COVID-19 E (IN)MOVILIDAD EN LAS AMÉRICAS

The year 2020 will be remembered as the time of the pandemic. Since the first confirmed Covid-19 case, millions of bodies worldwide have been infected while hundreds of thousands have died. Due to the restlessness of the virus and its rapid mobility, the immediate and until now only common global response has been the temporary interruption of international mobility and the control of movement within national spaces. During the Black Death, the promise to recover health in Europe and Asia was made through inspecting bodies that came from abroad, rejecting them, or forcing them into confinement for forty days to avoid contagion. Six centuries later, we are experiencing this same promise and the tension between (in)mobility and control is again today at the centre of the pandemic. 

 

Locating this tension between (in)mobility and control in the Americas is of political and analytical relevance. The social, economic, political, and cultural formation of this geographical space is incomprehensible without considering the various forms of human mobility that have shaped and continue to shape it. All countries in the continent are simultaneously sending and/or receiving transnational flows of populations while others have also become spaces for transit and voluntary and/or forced returns. In the Americas, the United States and Mexico are the largest migratory destinations while the main source countries in the region are: Colombia, the country with the highest number of internally displaced persons and with a significant number of people in need of international protection; Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, countries that continue to expel thousands of nationals fleeing violence; and Venezuela, the country from where more than 4 million people have emigrated in recent years. From south to north, the continent is crisscrossed by clandestine migration routes that have historically served to bring irregular Latin Americans and Caribbean migrants to the United States. In addition, in the last decade, extra-continental migratory flows have reached the Americas; there is an increase in intraregional migration, south-south migration, and north-south migratory transits. Today, mobility in the continent is epitomized by internally displaced persons, deportees, asylum seekers, and refugees, and also by children and adolescents who migrate alone or accompanied by others. It is because of the hundreds of women and men - adults and minors - who continue to move regionally or extra-continentally to reconfigure their vital projects that América remains a continent where the migrant struggle does not cease.

 

Simultaneously, forms to control have also proliferated in the continent. On the one hand, the historical weight of the United States has been definitive in delineating the geopolitics of mobility control in the region. This is the country where the largest number of irregularized migrants in the world resides, the country that has toughened its migratory policies the most in recent times, the country that arrests and deports the most Latin Americans and Caribbean citizens, and the one that for more than three decades has transferred mobility control to “safe” third countries in the region under the cover of binational security cooperation agreements. On the other hand, in the last decade, countries in the Americas have become increasingly reluctant to migratory matters. The securitization turn has multiplied the production of irregularized migrants in almost every country in the continent. As migrant irregularity increases, their risk of being deported from their destinations increases in tandem, just as their confinement to informal economies, and their everyday precariousness. In general,  states in the region have slowly shifted focus from granting migrants rights to combating migrant irregularity and strengthening border security, while xenophobic discourses increasingly have become normalized in host societies.

 

Covid-19 thus hit in a geographic space already shaped by an ongoing tension between (in)mobility and control. This tension takes on much more violent nuances in unequal contexts such as the Americas. In recent decades, socio-economic inequality, between and within countries of the continent, has deepened without historical precedent. Hence, in just two months, the pandemic has laid bare the historically existing, politically neglected, and unresolved structural inequality, consequently unleashing considerable damage in our countries. In addition to the current public health emergency, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean face an economic collapse and a downfall of social protection systems, events that all together devastate the lives of the most vulnerable and already always racialized populations, as it is the case of migrants and refugees across the Americas. 

How did this project emerge?

In mid-March 2020, practically all countries of the continent declared a public health emergency, closed their borders, and adopted a series of exceptional measures to impose home confinements and forced immobility to contain the virus. In the light of this situation, more than 30 researchers from the Americas, interested in migration issues in the region from both analytical and politicala perspectives, came together virtually and began to wonder about the particular situations of the millions of migrant women, men, children and adolescents, from the continent and from other latitudes. All of them are subjects on the move. 

 

We knew that the pandemic had suddenly caught hundreds of migrants in the midst of their clandestine transits; asylum seekers and refugees in the middle of their procedures; many others in detention centres or in the midst of removal proceedings and deportation flights; and hundreds of others in their precarious everyday jobs in transit or final destinations. We were all observing that the closure of borders is a measure that openly violates the right to free mobility and the rights of migrants guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, leaving thousands of asylum seekers and refugees in a de facto legal limbo, stranded in spaces of confinement between borders. We also envisioned that in the context of the global pandemic, exceptional measures to control mobility could exacerbate hyper-nationalism and reinforce the image of the foreigner as the one who embodies and transmits the virus, constructions that can easily detonate different forms of violence. We understood that forced immobility not only holds a promise to contain the expansion of the virus but simultaneously has a direct and violent impact on the lives of thousands of people on the move. We convened in this way with the intention of mapping the migratory situations across the Américas in the times of Covid-19.

What is this project?

This is an (un)finished project – therefore under construction– that collectively reflects on (in)mobility and control in the Americas during the pandemic. We sought to map three main themes: 1- state measures; 2- risk situations the migrant population currently face, particularly internally displaced persons, deportees, detainees, asylum seekers, refugees, irregularized migrants, whether they are adults or children or adolescents; and, 3- the social and collective responses in each of the national spaces. By invoking "mapping," we are not by any means intending to produce a fixed map of the continent, or geo-referenced information. In the context of this project, mapping has different meanings. On the one hand, our task has involved gathering press information, systematizing it, and creating a public digital archive about the tension between (in)mobility and control in the vast majority of countries on the continent during the initial moment of the pandemic. On the other hand, inspired by critical cartography, mapping has here implied “deconstructing the map” (Harley, 1989) of the Americas,  in an effort “to read between the lines of the map –in the margins of the text – and through its trope to discover the silences and contradictions that challenge the apparent honesty of image” (1989:3). Mapping has signify brought to light the hidden spaces or conflicts that rests upon (in)mobility and control during the pandemic which deliberately remain outside of a traditional map and thus often outside of public discussion. 

 

With this mapping project, we are interested in bringing to light, for example, the fact that during the pandemic, a de facto state of emergency regarding migratory issues has been established, permitting the governments of the region to take one or some of the following exceptional measures: 1- closure and militarization of borders; 2- denying entry to those who presumably pose a health risk, including children and adolescents; 3- abruptly ending the right to seek asylum and refuge; 4- accelerating deportations, including of migrants infected with Covid-19; or, 5- leaving thousands of irregularized migrants, deportees or asylum seekers stranded across borders, in precarious spaces of confinement that are pose high risk for their health. It is important for us to show that in the current context of a public health emergency, the violation of migrants’ rights occurs in an exponential fashion and particularly affects asylum-seekers, refugees, migrant children, and adolescents, detaineed migrants; deported migrants; and irregularized migrant workers with no protections or health benefits.

 

We want to show that state actions in favour of social protection do not include the thousands of irregularized migrants who today reside in the Americas. Worker aid projects in all countries across the Americas have largely aimed at supporting national workers (e.g. citizens) or regularized residents. A large number of irregularized migrants – many essential workers such as peasants, delivery workers, or product organizers in markets and supermarkets– have been left out of state aid programmes. We have verified that there is currently a double exclusion of social protection despite the essential role that irregularized migrants play in the economic life of their host countries, as essential workers, and when sending remittances to their countries of origin. In general, in both contexts, they have been excluded from social protection programs.

 

Our mapping has also revealed exceptional cases that include migrant and refugee population as beneficiaries of some state measures. This is the case of Argentina, for example, which has extended health and financial aid measures for Argentines abroad who have lost their jobs. Or the case of Brazil where, contrary to its position as a far-right government and thanks to the pressure from members of congress, the federal government implemented the Emergency Aid program for the most vulnerable populations, including irregularized migrants, who will receive payment of three monthly instalments. We have also found very different approaches between central and local governments vis-à-vis migrant populations. This is the case with the measures taken by the government of California in the United States, which has launched  an economic benefit program for irregularized migrants, or that of the municipalities of Iquique and Colchane in Chile, which have implemented support programs for Bolivian migrants, just to name a few cases. This evidence reveals the potential role that local governments can fulfil as guarantors of migrants' social and economic rights, counteracting the hyper-nationalist and exclusive measures of central governments.

 

We have also confirmed that within national spaces the criminalization and xenophobia towards migrants have not stopped. This produces a climate of fear which operates as an internal control measure that deter both regularized and irregularized migrants from seeking health services or demand social protection measures, and therefore puting their lives at risk. The production of fear, as a form of control, shows how in the countries included in this mapping effort there is a limited exercise of rights that affects only certain categories of the population and confirms a hierarchization on the basis of access to citizenship. Fear can either immobilize, turn the population docile, or trigger alternative strategies to fight for life, as it has happened in the Americas. Fear of contracting the disease, of feeling unprotected and of not being able to seek medical attention have along with the current economic collapse, caused an unprecedented phenomenon in the region: Reverse migration, or return to countries of origin despite the closure of international borders. 

 

Lastly, our mapping has revealed diverse social responses in all national spaces. On the one hand, migrant struggles led by detainees who have gone on hunger strikes, sit-ins, or even escape, has been a form of protest against the inhumane and life-threatening conditions in which these migrants are confined. Solidarity networks made up of migrants’ associations, grassroots organizations, the church, independent journalism, and other social groups have proliferated in favour of migrants’ rights. Numerous public actions, petitions for signatures, community kitchens, food delivery, including binational actions, is taking place, especially among activists in the United States and Mexico that have been deploying strategies to expand the guarantee of rights for all. However, we are alarmed to witness how xenophobic outbreaks against irregularized migrants have been exacerbated. These outbreaks are not only present in daily social practices but also in official discourses that account for xenophobic state responses. These variouss perspectives are futher unpacked and deepened in the sections of this online archive.

 Harley, JB (1989). Deconstructing the map. Cartographica: The international journal for

geographic information and geovisualization, 26(2), 1-20.

What did we do?

Between April 1st and May 15th, 2020, eleven research teams from across the Americas met up to collect press information from different national contexts. We all gathered data around three main themes:1- state measures; 2- situations of risk currently faced by migrant populations; and, 3- social responses in each of the national contexts. The systematization process allowed us to create a two-scale mapping. From a national entry-point, we have created one entry for the following countries: Canada, the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil. These entries are of course not exhaustive or represent a chronological review of everything that has happened in each national space regarding migration and inmobility, but they represent a digital record of the three mapped themes in these countries. Our mapping had to leave out some countries in the continent because the research teams only collected information from the national spaces where they currently resided. The project is still under construction and remains open to include countries reports on places that we missed in this first attempt. Due to the rapid changes in migratory situations, we expect the entries to be updated according to relevant new events, so the digital archive will continue to be expanded.

 

From a thematic entry-point, we have identified eleven common situations that confirm how the tension between (in)mobility and control has been exacerbated during the pandemic impacting the precariousness of the lives of migrants and provoking social responses and spatial effects in the continent. The eleven identified situations are: 1- border closure and hyper surveillance; 2- selective hyper-nationalism; 3- a spiral of violence to the south; 4- irregularization and dispossession of rights; 5- de facto suspension of the right to seek asylum and refuge; 6- the production of fear as a form of control; 7- spaces of confinement and human sacrifice; 8- reverse migration; 9- Migrant workers, essential but disposable; 10- childhood and adolescence on the brink; and, 11- social responses.

 

As the project continues under construction, we intend to generate conversations and debates around these identified situations via this digital space, and perhaps also new ones that may arise in the future. We are aware that several national spaces have been left out of the collective mapping and, above all, it has not yet been possible to capture, from an intersectional approach, how the pandemic has worsened previous conditions of inequality based on gender, race, age, class, nationality, and sexual orientation that are constitutive of migratory processes in the Americas. Those initial gaps undoubtedly will open up new avenues for future analysis and discussion that ought to be included in this project.

 

Despite those initial limitations, we believe the material we present here at this early stage already serves as a resource for research and teaching, particularly during the current times of virtual interactions. We seek to promote critical debates on hidden transnational spaces and processes - those that do not appear on traditional maps - and foster public debate about (in)mobility and control in times of pandemic. In the weeks and months that follow, we will promote virtual meetings between the researchers of this project and various guests including intellectuals, representatives of migrant organizations, activists, journalists, and other actors. These virtual debates will be open to the public and will be recorded and archived on this website. We also plan to write up the debates as reflective texts that expands on the brief initial explanation that appears in each sections of the web page.

In mid-March 2020, nearly every country on the continent declared a health emergency. These countries closed their borders and adopted a series of exceptional measures, arguing that forced immobility as a  solution to contain the virus. Following the shutdown of borders,  more than 30 researchers from the Americas, interested in analyzing the migratory question politically, organized virtually and began to consider the particular situation of millions of migrants, women, men, children and adolescents, from the continent and/or from other latitudes, all of whom are mobile and in transit.

Original Concept: Soledad Álvarez Velasco, University of Houston

General Coordination:Soledad Álvarez Velasco, University of Houston & Ulla D. Berg, Rutgers University

Research, Systematization and Development of Contents: Soledad Álvarez Velasco, University of Houston;  Ulla D. Berg, Rutgers University; Lucía Pérez-Martínez, FLACSO-Ecuador; Mónica Salmon, New School for Social Research; Sebastián León,  Rutgers University.

Coordination polyphonic map: Iréri Ceja Cárdenas: Museo Nacional/ Universidad Federal de Rio de Janeiro

Project Advisor: Nicholas De Genova, Universidad of Houston.

 

Translation team Spanish - English: 

Soledad Álvarez Velasco, Mónica Salmón, Ulla Berg, Luin Goldring, Tanya Basok, Ingrid Carlson, Gabrielle Cabrera.

Translation team Spanish - Portuguese: 

Iréri Ceja, Gustavo Dias, Gislene Santos, Elisa Colares, Handerson Joseph, Caio Fernandes, María Villarreal.

Website Design and Development:  ACHU! Studio; Francisco Hurtado Caicedo, Social Observatory of Ecuador

Photography: David Gustafsson y Cynthia Briones.

Video: David Gustafsson.

Some of the researchers of this project are members of these CLACSO Working Groups

English translation and proofreading by Gabrielle Cabrera, Rutgers University.

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