It’s psychological warfare season on the US border

The US continues to operate according to the false assumption that psychological torment and bodily anguish deter asylum applications and migration.

Refugees and migrants, silhouetted against a bright orange sun, line up along the Rio Grande River.
People line up on the edge of the Rio Grande river to seek asylum in the US city of El Paso, Texas [Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters]

On April 8, three young Venezuelan men were detained in El Paso, Texas, where they had just crossed the border from Ciudad Júarez, Mexico. They were among the 183,000 undocumented people reportedly apprehended by the United States Border Patrol that month, which, according to the Reuters news agency, constituted a 13 percent increase from March.

I had met these three men in February in Panama when they had emerged with their three Colombian travel companions from the traumatic stretch of corpse-ridden jungle known as the Darién Gap. Over the next month and a half, we seven had remained in continuous contact on WhatsApp, and I had undertaken an informal fundraising campaign that consisted of harassing wealthy acquaintances to send me money that I could transfer to my friends to help offset the costs of undocumented movement.

Chief among these costs is the official extortion that currently reigns in Central America and Mexico. Police, immigration personnel and other state agents have wholeheartedly embraced the same sinister logic as criminal outfits that prey on asylum seekers – a logic that is based on extracting cash from people who have none to spare and who are often migrating for that very reason.

Of course, the blame for the whole twisted arrangement lies fundamentally with my own country, the United States, the unilateral sanctity of whose border has spawned a flourishing international anti-migrant industry and rendered the business of seeking refuge a very deadly one.

My Venezuelan friends were held for six days in a Texas detention centre, during which time they were permitted a single shower. They were then flown, cuffed at the hands and legs, to Arizona and dumped across the border into the city of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora.

One of the three, a 21-year-old from Caracas named Johan, would subsequently describe the disorienting experience as psychologically manipulative “torture” – an eye-opening introduction, he said, into the “real nature” of the country he had risked his life to reach.

In Nogales Johan notified me via WhatsApp that he could no longer furnish me with his usual daily assurance that he would be OK because it had become unavoidably clear that personal safety was no longer even a remote possibility. I then convinced him to abandon the “American dream” and travel instead to Europe, which, for all of its own egregious xenophobic defects, is at least straightforwardly reachable by Venezuelans with passports.

The matter of Johan’s own lack of a passport was resolved when I spontaneously became best friends with the Venezuelan embassy in Mexico City. An official told me that, although the embassy was regrettably lacking in passport-making materials, they could provide Johan with a permit to travel without a passport back to Caracas, so his travel document could be processed there – and they wouldn’t even judge him for the life choices he had made. And off he went.

Meanwhile, Johan’s two Venezuelan companions returned to Ciudad Juárez to once again attempt the crossing into El Paso. They have not been heard from since May 1.

As for the three Colombians who also undertook that same initial US border crossing on April 8, two were briefly detained in Texas and then released with an unintelligible paper from the US Department of Homeland Security informing them that they had “been arrested and placed in removal proceedings”. They were ordered to appear at a later date at a hearing in New York City, 3,500km (2,175 miles) to the northeast.

The third Colombian, a 17-year-old named Julián, remains in indefinite detention in Tampa, Florida, where he was transferred from El Paso, a mere 2,800km (1,740 miles) away. Back in Panama, Julián had told me that he wasn’t even sure he was doing the right thing by going north but he felt obligated to try to help his mother financially.

Furthermore, he told me, he was always there to listen if I ever needed to talk.

And while Julián may not be available to listen at the moment, we do need to be talking about the psychological warfare that is presently raging on the US border. The willful arbitrariness, ambiguity and chaos that emanates from the US asylum and migratory apparatus – all of which unfolds against a backdrop of omnipresent danger – does wonders in terms of eroding the morale of the “enemy”, i.e. the impoverished refuge seeker who is often fleeing US-inflicted catastrophe in the first place and whose undocumented labour is in fact vital to the US economy.

The US operates according to the assumption that psychological torment and bodily anguish deter asylum applications and migration, but this could not be further from the truth. After all, you cannot deter desperate folks with nothing to lose – although you can certainly make their trajectories a lot more lethal.

To be sure, the effects of psychological warfare are amplified by the unique reality of the US “border”, which is not confined to a single geographical line but is rather fairly omnipresent – extending from the Darién Gap to Tapachula, Chiapas, Ciudad Juárez and everywhere in between and beyond where refuge seekers are reminded that their lives are, for all intents and purposes, meaningless.

Now, with the expiration on May 11 of the Donald Trump-era Title 42 policy, which enables the US to summarily expel asylum seekers, using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext, President Joe Biden’s administration has come up with a noble substitute, which kind of amounts to banning the whole concept of asylum altogether.

In support of his new plan, Biden has pledged to deploy 1,500 additional US soldiers to the US border with Mexico, boosting the number of active duty soldiers there to 4,000 – as if there was any doubt that the psychological border war entails a very physical side, too.

And yet sometimes humanity prevails in the face of an utterly dehumanising system. The other day in Caracas, Johan was able to hug his mother for the first time in five years because, before embarking on the hazardous 1.5-month trek to the US, he had worked as a labourer in Colombia and had been unable to scrape together the money for a visit home.

Here’s hoping Julián can one day hug his mother again. But for the time being, he’s just another casualty of the US war on asylum.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.