Displacement, Not Deterrence (July 2017)

Nancy Hiemstra, Stony Brook University

A logic of deterrence has anchored U.S. immigration enforcement for the last three decades, which rests on the assumption that tougher policies discourage people from migrating in the first place. Clearly embracing this logic, the Trump administration is aggressively working to expand the already massive detention and deportation machine put in place by President Obama, and deploying “tough talk” about additional changes to come in immigration policing at and outside of U.S. borders. Indeed, the new administration is already touting new, lower apprehension numbers of undocumented immigrants at the U.S. border as proof that this immediate escalation is working. Instead of accepting these numbers at the border as appropriate and accurate measurements of policy success or failure, we should scrutinize how these “deterrence” policies work across borders throughout the Americas. Our critical geographic awareness can contribute to shifting the discourse around immigration policy-making, to illustrate that U.S. border and immigration policies might better be called “displacement” policies (Wong 2015: 147). We must consider: how do these shifts in discourse and policy reverberate through space and time?

One critical question to be raised is: when potential migrants do not come to the United States, what do they do instead? For example, the numbers of Central American families and unaccompanied minors seeking entry have dropped significantly since January. In addition to increased levels of fear about interior enforcement and a change in tone toward newly-arrived migrants, in March, the new Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly announced that he was considering a plan to separate immigrant parents and children seeking asylum at the border and detain them separately while claims were being processed (Kelly later decided against implementing this plan for the time be- ing). DHS has also promised to prosecute as human smugglers immigrant parents in the U.S. who send for their children. These policies and threats appear to impact migration patterns. But what is the alternative for the families and children who do not try to come to the U.S.? Many are seeing extreme violence and poverty (stemming from U.S. political, military, and economic interventions) in Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras). Gangs are a serious problem, committing murder, rape, and theft with impunity, and forcibly recruiting young children into their ranks. Investigative reports have found that many deportees from the U.S. have been killed upon return; similarly, it is likely that many who wanted to see but do not may be killed or experience violence.

If migrants do still leave their countries of origin but do not arrive at (are “deterred” from) the United States, where do they go? One answer is Mexico. Asylum claims in Mexico have skyrocketed, from 1,300 in 2013, to a projected 20,000 in 2017 (numbers which still hide the reality that it is notoriously more difficult in Mexico than in the U.S. to make a claim in the first place). There are reports of more migrants in general, not just people making asylum claims, staying in Mexico. And some migrants may head south in the Americas, instead of north. We must pay attention to what these shifting migration patterns will do in Mexico and other new destination countries, to the economy, labor markets, and sociocultural dynamics. What and who do U.S. policies displace to other parts of the Americas?

We must also think about other strategies the United States has adopted for keeping migrants from arriving at its borders, strategies that the Trump administration appears to be continuing and perhaps escalating. Through bilateral agreements and initiatives, re- gional organizations, and military partnerships, in recent decades the U.S. government has pushed policing of U.S.-bound migrants farther and farther south of the U.S.-Mexico bor- der. For example, Mexico—largely funded by the U.S.—has been steadily building its own capacity for detention and deportation. Mexico now detains and deports around 200,000 people per year. How are national and local economies throughout these transit countries being shaped by (and becoming dependent on) immigration policing? Conditions of de- tention, treatment of detained migrants, and corruption are reported to be signi cantly worse in Mexico than in the United States. What human rights abuses and violences are U.S. deterrence strategies fueling? Another interesting set of questions arises out of the animosity that Trump has injected into the U.S.-Mexico relationship, from his claims that Mexicans are criminals, to his infamous border wall, to a proposal that Mexico detain (on Mexican soil) immigrants in U.S. immigration proceedings. Will Mexico reverse course and step back from policing migration on the United States’ behalf?

Additionally, what do increasingly harsh border and immigration policies mean for human smuggling? We know that making it more dif cult to get to the United States does not stop migrants, but it does make great business for smugglers as their services become more valuable. Migrants pay more for illicit journeys. With more money in smuggling, it attracts more players and competition, and becomes more of a cutthroat business. Migration journeys become more dangerous and deadly, but because migrants’ debt is deeper, their commitment to complete their migration journey—no matter how many attempts, or how dangerous the journey—increases. And whenever one migration route is shut down, another opens. How will Trumpian policies further fuel illicit industries? How will they in ate costs and heighten risk? How will smuggling routes shift, and how will new routes impact local economies? What new geographies of migration are emerging?

Finally, we need to trace the migration consequences of shifts in other policies under the Trump administration. For example, though a cohesive policy is so far elusive, during his campaign Donald Trump promised a protectionist “America First” approach to trade, including condemning NAFTA as a destroyer of U.S. jobs and industry. What effects will Trumpian changes to NAFTA (or perhaps even its dismantlement) have in Latin America, and on migration patterns? The decrease in Mexican corn production con- sequent to NAFTA drove increased Mexican migration to the United States, and Mexico now buys the majority of the corn it consumes from the United States. In response to Trump’s threats to leave NAFTA or negotiate terms less favorable to Mexico, Mexican officials have begun to explore options for where Mexico obtains its corn, such as increasing the amount of corn grown in Mexico, or buying more corn from Brazil. Could increased corn farming in Mexico reverse migration patterns? Would developing trade relationships with other countries be followed by increased Mexican migration to those countries, or vice versa? How would other economic and political relationships within Latin America change?

One certainty regarding U.S. policies under the Trump administration is that they are anchored in a very narrow idea of who and what ts in Donald Trump’s United States, and a much more insular idea of U.S. relationships throughout the Americas. As geog- raphers, we must scrutinize how shifting policies impact local to international mobilities, relationships, and human rights.


Wong, T. K. 2015. Rights, Deportation, and Detention in the Age of Immigration Control. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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