Three years since one of the largest mass mobilizations for immigrant rights in U.S. history, little to nothing has improved for millions of displaced people throughout the Americas. Last week in Del Rio, Texas, U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback corralled Haitian families as they tried to cross the Rio Grande and return to an encampment beneath the town’s international bridge.
Few words remain to describe a scene that has played out in dozens of border towns over the past five years: depraved state violence against migrants punctuated by momentary reportage and outrage. Yet last week’s events in Del Rio seemed to strike a new chord, shattering the illusion of a more humane Biden administration that many prominent organizations had previously believed. Several advocates also repeated a call from Black organizers that “immigration is a Black issue,” but failed to pair these words with structural changes to their movements.
Clearly, this shallow reckoning is not enough. If we truly desire migrant liberation, the events in Del Rio must teach us that our mainstream movement for immigrant rights—the network of relationships between nonprofits, journalists, politicians, and migrants that centers legal and political advocacy—is dying. We must also realize that any movement that invests its hopes in a system that always has and always will inflict violence upon Black people is bankrupt.
In her 2016 book In the Wake, Christina Sharpe interrogates representations of Black life, including Haitian migrants in popular media. To Sharpe, widely circulated images of Black suffering are not opportunities for advocacy, but acts that reproduce even more violence.
When people focus on moments of “exceptional” violence against migrants, they avoid examining the totality of violence that borders inflict upon the dispossessed at all times. They do not confront how people living “in the wake” of enslavement, settler colonialism, and imperialism remain vulnerable to displacement and premature death.
Quoting poet and novelist M. NourbeSe Philip, Sharpe implores us to “defend the dead” and refute a world where Black death is not only ongoing and ordinary, but the means through which the system reconstitutes itself. To defend the dead is work: “hard emotional, physical, and intellectual work that demands vigilant attendance to the needs of the dying [and] the living.” Doing this work requires paying both attention and remembrance, vigilantly resisting language that obscures violence, while also holding space for celebration and grief.
Do immigrant rights organizations “defend the dead”? Can they ever? What relation do these groups and leaders have to the countless number of migrants who have suffered immensely en route to the United States?
Most often, this relationship is legal and political advocacy: trying to get courts, politicians, and an imagined white public to grant migrants their humanity and enact change. Any desire for structural transformation is superseded by a need for incremental reform. Why? Because this movement does not prioritize migrants and their immediate needs: to not be deportable or stateless; to have the stability and resources to thrive; to live without borders and anti-Black violence.
Instead, the movement centers the opinions and wealth of white allies and moderates—those who would no longer benefit from the status quo if immigrants were truly free. This is why so many organizations are willing to demand an end to ICE, a young and unpopular Gestapo-like agency, rather than an end to borders, which would require a dramatic restructuring of our world. It seems that this movement exists more to preserve itself and its newfound prominence than to actually liberate migrants.
Since the start of the Trump presidency, nonprofits like the ACLU and RAICES have raised millions of dollars from white liberals galvanized by depictions of migrant trauma. These depictions are usually found in publications like ProPublica and The New York Times, which have made border reporting a core part of their platform and won global renown in the process. What we are witnessing is the growth of a border-industrial complex that now includes organizations and people who posture against border violence but actually require it in order to succeed.
It is no coincidence that this problem of representation lies at the heart of a largely white and “Latinx” immigrant rights movement. For decades, Black and Indigenous Latin Americans have called out the fictions of an identity-based movement that seeks to subjugate their struggles and experiences into a singular narrative of “Latinidad.”
With this in mind, we must resist flat depictions of migrants that reduce their lives to seemingly random moments of extraordinary violence. We must implicate our movement as part of an evolving border-industrial complex and refute its self-sustaining cycle of violence and inaction. We must act in solidarity with migrants who are realizing their own liberation beyond any institutional movement, like the Haitians who hijacked buses and stormed planes last week in an attempt to prevent their own deportation. We must do the enormous work of “defending the dead,” including those who will never make a single headline, but whose families and communities will know their loss.