“The U.S. Border as an Atrocity Prevention Site,” a webinar hosted by the Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention (I-GMAP), analyzed how American laws and the actions of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have created a lethal environment that has violated international law, particularly under the Trump administration.
Moderated by Maxim Pensky, co-director of I-GMAP and a professor of philosophy at Binghamton University, the panel discussion included legal specialists and border activists from the United States and Mexico, with simultaneous translations of the discussion available in both English and Spanish. The discussion was held on Wednesday, Oct. 14, and focused on the United States-Mexico border through an atrocity prevention lens, which Pensky said allows us to refocus how current discussions on the border are conducted.
“[The lens lets us] refocus how we think about and speak about the Trump administration’s sweeping transformation of U.S. immigration law and policy,” Pensky said. “[The lens brings us] the set of tools, the set of diagnostic approaches and the conceptual framework that has been developed over the course of decades in an attempt to understand the driving factors, the actors and the stages that can lead to state-sponsored violence and mass atrocities.”
Migrants from Central American countries, such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, often pass through Mexico on their way toward seeking asylum in the United States. Maria Angelica Montesinos, program coordinator for Asylum Access Mexico, an advocacy group focused on improving due process and access to justice for forced migrants, said Latin American migrants travel to America for more opportunities.
“Many people come with the hope of finding a location that can provide them with opportunities and safety in adequate circumstances to remain in,” Montesinos said. “However, in the southern part of Mexico, this is difficult. We do not have many working opportunities, health care or access to housing. So, this facilitated the fact the people continued seeking places to relocate.”
The Trump administration has repurposed federal agencies, such as ICE and CPB, to conduct law and policy enforcement for migrants. Yael Schacher, a senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International, said that a provision was made in 2018 to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, known as the “remain in Mexico” policy. This provision was made to send people seeking asylum in the United States back to Mexico as they wait to hear about their asylum status. However, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has not followed the procedures in this provision, according to Schacher. Instead, the provision was used to turn most asylum seekers away, which violates the set precedent regarding the right to seek asylum by international law.
“There’s this use of the law to justify policies which are really violations of international law, but there’s also this impunity in how they are actually carried out by Border Patrol and ICE,” Schacher said.
Shannon Fyfe, an assistant professor of philosophy at George Mason University, discussed the situation at the border by examining international criminal law to determine whether or not it can be labeled a genocide. Fyfe said the actions of federal agencies at the border initially seemed to come out of recklessness, but, as time went on, evidence of intent became more clear and the situation now fits within definitions of genocide.
“It seems pretty clear that we can establish the acts,” Fyfe said. “The ‘remain in Mexico’ policy, the prevention through deterrence policy that has been in place since 1994 that results in deaths of people trying to cross the border by chasing them, scattering them, using [a] taser and dogs, destroying water that volunteers have left for people in the desert, the separation of children from their parents at the border [and] the treatment in facilities, now to include really specific accusations of forced sterilization just in recent months. It has always been easy to establish that these are the ‘worst of the worst’ crimes. It’s important to look at how there is this specific or knowledge-based intent on the part of the people at the very top of the administration.”
Schacher said that migrants who have stayed in Mexico because of the “remain in Mexico” policy have technically already been deported for missing their court hearing because DHS never gave them notice or did not allow them entry to the United States. Cesar Cuauhtemoc Garcia Hernandez, a professor of law at the University of Denver, said these experiences are a way of coercing migrants to give up their right to asylum.
“It’s a way to coerce people to throw up their hands and give up their legal rights that are provided by international law and congressional directive,” Hernandez said. “That’s a huge part of the story that oftentimes gets overlooked. The law is only as good as a person’s ability to demand the law is enforced the way it’s intended to be.”
Several speakers noted that congressional reform is crucial to stop the violations on international law happening at the border. Hernandez said that the process of seeking asylum needs to be made navigable.
“It’s important to be able to ask for asylum,” Hernandez said. “To be able to successfully navigate the thread that is asylum law is equally important. The new administration needs to take seriously the way in which Congress allocates funding for border control agencies.”
Fyfe and Schafer advocated for Congress to create a comprehensive plan to improve the asylum process at the border. Fyfe mentioned the need to hold individuals and the U.S. government accountable by repealing executive orders and creating a truth and reconciliation commission.
“We know what the intent was of individual actors, like President [Donald] Trump, Steven Miller and Katie Miller,” Fyfe said. “As part of a comprehensive strategy, it can go a long way in rebuilding our position or ability to participate on the world stage because we have absolutely no legitimacy when it comes to respect of many things, by far the violation of international human rights law.”