Immigration is part of American history, with thousands of immigrants fleeing their homelands to find safety and survival in the United States every year. For decades, the U.S. has had inflows of immigrants from different parts of the world, especially Mexico and Central America. Since the externalization of the immigration policy in 2015, immigrants have been forced to use alternative routes such as the US-Mexico border to reach the U.S. or Canada. The number of illegal immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border has increased, intensifying immigration enforcement efforts. Immigration flows have become racially diverse, with the Mexican population comprising the largest percentage of the US-Mexico border immigration. The U.S. and Mexican governments have collaborated to externalize U.S. immigration enforcement into the Mexican border. The 21st century has witnessed the rise of immigration enforcement to regulate the immigrant population. The immigration policies enacted to control US-Mexico immigration criminalize immigrants based on race, intensifying institutional and structural racism.
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Immigration enforcement practices result from institutional and structural racism that embeds racist discursive practices and racial profiling, increasing racial inequalities. Mexican and Central American immigrants are disproportionately affected by the US-Mexico border restrictions. Structural racism theory suggests that racism is based on a society’s social structures that use racialization to classify people according to a hierarchy of racialized social practices and interactions. Racial inequality becomes rooted in social, economic, and political institutions. Based on the structural foundations of racism, it is apparent that immigration policies along the US-Mexico border, such as mass detentions, deportations and interior enforcement policies, are founded and sustained through racist practices.
The US-Mexico border was founded on territorial expansion, anti-black enslavement, and indigenous genocide and racialized expulsion. Although immigration policies aimed at regulating US-Mexico immigration aim to maintain law and order, the concept of illegal immigration increases raced based deportation and detentions (Walia, 2021). Immigration enforcements are founded on racism framed in the discourse of illegal immigration. The U.S. Border Patrol is embedded in institutional racism. While immigration enforcement is primarily aimed at curbing illegal entry from Mexico to the U.S, they lead to racial profiling of Latinos and other non-whites. Since its inception, the agency has aimed to round up racially unacceptable immigrants from Mexico and any other place in Latin America (Murdza and Ewing, 2021). Immigrants face physical, emotional, and verbal torture from immigrant officials at the US-Mexico border. The stops and searches at the U.S.-Mexico border are targeted toward non-whites.
U.S. Border Patrol along the Southern border deployed to regulate immigration into the U.S. exercises racist practices which violate human rights and dignity. While this enforcement has been effective in regulating immigration, they have led to the violation of the human rights and dignity of migrants. Carradini et al. (2018) note that Operation Streamline has been used to unfairly judge migrants for federal crimes and force them to plead guilty to illegal entry into the U.S. the criminal record obtained is used to justify stringent enforcement against wanted and dangerous criminals. Most of these criminalization efforts target Latinos and subject them to discretionary stops. Updegrove et al. (2020) found that Latinos face random citizen inspections and warrantless searches at the US-Mexico border. Race or skin color is often used as a probable cause for searches. Nativism against non-white immigrants entering the U.S. through the US-Mexico border increases structural racism. Since the adoption of the Chinese Exclusion Laws in the 19th century, immigrant exclusion laws have been hailed to discourage non-white immigrants from settling or living in the United States.
US-Mexico border governance relies on racism to exclude illegal immigrants. Exclusion aims to toughen defensive control, strengthen racialized separationist identity, and marginalize immigrants as intruders (Walia, 2021). As such, migrants face mass detention, deportation, and structural violence to intimidate, punish, o prevent them from crossing the border. People are crossing borders illegally because of the shrinking pathways to obtaining legal migration. Walls or fences built to curb immigration serve to separate the desirable, the whites, from the desirable, the non-white migrant. In addition to exclusion, Border Patrol agents deploy discursive controls to classify migrants as “bogus refugees” fleeing their countries for economic reasons and hence do not deserve protection (Walia, 2021). Federal enforcements at the U.S-Mexico border, such as the deportation of legal residents with felonious convictions, have increased institutional racism. Research indicates that Mexican-origin immigrants with a legal permanent residence are the most ethnic group deported for past criminal records. Enforcements such as the Criminal Alien Program (CAP) are used to eliminate dangerous criminals from U.S neighborhoods (Hansen, 2019). This program attributes Latino immigrants to delinquency, and are often deported, suggesting that immigration enforcement regulating US-Mexico immigration is penal and racially targeted towards non-whites.
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Border Patrol targets migrants in border communities for enforcement based on their physical appearance. Research shows that racial profiling at the southern border has been used as the subject of social security and stratification (Martinez et al., 2020). Most border residents are segregated into communities characterized by substandard housing and high poverty rates. Most of these residents identify as Latin, and even those who do not identify as Latino are perceived as belonging to this particular race. Border patrol agents use racist terms to refer to migrants and perceive them as ‘others’. Along with racist terms, the Border Patrol agents use dehumanizing language characterized by pseudospeciation, whereby a different cultural group is perceived as another ethnic group. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) details reports about racial profiling against Latino, Blacks, and Indigenous populations at the US-Mexico border. These groups are stopped and interrogated at internal Border patrol checkpoints due to their skin color and hair. Recently, three black officers from the Michigan-Ontario border, all working at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), sued the U.S. government for racial profiling at the border (Panetta, 2021). The three officers alleged that white Border Patrol officers were harsh on people of color entering the U.S. from Canada and lenient on whites using the same route. The lawsuit mirrors endemic racism within the Border Patrol, contributing to racial profiling of blacks and Latinos in routine immigration law enforcement.
The US-Mexico immigration laws enforcements and policies mirror racial exclusion and removal systems used as new racial policies to deport non-whites. Although white immigrants have situational advantages such as reduced racial profiling, they are disproportionately affected by state policies that have classified them as a deportable population and criminalized them. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests non-white and Mexican immigrants at disproportionate rates. Research shows that most deported immigrants from the U.S. interior in 2015 came from Mexico (Moinester, 2019). Additionally, about 550,000 immigrants were young unaccompanied children who entered the U.S. illegally and were deported under Trump’s administration according to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which temporarily protected them from deportation. However, not all these deportations are due to criminal activities. Most are based on race and ethnicity. For instance, Latino vehicle occupants are more likely to be stopped and asked for identification than white passengers.
The migration law enforcement aimed at reducing the number of illegal immigrants has been deiced towards marginalized populations seeking low wage jobs. Socioeconomic status plays a vital role in the racialization equation (Segal, 2019). Migrants’ economic vulnerabilities make them an easy target for tough immigration policies at the US-Mexico border. Racial prejudice increases the sense of threat and reduced economic opportunity, increasing the pressure to create tough immigration laws. For example, recent immigration policies require migrants returning to Mexico from the U.S. to be fingerprinted and photographed. Their personal information fed into a national database has led to the criminalization of illegal immigrants. The fortification of the US-Mexico border has led to border buildups such as physical fencing and high-tech surveillance at the southern border, leading to increased border-crossing mortality rates (Urbina and Pena, 2019). Although these deaths are often perceived to result from unavoidable circumstances, Border patrol agents intentionally channel migrants to blazing hot and cold routes that increase the likelihood of migrants’ deaths. The structural violence at the border is targeted at particular racialized groups.
The U.S. immigration forces have adopted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), increasing border patrol partnerships with the local police. Under the “287g” program, local and state police can enforce federal immigration laws, which has led to increased racial profiling (Smith and Lueck, 2022). Police can arrest any immigrant who violates the civil immigration laws. Research by Miller et al. (2020) shows that the number of people arrested by the local police for violating immigration laws has increased recently under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy. Local police officers focus exclusively on Mexican and Central American immigrants. Partnerships with the police have led to the militarization of the daily life of immigrants and migrants at the U.S. -Mexico border.
Racial profiling at the U.S. -Mexico border affects migrants through the disproportionate use of deadly force by Border Patrol agents. Most migrants die through shootings and car chases that are often underreported or undocumented, and responsible agents are rarely prosecuted, especially when white. In 2018, Lonnie Swartz, a Border patrol agent, was judged with manslaughter and second-degree murder following the death of a 16-year-old Mexican national, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, who was shot 10 times after throwing stones at agents at the Mexico border (Negron-Gonzales, 2022). The use of lethal forces at the U.S.-Mexico border leads to increased immigrant deaths. Racialized immigrants are denied access to medical care and subjected to hostile conditions. A 2021 study by Melo and Fleuriet (2021) found that immigrant mothers lacked medical help for their children and were prone to infections. During the 2020 global pandemic, hundreds of Honduran and Salvadoran immigrants were detained in Mexican Immigration centers in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions (Vilches Hinojosa, 2021). Most immigrants’ problems result from the language barrier, which is often used to discriminate against them.
In conclusion, racism is a major problem underlying U.S.-Mexico immigration laws enforcement. Immigration policies are founded on racist practices to perceive non-white immigrants and migrants as the “other”. Although the policies do not directly refer to race as a security subject, the concept of illegal immigration fosters institutional and systemic racism, which discriminates against certain ethnic groups. The immigration policies exclude, segregate and expulse racialized groups. U.S.-Mexico immigration policies are based on systemic and structural racism aimed at criminalizing, deporting, and detaining racialized groups. Immigrants are often subjected to unreasonable stops and warrantless searches due to their skin color. Latino, blacks, and indigenous immigrants are often arrested and charged with felonies which force them to plead guilty to illegal immigration to be released. Racial profiling in immigration law enforcement leads to mass deportation of racialized groups.
The paper reveals that immigration policies are hierarchically organized to meet the needs of the white elites and rich investor class while discriminating against vulnerable and low socioeconomic populations. The US-Mexico border operates under a regime of racial capitalism through criminalizing efforts targeted toward poor and racialized people. Irrespective of legal immigration status, racialized groups are perceived as cultural intruders. Borders meant to regulate immigration embed and reproduce racism through a vicious cycle of attaining legal migration, which has led to illegal immigration and become a justification for racist migration controls. The push and pull factors forcing people to migrate from their homelands into Mexico and U.S. will have a long-lasting impact on U.S. immigration. Although Biden’s administration promises to improve the asylum system, it is important to eliminate racism and other forms of discrimination affecting immigrants. Urgent action is needed to curb the immigration menace.