Where is one to go? The Effects of Zero-Tolerance Policy on Displacement

by Rebekah Jones 

“In our countries, we were already dead,” Central American migrants seeking asylum at the U.S. border told Mexican anthropology student Margarita Nuñez last year. “Here some of us will not make it, but at least we’ll die trying.” 

In 2017, 68 million people around the world who faced this sort of desperation left their homes, as war, poverty or gangs made life impossible. It is a growing crisis: as many people are on the move now as during World War II. 

While the United States has historical precedent as a world leader in making room for immigrants and refugees, recent policy has enacted a “zero tolerance” stance on immigration that criminalizes migrants and has negated their right to live. These policies have opened the way for other anti-immigrant legislation around the world and have serious implications for the global migrant population.

To understand how these policies affect the conditions of individuals, we must understand the situations driving migration. Latin America is home to 17 of the world’s 20 countries of highest homicide rates. Although many have attempted to find refuge in the United States and Mexico as they flee political instability and organized crime, the vast majority are being denied as a result of U.S. initiatives to, for example, militarize the southern border. With the increase of zero-tolerance policy, displacement follows. 

Colombia currently faces the world’s most massive displacement crisis. In 2017, there were 7.3 million people internally registered as displaced while another 340,000 reside abroad. The city of Bogotá has received 22 percent of all Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, and many of these individuals are attempting to find stability as undocumented migrants who are more susceptible to experiencing the effects of drug trafficking, prostitution, exploitation and violence due to the limited opportunities afforded to them.  Honduras currently has more than 190,00 internally displaced people; El Salvador had 71,500 people displaced due to violence between 2006 to 2016. Mexico also experienced internal displacement of more than 345,000 in 2017 due to cartel violence and the militarization of the government.

Zero-tolerance immigration policies in the U.S. have had repercussions beyond our own borders. Not only do these policies contribute to the continued struggles of those displaced, but it also places the burden of acceptance on neighboring countries that may not be economically prepared to accept them. Considering the conditions migrants are fleeing, the zero-tolerance approach to their plight in receiving nations and the level of crisis in sending countries, we are left with the questions: Where can one find rest? Where is one to go?

The U.S. accepts only 0.6 percent of the world’s refugee population annually, despite being a media center of the general immigration discussion. The majority of those seeking asylum have, historically, not fled to the world’s wealthiest countries. Many of the countries that tend to shoulder the burden have been countries like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, and others. 

As a major international media center of the global immigration crisis, the U.S. has the power of precedent regarding responses to migration patterns and asylum claims. Thus, the denial of asylum requests is an essential denial of stability for the families fleeing these conditions. In addition to the fact that U.S. refugee admissions have fallen more than 85 percent between 1980 to 2017, more than 226,000 immigrants were deported in 2017. More broadly, this shift reflects a growing sense of apathy toward people originating outside U.S. borders. Increasingly, this country is subscribing to a practice of “othering” that denies the sometimes horrific conditions that fellow human beings endure. Last December the United States rejected the United Nations Global Compact on Migration that aimed to manage the process of immigration in a humanitarian way. Brazil, Chile and the Dominican Republic soon followed suit. After pulling out of the resolution, Brazil’s minister of foreign affairs, Ernesto Araujo, stated that “Immigration shouldn’t be treated as a global issue, but rather in accordance with the reality of each country.” His approach that places priority on the economic conditions of Brazil over the humanitarian crisis across the country’s western border reflects an inhumane response to the anguish of fellow human beings. 

Policy is powerful, not only internally, but in its ability to set international precedent. In an era of political and economic instability that threatens the safety and quality of life of billions across the world, immigration policy has the potential to send a message of solidarity to vulnerable communities and those around it. There is no room for indifference. U.S. zero-tolerance policies on immigration not only lead the most vulnerable to suffer displacement but place pressure on the often economically developing countries surrounding them. We must once again shift the focus of our immigration to reach across our self-drawn lines to our neighboring states and global citizens, conveying one message: We stand with you. 


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