A woman seeks refuge at the U.S. border, but U.S. officials force her to wait for her asylum hearing in Mexico where a police officer later stalks and rapes her. A father and child suffer unbearable trauma after U.S. officials separate them under a policy aimed at deterring migration. A formerly healthy family loses a loved one to the coronavirus while forced to wait at an unsanitary, makeshift tent city in Mexico after fleeing for safety to the United States. For the people impacted by U.S. border policies, the southern border is a dangerous place—it is the site of rampant U.S.-created harm.
Typically, legal and policy responses to refugee crises are framed by international and domestic legal obligations to provide safety and protect those fleeing persecution or humanitarian disasters. When states fail to meet migrants’ needs or thwart humanitarian processes, critiques logically focus on the government’s failure to meet its refugee, domestic law, and moral obligations. But this focus, though an essential part of countering the government’s illegal actions, insufficiently addresses the United States’ role in creating and inflicting harm.
The harm of U.S. border policy is never far from the surface. For example, during the Trump Administration, policies such as the obversely-named Migrant Protection Protocols (“MPP”) and many others purported to function as measured—and even humanitarian—responses to a “crisis” of refugees at the southern border. Similarly, both the Trump and Biden Administrations invoked Title 42 health emergency powers during the pandemic to close off asylum processing for migrants. Both administrations framed this policy as a critical public health measure. In reality, however, these policies did little to achieve their purported policy aims. They instead sought to prevent migration and exposed migrants, including asylum seekers, to severe, and even deadly, harm.