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The Disappeared



Should we compare the people we doom to death for the crime of wanting to come live in our nation to the peoples disappeared by right-wing regimes in recent decades? There’s a compelling case to be made.

Even in 1981, as Amnesty notes in the report, “understanding of ‘disappearances’ is evolving constantly.” Today, in the case of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, border enforcement policies amount to no less than “a campaign of state violence against migrating peoples.” This violence, has resulted in deaths and “disappearances” since dramatic shifts in U.S. border and immigration policing strategy initiated in the mid-1990s.

The main policy shift during this time was known as “prevention through deterrence,” explicitly designed by lawmakers to establish “tactical advantage” over them. By harnessing the “mortal danger” of the “geographically harsher,” more “remote and hazardous border regions” along the U.S.-Mexico boundary—where the “geography would be an ally to us,” in the words of former Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) commissioner Doris Meissner—the predictable consequences for many have been mass death by “deterrence.”

The policy rationale, expressed in a 1994 U.S. Border Patrol planning document, anticipates that by heavily escalating security resources and infrastructure throughout the “traditional entry” points of urban border areas, border crossers “will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.” Such conditions have invited mass death and “disappearance.” At least 6,000 human remains have been recovered, but the actual number of death and “disappearance” is surely much greater.

One way to “disappear” in the desert borderlands is due to U.S. Border Patrol’s harsh “chase and scatter” tactics. Using an arsenal of military helicopters and all-terrain vehicles, attack dogs, and blunt force beatings and tackles, U.S. agents inflict psychological and physical injury upon their “targets.” These “commonly result in the disorientation and dispersal of individuals and groups into life-threatening terrain.” Of the 544 cases reported to the Missing Migrants Crisis Line, the Border Patrol’s “chase and scatter” practices account for 84 cases as the causal event of their “disappearance.” According to the authors, in 36.9% of these cases (31 out of 84), death was the result.

There is more than one area that the “disappeared” like José may turn up. “If found,” the report authors say, “the disappeared turn up in detention centers, in morgues, or skeletonized on the desert floor; many human remains are never identified. Thousands more are never located. With each passing day, another father, sister, aunt, brother, partner, or child goes missing while attempting to cross the Southwest border.”

As the report indicates, the growing web of migrant detention facilities is another source of “disappearance.” Institutional knowledge of and responsibility for such “disappearances,” is a matter of policy: in fact, James Pendergraph, the former Executive Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s Office of State and Local Coordination, one said to attendees at the 2008 Police Foundation Conference, “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we [ICE] can make him disappear,” according to a 2009 Amnesty International report.

“Disappearances” also affect those, especially loved ones, who desperately search for the missing. As anthropologist Robin Reineke, co-founder and executive director of Colibri Center for Human Rights, and former coordinator of the Tucson medical examiner’s Project on Missing and Unidentified Migrants, explains: “Families experience what psychologists term ‘Ambiguous Loss,’ which means that the status of a loved one is in question—unresolved. The grief process cannot start because the person is neither dead nor alive. Families often report debilitating fear and inability to focus on daily tasks. At any point in their ‘normal’ day, their loved one could be suffering somewhere without help. The search often becomes all-consuming.”

The horrible crimes that we commit as a nation against migrants are absolutely unconsciousable. This is state-sanctioned violence against desperate people. It’s a national shame. And yet the response by millions and millions of people is to vote to see these people as a threat for the crimes of being brown and speaking Spanish (if not an indigenous language) and thus doom them to death. Even when Democrats are in power, too few Americans care about this.

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