Last July, President Obama implored Congress to approve a $3.7 billion package aimed at bolstering US-Mexican border security and immigration law enforcement in response to the burgeoning Central American refugee crisis. The would-be-bill included a public relations dimension in an attempt to communicate to any potential border crossers the severe risks they would face on their way, last and least of all swift deportation from the US. Though this legislative effort was comprehensive, it was ultimately futile, and bipartisan immigration reform still remains elusive; the aforementioned provision was indeed enacted in another form by the US government last summer.
The US Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) and the PR firm it hired achieved a chart hit across Central American radio stations last summer with “La Bestia”, a catchy tune that warns of the dangers of riding “The Beast” train northwards. With menacing lyrics such as, “Hanging on the rail cars of this iron beast / the migrants go as cattle to the slaughterhouse / The route of hell with a cloud of pains” set to a thumping beat, the song replicates the style of Mexican corridos or narrative ballads.
The network of freight trains across Mexico is intended to carry scrap metal and grain for export, but last year served as a conduit for over half a million peoples on their 1,500 mile journey northwards, which can take up to several months. In mounting the trains, never designed for passengers, riders risk being caught in the moving wheels. If they fall or are knocked off due to overcrowding, they face mutilation or death. Beyond these physical threats, La Bestia passengers are subject to intimidation and extortion from the gangs who patrol these routes as well as theft, rape, and starvation at any point along the way. If they are able to cross the border into the US, the fortifications of which vary by location, they either turn themselves into US Border Patrol or risk being apprehended. For most of the women and children who crossed the Rio Grande into Texas last summer, voluntarily meeting the authorities did not mean access to humanitarian or legal services, as the border patrols and the system of facilities and courts were overwhelmed by the influx. At the height of the debate over federal responses to this crisis, Craig Fugate of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reminded lawmakers, “We are talking about large numbers of children, without their parents, who have arrived at our border—hungry, thirsty, exhausted, scared and vulnerable.”
This is certainly not the first time that musical “propaganda” has been produced by a government. It is also not the first or only deterrence technique that has been tested for border security purposes. In 1998, USCBP hired composers to craft tragic ballads that told stories of deadly border crossings for Mexican audiences. However, the context for this song about “the wretched train of death” renders this effort particularly ill-advised.
Whereas the majority of the migrants attempting to cross the US-Mexican border hailed from Mexico and were fleeing in search of more economic opportunities, in the last four years especially, peoples from Central American countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are escaping endemic drug and gang violence and some of the world’s highest murder rates. The volume of the exodus was reminiscent of the product of dictatorial regimes in the region in the 1980s and 90s. On the rails of La Bestia, the passengers are not using the verb migrar, to move, but huir, to flee, which highlights the crux of the issue.
The distinction between migrant and refugee, between leaving for a better future or for a future at all, isn’t just important in terms of international law. Though the power of that label shifts the standard for documented proof and changes the applicability of international protection standards, particularly in reference to the 1951 UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, it is also associated with a different type of response. The recent influx of peoples from Central America is better understood through the lens of a refugee situation, with the accompanying logic of a need for a humanitarian solution. The difference between a migrant and a displaced person comes down to the situation in the country of origin, which is why it is problematic to lump together migrants from Mexico and Latin America and refugees from Central America, though they all cross the same border into the US.
An oft-cited argument within American immigration reform debates, often warning against “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, is aptly summarized by policy pundit Genevieve Wood, explaining the 2014 border crisis by saying, “one of the main reasons is a belief held by many in Central America and Mexico that some sort of immigration reform will be passed that allows anyone who can get into the United States illegally to be able to stay.” This perspective, which has been presented on both sides of the aisle but primarily within Conservative circles, assumes that expectations of leniency and citizenship underpin a rational and free decision by migrants to leave their homes and attempt entry into the US. Whilst it is indeed hard to paint the spectrum of migration to America, now or at any point, with one broad brush, this outlook doesn’t accurately capture the character of the passengers of La Bestia. Worse yet, it doesn’t make for good policy. If in crafting law and policy assumptions are made about motivations and desires of would-be migrants, the case of “La Bestia” is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, based on the logic of economic migration for a situation centred on survival. Certainly for the many children who risked death to make the treacherous journey alone to the US, the ins-and-outs of Congressional immigration reform was not at the forefront of their minds. Theirs’ and their parent’s motivations and desires were within the lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When economic push and pull factors for migration are replaced by a deadly game of Russian Roulette, whose players are primarily the vulnerable—namely women, children, and generally those who cannot afford a safer means of travel than the bare spine of a train car—the conversation cannot remain the same. Not only are the causes and context for movement different in this case, but the problem that “La Bestia” attempts to solve may not even exist.
Though these efforts may seem, at first blush, to contain more promise to alleviate the border crisis than merely adding more border guards or building higher electrified fences would, they may be fostering awareness of something already known. Studies have shown that migrants from Central America are not under the false impression that their journey through Mexico to the US will be without danger, or that they will be rewarded with a welcoming legal system once they arrive. Particularly, a comprehensive study by the UN High Commission on Refugees found that only 9 out of the 404 children who had fled Central America believed they would be treated favourably or experience leniency from existing laws. They do not hold romantic notions about the winner-less dilemma between danger vs. more danger that they face, and the result of “La Bestia” is merely to underline that rather than to alleviate the situation on either end.
The “urgent humanitarian situation” that President Obama described during its peak in 2014 is still ongoing, and is surely not the last strain that will bear heavily on America’s woefully inadequate immigration system. More importantly, it requires urgent humanitarian response equivocal to the situation, not a half-hearted public relations campaign telling would-be migrants what they already know. The road is dangerous, no doubt, but for those who perceive their choice to be danger or death, the options are clear enough. The stymied efforts to overhaul the broken American immigration system are tangential to the simple point that if national policymakers see a migration problem where there actually is a refugee crisis, the response will be predictably ill-suited. Whether the handful of millions of dollars that went into the making of “La Bestia” would have been better funneled into INS infrastructure or humanitarian aid to Central American countries is speculation, but what can be said is that the upbeat tune is symbolic of the piecemeal, muddled portrait of American immigration policy as it stands. No matter how upbeat the tune, no song can stand in for comprehensive legislation and cohesive policy-making.
‘Teeming Shores’ is a biweekly column that broadly covers issues related to global migration and how the movement of peoples can reshape traditional conceptions of sovereignty and security. The title is referential to the sonnet “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus that is engraved on the Statue of Liberty in America.