A makeshift outdoor shelter next to a permanent structure with blue painted walls. Clothes hang to dry on the banister of a set of stairs, next to other textiles hang drying from a line. A pot for cooking sits beneath them.

by Rachel Ida Buff

American History
Michael S. Harper

Those four black girls blown up
in that Alabama church
remind me of five hundred
middle passage blacks,
in a net, under water
in Charleston harbor
so redcoats wouldn’t find them.
Can’t find what you can’t see
can you?

In September 2021, a video depicting mounted Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents brandishing whips against Haitian asylum seekers circulated on social media, generating widespread outrage. By October, the clamor had died down. Migrants from around the world, Haitians among them, were forced to wait in temporary shelters and makeshift camps along the U.S.-Mexico border as the weather turned to winter and the Biden Administration continued to deploy Trump-era public policy to deny their right to cross the border and request asylum.

Democratic campaign promises to reverse the amplified xenophobia of Trump administration policies garnered support from immigrant and civil rights organizations, enabling the party to win Congress as well as the presidency in 2020. But the Biden Administration continues the bipartisan practice of flouting domestic and international law regarding the rights of people on the move. This tradition, enhanced under Reagan and continued by all subsequent administrations, includes the detention of migrants and asylum seekers, the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and a flow of aid to Latin American nations to deter migration.

Under Biden, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continues to deploy federal public health authority under Title 42 to expel migrants and, despite promises to end the practice of illegally forcing migrants to wait in Mexico for their asylum hearings, has complied with the court-ordered reinstatement of the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols. The ongoing operation of these programs spells disaster for migrants. But, outside of immigrant rights organizing spaces, a general sense that this administration is “better” than the last on immigration issues prevails. With the April 1 announcement of the end of Title 42 deportations at the U.S.-Mexico border, the likelihood that the DHS will continue to stall migrants at the border continues to loom.

Why do presidents like Biden and Obama who wrap themselves in a “nation of immigrants” rhetoric and voice support for those compelled to flee their homes continue these harsh policies and keep building the wall at the US-Mexico border? The answer has as much to do with optics and power as it does with campaign promises and policy.

Policies that prevent asylum seekers from crossing into the country and/or detain them when they enter do nothing to address the root humanitarian and political causes of migration, responding instead to the xenophobia nurtured by successive anti-immigrant regimes. These policies aggravate the suffering of migrants, who are forced to wait in precarious encampments or in the administrative hell of for-profit detention centers. A transnational regime of what Harsha Walia describes as territorial exclusion, enhanced securitization, and the criminalization of migration serves to enhance the power of conservative regimes in the global north while eliding the planetary causes of displacement through climate change, resource extraction, indigenous dispossession and uneven development. 

What these policies do very well is to disappear migrants from the public eye, making it more difficult to organize broad opposition. Intentionally vanishing migrants has important political implications and is deeply rooted in U.S. history. When the violence of immigration policy becomes widely visible to those not experiencing it, as it was in September of 2021, difficult questions about injustice circulate widely. When this violence is made invisible, it becomes harder to muster broad opposition.

As Michael Harper elaborates in the poem above, the dialectic of visibility and disappearance exhibited by the case of CBP abuse of Haitian asylum seekers is a signal feature of U.S. history. In Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of BlacknessSimone Brown notes that surveillance operations have deep roots in practices of enslavement. To manage the population of enslaved Africans, the slave-owning regime devised technologies capable of measuring and tracking or, as in the poem, removing them from public scrutiny. As Harper illuminates, invisibility is always a bio-political project, inflicting severe losses:  incarceration, social and, very often, physical death.

Similarly, in the wake of bloody seventeenth century conflicts over control of New England, colonial governments proscribed surviving Pequot Indians from speaking the name of their nation. This act of what Jean O’Brien describes as “lasting” proclaims living indigenous people to be gone, thereby clearing their lands for expropriation and settlement. The Pequot who survived the wars and escaped being sold into slavery in the British Caribbean persisted in New England despite the settler campaign to proclaim them extinct, re-establishing themselves as a sovereign nation in the late twentieth century. The optics of disappearance simultaneously enact and disguise ongoing violence.

In the mid-twentieth century, mass-media adoption of the term “illegal alien” during Operation Wetback, an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)-generated crisis over undocumented crossings, long outlasted the public relations display of “cleaning up the border.” After Operation Wetback, as I argue in Against the Deportation Terror: Organizing for Immigrant Rights in the Twentieth Century, the term “illegal immigrant” replaced the names of those targeted for deportation and detention in the press. This term fostered a rhetoric of crisis around “surges” of dehumanized migrants. As it gained purchase, stories of individuals targeted for deportation disappeared from the press. It is more difficult to muster public sympathies for people described as though they were a natural phenomenon, people whose lives become difficult to see under regimes of disappearance. Previous to Operation Wetback, immigrant rights advocates publicized the injustices of deportation, managing to gain public sympathies and to stay deportation proceedings in many cases. But Operation Wetback marked a disappearance of both the human suffering and the forces of coercion operative in “managing” undocumented migration. Borders have always been a military project, part of what Manu Karuka describes in Empires Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers and the Transcontinental Railroad as a “counter-sovereignty,” in which the U.S. waged war against indigenous formations.[1]

As Carl Lindskoog elaborates in Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Detention System, the incarceration of Haitian refugees fleeing the despotism of the Duvalier regimes in the 1970s and 1980s inaugurated the contemporary immigrant detention system. Uninclined to welcome Black refugees fleeing terror at the hands of a regional ally, the Carter and Reagan administrations initially deployed the Coast Guard to interdict Haitians at sea, deporting them back to Haiti regardless of their reasons for leaving. As Haitians persisted in seeking asylum, the administration began to jail them, in violation of both the Refugee Act of 1980 and the 1967 United Nations Protocols, to which the United States is a signatory. Incarceration itself is an act of state-mandated disappearance. Its violence is a foundational political practice, intended to remove those incarcerated from political discourse. Lindskoog points out that the initiation of immigration detention was part of a broad reaction against the successes of the Black freedom struggle.Federal policy turns Haitian asylum seekers into detainees, thereby hiding them in broad sight.

In Insurgent Aesthetics: Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War, Ronak Kapadia illuminates how the visibility/disappearance dialectic in the post-9/11 era functions through the surveillance, criminalization, and detention of Black, brown and migrant communities. Kapadia quotes the Visible collective’s description of the “Twinned conditions of invisibility (shadow citizens who drive taxis, deliver food, clean tables, and sell fruit, coffee and newspapers) and sudden hyper-visibility in moment of crisis.” Both sides of this repressive coin deny the humanity of and proscribe full rights for people on the move.

Moments of hyper-visibility stoke ongoing, xenophobic panic about suburban terrorists or “surges” of migrants at the border. These panics continuously mobilize support for immigration policies that, as Karl Jacoby and Monica Martinez have recently written, position Asian, African, indigenous and Latinx people as somehow non-American. The regimes of disappearance operative in immigration policy correspond politically with “voter fraud” initiatives designed to disenfranchise primarily Black and brown voters and disappear their votes. Just as these initiatives undermine the political agency of legitimate voters, regimes of border control undermine the subjectivity of people on the move, making it impossible for them to stake claims to their rights to refuge.

Immigrant rights organizing flourishes during eruptions of visibility, as demonstrated by the protests that took place around the United States during the “family separation” emergency occasioned by “Zero Tolerance” policies towards asylum seekers in 2018. During the winter and early spring of 2022, a horrified world watched the Russian bombardment of the Ukraine. The displacement caused by this war provoked an eruption of migrant visibility.

By March of 2022, a quarter of the Ukrainian population had fled the country. Responding to this crisis, President Biden proclaimed his intention to welcome a tiny 100,000 of the two million displaced from Ukraine and the DHS announced the addition of Ukrainians to the list of foreign nationals receiving Temporary Protected Status, a temporary reprieve from deportation proceedings, because their home country is deemed unsafe. While Title 42 is still in place and resulted in the exclusion of some Ukrainians seeking asylum, “certain Ukrainians” could be exempted from it, according to the DHS announcement in late March.

As Piyumani Panchali Ranasinghe and Khalid Dader comment in a recent essay, a racial hierarchy organizes the western response to refugees, elevating Ukrainians as “real” and therefore deserving refugees, and marginalizing others forced to flee their homes around the world. This hierarchy of welcome corresponds to concerns about the “browning” of populations in the U.S. and Western Europe. Global interest in receiving presumptively white, European migrants displayed this hierarchy, exhibiting at least a temporary enthusiasm for welcoming those forced to flee Ukraine.  

The four million people fleeing Ukraine included people of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern origin living in the region, many of whom reported being targeted for different treatment by border officials. The global embrace of Ukrainian refugees remained racialized, as African refugees from Ukraine are being held in detention camps in Eastern Europe. This embrace contrasted markedly with EU as well as US policies deployed against migrants from the global south.

Regimes of disappearance vanquish migrants from the public view. Eruptions of visibility allow images and stories to circulate: bags hastily packed, families sundered, pets and cherished possessions sheltered under coats, traffic jamming the roads, as thousands leave the places they call home. In March, 2022, new cohorts of migrants from Eastern Europe joined the multi-national crew waiting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border and receive their asylum hearings. 

While global and US efforts focus on white-appearing, European migrants, the spotlight is not so easy to contain. Eruptions of migrant visibility facilitate organizing and hold open the vital possibility of challenging racist regimes of disappearance and violence.  They invite immediate, collective response, and re-open the foreclosed possibilities for solidarity and welcome across borders.

[1] The insight about borders as counter-sovereignties comes from Eli J. Frank during a discussion in History 840: Empire and Migration in the Americas, Spring 2022.


Rachel Ida Buff is author, most recently, of A is for Asylum Seeker: Words for People on the Move/ A de Asilo: Palabras para Personas en Movimiento (Fordham UP, 2020) and Against the Deportation Terror: Organizing for Immigrant Rights in the 20th Century (Temple UP, 2017).  Currently, she is working on a novel, Holy Toledo, and a book of essays, Thinking Like a Caravan. Follow her @rachelidatweets on twitter.