Commentary

NM governor’s call to delay refugee entry into the U.S. echoes the inhumane policies of the right

Migrant deaths continue near the border in the meantime, including more than 50 people found in a trailer in Texas

July 1, 2022 4:00 am

In this aerial view, members of law enforcement investigate a tractor trailer on June 27, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas. More than 50 victims, who are believed migrant workers from Mexico, were found dead. Over a dozen people were found alive, suffering from heat stroke and taken to local hospitals. (Photo by Jordan Vonderhaar / Getty Images)

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s letter to the secretary of Homeland Security asking the department to delay the release of migrants into the U.S. is a disappointing endorsement of violent policies that kill migrants. 

Though her letter would never spell this out, her statement essentially says that the U.S. should close its borders completely to refugees, a position championed by ex-President Donald Trump and the right. This is what I expect from politicians in Texas, not the governor of New Mexico. 

You have to read beyond headlines to understand why the federal government would be sending migrant families to New Mexico in the first place. It starts with a public health order put in place by the Trump administration in March of 2020 called Title 42. 

Title 42, allows Customs and Border Protection to expel non-citizens from the US border in an effort to stop the spread of a contagious virus, but it has quickly become a tool for the federal government to shirk the responsibility of processing refugees fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. Twenty-six months after it was put in place and almost 18 months into Biden’s presidency, no one pretends Title 42 is about public health and instead uses it as a tool to turn selective nationalities back from the US border en masse, with a shrug. 

There have been millions of expulsions.

Title 42 is the wall that Trump never built and the worst of his villainous schemes to halt immigration. Its continued use is a dark stain on our nation's already dark history of violence against migrants.

What does expulsion mean to a migrant fleeing violence in their home country? 

For some it means being forced to wait in squalid, dangerous limbo in Northern Mexico hoping that the law will change soon. 

For some families, it may be making the brutal choice to send their children alone up across the border because unaccompanied minors cannot be expelled and separating is the only way to ensure their safety. 

For some migrants, Haitians in particular, expulsion means being put on an airplane and sent directly back into the violence you fled. 

In any case, there is no opportunity to assert your right to asylum and the work of Trump to close our southern border is complete. 

And for some migrants it means death. Just last week the El Paso Times reported on a spate of drownings in the canals of the Rio Grande. This week at least 50 bodies of migrants were found in a tractor trailer in San Antonio having cooked to death when the truck was abandoned in the heat. By all accounts the migrant death toll is rising in the borderlands

Conservative politicians are quick to suggest that Biden’s so-called “open border” is the cause of these deaths. That is nonsense and an insult to the intelligence of their constituents. Why would anyone swim a dangerous canal, walk through the scorched desert or pack like sardines into the back of a semi truck if the border was open? 

No, it is very much closed and numerous democratic politicians, including, now, our governor, continue to demand it stays closed. And when that closure clashes with the desperation of migrants, it causes disproportionate death. 

The Biden administration has attempted to change this, albeit way too slowly and without much conviction. In April, officials announced that Title 42 would end in May, and then a judge in Texas stopped them from lifting it. It’s confusing how a judge can force the Department of Homeland Security to maintain a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order for the purposes of border security, but it is still in place. 

The Texas court may turn out to be irrelevant. Just last week, Democrats and Republicans voted to add an extension of Title 42 to the DHS budget, a move that would codify the border closure and further violate asylum law in the U.S.

So when our government decides to release migrant families into the interior, it is for the express purpose of not subjecting them to expulsion under Title 42 and providing them with the opportunity to seek asylum. DHS has the authority to parole people into the United States and, in spite of what you may hear from conservative politicians, it is not an open border. 

Individuals paroled into the U.S. are generally subjected to strict electronic monitoring and given a notice to appear in immigration court to face deportation, which they cannot evade because of that electronic monitoring. It is a different kind of hell from Title 42 expulsion, but it makes space for them to find a modicum of safety while they exercise their right to ask for asylum from their home country. 

When migrants are bussed from the border to New Mexico, it isn’t to stay permanently. They are still in migration and relocating to places all over the United States to take refuge with friends and family and await their asylum hearings in court. Most will move on within a couple days. It is a messy and inelegant situation, but it is a more humane alternative to Title 42 expulsions or putting people in detention. 

The governor doesn’t mention this part in her rejection.

Refusing to provide a couple days shelter to migrant families condemns them to far more violent and inhumane treatment like exile and cages and family separation.

This is closer than most probably think to a vote for a border wall. 

The reason our governor gives for all this is that the state’s resources have been far too taxed by wildfire and wildfire evacuees to also provide support to migrants. We certainly have had our butts kicked this spring. But I am curious why Lujan Grisham decided to request “that the Department of Homeland Security delay any planned or expanded efforts to transport migrants to locations within the United States.” 

Why not demand that FEMA send millions of dollars or request that they instead use military installments like Fort Bliss for temporary housing? The letter could have easily applauded efforts to end Title 42 and insisted that some of the billions in DHS’ budget be diverted to make sure that there is no burden to New Mexicans. That would have been a creative and humane letter. 

It’s painful to watch our state descend into the same muck around the border as our neighbors to the east and west. I love New Mexico and I have been proud of the dignity we New Mexicans have shown one another throughout the myriad crises of COVID and this horrifying wildfire season. 

I don’t believe that our governor wants to cause harm to migrants, but I worry when her position creates a united front with politicians and media who have been vocal in their dehumanization. Helping a neighbor is never convenient or easy, whether that neighbor is a New Mexican facing fire evacuation or a migrant fleeing persecution. 

Our governor can stand strong for New Mexico and demand accountability from the federal government without condemning migrant families to violence. 

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Allegra Love
Allegra Love

Allegra Love is an immigration attorney from Santa Fe. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of New Mexico School of Law. She is the founder of and former director of Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a legal services organization serving immigrants and refugees. Currently she works with the El Paso Immigration Collaborative to represent detained asylum-seekers in the Southwest and in the national movement to abolish immigration detention in the United States.

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