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What does Trump’s wall mean for the right to life?

ByPelagie Couroyer

Apr 4, 2019

Last autumn, I thought a revolution was underway. For once social media and news broadcasts were relaying a wave of optimism: an unprecedented number of people gathered in Honduras, encouraged by a Facebook post, to head north together. In my surroundings, very few people seemed to have heard (or seen) the news about the Central American caravan. Yet we are talking about at least 7,000 people who joined the movement last October. It is the biggest caravan in recent history. These hundreds of people walked hand in hand against the current, against the authorities, against an impoverished life. You can see babies in pushchairs, the elderly in wheelchairs, lorries giving rides to families. You can see the power of people, who might have been subject to unthinkable economic and physical pressures. Yet by travelling together they were able to find security, get rid of coyotes, and cross borders.

Five months later, they are stuck on the Mexican side of the border. The UN is warning the international community about a new humanitarian crisis as Trump has declared a national emergency. The mainstream media debate the deservingness of the ‘migrants,’ deploring the risk they might pose to the economic lives of Americans, even while acknowledging (to some extent) their experience of extreme poverty and violence. Either way, they are referred to as ‘migrants.’ I think this should be questioned; why are the members of the Central American caravan ‘refugees?’ Discourses around their migration are not only biased by consistent American Imperialism in South America, but also fail to consider the irreducible form of agency in refugees’ movement, solidarity, and hope for a better future.

Before we ask if a person ‘deserves’ to cross borders, we need to be asking why anyone would ‘want’ to do so?  From a personal and academic perspective, I am against the very idea of borders. But even those in favour of arbitrary demarcation lines have to consider that, people on the move are not looking to live somewhere else, they are looking to live differently. The long-(ever)lasting history of US Imperialism that has tainted Latin America’s economy, democracy, and more general social life, is the cause of people’s departure.

The Truman Doctrine, and the US military power forced onto Latin American countries during the Cold War, has continued its work of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ under neoliberal policies. Accumulation by dispossession is a term quoted from Harvey (2004) that refers to the violent appropriation of resources and control of social reproduction in the hands of a few, largely dispossessing the masses. Today, Honduras is one of the world’s deadliest places (“the murder capital of the world”), with a total lack of prospects. As such, “they made the decision to leave their home countries, assessing that the danger of leaving was outstripped by the danger of facing gang death threats or feeding a family on $5 per day (quoted from Vox).” The members of the caravan left not out of desire but of necessity (“una necesidad nos obliga”), when they reached what Hackl (2018) calls the ‘endpoint.’ They left because of a state of mental exhaustion, physical threat to life or total lack of prospects. As The Washington Post relates, people had been “waiting for a way to get north,” the social media posts only “connect[ed] small groups of would-be migrants who were already planning to travel north,” as a Salvadoran recounts when she heard about the caravan: “right away, I knew I would go.” People were waiting for an invitation to join a caravan.

Refugees are economic subjects not so much in that they want to hold cash in their hands, or ‘steal’ jobs and ‘benefit’ from the welfare state, but rather in that they seek the capacity to ‘make a living’ or ‘making do.’ They are looking to sustain life. Ultimately, making a living is about ‘making people’, sustaining the worth of people and making life worth living. In this sense, migration is a survival strategy, economically oriented by necessity to navigate a global capitalist system, but not solely so. Making a living includes unpaid work and acts of care that support individuals beyond self-interest and profit maximisation.

The solidarity economy that emerged along the path of the caravan is a perfect example of the non-economic dimensions of migration. As the caravan made its way through Guatemala and in Mexico, the local populations responded largely in a spirit of solidarity to the flux of refugees, offering shelters, preparing food and donating clothes and shoes. Solidarity emerged as the main ‘resource’ for the members of the caravan. Those escaping decades of oppression, economic despair and violence were met with a radical form of equality and solidarity in non-monetary terms.

On the American side of the border, solidarity is being condemned. Take for example the ongoing trial of four humanitarian aid workers who left water in the desert for migrants proceeding to the deadly crossing. Trump’s discourse of ‘invasion,’ a presupposed indebtedness of Central American nations to his, and other presumptions of superiority and difference (such as the hypothetical presence of ‘Middle-Easters’ and ‘dangerous criminals’ among the caravan), actively rejects decades of accumulation by dispossession and the right to seek asylum. It also demonstrates a clear refusal to recognise the Central American migrants as equals. Closing the border, setting up an army and intending to build a wall, are all very concrete ways to deny mutual recognition and cut any form of mutual exchange, reciprocity or solidarity.

Today, Trump’s ideological and physical wall is more real than ever. Central American children have died in the hands of border agents: a Mexican teenager was killed approaching the border last November; migrant families are targeted by tear gas if they get too close from the US; and two Guatemalan children died in custody last Christmas. Central American refugees are not only victims of ‘individual dispossession without accumulation’ as Green (2009) ironically puts it, they are denied the right to survive, if not to live. People nonetheless did not lose their hope for a better future.

If all human economy aims at sustaining life across generations, migration is not just an economic opportunity but a call for security, a dignified life, and ultimately recognition. A young Honduran told The Independent that “you can walk [in the US] without danger…and I could have things there I couldn’t in Honduras, like a good job, wage, and house, healthcare.” The reference to the American Dream in many migrants’ interviews, translate not just a material want, but a social desire to belong. As Reuters reported: “all the young migrants agreed on one point: even if they did not manage to cross to the United States this time, they would never give up on their American dream.” I believe this is an incredibly powerful claim to make in such a climate of injustices.

What has happened to that dream now?

As if denying human dignity and life at the American border was not enough, Trump is now concretising his medieval project of building a wall.

His demand for funding for the wall provoked the longest government shutdown in history, and as a compromise to end the deadlock, the committee approved a budget of $1.375bn to build new border fences, as well as an extra $1.7bn to Homeland Security’s budget. He recently got an additional $1m bonus from the Pentagon’s head M. Shanahan and expects more following his declaration of a ‘national emergency.’

At this point, the real danger is not the giant piece of concrete Trump will eventually erect, but the unshakeable symbol of difference and division it represents. There is a dangerous line being drawn between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ those allowed to live and those who are left to die. In order to keep the promise of a real revolution alive, let us stand strong against this culture of differentiation, and defend a universal right to life and to mobility through acts of individual and global solidarity.


Image credits: IoSonoUnaFotoCamera Follow via Flickr

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