brooks on the CIA interrogation report, spending bill sticking point, PBS Newshour, December 12, 2014 (describing the CIA’s use of the term “enhanced interrogation technique” as a euphemism designed to “dull the moral sensibility.”).
16 Roger Griffin, “’Lingua Quarti Imperii’: The Euphemistic tradition of the extreme right,” at 55, Mathew Feldman & Paul Jackson (Eds), “Doublespeak: The Rhetoric of the Far Right since 1945”(2014)
20 Kidnapping, by the way, is an accurate description of what ICE does when they “apprehend” a person and lock them away against their will, a process you’ll notice is described pretty accurately by the legal definition of kidnapping: To “intentionally or knowingly abduct” another person; “Abduct” is defined as restraining someone “with intent to prevent his liberation by: (A) secreting or holding him in a place where he is not likely to be found; or (B) using or threatening to use deadly force.” TEX. PEN. CODE. ANN. §§ 20.03(a); 20.01(2).
21 Reno v. Flores, 507 U.S. 292, 305-06 (1993)
22 Human Rights Watch, US: Trauma in Family Immigration Detention, May 15, 2015
24 National Immigrant Justice Center, Stop Detaining Families, [last accessed May 5, 2016]; Human Rights Watch, US: Trauma in Family Immigration Detention, May 15, 2015
25 Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books 23 (2003).
28 Jason Bunch, Children at Dilley Detention Center got Adult dose of Vaccine, My San Antonio, July 4, 2015
29 Smith v. Smith, 332 S.W.3d 425, 439 (Tex. Crim. App. 2011).
20 Id.
31 TEX. PENAL CODE ANN. § 19.02(b)(1); Sturdivant v. State, 445 S.W.3d 338, 355 (1st Dist. 2013), rev’d on other grounds by Sturdivant v. State, 411 S.W.3d 487 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013).
32 Smith v. Smith, 332 S.W.3d 425, 439 (Tex. Crim. App. 2011).
33 Paredes v. State, 129 S.W.3d 530, 537 (Tex. Crim. App. 2004). 
34 Caraway v. State, 550 S.W.2d 699, 702-3 (Tex. Crim. App. 1977).
35 McFarland v. State, 928 S.W.2d 482, 514 (Tex. Crim. App. 1996).
36 See, e.g., Mize v. State, 915 S.W.2d 891, 895 (Tex. Crim. App. 1995).
37 Smith v. Smith, 332 S.W.3d 425, 439 (Tex. Crim. App. 2011).
38 Id. e.g. the individual must be chargeable with the same crime committed by the defendant (the murderer). See Druery v. State, 225 S.W.3d 491, 498 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007).
39 Blake v. State, 971 S.W.2d 451, 455 (Tex. Crim. App. 1998).
40 Mize v. State, 915 S.W.2d 891, 896 (Tex. Crim. App. 1995).
41 Id.
42 Hyde v. State, 846 S.W.2d 503, 505 (Tex. App. Corpus Christi 1993, pet. ref’d) (quoting Torres v. State, 794 S.Wd 596, 598-600 (Tex. App. Austin 1990, no pet.)).

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