As we approach the Fourth of July, I’m still thinking of the viral and devastating image of two lifeless bodies: a father, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez; and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, floating on the banks of the Rio Grande.
That picture is a fundamental reminder of the costs of governmental policies that work to prevent a most basic human right: the freedom to migrate.
In a recent Democratic debate, Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro each took a moment to reflect on the tragedy. O’Rourke held Donald Trump personally responsible, but Castro turned attention to overturning Section 1325 of Title 8 of the United States Code, which makes crossing the U.S. border anywhere other than a port of entry a criminal rather than civil offense.
O’Rourke previously expressed unease with Castro’s idea, based in part on the belief that economic migrants and political refugees are different, and it is OK to criminalize the former for making a “choice” to migrate without authorization. This position misunderstands migratory processes, relies on an untenable distinction between economic and political motivations, and will undoubtedly lead to more deaths.
Any scholar of Central America will tell you that the dire conditions facing many Central Americans are not easily categorized as just political or economic: gang violence, climate change, unemployment and political unrest are experienced simultaneously and can be linked to decades of U.S. intervention in the region.
Yet, in U.S. refugee law, one can only get the status of refugee by proving a well-founded fear of political persecution. If you can’t meet that standard because you’re deemed to be migrating for economic reasons, you will find no way to migrate legally to the United States.
Most of us in the states recognize the blurred lines between politics and economics. Our economic conditions are largely a manifestation of local, state and federal politics, and economics influence political decision making. For poor migrants, the distinction has deadly consequences by design of the U.S. government.
In the 1990s, soon after the passage of NAFTA, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol developed a Southwest Border Strategy. As part of this plan, the ports of entry in San Diego and El Paso were closed, pushing people into the harsh terrain of the Sonoran Desert. Doris Meissner, commissioner of the INS at the time, noted that this “funnel effect” would prevent future migration because the increase in deaths would deter others who were considering the journey.
She was right about the deaths. Since the strategy went into full effect, hundreds of migrant remains continue to be found in the desert every year. But people still come.
Although migration patterns have shifted, “prevention through deterrence” policies and practices continue to dominate U.S. immigration policy, and the connection between immigration and criminalization grows stronger. If not actual death, such policies have created social death for so many, no matter their reason for migrating.
Opponents may say decriminalizing migration through overturning Section 1325 effectively opens borders. Some will say that distinguishing migrants from refugees is a basis for a sane immigration policy. Others may claim that some migrants are simply not worthy, characterizing them as dangerous or drains on the U.S. economy. Though I could argue with every one of these, the picture of a dead father and daughter is worth a thousand more words.
As we celebrate American freedom and independence, more of us need to ask ourselves why a 2-year-old had to suffer and die in part because of the policies of the government to which we pay taxes.
More of us need to ask why seeking not just a good life but a life in general should be a crime for anyone. But more importantly, ask what you will do to intervene, to push even our liberal lawmakers to stop relying on untenable distinctions that can function as a death sentence for many.
This July Fourth, celebrate freedom by fighting for someone else’s. Do it like your life depends on it, because someone’s life does.
Karma Chávez is the chair of the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in The Hill.