Migration and Bioterrorism during the Pandemic

The current pandemic is another crisis being turned against immigrants. Five years after the terrorist attacks on Paris in November 2015 migrants are again being treated as terrorists. This time they are being treated as bioterrorists. Bioterrorism refers to the intentional release of toxic biological agents and migrants are being treated as if their bodies were intentional biological weapons when they are not. This is part of the ongoing characterization of migrants as “invading armies” sweeping the media these days.

Migrants are being denied entry to apply for asylum along the southern border of the United states. This violates national and international immigration law, yet it’s happening anyway in the name of a national health emergency. Donald Trump has temporarily suspended immigration law claiming that immigration is bioterrorism even though the Center for Disease Control has publicly said that asylum seekers pose no health risk.

Asylum seekers have been arriving at cities such as Tijuana and Brownsville by the thousands between 2018 and 2021, fleeing political, climate, and drug cartel violence in Central America. The reason for their pooling pattern of motion is that president Trump instituted a border program called “Remain in Mexico,” where migrants have to wait in Mexico while officials process their asylum cases. This process can take years. So far, only a tiny percentage of migrants out of the 47,000 in the program have been granted asylum since 2018.

As I write this, 10,000 migrants are waiting in Tijuana. Most are relieved that Joe Biden was elected President and that the “Remain in Mexico” will end soon. Some migrants can work and pay for housing in Tijuana while they wait. Still, others without resources live in tent cities with limited access to clean drinking water, electricity, toilets, food, and education. Drug cartels are also taking advantage of this pooling of bodies by kidnapping, extorting, raping, and murdering them.

The concentration of bodies in the border zone is polluting the environment and creating a health hazard. When there are heavy rains in Tijuana, they flood the migrant encampments, and the shallow sewage systems overflow everywhere. These camps are literally pools of water and waste that are endangering migrants. There is no drainage of water and no drainage of movement of migrants out of the camps. They have nowhere to go. Some may take their chances in crossing the border. Others may get sucked into the deportation industrial current. However, most stay and wait in squalor, depending upon aid organizations from the US to survive.

Migrants in camps outside Tijuana are not static. They circulate among the town and back and forth to the border regularly to check on their case status and see if border officials call them for an asylum interview. The border’s architecture pools them and circulates them in a small region like a flow of water pools and spirals into an eddy when it hits a barrier.

Due to fears of COVID, Trump has invoked a law called “Title 42” that allows border officials to directly expel migrants without formal processing in cases of national health emergencies. So far, officials have expelled more than 204,000 people under Title 42. Deported migrants are now pooling up and circulating in Tijuana and border towns during a global pandemic where disease could break out and spread through the cities and camps. Although asylum seekers do not pose a health hazard to the US, the US does pose a health hazard to asylum seekers, migrants, and Mexican citizens living near entry ports. Border officials might use the spread of disease among cramped tent cities as evidence of migrants spreading illness.

The results of treating migrants as bioterrorists have been devastating for migrants and asylum seekers. The border operates in a zone of national and international legal suspension.

Trump’s expulsion of asylum seekers and his use of Title 42 also increases human suffering and death with no apparent economic motivation. As usual, Trump is better at being racist and xenophobic than at making money. Both are abhorrent, but it is worth noting that Trump’s privileging of xenophobic racism over economic profit (and human dignity) is a core feature of fascism. It marks an explicit and recent shift in American anti-immigrant politics from exploitation to crass expulsion and suffering. In his final days, Adolf Hitler told his Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer, that:

If the war is lost, the nation will also perish. This fate is inevitable. There is no necessity to take into consideration the basis which the people will need to continue even a most primitive existence. On the contrary, it will be better to destroy these things ourselves, because this nation will have proved to be the weaker one and the future will belong solely to the stronger eastern nation. Besides, those who will remain after the battle are only the inferior ones, for the good ones have all been killed.1

Hitler bankrupted the German economy to turn the country into a racist war machine of self-extermination. For Hitler, racial purity was worth the risk of suiciding the nation.

Hannah Arendt makes an interesting note on the kinetic nature of Nazi fascism. She writes that “Their idea of domination was something that no state and no mere apparatus of violence can ever achieve, but only a movement that is constantly kept in motion.”2 Contemporary warfare is less like a war of extermination carried out by states but like a war of sustained mobilization and circulation carried out by different actors. Unfortunately, we will likely see more migrants displaced by climate change and affected by fascist tactics in the future. The idea of “migrant bioterrorism” is a sign that right-wing xenophobia is increasingly shifting anti-immigrant politics in an even darker direction unless we put a stop to it.


1 “Here, Hitler decides to join forces with his enemies in order to complete the destruction of his own people, by obliterating the last remaining resources of its life-support system, civil reserves of every kind (potable water, fuel, provisions, etc.).” Paul Virilio, L’insécurité du territoire (Paris: Galilee, 1993), Chapter 1

2 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966), 326.

taken from here

Foto: Sylvia John

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